War is Over

Will the next generation of consoles herald a truce in the graphics arms race?

Towards the end of this year, the PlayStation 3 will celebrate its fifth birthday, with the Xbox 360 blowing out six candles on its cake about a week later. By this stage in the lifespans of their predecessors, these consoles would already be well on the road to replacement - five years after the launch of PlayStation 2, Sony was talking openly about the PS3, while five years after the launch of Xbox, Xbox 360 was already on shelves.

It's unsurprising, then, that speculation about the next generation of hardware is rife - especially given that Nintendo has fuelled the fires by deciding to unveil its next home console platform, codenamed Project Cafe, at E3 this year. In the past week, attention has also focused strongly on Microsoft, based on rumours that the company has sent very early development kits to close business partners. It's even been suggested that the company might decide to rock the boat with a surprise teaser for the new platform at E3.

This latter is something of a far-fetched idea, since right now it's Microsoft more than anyone else who stands to gain from prolonging the present console hardware generation. After taking huge losses on the original Xbox, it ended its lifespan prematurely in order to steal a march on its rivals in the current generation. Now the Xbox 360 is maintaining a (not terribly big) lead on Sony's PS3, consistently reporting very comfortable software tie ratios and even seeing very solid early figures for its much-hyped Kinect motion controller.

Microsoft is right now doing something it never had an opportunity to do with the first Xbox - it's enjoying the harvest

In other words, Microsoft is right now doing something it never had an opportunity to do with the first Xbox - it's enjoying the harvest. It must now strike a careful balance between keeping consumers interested in its present hardware offering in order to make this generation as profitable and successful as possible, and beginning to build excitement around what's coming next, to avoid being leapfrogged by a rival.

In this instance, however, Microsoft can sleep a little more soundly at night thanks to the knowledge that Sony is unlikely to have the stomach for much leapfrogging right now. PlayStation 3 took a kicking in its early years on the market, struggling to establish itself at a market-friendly price point and to build a solid catalogue of software - while Sony's business overall had the rug swept from under its feet by Nintendo, with the Wii poaching many of the consumers who could, in theory, have kept the PS2 profitable for even longer.

PS3 is now a business with a tidy operating profit, and despite being behind Microsoft overall, is presently the strongest-selling home console worldwide - Sony, a company faced with serious challenges in many of its other businesses, has little interest in jeopardising that by starting to talk about a new hardware generation so soon. These rivals are eyeing each other warily, but neither of them is actually prepared to draw just yet.

More than anything else, though, both Microsoft and Sony would probably like to get a good look at whatever Nintendo is planning before they commit themselves publicly to a specific direction for their future hardware. Everything we've seen so far about Project Cafe suggests that it's a system with graphical power not dissimilar to the present generation of HD consoles. Its games should look comfortably as good as PS3 or Xbox 360 titles, then, but the real selling point will be the control system, which reportedly builds a screen onto the controller itself.

Speculation about what exactly that means, and what functionality it will enable, is somewhat pointless - a lot of people already know what Nintendo is planning, but have been tightly wrapped up in non-disclosure agreements. What's more interesting is to think about the market reaction to a console which will launch six or seven years after the other HD systems, but only slightly out-match them in terms of graphical prowess.

We're all so used to the idea that new hardware is a straight-up fist-fight between sets of specifications that it's hard to imagine such a strategy doing well - but of course, it's a fairly direct repeat of exactly the strategy which has given Nintendo a Wii installed base of almost 90 million units. That isn't to say that it'll necessarily work again, but it's interesting to look at some of the advantages it confers.

For one thing, working with older, more well-understood and reliable chipsets gives a direct advantage in terms of manufacturing. It's cheaper to get up and running and you're far less likely to hit major production bottlenecks and shortages. Moreover, since you're not dealing with hugely expensive prototype silicon, you can seed tons of fairly advanced development kits to your partners early in the process, which should greatly benefit the early software line-up for your console.

The advantages to developers don't stop there, of course. Admittedly, by all accounts, direct ports to Nintendo's next-gen system will be just as pointless as they were on the Wii - the system's unique controller and interface should ensure that, although there's no doubt that plenty of publishers will defy such basic logic and demand shovelware ports aplenty, all the same. Developers wanting to do a good job on the console will need to think seriously about its advantages and disadvantages and tailor their software for the system.

However, even allowing for that significant bump in the road (which may be a bit of a pain for developers but is arguably an advantage for Nintendo, since it gives them crucial market differentiation), the actual development process ought to be relatively painless. Older hardware is familiar hardware, for one thing, and Nintendo's unlikely to stray far from off the shelf components. More importantly, taking aim at a similar level of graphical prowess to the PS3 and Xbox 360 means that the asset creation process is already in place. The same expertise and even the same asset pipelines that have been employed successfully on the present HD consoles should work fine on Project Cafe.

So, when Project Cafe hits the market, it's going to be a console with an innovative, headline grabbing interface, the power of the Nintendo juggernaut behind it, comparable development costs to existing hardware, and the media hype of a brand new system at a time when its rivals are beginning to look long in the tooth. The downside is that it won't actually be any more graphically powerful than its rivals. The million-dollar question is whether anyone will really care.

This is another "boy who cried wolf" story, of course. We've seen the end of the graphical arms race predicted any number of times in the past decade, and it's always entertaining to look back at screenshots and videos of games from times when people were saying things like "is there any need for graphics to be better than this?", and marvel at how easily pleased we were and how far we've come since then.

Project Cafe is going to have such a huge influence on Microsoft and Sony's thinking - even though both companies are already well into the design and development process for their next-gen systems

Yet this time, there are a number of factors aligning which - while they don't add up to an end to the arms race - certainly suggest a slowing down, and even perhaps a temporary truce. As discussed in previous weeks, skyrocketing development costs, both for software and hardware, are no longer being justified by sustained market growth. Moreover, in recent years consumers have voted with their wallets - by no means rejecting the cutting edge platforms, but certainly showing that they're also happy with hardware that offers a much less graphically impressive experience, such as the Wii, the PSP and the DS.

So, as uneasy as I am about joining the ranks of commentators who have asked "what's the point in graphics being better than this?" over the years, it's a question that must be posed - with some caveats. It's not that graphics can't be better, or that better graphics wouldn't be jaw-dropping, beautiful and wonderful. Rather, it's a question about a trade-off.

We could make games look an order of magnitude more impressive than titles like L.A. Noire or its ilk - but it would cost a vast amount of money. and I suspect that we've hit diminishing returns on that kind of expenditure already. Even the most casual consumers can see graphical improvements - they're not blind, or stupid - but the better game visuals get, the harder it is to create improvements that are good enough to sell consoles.

Even the most basic yardstick for console improvements has become a little hard to read. It used to seem like a reliable idea that every five years or so, consoles would catch up to the PC - a platform which sees advancements every few weeks - and remain competitive for a while, before the PC's cutting-edge accelerated away. In recent years, though, it's been interesting to watch what has actually happened to PC gaming.

Certainly, the PC cutting edge remains exactly that - new cards are released on a regular basis by AMD and NVIDIA, each more power-hungry and extraordinarily advanced than the last, with the best cards boasting a price tag which would comfortably buy you both of the current-gen HD consoles. However, the upgrade cycle appears to have slowed considerably - with games that actually demand cutting-edge systems being few and far between, and core gamers far more likely to continue happily playing on two, three or even four year old PCs than they were in the past.

A few different factors have pushed us in this direction - one of which is the diminishing returns to which I referred above, another being the rapid growth in popularity of laptops and Apple systems as gaming platforms. Both of these are difficult or impossible to upgrade - for that reason and many others, both were conventionally scorned as gaming PCs in the past, but it's easy to see from the consumer sales data that the market has moved strongly in their direction in the past five years. PC game developers know this, and target their games to work on laptop graphics parts rather than top-end cards.

If not a halt to progress, this is certainly a slowing - and probably one which is welcomed in most quarters. Consumers love improvements in graphical quality, but most would probably prefer to see any major increase in development budget being spent elsewhere - more detailed content, more expansive storytelling, more progress in areas that have been neglected in the former headlong rush to cram more polygons and effects onto every screen. Developers, too, would welcome such a switch in focus - while publishers would breathe a sigh of relief if the next console transition didn't bring with it another step-change in development costs.

That's why the reception for Nintendo's Project Cafe is going to have such a huge influence on Microsoft and Sony's thinking - even though both companies are already well into the design and development process for their next-gen systems. If Nintendo can get by with current generation power levels, the option for Sony and Microsoft to reign back their graphical ambition and focus their efforts on other aspects of the console will be wide open. If that does happen, plenty of journalists and commentators will rush to lament the death of progress - but in reality, it could be the best thing to happen to the progress of videogames in decades.

Latest comments (23)

Paul Cardy Programmer, Rebellion6 years ago
Very interesting article, thank you Rob.

"We could make games look an order of magnitude more impressive than titles like L.A. Noire or its ilk - but it would cost a vast amount of money."

Would it? I would say at this point in the cycle there is already something in the order of a magnitude of difference between Top-end PC and consoles, yet they will be using similar assets. Yes, the hardware is expensive but I don't see that the development costs include quite that much of a premium to make use of it (In some cases - i.e., tessellation removing need for LODs - the technology even reduces costs)

Inevitably the next crop of consoles will come out, they may go for high-end again or might settle for mid range (but 2011 mid range, not 2006), either way we'll get more power to play with, be able to do things we couldn't do before and the games will look better as a result. I can't envisage the situation where the next generation of consoles don't look better.
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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University6 years ago
It tends to be that Nintendo's new hardware is dictated by what new things they can do with cheap, available technology. I wouldn't be surprised if the new system is a small chunk more powerful than the current HD machines, but I believe that processing power will be pushed into streaming games to this new controller--Nintendo have said they consider all forms of entertainment as competition to videogames, and the big disadvantage home consoles have right now is that if they are attached to the living room television, they have to compete with all the other functions the television is used for.

If you can seamlessly stream the home console content to the controller (having the console do all of the hard work, the controller is just a display/interface unit), then the console becomes a gaming and entertainment hub that can be used regardless of what is on the tv. This fits in with Nintendo's family friendly approach--the husband can play Zelda as the wife watches a soap, the kids can play Mario Kart on their controllers as the parents watch a film, and users can switch back to using the tv as a display when no-one else is using the television. And that sets aside the possible uses of this controller in tandem with a television to replicate the advantages of the DS display. It might not sound like a particularly amazing or desirable innovation to the current market, but did Wii or DS sound like innovations we needed? Does 3DS streetpass and spotpass seem like innovations we need? I don't think they do, but in the long run I think they will prove to be the genuinely compelling features of Nintendo's systems.

As for Microsoft and Sony--I agree with your assertion that a new hardware generation within the next few years is undesirable to both companies. Sony in particular have invested massive amounts in the PS3, and though I always viewed their "ten year plan" as a PR gimmick, the simple fact is the PS3 took far longer to get going than Sony would have liked, and they had to cut price (delaying profitability) earlier than they would have liked. As for Microsoft, their investment in Kinect, as well as the RRD fiasco has made this generation far more costly than they would have liked. They might be able to find the raw funds for a new machine that will launch in 2013, but how desirable is this when they are squeezed on both sides by Apple and Google? The question isn't whether or not these companies can afford new machines, but whether or not they can justify those costs?

I don't think they can. I agree that the new MS/Sony machines will be more incremental upgrades in terms of processing power, and by extension, development costs. But that isn't a bad thing--hopefully it will encourage the kind of out of the box thinking that has resulted in the Wii, DS and Kinect. Hopefully this will encourage not just control innovations, but OS innovations in games consoles, online services innovations, new ways of delivering content and new hierarchies of content. The danger (as Wii's software market has displayed) is that these low development costs will encourage shovelware, mountains of which can wreck the market for third party software. But that's a risk I think we'll have to take, and we'll have to trust to the quality of developers to deliver new, compelling experiences that justify the continuing existence of 'traditional' games devices. I think that was the misunderstood message of Iwata's keynote at GDC this year--we shouldn't fear new ways of playing games, or new business models, but we need to accomodate these new models while also seeking to remind the wider market why evolving our old way of doing things, of having a games dedicated box with secondary functions, of buying 40 blockbuster titles from retail, is still a valid and compelling way of developing and playing games.

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Thomas Luecking6 years ago
Just some thoughts....

I agree with all of Rob's arguments.

Nevertheless we have to take into account that if MSFT and Sony decide not to invest into graphical power as heavy as they used to, we will get a situation where one of them might invest a little more in order to outpace the other. In other words, neither MSFT nor Sony wants to take the risk in having the less potent hardware on the shelves. New consoles need to have a USP which is easy to recognize by the average consumer to justify the high price point and to gain credibility among customers. The easiest way to do that is to show off graphical power - unless you are Nintendo.

Also, considering another 6 year lifetime we will see these new Consoles on the shelves until 2018! Cutting back graphical power could make it very attractive for a 3rd (4th) player to target the hardcore market in say, 3 years from now...

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Show all comments (23)
Tony Johns6 years ago
Less reliance on realistic graphics will only enhance other aspects of our industry such as how one can play a game and also to wider the audience of games considering that most people in the world can't even organise files on their desktops into folders all because they don't want things to be lost.

Most people can only have memory to remember 7 + or - 2 things at once, so if you look on a game controller trying to have just a 7 button system is ideal but anything more than that will confuse most people.

The D-pad is a perfect example of how to bring 4 buttons into one with just the + shape of the D pad.

And the Wii remote brought the motion control that has made gaming accessable for those who get too confused with too many buttons.

If SONY and Microsoft can tone down the power of graphics and focus on other areas of their new consoles it could be interesting to see what changes could happen besides from the way the games look.

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heck, this is a good time to enjoy games because there is enough information to optimize for various consoles, and they game devs can just get on with the business of developing good solid games.
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Bill Garrison Studying Student, DigiPen Institute of Technology6 years ago
Is it factually correct that Sony is behind Microsoft anymore?
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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University6 years ago
Devin, as of this March, Microsoft had shipped just under 54 million units, and Sony had shipped 50 million. The gap in install base is likely to be 3-4 million, with those shipment numbers inflated due to broken units/slim model purchases.

Sony have made up the ground in Europe, and of course dwarf the 360's install base in Japan, but relative to Microsoft and Nintendo, Sony have struggled in North America since the PS2 declined. MS's advantage in North America is big enough to give them a small global lead over Sony.
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Thiago Attianesi Creative Director, Fan Studios6 years ago
Microsoft > Sony ?
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Andrew Ihegbu / 6 years ago
Personally I would not like to see any motion/IR devices built into the next generation of consoles. Not would I like any to force you to use 3D if the 3DS is anything to go by. I like my joypad and I like my eyesight too much and even if kinekt is built into the nextbox I dont want to be forced to use it in every game.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
Playing zelda with motion control was a nightmare. Its a long game and I cant even get in a comforatible position to play after a few hours into a game. I usually like to lie down or get in a relaxed position. Im forced to sit up for the whole time. I would dread having to play a game like mass effect or fallout with motion controls. So im hoping that motion controls is optional.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 6 years ago
Moreover, since you're not dealing with hugely expensive prototype silicon, you can seed tons of fairly advanced development kits to your partners early in the process, which should greatly benefit the early software line-up for your console.

Um, yeah. The way Nintendo did for the 3DS?

There's certainly a great opportunity for a new console to make some massive headway right now by learning from all the things that Sony and MS have done right and wrong over the past five or six years, but I'm not seeing Nintendo lining up to do everything right there.
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Peter Paninar Artist 6 years ago
Same as Rick and Andrew, I hate when games forces motion controls on you.. all I want is to lie down on a couch grab the controler and relax with the game of choice.. not to wave with my hands or tilt/shake the controler like crazy... I don't want to move my hands at all, just press the buttons and enjoy the story/action on the screen. Not to mention when you lie and have your controller 45-90 degree tilted as a default position and you are unable in the game to recalibrate your controler default position it's even more pain to perform all those tilts that asume you are sitting and holding the controler normaly.

So I hope that wathewer they are going to unveil in the near future is not going to be motion control obsessed.. and it certainly should be fully optional from the game option menu if you want to use it or no..
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Dominic Jakube Student 6 years ago
I', sure sony's 10 year life cycle was a pipe dream, I see nintendo in 2012, nextbox in 2013 and ps3 in 2014.You just have to look at L.A. noire and see that new games are pushing this generation to breaking point.If no one but nintendo releases a console for years then all those early adopters of pre 360 s model and phat ps3's that will surely break down in a year or two will run into nintendo's arms.
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Robin Clarke Producer, Zattikka Ltd.6 years ago
Regarding Nintendo's next console, "slightly more powerful than 360/PS3" sounds like wishful thinking by IGN and co., reassuring their younger readers that there's no risk of having to ditch their current machines.

Even if Nintendo stipulated the same pared-down manufacturing costs as the Wii, that would buy substantially more processing power and memory than 5-6 years ago.

As for the broader theme - I think it's unlikely that there will ever be another console platform built from scratch around emphasising graphical power (the costly mistakes this generation have put paid to that), but we will see incrementally more powerful machines, whether those are PCs or consumer electronics boxes. There's still an audience (and creative imperative) for envelope-pushing games.

The hardware power of the current consoles is drastically holding back technical and creative advancement now, not a development cost ceiling. Developers are already building games that are scalable enough to take advantage of better hardware if it's available (e.g. Witcher2, RAGE, DeusEx3, Stalker, Crysis, etc.), with the console versions (if any) being yoked with increasingly ridiculous constraints - sub 30fps framerates, upscaling, constant loading pauses (which are all absolutely noticeable by consumers). An Apple-style incremental upgrade of console hardware would simply open the floodgates to those games.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game6 years ago
" An Apple-style incremental upgrade of console hardware would simply open the floodgates to those games"

Whilst simultaneously destroying the large userbases of people running the same hardware required to take advantage of them. Instead of achieving 40 million people with a 360 and the same with a ps3, you'd have 4 million people with a playstation 3.2 that couldn't play a game that required at least a PS3.3, they may upgrade to a 3.4, but 18 months later that would become useless. A lot of console gamers have been turned off cutting edge pc gaming for that reason, it would be a great way to kill off console gaming entirely.
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James Butterworth IT Hardware & Software 6 years ago
I hope console makers NEVER use Apple's "release new hardware every xx months" tactic because I HATE it. They deliberately leave features out of a device on purpose so their loyal fanboys with more money than sense will upgrade to whatever they throw out next.

Add to that Apple slowly force you to upgrade eventually. Like my iPhone 3G, I now cannot use some new apps because they require an iPhone 4. I only just finished paying the damn thing off, and now I can't use it??

I will NEVER buy Apple again because of this and their brand locking, so if console makers start doing it, I'm staying with PC. I control when I upgrade and what software I run on that, thankyou. I think Microsoft have more sense than Apple and Sony (Sony just like following Apple) and I've been loyal to them since the Xbox 1. No hardware failures, ever, except for 1 360 DVD drive problem, which I fixed myself out of warranty anyway. Sony's PS1, PS2 and PS3 have had too many failures for me, they're all profit, downsizing and cheapness. Look at the PS3, it's a cheap nasty shadow of its former self. Eugh!
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Haven Tso Web-based Game Reviewer 6 years ago
It is a good read. Thanks for that. Yes it seems that the graphics power race has died down a bit in this generation. Wii while is graphically inferior did show some great stuff even with the current power. Consider titles such as Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, Monster Hunter Tri, Fragile Dreams, Super Mario Bros, Kirby Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country, Metroid: Other M, Super Smash Bros Brawl, No More Heroes etc. They all have pretty impressive graphics. They are not HD titles but it shows that you don't need to be number one in graphic power to deliver impressive results.
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Robin Clarke Producer, Zattikka Ltd.6 years ago
I'm not saying console manufacturers should start putting out new machines every 18 months, just that they no longer need to reinvent the wheel every generation. (As the move from the GC to Wii showed.)

@James Butterworth: Nintendo already use this model for their handhelds. I'm not aware of any mainstream iOS apps (certainly no games) that require an iPhone 4. But yes, you will probably have to upgrade your three-year-old phone to continue using new apps eventually, irrespective of who manufactures it.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game6 years ago
There may not be any that require an iPhone 4 but there are plenty that require a 3GS, and we aren't talking about a 3 year old iPhone needing replacing. The 3G was being pushed right up to the iPhone 4 release about a year ago, and generally on 2 year contracts.
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Andrew Harris Game Monetization Manager, GameLoft6 years ago
Rob the author and Tony the poster both make a good point. If the continuation of this generation and/or the next generation focus less on graphical advancement they could have the opportunity to reallocate resources to other aspects of gaming.

It would be great if games and developers had the opportunity to prioritize story, mechanics, character customization, environments, etc over graphics. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of stuff blowing up in new and awesome ways. But I would welcome advancements in these other areas that could re-imagine our approach to gaming.

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David Walgrave Producer, Larian Studios6 years ago
I'm all for longer lifespan. Apart from not having to buy new s*** every three years, and hoping for backwards compatibility as a consumer and gamer, it also gives developers time to get to know a console and its possibilities. It is well-known and proven that amazing stuff starts happening after a couple of years, things that you wouldn't have deemed possible when the hardware came out. I always refer to the C64: check out the early years with the blocky sprites and almost monochrome colours, and then look at what developers created in the late eighties for that machine, and you could run that on the same computer you had bought ten years before.
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Mark Vince Programmers 6 years ago
Although I agree that longer lifetimes have a host of advantages, we've now reached a point where a radical leap in tech, when it happens, doesn't mean a radical improvement in products for a substantial period of time because developers cannot afford the huge investment necessary to re-write the tech. As the complexity of software advances we get further into the situation where costs and risks are too high to justify "carte blanche" rewrites, so we try to crowbar new features in. Performance suffers, stability suffers,
and we end up with a slew of nasty conversions... and while the public 'lap it up' who cares ?... only the developers who are stuck hacking and debugging a pile of frustrating old poo, hoping that one day they might just get to "do things properly" .... dream technology advances, the improvements in product will inevitably be far slower, because it's too much financial risk.
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Dean Mitchell Studying DEVELOPER COURSE, Train2Game6 years ago
I have read the comment from Daniel Hughes that states: "Microsoft had shipped just under 54 million units, and Sony had shipped 50 million"

The question I have which can never seemed to be answered is, even though the companies have "shipped" this many units, and you are saying that one company is further ahead than the other, do these figures take into account the amount of units that have failed and people have had to re-purchase?

To me, these "figures" do not really tell a true story, of course you can not go by an install base as not all devices are connected to the Internet (yet!). So trying to understand why finding out who is ahead within the race and making a prediction on who is going to jump first, seems pointless.

Competition can be healthy, but for me, congratulating Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo and all the development companies out there is what we should be doing. Thanking them for giving me hours of fun and taking me to places I could never of dreamed of is where I believe we should be right now.
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