I spend a good bit of my time thinking about the future and game consoles have been a big topic of interest for me over the years. I'd like to make a few predictions on the next generation of systems and what will happen in general as far as hardware is concerned in the gaming industry.
So right now depending on how you look at it, this generation has 2 very successful systems: the Wii and the Xbox360. The reason there is no clear winner right now is because the two focus on fairly different markets. On the one hand you have the 360 and the PS3 which try to be impressive, powerful, HD capable hardcore gaming machines. Nintendo however decided to just not even compete at all with them this generation and sell what is basically an over-clocked GameCube and focus their attention on a new controller paradigm with the "wii-mote." Nintendo's focus on casual gaming and making their system more accessible to those who may have never owned a system before really helped the system flourish. However, as while the system has technically done very well as it has sold about as many as the 360 & PS3 combined have...it's not selling many games. And what good is a game system if no one really buys any games for it? Also another problem for the system is that it has not aged well. As the Wii was very similar to the GameCube (in both design and power) developers had already maxed out it's potential within its first year of release. More importantly though is its lack of HD capabilities. When the Wii launched not many people had HDTVs yet, but today they have become commonplace in the US and it's getting rare to find someone that doesn't have a TV that pushes at least 720p. This makes the Wii with it's max of 480p (anamorphic) look awfully "jaggie" and/or blurry to someone who's grown accustomed to a higher resolution.
Sony went the opposite route in trying to make the PS3 the premium game console aimed almost strictly for hardcore gamers. This would have probably worked, if the system was even noticeably more powerful than the 360, which came out a year before it did. Hardcore gamers always want the best of the best experience (just look at how much money PC gamers spend every year on hardware), but even they have a tough time telling the difference between the graphics, physics and AI on the two systems. Top on then the fact that PS3 has always been the most expensive, mainly thanks to the inclusion of BluRay and has stayed above $300 until just recently (which many have claimed to be the most you can possibly sell a successful console for). There are many other things I could say about the PS3, but they're beyond the scope of what I'm discussing here today.
I would call the 360 the most successful console, even though the Wii has sold more systems, as they sell more actual games. First off they beat the other two to the party by a year and established a first mover advantage. But, more importantly I'd say is that they focus on the entire gaming market. Nintendo may be content with the casuals, and Sony tries really hard to win over the hard-core, but Microsoft being who they are want the entire pie to themselves. Luckily here, unlike the PC realm, this benefits everyone as it causes them to compete more aggressively. Almost every 3rd party developer I've read about says that the 360 has the easiest development environment of all the systems. Nintendo has the middle here, but they've done what it always has done and that is focus on selling their own games, and seemingly could care less if any 3rd parties are really successful or not. And Sony, from what I understand, has the most difficult of them all...which they also had in the last generation, but they could get away with it then as the PS2 had a huge market-share advantage that they don't have this go round. The other big advantage the Xbox has is the Xbox Live service, which some would say is the number one thing they have going for them. Sony's PlayStation Network still seems to be playing catch up and Nintendo's online services are all but non-existent.
Anyway, enough about the past/present...what will these guys be doing in the future? Next Christmas Microsoft and Sony will both be releasing their own motion control systems to finally compete directly with the Wii. Microsoft has opted to go completely controller free with it's Project Natal (codename) using a 3D camera system and motion recognition software, and Sony seems to be trying to find some sort of middle-ground with a very complex remote/pointer combined with the eyeToy. This has grave implications for Nintendo. Also, as while I'm not so sure about Sony, Microsoft has been trying very hard to cater to Nintendo's userbase with the addition of more casual/arcade games and even an Avatar system that is ridiculously similar to Nintendo's Mii system.
With the 360 and PS3 directly competing with the Wii now, Nintendo will be forced to respond. With it's competition capable of much more advanced graphics, let alone a 1080p resolution the appeal of the Wii will become almost non-existent unless you're wanting to play a first party game. As while Sony announced a lofty 10 year life cycle for the PS3 and similar expectations are unofficially expected with 360, Nintendo never made such claim. They're practically the originators of the 5 year life cycle so if they follow their past tradition we should already be expecting a new system in 2011. This will also give them just enough time to see what their competition's final motion systems look like in case they want to borrow something for their next system. I would be absolutely shocked if we do not see a new Nintendo system just in time for the 2011 Christmas season. I wouldn't be that surprised if it even showed up next year as a supposed refresh called "WiiHD" or something of that sort, that merely builds on top of what the Wii has done but adds the ability for 1080p (at the very lease 720p) resolution with a bit more RAM and maybe even a dual-core version of the current processor. They might even market it as if it wasn't even really a new system...but simply an upgrade. Whatever they do, it will have to be able to compete with the 360 and PS3 more directly in terms of graphics. I can only hope they do it right and give us something that actually surpasses them, more importantly in the realm of physics, which matter alot more when you are quasi-interacting with them somewhat physically rather with simple button presses. They will also have to have a hard drive built in, there really is no excuse anymore. But, at the end of the day...even if the next Nintendo system is on par or even a little better than the 360/PS3 it won't matter long when the other guys release their next systems.
Next up I'm going to talk about the PS4 and the next-gen Xbox at the same time, as they're already so similar. As some people have trouble differentiating between the graphics of a PS2 and a PS3 or an Xbox vs an Xbox360, they're all really gonna have to try hard to give the average gamer a reason to upgrade. First off, games need to run at 60 fps rather than the 30 we've grown accustomed to as good-enough. Next up 1080p is here, and gamers expect not just 1920x1080 resolution, but good anti-aliasing on top of it. As Microsoft required a minimum of 4xAA@720p with the 360, MS needs to require 8xAA@1080p on their next system. Next up more dynamic animation systems need to become the norm. A few games played around with the first generation of this via Natural Motion's Endorphin, but now it's time to take it to the next level, which faster processors and more RAM will certainly help with. Not only do canned animations need to be all but done away with, but we need actual muscular/skeletal simulation systems like they use in pre-rendered CG movies. Obviously much more advanced physics and particle effects will help too. The next thing that needs to become the norm is the use of High Dynamic Range (HDR). 24-bit color scenes with 32-bit shading and textures (sometimes not even that) might fly for now, but the next gen needs to take advantage of 64bit rendering techniques and the 30 & 36 bit color HDTVs many people now have sitting in their living rooms. Another big thing will be real 3DTV. As Sony's already talking about doing it with the PS3, the next gen will have to be able to support your new Shutter Glasses, Vertical Stereo Prism LCDs or maybe even some Video Goggles.
Now all these graphical details are nice, and in my opinion should be pretty much mandatory for any new systems that launches as of you reading this, but what will really take things to the next level will be Real-Time Ray Tracing (RTRT). People have been doing experiments with it for years, but now it's almost within our grasp. If you have a cluster of PCs you can already do it. I've seen one demo that uses 3 PS3s, so obviously a triple-core Cell processor (with 21 SPEs) should be capable of it...but triple-core? Isn't that what the 360 already has? And many PCs are now coming with quad-core CPUs (6 & 8 core as soon as next year)...so obviously they'll have to out do that...right? I also expect both Sony and Microsoft to have new systems no earlier than 2012, and no later than 2014.
I have a big hunch Microsoft will return into the arms of Intel with it's next system. It tried to make it's own custom chip with the 360, but from what I've read it hasn't saved them nearly as much money as they had hoped as commodity chips' cost have dropped much faster. I expect the next Xbox to have at least a quad, if not an octo-core Intel i9 CPU. However, I could be wrong...like I said I have no actual information to point me to this. They could very well license a new 6-core version of the IBM chip they have plus some of the Cell's SPEs (vector co-processors) tacked on. Anyway, assuming they go the Intel route my gut tells me they will, I could also see them easily go for using the upcoming Larrabee GPU too. Intel's still-unreleased Larrabee can run traditional rasterization (Direct3D/OpenGL), but it really shines when used for RTRT. I also expect Microsoft and Sony to finally come to some sort of agreement so that the Xbox will finally have a BluRay drive in it too.
Now Sony will almost definitely go with a new revision of the Cell processor, as they spent so much time and money helping develop it, I don't think it will be too easy for them to abandon it, especially after they failed to really make any money off it this generation. If they do they'll certainly want a more powerful setup, but luckily the Cell has always been designed to scale up for larger multi-core configurations. I'd expect about somewhere between a 4 to 8 core configuration here as well. And as while the PS3 had 7 SPEs, I couldn't see this one having any less than 16, probably more like 32, maybe even 64 as Sony will really want to try to do a better job of one-uping Microsoft on having the more powerful system. Then they'll probably put another Nvidia GPU in the system, maybe even a dual-core there too. Now on the flip-side I did see a rumor recently that Sony's courting Intel to let them have the Larrabee GPU exclusive to the PS4, so maybe I've got the two backwards? I do seriously doubt though that Sony would use an IBM CPU paired with an Intel GPU...if someone goes Larrabee, they'll most likely be using an Intel processor too.
Now what I'd really love to see here is Nintendo come and surprise us out of left field using AMD's next generation CPU that has GPU/vector processor cores built-in to it all in one chip...but I'd call that one a long shot as I seriously doubt it will be ready in time for the timeframe I'm expecting the next Nintendo system out by...but they have surprised us before I guess. I completely expect them to stick with the Wii-mote concept, but maybe they'll come up with something even cooler, like real VR Gloves (not that PowerGlove bullsh*t)?
One last thing...RAM. Both the Xbox360 and PS3 have a total 512MB of RAM available to both the system and graphics card. The 360 has an additional 10MB embedded in it's GPU (think sort of like how the CPU has L2 & L3 cache). Then the poor Wii only has 91MB of RAM. As the average PC today comes with 3 or 4 GB of RAM and most video cards have a gig of their own RAM too, I'd expect both the 360 and PS3 to have about 4GB total (shared), and I really hope Nintendo's next system has at least 1GB, if not 4 like the others.
Regardless of what happens...the future is as always, exciting...and it's gonna be all about even higher quality graphics that makes you glad to own a HDTV; multiple-core processors that can do much more realistic physics and better AI, more focus on internet connectivity whether that be in multiplayer or direct downloads...and if I'm right, it'll all start to show up pretty damn soon. I expect to see a new Wii in 2011, followed by a new Xbox in 2012 and then a new PlayStation in 2013. Personally, I'd like to see everyone work together on one unified standard, but for all we know Cloud Gaming may swoop in and eliminate the need for even needing much of a console in the next 5-10 years.