Another round of console wars
Gamers, get those credit cards ready: another console war is coming. On May 21, Microsoft is likely to announce a successor to the Xbox 360, a console that's sold 76 million units since its 2005 debut. But between Sony's splashy PlayStation 4 announcement this February, and the ubiquity of versatile, affordable smartphones and tablets, Microsoft may face an uphill battle. Here's what the company needs to do to keep competitors at arm's-length.
About the name...
How Microsoft markets a product is just as important as the product itself. That includes giving it a name people won't scoff at. Something like the Xbox 720 -- simple, recognizable, respected -- would be hipper than, say, the head-scratching "Wii U."
An AMD processor
The new console could sport an eight-core processor called Jaguar made by Advanced Micro Devices, with a design more in step with processors found in traditional PCs -- and the upcoming PlayStation 4 -- than in past consoles. For developers who like to improve their odds of success and develop for multiple consoles, that's a very good thing. Sure, so-called "ports" may make once-exclusive console games too ubiquitous, but the easier it is for developers to code for something like the new Xbox, the more likely they are to do so.
Ditch always on
When rumors spread that the next Xbox would require owners always be online, gamers weren't happy. Though 46 million members use Microsoft's Xbox Live service, that's just 60% of the overall Xbox 360 user base. Broadband Internet may be widespread, but asking the next generation of console gamers be "always on" could likely alienate millions.
Embrace the cloud
With the $380 million acquisition of Gaikai, Sony bet huge on gaming in the cloud. Indeed, when it launches, the PlayStation 4 will have the ability to stream games much like Netflix Instant distributes movies. No doubt the next Xbox will rely on good-old physical discs, but in this day and age, Microsoft should also, like its competition, embrace the cloud.
Dominate the living room...again
When Microsoft announced plans to sell Mediaroom, its technology for Internet-based TV services aimed at cable companies, the message was clear. Now, more than ever, it wants to focus its cash and time on making the Xbox more of a living room multimedia hub than it already is. Part of the push should include content generated by Microsoft's Santa Monica-based production studio, now helmed by former CBS executive Nancy Tellem. In other words, the next Xbox won't just be a strong gaming vehicle but a trojan horse of original digital content users won't find elsewhere.
Keep the price down
Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, has said he hopes the PlayStation 4 won't cost $599 at launch. We hope that's also not the case with the next Xbox. It's 2013, not 2005, and the gaming landscape looks very different now that hundreds of millions of gamers -- however casual they may be -- tap and swipe on multi-purpose devices that moonlight as phones. Pricing the new Xbox at $400-plus may be asking too much of consumers now.
One way Microsoft could side-step steep pricing: offer different purchase plans. A subsidized plan not unlike cell phones, where buyers pony up a lower upfront fee but pay monthly installments over several years could be more attractive to some buyers.
Call it wishful thinking, but long loading times ought to be a thing of the past. (We're looking at you, Wii U.) A lightning-quick solid state drive, the kind found mostly in laptops, would help in creating an "instant-on" experience for developers who might find it helpful to store portions of their game and users who want to store gigabytes of video, music, and other multimedia.
Launch with AAA games
A no-brainer? It should be. Time and again, consoles have debuted without killer software, making owners wait months for their favorite franchises or stellar new properties to arrive. If the Xbox ends up having a lot in common with the PlayStation 4 -- like say, that AMD processor -- it will, even more so now, boil down to great games. Cliche as it sounds, the new Xbox must hit the ground running, guns blazing, with a Halo-like title (or three) alongside.