Gaming Console Round-up

I've nearly completed building out the man-cave and within it are all 3 next-gen consoles: Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii.  After playing around with everything for the last couple of months, I thought I'd give my thoughts on each console.  Now, of course, take or leave these comments as of course I am biased, but if I may say, in typical "high expectation" fashion I'm harder on myself and my company's own products than I am on the competition (which, if you've stumbled on this post and don't know me, is the Xbox 360).

Now, those who DO know me know I have no love of Sony.  This actually has nothing to do with Xbox vs Playstation nonsense (remember, too, Sony sells a lot of Windows-based computers).  But rather, in the before-time, I had a run of bad luck with Sony products over a 5 or 10 year stint.  At the time, Sony refused to repair all of them, although they eventually caved on one product (a TV, thankfully) since I believe there was a manufacturing bug with the unit.  In any event, some folks swear at Sony, many swear by them, and I ended up the former.

But I digress.  The interesting thing about today's gaming environment is that we're seeing the collapse of the platform-exclusive titles (the Wii is an exception here and I'll elaborate on that later).  GTA IV?  Can get it on both.  Final Fantasy XXVXIXI (or whatever version they are up to)?  Will be cross-platform.   EA Sports titles?  Call of Duty?  Saints Row?  All cross platform. 

Despite what some fanboys may say, all are practically identical.  I got a chuckle when reading comparisons like this, showing many side by side screenshots.  The differences between versions are at best inconclusive (and not just on this game).   I laugh because I remember debates between the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision, in games like Space Invaders vs. Space Armada.  There were real differences back in those days which make today's comparisons seem sometimes ridiculous.  Even the controllers (again, the Wii being exempted here) are incredibly similar, especially when you compare controllers from the Atari and Intellivision vintage.

Since producing games has gone from a single person venture to an undertaking more like a Hollywood blockbuster, it stands to reason that in order to make creating games profitable, developers will target cross platform.  Of course, each platform will maintain some exclusivity, and the value in that exclusivity is a personal choice.  Would you prefer Halo 3 or Metal Gear Solid 4?

So here I am, some 6 paragraphs in, and I haven't really evaluated much yet.  I wanted to set the stage, though, before revealing my thoughts on each console.  I'll talk about each console now...

Xbox 360
The latest editions (past year or so) of the 360 are great units, specifically because they have HDMI output ports.  One of the things that may be an advantage or a disadvantage (depending on your point of view) is the fact that many accessories are extra.  For example, a wireless accessory.  Those in Sony camp have argued that feature wise, the 360 is at least as expensive when you factor a wireless add-on and XBOX Live Gold membership. 

I actually view the configuration options as a strength, since the basic console can be pretty cheap -- particularly with the Arcade version coming in at $199 (or less).  That makes setting up the console in multiple rooms a real possibility, and in my case, I only need wireless in one room.  I'd rather not pay for features I don't need, because I'm much more inclined to place an extra $200 Xbox 360 in another room at this price point.

One of the nice features of the 360, particularly because of its price point, is the media extending capabilities.  The 360 can connect to a Windows Media Center, and stream content over your LAN, bringing the UI with it.  I also have a Zunepass subscription (not surprisingly, I realize) and browsing music and video from the 360 is effortless.  There's also the upcoming Netflix integration.

Xbox Live Arcade, in my opinion, is vastly superior to the PSN (Playstation Network -- Sony's counterpart).  First and foremost, there are a dizzying array of games to choose from, and unless I'm mistaken, every single one has a demo so you can try the game first.  This is great because it lets you try them out risk-free; this is particularly useful with my kids, since you never know if a kid is going to like a game until they play it.   Achievements is another value-add from the beginning, and most (if not all) games support this concept of getting achievements for certain accomplishments within the game.  Personally, I'm not that interested in this functionality, but it's amazing how wide-spread and popular this feature has become, so much so that Sony recently added this to the PS3.   

But, there is a downside to the Xbox Live experience -- a silver membership is free, but the gold membership is not.  More details here.  A gold membership, if you buy the 12+1 month card, is about $3/mo.  This is contrast to the PSN membership, which is currently free.

The cost of a gold membership, obviously, must be taken into account as part of the TCO compared to the other systems.  However, I find the experience to be fantastic and worth the expense. 

One of the biggest downsides to the 360, in my opinion, is the noise.  The fan noise, in addition to the drive noise, is much louder than it should be.  The PS3 may get around this by either better components, or the fact that it requires a local install of some of the game components which means the drive can spin slower, but in any event, the noise level is obnoxious, particularly for late night movie watching. 

Finally, one of the biggest complaints against the 360 is the RRoD, or Red Ring of Death, indicating a failure of the unit that requires it to be sent back to Microsoft.  I believe earlier units had a higher than normal failure rate, but it's my understanding that current-gen units have a much lower failure rate.  (Of course there will never be a zero percent failure rate for any electronic device.)  I currently have two 360's in the house -- one elite, and one launch, and neither has failed; so while I don't doubt some have had problems, there's no reason to avoid the 360 for this reason.

One thing I do like about the 360 is the controller hardware.  Not even the form factor of the controller itself, but rather the extensibility.  New battery packs can be popped in/out, easy to charge, easy to hook up a "play and charge" cable, etc.  The battery charger is simple and compact.  The wired headset plugs into the controller directly and just works.  While it's not Bluetooth, function is more important here.

From a developer's point of view (and ultimately from the consumer's point of view a year or so down the line), the ability to author your own games in XNA is astounding.  This, in my opinion, is where the software side of the console wars really makes Microsoft shine, and is not an area that Sony or Nintendo can easily compete with.  In traditional game development for consoles, the developer kits are extremely expensive and difficult to work with.  Even by Sony's own admission, harnessing the power of the PS3 is difficult and will take developers time to figure out. 

Interestingly, though, I think everyone is a bit surprised by the popularity of casual games, and games that focus on simple gameplay rather than cutting edge performance.  XNA provides a way for users, would-be programmers, hobbyists, and students to learn about creating games and to author their own games.  While it's true that developing a game that will run like Halo 3 in terms of graphics and scope won't be possible, many of the games on Xbox Live Arcade can, and in fact at least one game currently is, written in XNA. 

In my next post, I'll talk about some of my impressions of the PS3 (insert Darth Vader death march music here).
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