Wishlist for the Next Generation of Game Consoles

The current generation of consoles have proved extraordinarily long-lived, especially considering the length of the previous generation. The Xbox 360 was released in November 2005, just four years after the release of the original Xbox. Now, six years out, no replacement for the 360 has been announced, let alone any concrete rumors confirmed about it (the name, like everything else, is fiercely debated–“Xbox Next”? “Xbox 720”?) The PlayStation 3 is a little less long in the tooth, but recent news from Sony have surrounded its PS Vita handheld. Nintendo jumped ahead of the line at E3 2011 by announcing the Wii’s successor, the just-as-badly-named Wii U, but it seems clear from initial reports that the technology in this console, due in 2012, will not match whatever Microsoft and Sony put out–in fact, Nintendo initially showed the console using footage from its current-generation competitors.

Whenever Microsoft and Sony announce their next console beasts, however, we can hope they learn some lessons from missteps made this generation. Here’s my own personal wishlist for the takeaways Microsoft and Sony (and Nintendo, too) should have learned:

  1. Ditch proprietary storage

No one likes having to spend more money then they have to. And yet console makers consistently choose complicated ways of making people part with their hard-earned coin for no reason. Nintendo is by far the worst offender. The GameCube and Wii both sported proprietary Nintendo optical discs that just didn’t fit in anything else, and it looks from early reports that the Wii U will follow in its predecessor’s footsteps by using a not-quite-Blu-Ray-disc proprietary storage format with the same dimensions as the Wii discs. Nintendo is shorting developers by not offering enough storage for ever-more-complex games (the 25GB ceiling for the Wii U discs is the size of a single-layer Blu Ray disc already on the market) and driving up prices. When Sony pushed Blu Ray discs as its format for the PlayStation 3, it was trying to drive adoption of what was going to become a de facto format anyhow. The same can’t be said for Nintendo’s discs.

But Microsoft and Sony aren’t angels in this realm either. Microsoft, for their part, uses proprietary hard drives that cost upwards of $100 more than any third-party drive of the same capacities. It also meant that multimedia junkies who wanted to use their consoles as the entertainment system Microsoft wanted them to were constrained by paltry sizes–even now, 320 GB hard drives must be purchased separately if not part of a special edition Xbox 360, and that size will quickly fill up with high-definition movies (not to mention being crowded with downloadable content and game saves.) To add insult to injury, the Xbox 360 can accept USB memory sticks but artificially caps the usable amount per stick to 16GB, and with the release of the Xbox 360 Slim, old official hard drives don’t work on new models. Sony, meanwhile, allows easy expansion on its consoles but launched the Vita with an absurdly expensive storage format that, like Microsoft’s hard drives, ads markups of $50 or more for comparable storage. Sony didn’t even use its already-niche proprietary Memory Stick format–so if you’ve got Sony cameras, tough luck, you still need to spend more.

This amounts to hiding the “true” price of the consoles and does absolutely nothing to benefit the users–they are locked in to a single format, and they know it. How does that foster goodwill with the company? Speaking of keeping consumers happy…

  1. Keep the SKUs simple

The original Xbox was revolutionary because it shipped with a then-rather spacious 10GB hard drive (the times have changed…) Having a dedicated hard drive changed how developers could use the console and gave users much more freedom. So imagine my pain when I learned that the Xbox 360 would be shipping with multiple models or SKUs–including one without a hard drive. Suddenly developers had issues because they couldn’t design for a single platform–which is the main benefit of console development over PCs anyhow! Sony’s use of multiple hard drive configurations was annoying too, but at least developers could count on a hard disk, and people who weren’t going to use all the extra space didn’t need to spend more.

Over time, the SKUs for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 proliferated, offering far too many confusing options, leaving out things like HDMI inputs or ports that left consumers jilted when the product they got wasn’t what they wanted (why Microsoft ships a HD console without the means to produce the HD image, in the case of current 4GB Xbox 360 S models, is mystifying.) This was something Nintendo got right–if you wanted a Wii, you got a Wii, and it worked with everything… until they added the MotionPlus peripheral requirements. Perhaps all the overhauls and the Slim versions are a side-effect of the long console cycle, but console makers need to be much clearer about what they are offering.

  1. Cultivate a true digital environment

Speaking of using that hard drive space, all the console manufacturers need to focus on making their systems a true hub for entertainment. This cuts out the Wii U (once again, proprietary formats!) but the next Xbox still has a chance. Microsoft backed the losing HD-DVD format against Blu Ray, but with the next version they could cut their losses and use Blu Ray discs for storage, meaning one less box Xbox owners would need in their living room. The consoles now offer things like Netflix access, which is great, but still somewhat limited. By aggregating device functions, the consoles offer a concrete level of multipurpose use beyond games–which is important as so much of gaming becomes casual and mobile phone-based. With the rise of mobile technology, it is really advisable that most of the games should be designed for mobile phones. Aside from ease of access, mobile phones are also continuously developing. This provides a modern and suitable platform for upgraded games. Games like poker online are ideal to be played at phone.

  1. Offer a compelling user experience

This should be number one on anyone’s list, but its surprising how often all the console manufacturers dropped the ball. The Wii is famous for being cluttered with “shovelware”–and while Wired might approve of the glut of bad games, I think that it lowers the profile of the system itself to have good choices crowded out by poor ones.

Microsoft, meanwhile, became famous early in this console generation for its “red ring of death” on Xbox 360s, indicating general hardware failure–how many of its early consoles “bricked” due to overheating or other causes is not known, but gamers don’t have to search far to find a friend on their third, fourth or fifth console. Microsoft didn’t immediately deal with the problem, and left many gamers angry. Microsoft tried to make a clean break with the Xbox 360 S from the old problem, but it still affected public sentiment towards its product.

Sony, meanwhile, saw its PlayStation Network hacked, exposing how poorly it managed people’s sensitive financial information. Players were left vulnerable to identity theft and the service remained down or spotty for weeks. Even after the whole debacle, they retained a smug appearance of superiority–not engendering trust. The next console offers all the companies a chance to remake their image, and it starts with the basic two elements of any business: a solid product, and serving the customer.