TAMPA - E3 2011 is fast approaching, and the big three console makers are expected to announce their plans for their future systems.
Nintendo has already announced development on its next console, at this point code named "Project Cafe."
Sony's upcoming handheld, the NGP, is the powerful successor to the the PlayStation Portable, which came to American store shelves in 2005.
Microsoft is the wild card, with rumors swirling that big time game makers already have development kits for their unnanounced Xbox 360 follow-up.
With all that in mind, here's a look at what each company needs to put in their machines to catch the consumer's eye - and get the money out of their wallet.
Nintendo's Project Cafe:
1) The Nintendo Wii changed the way we play with its revolutionary motion controls and reintroduced video gaming to a generation that grew up with Mario and Zelda. The wand controller became second nature for the 80 million-plus that have enjoyed the Wii, and Nintendo needs to keep something similar in their next system. Changing back to a more modern version, with dual joysticks and multiple buttons and triggers, might alienate the crowd that snatched up the Wii.
2) The Wii was mocked by many hardcore gamers as an underpowered, unimpressive, weak system. Its graphics were marginally above those produced by the Gamecube, and as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 dazzled a new generation with high definition visuals and surround sound, the Wii got left in the dust. The new system must be capable of 1080p graphics and digital surround sound. HDMI is also a must, and with 3D technology becoming more and more popular, that feature has to be considered as well. The Wii doesn't even play DVDs, an absolute requirement for the next system.
3) Nintendo has always cranked out top hits with their own reliable stars: Mario, Link, Samus, Pokemon, and many more. It's the third party developers that have been unkind over the years, often designing their smash hits like Call of Duty and Madden for the top-notch consoles and dumbing them down for the Wii. This leads to barebones versions of top titles that don't sell nearly as well. Nintendo needs to build friendships with EA and Activision, among others, proving that their console is not a wimp in the next generation and that it's worth their attention.
4) Playing online with your friends on the Wii is harder than acing the SATs. Individual "friend codes", randomly generated numbers that must be entered for each game, have alienated many players looking to play with their pals online. Xbox and PS3 gamers can make their own username which applies across all games, and at this point, it's stunning Nintendo hasn't caught on. This simple idea is the first step Nintendo has to put in place in order to essentially "build" their online population. Their Virtual Console store, however, has been very popular, selling past games like the original Super Mario Brothers and many Super Nintendo hits as digital downloads for a few bucks each. These purchases need to carry over to the next system.
5) Finally, Nintendo's systems have been priced lower than the competition nearly every console generation. That needs to stay the case for the next console. If Nintendo can squeeze all of that and more into "Project Cafe", and keep it under $300, they'll have another winner on store shelves.
1) The PSP was a daring first entry into the portable gaming market for Sony. Boasting better graphics and sound than anything Nintendo could offer, tech junkies were dazzled. The 3DS from Nintendo has closed part of the gap, offering glasses-free 3D. Whether the NGP has 3D or not, it needs to keep wowing players with amazing visuals. If early indications hold true, there's little to worry about.
2) The original PSP ran on proprietary UMD discs, and this was a major drain on the system's battery. Future design revisions have since eliminated the need for discs, instead storing games on memory sticks or a small built-in hard drive. Still, with the giant touch screen and constant internet connectivity of the NGP, there are concerns that the battery might last just six hours or less. This is unacceptable for players looking for something to do on long flights or vacations, when charging isn't available. Sony must work on an alternative before launch time.
3) The NGP will come with a touch screen on the front, touch pad on the back, dual joysticks, and traditional face buttons and shoulder buttons. While touchscreen gaming is popular on smartphones, no major device has both front AND back touchpads. This new control mechanism must be implemented in a way that draws players in and proves useful, without becoming too confusing and useless. It's up to developers to make the most of it.
4) With several exciting online features planned, one major draw has to be included to put things over the top: Netflix support would be monumental for the NGP. While already a staple on the iPad, Netflix on the NGP would be
yet another selling point that mainstream customers are very familiar with. Seeing that red sticker on the box would catch every shopper's eye, and a demo of Netflix, or at the very least Hulu Plus, at E3 could go a long way. Sony already has announced that their PlayStation Store will be included in the NGP, but the Store certainly isn't the same as Netflix.
5) With smartphones and tablets already in most tech junkies' daily life to begin with, the NGP needs to blast its way through the wall and get in the customers' hands. The biggest obstacle that it faces is price. Tablets are getting cheaper by the day, and the NGP has to compete directly with that. If the system is over $300 (wifi only) or $400 (3G model), it's going to have a hard time being attractive to potential buyers.
Microsoft's unannounced console:
1) The original Xbox came out in November 2001, alongside the Gamecube and over a year after the PS2 came out in the United States. Microsoft made a quick turnaround, releasing the Xbox 360 in late 2005, a year before the PS3 and Wii. The change worked to an extent, as the 360 has outsold the PS3 by a small margin, but both are well behind the Wii. There are some advantages to being first: an early jump to store shelves can catch shoppers' eyes, and putting development kits in game designers' hands early gives them a leg up when creating cross-platform games. The downside is that the other console makers can see your ideas and expound on what worked and learn from what didn't. Microsoft will have to determine which angle they want to play.
2) The Xbox 360 launched with limited backwards compatibility, also known as being able to play Xbox 1 games on the Xbox 360. Microsoft added a few more titles to the list of games that could be played on the new system a while later, then abandoned their efforts and haven't looked back. The 360 has some spectacular games, including four Halo games, the entire Gears of War trilogy, Mass Effect trilogy, and dozens more. If some form of backwards compatibility isn't available, gamers will be very upset.
3) Microsoft has essentially rebranded the 360 with last year's Kinect launch. The revolutionary motion controller system made its way onto national TV shows, and has injected new life into the sales figures of the 360. Because of this, it's unlikely that Microsoft is in a rush to put out a 360 successor. But when they do, Kinect support is a must. They could consider packing it in with the console, at a discount, or even make it a requirement for play.
4) The 360 came with a separate HD-DVD drive, and at the time it came out, it briefly seemed like a viable competitor to Blu-Ray. That debate was quickly settled, and the inclusion of a Blu-Ray laser in all PS3s certainly helped seal its fate. If Microsoft really wants the next Xbox to continue being a technological marvel, it must have a Blu-Ray player. The problem is that Blu-Ray is a Sony technology, and Microsoft would have to fork over some cash to Sony for each future Xbox sold! This conundrum will need to be figured out in a way that benefits both companies.
5) When rumors of the eventual Xbox 360 were swirling, message boards and gaming websites pondered what the product's name would be. Xenon, NextBox, Xbox 2 and dozens of others were floated about as speculation. When it was revealed the "Xbox 360" would be the name, gamers were underwhelmed. While it's become a part of daily language now, 360 still sounds odd as a sequel to what is now the "Xbox 1." Microsoft based millions of dollars of marketing around the concept of circles connected to the 360 name. Nintendo has never used numeric titles for their console sequels, but Sony has stuck to that mantra with the PS1, PS2, and PS3, proving that both options can work and work well. Whatever name Microsoft settles on, it needs to be catchy and cool.
That's a look at what I think each company needs to put in their systems for future generations. We'll definitely learn more when E3 gets underway Tuesday morning in Los Angeles.
What do you think needs to be in the consoles that will have you ready to buy one?