ConsoleWatch: Developers Unhappy With Wii U Restrictions, Xbox Durango, and PlayStation 4

The rumor mill is still churning out quite a bit of information on new consoles this week, including new data on Nintendo's upcoming Wii U. According to unnamed developers, the Wii U actually isn't as powerful as the Xbox 360 or PS3, despite boasting HD graphics and significantly improved hardware. According to Nintendo's public statements, the new console will have 8GB of onboard Flash, a new, Power-based CPU built on a 45nm process. IBM has hinted that the Wii U chip leverages technology found in its own Watson, which would make it a derivative of the Power 7 architecture.

There's a substantial disconnect between the tech specs being floated and the claim that the Wii U won't measure up to the Xbox 360 or PS3. The Power 7 architecture is something of a beast. Each core is capable of handling four threads, which means a quad-core design would offer more multithreading capability than either the PS3's Cell or the Xbox's Xenon. As for the GPU, the Wii U reportedly uses a derivative of the RV740 (RV730 is another possibility) chip that debuted in AMD's Radeon 4000 family. Again, even a modest RV740-based design would be at least equal to what the Xbox 360 and PS3 offer.

What's more ominous are some of the information on the Wii U's restrictions. The touchscreen that's been such a fixture of Nintendo's demonstrations is fundamentally limited to just one unit per system. Nintendo's demos have focused on either single-player games or on showing how the combination of touchscreen + Wiimotes can create unique gameplay, but there's a difference between only shipping one touchscreen per system and only being able to have one touchscreen, period.

"The whole thing about the tablet controller is that you only get one of them, and you can only use one and it's not completely independent," an anonymous developer told "The base console has to be on, and you have to be in range." Queried about other controllers, the source was clear: "Other controllers are just Wiimotes, or other Wii controllers. They may change the form factor or looks a bit, but it's the same controller."

One of the Wii's massive selling points was the way it brought families together, often appealing to older generations who had never bought a console before. Only having a single Wii U touchscreen breaks that multiplayer model by splitting the experience. In any 2-person game or above, effectively using the touchscreen means finding a way to make it uniquely useful without giving the player who possesses it an overwhelming advantage. There are some multiplayer games that will map very effectively to this concept--but most won't.

Such limitations mean that any game with both a single-player and local multiplayer experience has to juggle two different control models or eschew the use of the touchscreen's features altogether. It complicates the debut of the new controller, and that's not a good thing considering that the Wii sold millions of units based on how simple and intuitive it was to use.

Meanwhile, in Xbox Land

We don't know what the Xbox Durango will look like -- but we're pretty sure what it won't resemble.

The Xbox 720, codenamed Durango, is reportedly targeting the holiday season of 2013 as a launch window. Rumored specifics are below, in order of what we feel is most-to-least likely.
  • A 4-6 core processor (8-24 threads, we'd bet on 16)
  • Built-in Kinect sensor
  • Blu-ray drive
  • Dual-GPU architecture
  • Require an always-on Internet connection
  • Lock out used game market
We've discussed Durango's likely CPU and GPU targets, optical drive, and Kinect in previous articles, so let's talk about the new stuff. The prospect of a mandatory Internet connection, or of tying games to your user account the way the next-generation PS4 (codenamed Orbis) is rumored to do is a hot-button topic that's guaranteed to provoke a massive reaction from both readers and game retailers -- which is why, on second examination, it seems an unlikely path for Microsoft or Sony to take.

It would make far more sense for Sony and Microsoft to emphasize digital distribution, possibly by offering discounts, added extras, or incentives, than to try to cut game retailers out of the loop by slamming down on the used games market. True, there are plenty of challenges to moving to a digital distribution network, but they pale in comparison to the avalanche of bad press, litigation, and bloodletting that would kick off if MS and Sony announced they were offering content locks baked into hardware. If retailers who make a profit on used games strike back by refusing to stock new consoles, it's going to hurt.

The Old Model = Broken

What this discussion truly highlights is just how dysfunctional the entire console industry is and how skewed its profits are. Profits on hardware sales are so small, game shops can't survive on console sales alone. $60 MSRPs are subsidized by exchange and trade-in programs that, if you take advantage of them regularly and sell back your finished titles, really do cut down on the price of gaming. Kicking Gamestop in the teeth may occasionally sound like fun, but the idea that killing the used games market will lead to more sales overall is savagely undercut when you consider that the price of a new game is effectively underwritten by 30-50% by trading in old titles. If used title values collapse and MSRPs stay the same or rise, the entire industry could hamstring itself in the name of higher profits.

Proof that Xbox fans don't have a monopoly on ugly, ugly, designs.
As a plus, this PS4 could double as a bike helmet

As for the PS4, codenamed Orbis, there's been no new info this week -- if you missed the announcements from last week, here's a link to our coverage.