The OS Factor and the Rise of Transmedia Gaming

Digital Foundry on why Wii U dedicates 1GB to its background operating system - and how Durango could see that double

Ask just about any games developer what they want they want most from a console and almost always the response will be "more memory" yet the trend in console hardware development is to dedicate ever-increasing amounts of RAM to the operating system. Why?

Perhaps the most high profile example of this recently is the Nintendo Wii U - 1GB of memory sounds positively luxurious compared to the sub-512MB available to developers of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games, but it's actually just 50 per cent of the total onboard memory of the machine - another 1GB set aside for the operating system. And it's not just Wii U either - though established figures aren't in the public domain, both 3DS and PlayStation Vita dedicate generous amounts of memory to the OS - RAM which could be gifted to developers.

"Game devs covet RAM more than any other console component, but the trend is towards dedicating more to the background OS. Platform holders are adapting to the growing demand from gamers for their machines to do more"

So what's going on? Put simply, the platform holders have cottoned on to the fact that gamers want more from their devices and they want instant access to more features in a seamless manner during gameplay. On a mobile platform in particular, this is a natural progression, with the rise of social media a major factor in this. While major OS functions such as the Vita browser can't operate in parallel with gameplay, certain apps work without dumping you out of the game - for example you can capture a screenshot in-game, beam it out via Twitter, and return to the action without a hitch. 3DS's StreetPass feature is another case altogether - a value-added extra that works in the background whether you're gaming or not. What they have in common is the requirement for system resources - and RAM in particular.

The Wii U's 1GB of reserved RAM is something a little different though, the extent of which we've yet to see fully demonstrated. We've had a hint however - in Nintendo's press video for Wii U, we see the gamer unable to progress past a boss, breaking off from the action to make a video call to a buddy for hints and tips. Other uses for this substantial amount of reserve memory are unclear, but it's easy to see a situation where selected OS-level apps and libraries could run semi-independently on the tablet controller without having to quit out of the main game. But what about actually running varied applications along these lines in concert with any game at any time, without impacting on performance?

Microsoft and its next generation Xbox appears to offer up the most ambitious plans for a console operating system going forward. On the 360, the OS - with technical underpinnings going all the way back to Windows NT - occupies a mere 32MB of system space, but according to a well-placed source who has worked directly on major first party Microsoft console titles, the new Durango sees OS resources increase enormously.

Based on this information, the next-gen Xbox could feature 8GB of memory in total, with up to 2GB reserved for OS functions - a phenomenal figure when compared, say, to the 1GB total found in the iPhone 5. Microsoft's vision for the next-gen OS is ambitious in scope: both the leaked Xbox 720 discussion document and the firm's own 2010 patent applications suggest that the OS - or "platform" as it is described - have dedicated CPU and GPU components, separate and distinct from the resources available to developers, who only have direct access the "application" areas of the hardware.

"If the rumours are true, Durango doesn't just dedicate 2GB to the OS but significant CPU and GPU resources too - an enormous investment from Microsoft"

The patent application itself is an in-depth filing on how Microsoft's engineers reconcile two internal architectures within a single box, balancing components in order to guarantee quality of service from both simultaneously. In short, the design strongly suggests that the next Xbox will run OS-level apps and games at the same time - an extreme implementation of multi-tasking, if you will.

Running apps concurrently with gameplay is nothing new on PC of course: whether you're running Skype in the background as you play, or even just keeping your email client open, you are using the multi-tasking elements of your PC naturally, as a matter of course, even if they conflict with, or impact performance of the games you are playing. In a console environment where developers rely upon a fixed architecture with known performance levels, the notion of apps interfering with the operation of gameplay simply wouldn't work. It's for exactly this reason that the examples we've seen of OS functions on Vita and Wii U require the game to be paused first.

But just what kinds of applications would require such a prodigious amount of processing power and RAM? What we are looking at is a considerable amount of silicon that could be used to further bolster the gaming potential of the console, but instead it is being reserved for the "platform", for elements that developers may have little or no access to.

For a long time the platform holders have coveted set-top box status in the living room, but it's only through the advent of streaming video - Netflix in particular - that consoles have actually become widely-used media playback machines. The natural progression from here is to migrate towards full PVR functionality, with the option of using the new console as a media server, able to stream content elsewhere in the home, while downloading further content in the background, all the while leaving "application" resources - games, in other words - running as smoothly as ever.

However, on a more general level, Microsoft is surely adapting to the ways in which people interact with technology and are looking to somehow integrate that more closely into gameplay. Examples shown on a basic level in the 720 leak include customised ticker-tape feeds that could be superimposed onto the screen, presumably encompassing social media feeds.

Also, expect both Sony and Microsoft to bolster the ability to share in-game video and screenshot assets in their next-gen hardware. Most high-end GPUs these days have hardware video encoders built-in and this functionality is a natural fit for next-gen consoles: players may even be able to livestream their own gameplay. An onboard video encoder would have useful, if rather more mundane uses too: the same tech could be used to re-encode downloaded video to beam across to other devices for example, and even power videochat during gameplay (don't forget that MS now owns Skype). On a more practical level, the ability to merge OS-level programs and gameplay could allow for strategy guides to become far more contextual in nature, offering up in-game maps and video based on your actual level of progress.

"Durango sounds like an ambitious design, arguably somewhat over-engineered for a games console, and the question is to what extent these elements will offer value to the audience"

The leaked 720 discussion document goes much further than this, hinting at an actual revolution in gameplay, with Microsoft suggesting that video transmissions could be integrated into games themselves - an innovation it refers to as "transmedia gameplay". The demonstration it offers is of a live golfing event, where Tiger Woods PGA-style action plays out side-by-side with an actual golfing tournament, the player himself integrated into the contest as it actually happens.

The applications here - particularly in terms of sports - are enormous: why stop at golf? If the means becomes available to beam telemetry from sporting events to the home, F1 games could produce real-time rendered representations of live events that work alongside the televised video stream, the telemetry data then implanted into actual gameplay directly after the race is finished. Watch the race in a way you've never been able to experience before, then become part of it - an intriguing proposition, for sure.

Of course, the transmedia gaming concept could simply be a flight of fancy from Microsoft, hailing from a period back in summer 2010 where Durango was still in its formative stages. A lot could have changed since then - the 720 strategy document hints at OnLive as a potential acquisition target and as cloud streaming as a must-have feature, something that is probably far less of a factor for Microsoft now.

But the OS's ballooning RAM allocation, including dedicated processing units for OS-level functions - these are elements of the Durango spec that are looking more and more like a lock for the final retail machine. It's an ambitious design, arguably somewhat over-engineered for a games console, and the question is to what extent these features will offer value to the audience - we can only speculate for now, and even our best guesses can't justify to us the sheer expensive of this approach. What is curious is that it's Microsoft that is making the running here: everything we have heard so far about Orbis, or PlayStation 4, is that its technical make-up has far more in common with what you would expect from a next-gen console design - essentially a PC boiled down into a smaller, console-sized box.

Could transmedia gameplay or some other feature embedded into Durango give it a unique selling point, in the way that motion control disrupted the current generation? If the rumours are true, Microsoft will certainly be hoping so, based simply on the huge investment it would have made in terms of both R&D and production of the final silicon.

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Latest comments (30)

Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago
Given that the next xbox is essentially a multi-core PC in all but name. There isn't much doubt that it will function like one and that includes running games alongside other system applications. I would expect to see:-

1. pop up video calling during games (essentially a progression of their current in -game chat)
2. System level game control like pausing for important notifications/parental control timeouts etc. etc.
3. User selected background task scheduling (stuff like "let me play for an hour only then pause till I get home from work").
4. Background downloading during gameplay finally!
5. Full voice control at an OS level (think google search).

Of course that's just common sense.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
The 3DS already allows you to browse the Internet when you pause a game. So I can't imagine this not being a feature in all consoles going forward.

The Wii U will have MiiVerse updates displayed in game so some of those Durango ideas are already about to happen.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
The Wii U will have MiiVerse updates displayed in game so some of those Durango ideas are already about to happen.
That does not require two cpus.
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Show all comments (30)
Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Nor will all of Durango's OS to game integration.

The Wii, DS and 3DS all have 2 CPU's so that really isn't new either (granted the Wii's ARM core is more of a firmware service system).
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
What are we talking about here, four times the memory of your mobile phone? OMG!!!! No really, that's awesome.

It's hard to think why talking heads are expecting nothing much from the "next" gen, especially given this kind of awesome groundbreaker...
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I wouldn't call the WiiU next gen, Paul.
8GB of memory for the Durango? Now we're talking. :)
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
I like you Laurens. I too am pretty sick of the Wii-U being referred to as next-gen. As a shorthand description, it may not be entirely untrue (it has a thread of truth), but it is quite wildly misleading and I'm sure Nintendo's marketing machine are pleased as punch so many people are just going right along with it and calling it that.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
I've always been under the impression that to qualify for next gen, your system simply needed to be part of the chronological successor/predecessor relationship found in the same common time frame as competing flagship consoles.

Saying it's not next generation just because it doesn't have the kind of horsepower upgrade you expect doesn't make it so.

I thought we were industry, not NeoGAF?
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
Which is why, Jim, I said it's not entirely untrue. But the common conception of next-gen is a huge step up in power, that's what the guy on the street thinks it is, so calling the Wii-U next gen is, like I say, great for Nintendo, a little misleading to the consumer, irrespective of its factual definition.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
I don't believe in perpetuating incorrect perceptions. We should all strive to inform, rather than pander. Challenge incorrect perceptions with facts.

I'm sure when an incorrect perception of the X360 is floating around the industry that you guide your editorial team to set the record straight if the subject comes up.

And it is isn't like we do not have a precedent for the situation. The Wii was decidedly 6th generation in power but none the less a 7th generation console.
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I don't really see what's 'NeoGAF' about not calling the WiiU next gen. Next gen should - and to me does - certainly mean a significant increase in power, else it's just a hollow term. Or should we also call the PS Super Slim next gen?
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
We don't have the power to change public perception, Jim. Our voices are farts in the wind compared to Nintendo's marketing machine. So with all due respect, that hypothesis is moot. Fact: there are a lot of people out there who believe the Wii-U represents a typical generational jump: a geometric increase in power. Fact: It does not.

Call it this gen or call it next gen. The truth is neither epiphet fits the Wii-U. And although it is equally incorrect to call it current gen, that wouldn't bother me as much.

It bothers me because slapping on a label marked 'Next-Gen' suits Nintendo. It bothers me because there are a lot of people out there who believe they're getting something they're not. And it's all down to this wholly inadequate means used to describe it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 11th October 2012 1:50pm

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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises7 years ago
This fills me with nerd rage! Microsoft is going to use the ancient HD 6670 graphics card in the 720, a graphics card from 2011 for a "games console" to be released in 2013 or 2014. Then on top of that they're adding a bunch of extra hardware just for running all of the garbage that clutters the current dashboard.

Wound, meet salt.
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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University7 years ago
Dan, you could quite easily argue that Wii U is a next-generation Wii, if not a next-generation machine compared to 360/PS3 in terms of processing power. For dedicated Nintendo fans, or Wii-only families, Wii U could quite easily constitute a next-generation console.

As it is, I'm surprised Nintendo aren't using the label they used for the Wii, which I think is far more appropriate now that we have consoles with radically different capabilities existing in the same generation/console cycle: new generation. That terminology was incredibly apt for Wii, and is very apt for Wii U. It fits to DS and 3DS, too, machines outclassed by their competitors processing technology, but nonetheless new machines that enable new experiences. Also, what evidence is there Nintendo's marketing machine is using the label next-generation? As far as I'm aware, they haven't. I think 'new' would be far more suited to their need to distinguish Wii U from Wii and to establish that this is an exciting entertainment proposition, rather than going with the more graphically/technologically loaded term 'next-generation'. It would seem in this instance, the fault lies in the gaming press and their use of terminology, and if anything, we should encourage a broader and less linear diction when it comes to describing the initiation of another console cycle.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Daniel Hughes on 11th October 2012 4:14pm

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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
As I keep saying, Daniel, though perhaps I'm not making myself clear; it's the confusion surrounding the term that I am complaining about. That 'you could quite easily argue that Wii U is a next-generation Wii' is all part of that very issue.

I like the term 'new generation'. You're right, it's clearer and less implicit of a forward evolution in power terms. 'Next-Gen', when applied to the Wii-U is apocryphal, ill-fitting and vague. Just as you rightly point out.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 11th October 2012 4:23pm

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
I just figured we were past all that. Given it's been almost 6 years since the Wii launched, we've had time to come to terms with the concept that a console can be included in a generation without it having to be a significant leap in power over preceding generation consoles.

Anybody that thinks Wii U + Next Gen = massive performance upgrade over last generation is not only setting themselves up for disappointment but it's their own fault for not looking at more than just those 2 phrases in a vacuum.

Anybody with an interest in the Wii U knows it's only marginally more powerful than the preceding generation. Anyone confused that it is vastly more powerful is not under that assumption simply because of it's next generation labeling. That assumption would be coming from false rumors and fanboy hype.

I'll say it again, nobody is expecting it to be vastly more powerful than the preceding generation just because it is labeled "next generation'. If they are expecting it to be more powerful, that perception was derived from some other means.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
Well, with all due respect, Jim, we'll have to agree to disagree. I have read many, many forum posts from people who are expecting 2012 PC-comparable horsepower from the Wii-U, their reasoning being that it's a 'next-gen console'. Your generalisation that
'nobody is expecting it to be vastly more powerful than the preceding generation just because it is labeled "next generation'
Flies right in the face of fact. There are a truckload of people out there who believe exactly that, for exactly that reason. I think you overestimate how informed people are through legitimate sources. A lot of people know only 'wot Dave sed on facbook' these days. It's not an ideal world we live in, so let's not talk in ideals.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Did I not also say, "That assumption would be coming from false rumors and fanboy hype."? And, " If they are expecting it to be more powerful, that perception was derived from some other means."? Why did you just ignore that? I basically just gave you your Dave on Facebook bit.

So you want to change terminology because some people are perpetuating a falsehood?
Do you really think changing the terminology is suddenly going to change that false perception?

Sounds to me like it doesn't matter what it is labelled, the ignorant will be ignorant because they follow "wot Dave sed on facebook".

Is "new generation" really any more descriptive to those ignorant people than "next generation"? Will that suddenly get Dave on facebook to inform his flock of the sheep of a perception that is closer to reality?

You're wright, we don't live in an ideal world. So lets not expect an ideal change in terminology to have any perceivable impact on those ignorant masses.

Next generation, new generation, upcoming generation, 8th generation, new console, upcoming console, next console, etc.....none of that will change the perception of those people.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
I'm lamenting the status quo, not trying to change it, Jim.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd7 years ago
@ Dan But all of those power beliefs are mistaken. The Xbox 720 won't have 2012 PC power either. Not even close. While the Wii U will have 2007 PC power the 720 might have 2010 (or maybe 2011, if Microsoft wants to loss-lead) PC power. The Xbox 360 and PS3 had high-end 2004 PC power.

Your whole bit that people associate next-gen with a massive leap in power is silly, because there has never been a leap in power in next-gen. All power jumps for consoles are relative, and they are outdated by PC standards at launch. So given that the power jump is relative in the first place, why is it any less valid to call Wii U next gen (a relative "leap" from the Wii) than the Xbox 720 next gen (a relative "leap" from the Xbox 360), when both are equally outdated by actual modern technology?

I'd argue the whole generational thing is silly anyway, as any change in hardware (the console itself, the controllers you use - including things like Kinect and the Wii Motion Plus) represent much larger changes than the perceived graphical boost from consoles that are perpetually behind. If you want to see the "next-gen" console graphics as people perceive them, go play Battlefield 3 on PC. That literally is what you'll see. EA built that Frostbite engine for use on current PCs and to scale up to next-gen consoles.

Regardless, you're right, ignorant people will still claim that next generation consoles are a leap in technology and the new graphical standards for the industry. That doesn't mean we should try to separate that ignorance as different between the Wii U and the Xbox 720 though.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nicholas Pantazis on 11th October 2012 8:47pm

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I don't really get why someone would get their knickers in a twist over something that seems quite simple to understand...

Comparing consoles to PCs is pointless, since software can be highly optimized for the specific components in consoles. The Xbox 720 and PS4 will be quite a fair bit faster in practice than a 2010 PC is, regardless if their components are 2010 technology. It's not about raw power, it's about how much of that power you can address. Try running BF3 or Uncharted 3 on a 2005 PC...

What isn't pointless is comparing one console's power to another console's power that is expected around the same timeframe. While a WiiU is a modest upgrade to a 7 year old 'current gen' console, the Xbox 720 and PS4 will definitely boast a significant leap in power compared to the current gen.

Thus, according to my notion of next gen - which to me means a generational leap in power: The WiiU isn't next gen, the Xbox 720 and PS4 will be.

I hope I didnt upset anyone. Semantics eh? ;)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Laurens Bruins on 11th October 2012 10:45pm

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
So, what generation was the Wii?
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The Wii was a shrunken Gamecube with a wagglestick, comparable to PS2 and Xbox, not PS3 and Xbox 360. I've never used the term 'next gen' for the Wii either, it's in a different ballpark.

'Next gen' is a hollow term when it refers to when it launched, or else we should call the PS Super Slim next gen too. To me, and I indeed think most consumers, 'next gen' does and should refer to power.

Please note that I'm not 'dissing' - for lack of a better word - the Wii or the WiiU, I just wouldn't call it a next gen console. ;)
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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University7 years ago
I'm with Dan on this. I definitely think the term 'next generation' is too loaded a term to be used, in that it does, for the majority of hobbyist gamers, construe a huge leap in technical and graphical capabilities, and I think (in the grand scheme of things) it's a relatively recent development. Next-generation, as a term, was thrown around a lot during direct power comparisons of the generation six consoles by the games media, but the next-generation hype around the two first HD machines was even bigger.

It's a label and a meaning the games media perpetuated six or seven years ago, one that's stuck with the early adopters of HD systems--the same consumers likely to be early adopters this time around. We were looking at a thirty fold leap in processing power when 360/PS3 came out. That's unprecedented in terms of a generational leap, and that, given the short-term memory nature many seem to have in the games industry, is the leap a vocal (and profitable) section of the market now expect with the tag 'next-generation'. Thanks to 360/PS3 and Microsoft/Sony's spin machines, perpetuated eagerly by the games media (who doesn't love an old-fashioned console war?) the term 'next-generation' is technologically loaded. We were seeing next-generation articles well into 2009, three years after PS3 had launched, because the media kept on perpetuating it, even though the machines and games they were talking about were definitely current-generation!!

As it is, I'm sticking with new-generation as my label of choice. A console generation is defined by the cycle of sales and transition from machines launched during one period, to machines launched during another period four to six years later. The last cycle kicked off in 2004 then, with PS2 still going strong and DS/PSP hitting the market. The latest, 'new' (soon to be current) cycle, kicked off in 2011 with Wii, DS and PSP tailing off, and 3DS stuttering into life. It makes more sense to go with new because it's a less utilised, and therefore less loaded, term when it comes to its power in the media. No-one in the industry doubts Wii U is a new console, so no-one should doubt it's a new generation--but the technological expectations attached to next-generation mean that the message of 'new console, new experiences' gets lost in specification arguments. It's not what's inside the box, it's what comes out of the box that counts.

(and with that ramble... good night!)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Daniel Hughes on 12th October 2012 12:04am

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Laurens, you can't call the Super Slim a new generation console because it's only a remodel of a current generation console. No one called the DS Lite, DS Lite XL, 3DS XL or the various PSP models their next generation portable consoles. Was the PS3 Slim a next generation console? How about the PS2 Slim? X360s? The blue Wii?

Next gen, new gen, etc...doesn't matter what you want to call it, it means the same thing. It's the demarcation point of a change between one generation to the next based on the successor/predecessor relationship of flagship consoles.

New generation and next generation have the same connotation. The same people that see "new generation" will think the same thing when they see the term "next generation". "New generation" won't give them any less of an anticipated technological leap that "Next generation" does.
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You're right, I exaggerated a bit.

Anyway, I guess my point is clear. It's a next gen Wii sure, but not a next gen console. A next gen Nintendo console yes, but... screw it, I'm going to bed. ;)
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Ponder this while you sleep.

If Wii was 7th generation, and it was, then by the very basic fundamental concept of our 10 base mathematics a new console would be 8th generation and therefore a 'next generation' console.

It's not really a matter that is up for debate unless you want to debate the mathematical laws of ordinal numbering.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
Jim, you're denying that 'next generation' has become a 'technologically loaded term' as Daniel very neatly put it. To point at its scientific and/or factually correct meaning and say, 'But, no, it means this, so let's keep calling it this in spite of the wider spectrum of consumers who take it to mean something else'?; that does not address the problem.

We have to be prepared to adapt to how idioms change over time. Next-gen no longer means to the wider world what its dictionary definition suggests. Pointing to mathematical laws could not be more irrelevant to the point being discussed: 'What do people think it means?"

Ultimately, no one posting here is getting bent out of shape because the by-the-book definition of Wii-U as next gen is factually correct. We're getting bent out of shape because of what the general public takes that to mean and that Nintendo knows full well that in using that term it is loading its marketing with a hundred bushels of false expectation. As a shorthand description, it is being exploited.

Language should convey clear meaning. You say it's our (the press's) responsibility to ensure the public gets the straight dope. Well, that can't happen if we perpetuate the throwing about of terms whose meaning is no longer clear. 'Next-gen' is muddy, misrepresented and widely misinterpreted.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 12th October 2012 1:21pm

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After much pondering, I decided to add decimals to the ordinal system and will refer to WiiU as being generation 7.3.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
So it's 8th gen but not 'next gen' (the gen after 7)?

How do the terms "8th generation" and "new generation" generate any different perception to the gaming community, a community well versed with the 7th generation Wii and it's 6th generation performance, than the term "next generation"?

If Nintendo (who I'm not really sure has actually used the term "next generation" to begin with) used the terms "new generation" or "8th generation", would that elicit a different expectation from the gaming community than using the term "next generation"?

I have an idea. Why not make that a poll in your magazine next month. Do you have the same expectations with the terms "next generation", "new generation" and "8th generation?"
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