May 23, 2013 at 1:34 PM ET
All three next-generation video game consoles are now official, but only Nintendo's Wii U has hit the market — and that one isn't exactly a hot seller. In the months leading up to the as-yet-undated Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 launches, it's time to speculate:What will it take to win the new console war?
Will Microsoft's TV-friendly tricks conquer the living room? Will Sony win by wooing the most game developers? Or will Nintendo make a comeback by providing novel games for its unique two-screen interface? While each has its own specialty, it's also worth looking at how the consoles measure up on features.
Hardware wise, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One seem nearly identical. Both have 8-core CPUs, though at 1.84 trillion operations per second ("teraflops"), the PS4's graphics processor ranks slightly above the Xbox One's, with a rumored 1.2 teraflops. Both tower over Nintendo's Wii U in terms of sheer processing power: It's got a 3-core CPU and a 352-gigaflop GPU.
It's unclear how the extra power benefits the PS4, however. Unlike the last generation, now both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are powered by AMD chips. Presumably this will mean more games available across both platforms. Until both consoles get a clearer price-point and launch schedule, it will remain unclear how this could benefit one company over the other.
Along with a standard controller, Microsoft is making an even bigger push for voice, motion and other natural interface control with its revamped Kinect set-up.
The PlayStation 4 controller, like the PlayStation Vita, has a trackpad and motion sensor built into it to allow for a variety of different uses.
The Wii U GamePad, meanwhile, is essentially a large tablet with additional shoulder buttons.
All of these controllers suit different preferences, though — beyond exercise and dance games — Microsoft's emphasis on the Kinect skews towards non-gaming purposes like media management.
Historically, whathas set Xbox and PlayStation apart have been exclusives—Sony's "Uncharted" series used the PlayStation 3's tricky hardware forsome of the best-looking video games in history, while Microsoft's "Gears of War" let players shoot giant mutants in the kind of collective experience that made the Xbox Live Arcade so popular.
But exclusive deals and in-house studios aside, there's an ever-present fleet of third-party developers like Ubisoft, Electronic Arts and Activision who want these devices to be as similar as possible to make their jobs easier.
Nintendo has the opposite problem. As the sole proprietor of gaming's most beloved franchises — "Super Mario Bros.," "The Legend of Zelda," "Donkey Kong," "Pokémon,"etc. — the company has a more powerful exclusive repertoire than Microsoft or Sony could ever dream of. But if gamers can't find it anywhere but on the Wii U or 3DS, casual fans who might want to hop on Mario's bandwagon may not like committing to the entrenched Nintendo ecosystem.
There's pressure on console makers to rebrand their gaming consoles as family entertainment centers. Netflix, streaming music and (clunky) Web browsers are standard in current-gen hardware; in the next generation, things get even more ambitious.
Microsoft's is attempting to outclass the smartest of "smart" TVs. In addition to crazy graphics horsepower, the Xbox One has an HDMI input that allows users to see their cable box screens inside the console, kind of a reverse Trojan horse that makes the Xbox more fully integrated into the living room than its competitors.
On the software side, the Xbox One runs a modified version of Windows 8, which means tricks like split-screen "snap mode," which lets you play a game while doing Skype video, for instance. In addition to Skype, the Xbox team has been working with all kinds of partners, from Pizza Hut — yes, a gesture-based pizza-delivery app — to Steven Spielberg, who will produce a live-action "Halo" TV series exclusively for Xbox.
Nintendo's answer to multitasking is the Wii U's second screen, the GamePad. If one family member wants to watch the new season of "Arrested Development" while another is finishing a level of "New Super Mario Bros.," they can do it at the same time.
But two-screen mode and other Wii U features — its entertainment apps, its eShop and its brand-new social network Miiverse — have left reviewers underwhelmed. Wired Magazine referred to the Miiverse as "the social network in which you are not allowed to socialize."
Sony's non-gaming plans for PS4 are still under wraps. During its February unveiling, Sony showed off how social features like DualShock 4 controller's "share button" and cloud syncing from the PlayStation Network would amplify gameplay. Given the new integration between the PS4 and the Vita, it's likely that there will soon be second-screen-type features, but mum's the word. Meanwhile, Sony's extensive movie and music services will likely also play into the final product, so we'll be looking for more news in the coming months.
The play's the thing
Nobody can say what the three consoles have to offer until they've actually been released to the public — and even then, a console could take months or years to reach full potential, with a strong lineup of games, apps and services. The Wii U, out since last November, is still struggling to find its footing. However, if the successes of the original Wii and the 3DS are any indication, Nintendo could very well turn the Wii U into another hit — if it gets the right games.
Yes, in the end, deciding on which of the Big Three consoles to choose will matter less about gigaflops and pizza apps, and more about whether you prefer "Halo" or "God of War." You may love the frills, but at the core, the games will remain the deciding factor.