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Switched On: Next-gen consoles have 500 million triangles per second and nothing Pong


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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

We all learned a few important things during the XBox 360 unveiling on MTV. First, with little more than an airbrush and a pair of LEDs in the right hands, it's possible to take the original XBox to unimagined new levels of aesthetic tragedy. Second, professional gamers can earn more than $80,000 per year, which works out to about 50 cents per hour. Finally, women gamers can assert their professionalism by saying "bitch" more times than in an average episode of Showdog Moms and Dads.

Despite all this, the network responsible for attention deficit disorder was the perfect symbolic launchpad for the next generation of home consoles. Both the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 will meld video gaming, television watching, and multimedia to cater to today's multitasking short attention span gamer archetype. Could it get any better?

It could, says Microsoft, which deserves kudos for recognizing the white elephant in the rosy room of industry growth. Both Sony and Microsoft noted Pong in the chronologies they presented leading up to their visions of the future. Microsoft, though, lamented how early home consoles really drew in the whole family, or at least appealed to a wider demographic than today�s far more sophisticated titles. The situation is poised to get worse as next-generation titles enable more complex gameplay in addition to eye-popping graphics and animation.

Microsoft offered a few ideas on how to broaden the market, most of which � such as tracking performance across games or enabling consumers to design their own virtual merchandise � still seem to appeal to those ensconced in game culture. The most promising was the availability of free classic arcade games and modern casual hits such as Bejeweled via the new XBox Live Silver service, but that seems like a way to appeal to other family members once the console is already in the door. Nobody is going to buy an XBox 360 just to play games that have counterparts freely available on the Web. Besides, it seems like a waste to use the teraflop-crunching power of the XBox 360 to play Tetris. Casual gamers should get to enjoy gorgeous graphics, too.

Why not just include simplified versions of games with the discs on which they ship? Instead of overwhelming casual gamers with choices like designing which tattoo their character should have, simply provide a stock, good-looking character. Instead of making them prove powerslide mastery by finishing first in six races before unlocking any car faster than a Camry, give them the Ferrari up front like the original Out Run did. Instead of a feature film�s worth of cut scenes that set up the elaborate plot that will take 40 hours to unfold, provide a series of simple objectives that allow them to have some fun and get on with their lives. Limited versions of console games are already available in the forms of demos, mini-games, and �quick play� features, but these often limit the game assets available. The idea is to streamline setup and controls for casual gamers, not withhold fun.

There are probably a lot of games that will never appeal to casual gamers � epic RPGs like the Final Fantasy series, for example, would be tough to dumb down. But for racing games, shooting games, and sports, there�s far more that can be done. Console manufacturers can do their part by encouraging a �Have Fun Now� logo that publishers can use to brand games that come with a casual version or allowing consumers to set a hardware preference that automatically favors the casual flavor of the game.

Pricing and distribution would remain challenges, though. Would a casual gamer pay $50 or more for a simplified version of Madden? Would Electronic Arts be able to garner shelf space for a separate, simplified product? Could next-generation download services for consoles deliver the simplified versions? The benefit of the exponentially larger market for game titles that would result from appealing to casual gamers would justify addressing these issues.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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