The next-generation Xbox -- the one that will follow the still-popular Xbox 360 -- will run multiple games at once, require game installations, and will only work when a much-improved version of the popular but divisive Kinect sensor array is plugged in, according to a source who says he has access to development hardware.
Those are a just a few details about the new console, codenamed Durango, that were shared with us by a person with access to next-gen information. Our source also claims to have a pair of Durango development kits.
We've also heard more about how the system apparently works and what it will be like to control it and play games on it, though we've not seen the unit ourselves. Our source even claims to have played some Durango games, describing the graphical leap from current-gen console gaming like going from playing Halo 2 on an original Xbox to playing Crysis on a powerful PC.
Our source for this new info goes by the name SuperDaE. He first came to the attention of lots of people last year, when he tried to sell a Durango development kit on eBay (he says the sale was blocked by Microsoft over a copyright issue; we've asked them to confirm and will let you know what they say, if anything). He's an unusual but surprisingly well-informed source. More recently, SuperDaE contacted Kotaku with information about the next-generation PlayStation, all gleaned from more than 90 pages of Sony development kit documentation. He had new details to share about the next Xbox as well.
Like Sony, Microsoft refuses to acknowledge that their next-gen system is in the works and that people are making games for it. They're focused on selling current consoles, not giving people reasons to hold out for the future, no matter how near that future may be. As a result, Kotaku sources who have told us about things such as the codenames of the new Wiis, Xboxes and PlayStations of the world have done so from the shadows of an industry still not able to beam brightly about the next generation of console hardware. Sources can be mistaken. They can mislead. And specs can change. Nevertheless, what SuperDaE told us synched with other reports, and some details -- such as the Durango's support for Blu-Ray discs -- lined up with rock-solid reports we've gotten from our own proven sources.
None of the details that follow have been confirmed by Microsoft. When contacted about some of the specifics of the story late last month, a rep cited Microsoft's policy not to comment on rumours and speculation. We've asked them again about both the Durango and about SuperDaE's claims that his eBay sale was stopped by Microsoft (though it's unclear how effective that was -- he's put a "Durango PC" back on sale on eBay again). Should they comment, we'll let you know.
*** SuperDaE's information comes from what appears to be white papers -- overview documents -- crafted to prepare game makers for the next generation. Much of what we learned from them presents the notion of the Durango as being an exceedingly capable console that merges the traits of a powerful game console with the expectations of multi-tasking users of smartphones and tablets. Peripherals such as hard drives and the Kinect sensor that were optional in the last generation are mandatory in Microsoft's next go-'round, according to SuperDaE's information.
Here's what we learned from our source, with the understanding that, while what follows is fresh info relevant up through the state of Durango development in January 2013, specs and plans can change. The likelihood of further changes does diminish as the console's expected late-2013 release gets closer. An important note: many of the specs we were made privy to were said to be set not just for development kits but for the final retail consoles as well.
As we reported a year ago, the new version of the Kinect motion-control sensor array will be included with every Durango sold. The unit seems far superior to the one currently found for the Xbox 360 (or the PC, for that matter).
Perhaps most importantly, this isn't an optional accessory. It's mandatory. Not only does a Kinect ship with every console, but it must be plugged in and calibrated for the console to even function.
This requirement is due to the way Kinect has been integrated with the Durango; because every console can be guaranteed of having the camera, developers can now program every game with the peripheral in mind.
It's also because the Kinect will always be watching you. The new version of the camera is able to track up to six individual "skeletons" in the same room at all times. This has clear gameplay implications, such as allowing a game to instantly identify a person, but could also be related to a recently-patented Microsoft system for monitoring and maybe even charging users based on who is watching what. SuperDae's Kinect documentation also makes mention of automatic player identification becoming part of a gameplay experience.
The camera has also been improved upon the models currently available, with the Durango's version capable of independently tracking your thumbs, determining whether your hand is open or closed, and even, it's claimed, reading your facial expression and seeing whether you're angry, sad or excited. The improved viewing angle is so wide that the new Kinect doesn't even need to nod to find the best viewing angle.
For more detail on the ways in which Kinect has been improved since the device's first release in 2010, take a look at the diagrams below.
Storage & Installs
A point of confusion during the lifetime of the Xbox 360, and one of consternation for developers, was the way in which Microsoft split the install base of the machine, selling some consoles with a hard drive and others without. This meant games could not be programmed to specifically take advantage of a hard drive installation.
That divide is gone this time around, with all Durango retail consoles shipping with an HDD. That drive is 500GB in size, which should be enough for your media storage needs, but it'll mostly be used for games, which must now be installed immediately upon first insertion of the game disc.
What's more, this installation can take place automatically, while you're playing the game. Durango titles can be designed in "sections," so that you can pop your disc in, start playing and, in the background, the rest of the game will install. Installing games should bring performance improvements, we think, but doing so in the background should also get rid of pre-game install waits, one of the more annoying hold-ups of the current generation of consoles.
Durango game installations will also be mandatory, as games can't directly access data from the disc.
The Durango will be able to run more than one game or app at once, according to the information shared with us. If you're, say, a computer or smartphone user, this is not exactly sending-a-man-to-the-moon level of innovation. But game consoles have long been stuck just running the system-level functions (cross-game voice-chat, Achievement alerts, etc) while a single game runs. On an Xbox 360, even an app as simple as Twitter could only be used if whatever game the user was playing was shut down first. Durango, thankfully, gets past that.
The Durango is said to also allow games to be put into "suspend" and "constrained" states, which seemingly allow users to pause a game, switch to a second game, then return to the first game without losing their place, provided game developers follow some Microsoft protocols. Again, this is no revolution for users of computers, phones, or even Nintendo and Sony handheld gaming machines, but it is one giant leap for consoles.
The Durango's control pad will be a "natural evolution" of the Xbox 360's pad, according to SuperDaE's info. While this suggests a near-identical layout -- not necessarily a problem considering the cross-platform popularity of the layout with the PC -- Xbox 360 controllers won't work with the Durango, as they use what Microsoft is calling a "new wireless technology."
Perhaps to complement the lack of direct advances to the 360's controller itself, Microsoft is looking to bolster support for its Xbox Companion App.
Some of the possibilities we've learned of are far more dramatic than those originally intended for the current version of the app, taking advantage of both a phone/tablet's motion sensing capabilities and Kinect to execute actions more like those you'd expect from Nintendo's Wii U controller.
Microsoft says, "There is no limit on the imaginative possibilities with this input medium and its screen real estate." The only question is if developers have the manpower (or willpower) to make the most of it.
While various outlets, including Kotaku, have shared information on the technical specifications of Durango development kits, the specs you're about to see here are those for the final retail units that consumers will be getting their hands on.
The next Xbox will run on custom hardware that includes an 8-core, 64-bit CPU running at 1.6ghz, an 800mhz DirectX 11.x graphics processor units and, alongside them, various "custom hardware blocks" that are able to handle certain individual tasks, taking the strain off the main CPU.
According to sketches from information shared by SuperDae, there's 8GB of DDR3 memory, along with a small amount of flash memory for system tasks. The Durango's optical disc drive is 50GB in size, while, as mentioned, there's a 500GB hard drive, with read speeds of up to 50 MB/sec.
If you've got a 3D TV set, the Durango is capable -- if developers want to support it -- of delivering stereo 3D content in 1080p.
Those reliant on wi-fi, and who were forced to pay for Microsoft's costly external adaptor with the original Xbox 360, will be happy to know that the Durango ships with built-in wi-fi (though there's still an ethernet port for wired connections).
In terms of audio, the retail Durango will output via either HDMI or S/PDIF (optical) connections, and can support up to 7.1 channels.
*** There is always a high level of interest in a new generation of video game consoles, and things get particularly wild during the months before console-makers issue their official announcements. So much information flies around: some of it made up, some of it from sources we know, and some of it from sources we don't, characters who come knocking with extraordinary tales to tell.
No one seems to know everything about the new machines. SuperDaE, for example, offered nothing about the machine's name nor the look of the console or controller. He said nothing about the idea of the new Xbox requiring a constant online connection, something most recently reported by the respected Edge magazine. (One reliable Kotaku source has told us it's true, though, again, plans can change and the strictness of that online requirement -- would it tolerate a spotty signal? -- remains unclear.)
Soon, the leaks will be replaced by official statements and dazzling announcement events. It is nearly guaranteed that Sony will reveal its next PlayStation to the world at a major February 20 event in New York City. It's possible that Microsoft might try to spoil that event with a pre-show tease, or hold out as long as they can wait to announce -- maybe until E3 in June.
For now, those who want to plan their console gaming future are left with whispers, rumours and leaks.
Our best sources continue to assume that the next Xbox will be out by the end of the year. With Xbox 360 sales remaining high, Microsoft doesn't have to put out a new machine, but with development so far underway and with hardcore gamers' apathy for circa-2005 console tech increasing, the time is increasingly right for a new gaming console.
We'll let you know as we learn more, and we'll be as clear as we can every step of the way.