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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

When will the next generation of game consoles launch?

While I'm thinking about why game consoles are likely to be around for quite a while, it was instructive for me to take a look at what the most likely launch period for the next generation of game consoles would be. This is discounting Android consoles such as Ouya, the future Amazon game console, and whatever Apple or Google cooks up. My expectation is that those game consoles will be under-powered and unattractive to hard-core gamers and will not attract AAA titles.

The one possibility that could derail my predictions is if Steam boxes take off, but given that Steam boxes will run Linux, and not support much of the existing game library, I do not expect them to be a major player. Steam boxes have a bunch of issues, not least of which is that each steam box would have a different configuration, meaning that the uniform platform that game developers would get as far as consoles are concerned wouldn't exist. I expect steam machines to combine the worst defects of both PCs and consoles.

The driver for the next generation of consoles will most likely to be 4K TV. If you look at what would be acceptable for 4K gaming today, the anandtech analysis would be that no less than 4 Titan GTX video cards would be needed to drive a AAA 4K game at 60+fps. This is at max settings, however, and consoles do not need max settings to be good enough, so maybe 3 GTX video cards would be sufficient. Each of the GTX video cards is about $700 today, so 3 of them would be $2100. If we assume that the consumer part for these devices have to get down below $200 in order for them to be commercially viable, that would be four Moore's cycles to get to $132 for the compute equivalent of 3 GTX video cards.

The traditional Moore's cycle is 18 months, but in recent years, it's been more like 2-3 years, or 8-12 years. However, there are several factors. First of all, it might not be necessary to deliver games at the full 4K resolution. The 7th generation of game consoles only delivered 720p resolution to HDTVs, and it's entirely feasible that the 9th generation of consoles would deliver say, 2560x1440 resolution rather than "true" 4K. This would be particularly attractive for whoever lost the 8th generation console wars, since that vendor (currently Microsoft) would be more motivated to start the 9th generation wars earlier rather than allowing the 8th generation to be dominated by a major competitor. It's entirely feasible that Nintendo could do this as little as 4 years out, but given their recent statements, I do not expect them to try to compete on the basis of CPU or GPU horsepower with Sony or Microsoft. Secondly, it's quite possible that dedicated gaming hardware that has software written close to the metal will outperform Anandtech's benchmarks. Put all this together and I expect the next generation of consoles to be deliver within 5 years, rather than the 8 years between the PS3 and PS4. This is made much more likely now that both consoles are on the x86 architecture rather than custom hardware, enabling more frequent updates.

I have to say that I'm fairly excited about 4K, though I disagree that 4K streaming is necessarily a good thing. HD streaming already looks much worse than Blu Ray to my eyes, so my guess is that it would take a higher bandwidth delivery format than Blu Ray for 4K to truly take off.

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