While Nintendo’s Wii could hardly be considered anything but a runaway success, it’s been a long five years since the console’s introduction. The system’s lower cost and novel control mechanism allowed it to shoot past its HD competition and sell over 86 million units. Nintendo’s star is starting to dim, however, as profits for this year took a huge tumble.
For the fiscal year 2010 (which ended on March 31st, 2011), the company reported $825 million of net profit, down a staggering 66% from the year prior. This has clearly encouraged Nintendo to start formally preparing for its next-generation console release, about which little is currently known.
The internals of the Nintendo Wii are essentially just souped-up versions of the same components inside of its predecessor, the Gamecube. An IBM PowerPC CPU is thought to run at 729MHz, while an ATI Hollywood GPU is running at 243MHz. While these are certainly capable of powering engaging video game content, Nintendo is having a hard time keeping customers’ interest when paired next to the eye-popping HD visuals of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Sony’s PlayStation 3.
That’s because the latter two systems both have silicon inside that wildly eclipses the Wii’s power. Both systems run a CPU clocked at 3.2GHz; the Xbox 360 uses a three-core PowerPC chip while the Sony uses an asymmetric 8-core Cell processor (which has its roots in the PowerPC technology). While the PPC chips might not have been able to keep Apple on their side, the fact that their fingers are in all three major video game consoles shows that there is still some life left in the technology for the consumer market.
ATI’s graphics provide the oomph for the Xbox 360 in the form of a 500MHz Xenos GPU – which is essentially a tweaked version of an older desktop graphics card, the ATI Radeon X1950 GT. NVIDIA worked with Sony to create the PlayStation 3’s graphics prowess, a 550MHz CPU called the RSX Reality Synthesizer.
All of this is to say that Nintendo’s next console will have its work cut out for it – not only will it need to offer graphics the equal of the 360 and PS3, it will have to eclipse them. Microsoft and Sony aren’t standing still, after all, and while neither company has publicly expressed that a major update to their systems should be expected before 2014 (with the Kinect and Move, respectively, considered major enough to keep sales going), you can bet that date to move up if Nintendo’s new console is a hit.
Nintendo likely wanted to calm investors and address some of the rumors that have been swirling in the media recently about a possible new console. The company has said that the new system won’t ship until sometime in 2012, but promised that there will be a playable model of the new console at E3 this June.
In addition to packing a powerful new CPU and graphics engine, Nintendo will need to find yet another novel control mechanism for the Wii’s successor. The Wii popularized motion controls, and both major competitors picked up the the idea and managed to improve upon in in their own way.
A couple of pages of a confidential document leaked out showing a look at one possible idea – a wireless controller with a large built-in touchscreen. The touchscreen could stream content from the game being played, preventing FPS players from sneaking a look at the other player’s location, or making it easier for gamers to check their inventory or status screens. Nintendo’s DS (and recently, 3DS) show that the company has substantial experience in the touchscreen genre, though a controller with a large display would undoubtedly suffer from poor battery life. Nintendo’s 3DS has some of those same battery issues, but comes with a dock to help alleviate them. A “screen stream” controller would likely do the same.
A possible shot of Nintendo’s next-gen development system, codenamed Project Cafe, leaked alongside the controllers. One salient point from the slide is the note that developers should be able to easily port Xbox 360 games over to the Wii 2, indicating the high level of performance the system might offer.
Nintendo has never been one to lose money on a console launch, unlike competitors Microsoft and Sony, and they’re unlikely to start now. The 3DS shows that the company is willing to bump up the price of a next-generation system if they feel the featureset demands it, and the new flagship just might. The only issue with such a move is the comparison to current-generation systems on the market – MS and Sony will likely strategically lower their own MSRPs. Can a new system at $349 or even $399 compete? We’ll find out this summer when we go to E3 and see for ourselves.