EIGHT YEARS IS AN AGE in consumer electronics. The Xbox 360 launched in 2005, followed by the PlayStation 3 a year later. Since then, we've seen smartphones emerge and gain massively in processing power. So much so that the world's fastest-growing gaming platform is now the small screen, although not everyone is happy playing Angry Birds on a six-inch device.
Many gamers will already have put down a deposit on an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, both of which promise best-ever graphics and surround sound when they launch this November. Both pack massive eight-core processors, 8GB RAM and camera options. The Xbox One has a higher price - thought to be about HK$3,875 - but includes a HD-capable Kinect 2.0 camera, whereas the PlayStation 4 makes its PlayStation Camera a HK$458 option, hence its lower price of HK$3,095.
If that's a difference, there are few others. So much for our supposed desire for more aesthetically pleasing products around the home; both consoles are dressed in large angular black boxes of a style we've seen time and again.
But that isn't important to gamers. The only thing that matters to them is the biggest and best games, and it's here where the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will live or die. Sony's console will lead with exclusively extended editions of both Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag and Watch Dogs, as well as regular versions of Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack and DriveClub. Microsoft is launching with top titles such as Forza Motorsport 5, Call of Duty: Ghosts (although the only exclusive extra is downloaded from the cloud - another trend for this new generation of consoles) and Kinect Sports Rivals.
Perhaps the major difference between the two isn't about gaming at all, but streaming. While users of PlayStation 4 will be able to watch films and go online immediately, Microsoft is going to keep ring-fencing all online activity behind Xbox Live, for which annual Gold membership currently costs HK$368. Nevertheless, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 won't necessarily have a dominant function.
"These consoles have now progressed to the stage where they are more of an entertainment system," says Siân Rowlands of UK-based Juniper Research. "They will allow users to watch live TV, stream movies, play games, make calls and connect with friends."
But the lack of major differences and innovations has led some analysts to predict a less than rosy future for the games console market as a whole, with the so-called "8th generation" machines from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo (whose Wii U console launched late last year) expected to shift 133 million units by 2018, according to ABI Research.
That's about 5 per cent down on the previous generation, and the blame is being put squarely at the feet of mobile devices. Juniper Research's recent Future App Stores report found that 47 per cent of all app downloads to smartphones and tablets are games, and that this year's 80 billion app downloads will double by 2017.
With such a huge demand, could we see a merging of consoles and smartphones? "Microsoft allows consumers to use some mobile devices as a second screen through its SmartGlass application," says Michael Inouye, senior analyst at ABI. "Sony has gone a step further with mobility and offers select games to PlayStation Certified devices via its PlayStation Mobile service … these platforms can complement each other."
But while hardcore gamers use game controllers, casual gamers like touch screens, right? "As mobile devices better support peripherals like game controllers, there could be some melding of platforms - for instance a future PlayStation might be offered as a dedicated handheld and a smartphone or tablet," says Inouye.
"Ultimately, cloud gaming might break down these barriers and allow consumers to play games across a variety of devices. So rather than one operating system or platform for all, a user's games and profile could become portable via the cloud."
Both Sony and Microsoft will present cloud-based gaming architecture for their upcoming platforms, but not much is known so far. Are we ready for cloud gaming? "Absolutely, everyone in the digital and IT industry is moving to the cloud and it is a logical step for the games industry to do it too," says Jaclyn Wilkins, gaming expert at London-based law firm Charles Russell.
"Cloud gaming will open up possibilities for the industry as it will create the possibility of connecting a user's gaming experience across platforms so, for example, a user may be able to play an Xbox One game in the evening and continue on a smartphone while travelling to work," says Wilkins.
The popularity of gaming on smartphones and tablets has spawned the rise of micro-consoles, such as Ouya, Mojo and GameStick. A quarter of the price of the big consoles, most micros work on the Android operating system, and put familiar smartphone games on the big screen.
So do these present a realistic challenge to Sony and Microsoft? "Micro-consoles are targeting casual gamers by bringing mobile games to the large screen," says Inouye. "Microsoft and Sony are still targeting the core gamer with relatively expensive hardware and capital intensive triple-A titles." But Inouye thinks that these devices could push Sony and Microsoft to upgrade the hardware sooner than they would like.
"These are not simply casual, repetitive games," says Rowlands. "They are first-person shooters, RPGs and sports games, which have been developed as smartphones and tablets become more powerful with better displays". Rowlands describes a new class of "mid-core gamers" that used to be dedicated gamers with a high-end PC or console, but who now have other priorities. In short, they had to grow up. "These are the people who are likely to be purchasing an Ouya console," says Rowlands.
The elephant in the room, of course, is not only China's ban on games consoles, but the continued thirst in Asia for online PC gaming. "Rumours suggest the ban on consoles might come to an end soon," says Inouye, though he admits that even if it did there wouldn't suddenly be a huge demand: "The Chinese government will still exercise tight control over the game platforms and content."
Steam Box is a micro device aimed squarely at PC gamers. "Steam Box could suffer from a 'tweener' status," says Inouye, explaining that its hardware will likely outperform the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but it will likely cost more and fail to generate the same performance level demanded by hardcore PC gamers. After all, some spend as much as HK$15,000 or more on a gaming rig.
But Microsoft and Sony will likely view Steam Box as a bigger threat than micro consoles, tablets or smartphones because PC gaming titles are - globally speaking - still dominant. "Various statistics for the games market still show that PC games continue to be the most dominant in the games industry followed by console games and then mobile games," says Wilkins.
"Although they seem technologically advanced, [smartphones] are still in their infancy in terms of their capabilities as a gaming platform; however, as the technology advances, I am sure we will see smartphone games become more dominant."
The future of gaming won't be decided by one product launch, but a gradual, logical merging of devices that cloud gaming makes inevitable.
"The problem for the game developers is to be able to create a game which will work across different platforms … so that a game isn't simply tied to the Xbox One and then only to a phone with a Windows operating system," says Wilkins.
"The challenge will be to make the game playable on the iPad, iPhone, an Android phone and a Windows phone."
Rise of the minor players
Flush from success on online crowd-funding site Kickstarter and designed as a platform for indie games developers, Ouya (HK$768, available on amazon.com is about finding the industry's next big thing and doesn't offer familiar games titles. It's based on the Android operating system familiar to most smartphone and tablet owners, and that's its key demographic. Ouya even lets its users - likely to be casual gamers - try games for free.
Based around a high-power Xi3 mini PC, this under-the-TV games console is all about bringing PC games into the living room. Developed by Valve for its Steam games download store, the Steam Box (HK$7,750, store.steampowered.com will be optimised for Steam titles likeCounter-Strike, Team Fortress 2 and Portal 2. But it's the Big Picture mode - which puts PC games on the big screen - that might persuade hardcore gamers to ditch the mainstream consoles.
Razer Edge Pro
A 10-inch tablet with touch screen, the Razer Edge Pro (HK$11,245, razerzone.com is the only mobile gaming device for PC gamers, but it's also a regular Windows 8 device. The most powerful tablet around in terms of raw processing power, it plays all existing (300 million plus) PC games and does everything you might expect a regular tablet to do, too. But it's the promise of console-style PC gaming that makes this a serious proposition.