Mar 28, 2012

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Is “Orbis” the Next PlayStation?

Next-gen anticipation hit fever pitch this morning with a huge reveal of details on the next PlayStation over at Kotaku.

The site claims to be in contact with a reputable industry source who has provided accurate reports in the past. This anonymous industry source has identified Sony’s next home console as “Orbis”, a code name that when combined with “Vita” reads “Orbis Vita”. This roughly translates from Latin to English as “Circle of Life”, lending a bit of credence to the idea that PlayStation Vita and the next Sony home console will be connected in some significant way. It’s impossible to tell at this point what this unity might mean, so for now, let’s take a look at what other Orbis details have surfaced.

(One interesting note: orbis.scedev.net” is a functional URL that opens the SCE DevNet homepage. Meanwhile, “ps4.scedev.net” is not functional.)

First off, the unnamed source claims that Orbis will be ready for a Holiday 2013 launch, which puts it ahead of Early/Late 2014 press speculation. I’ve always held fast in my belief that it would be a poor move on Sony’s part to release a new PlayStation system before 2014. Financial wounds need time to heal, and the PlayStation 3 hasn’t helped Sony compensate for its bombing TV and home entertainment divisions. Lessons learned from the PlayStation Vita, in terms of game production, marketing, and consumer trends, could be key to making sure Orbis recaptures that same lightning-in-a-bottle that sent PS2′s flying off store shelves in the early 2000s. However, the aggressive next-gen approach of Nintendo and Microsoft could be forcing Sony’s hand here. The Wii U is still on track for a 2012 launch, and rumors about the Xbox 360 successor have been swirling for months. Arriving late to the game with overpriced hardware doomed the PlayStation 3 to third place in the North American console race, and it’s not a mistake Sony can afford twice.

System specs are also among the rumored Orbis details. The industry source claims that an AMD x64 CPU and Southern Islands GPU will be utilized. The Southern Islands family of AMD GPUs represents the Radeon HD 7000 series – the absolute top-of-the-line in visual rendering today. The enthusiast 7990 model has yet to be released, but the high-end 7950 and 7970 cards can be purchased today – for a measly $549.99. Granted, this doesn’t serve as any indication of price for Sony’s next console (as home consoles generally use custom GPUs based on familiar architecture, not actual commercial products). The notoriously hard-to-program Cell Processor was responsible for very little love from third-party developers in the PlayStation 3′s early years, so it seems that Sony is ready to adopt a more mainstream construction to help cut down on development costs and time. The big kicker is that Orbis will output video at a staggering 4096×2160 resolution and will be able to handle 1080p 3D.

Backwards compatibility has proven to be an important feature for new console adopters, and Kotaku’s main source claims that Orbis will feature no such functionality. In a more interesting twist, the source claims that anti-used game measures are being employed to curb the impact of used game sales. New games, whether purchased digitally or in retail stores, will be tied to a PSN account. Much like Steam has turned PC gaming into a completely connected affair, playing games on Orbis will require a persistent online connection. However, used games will still be sold at outlets like GameStop. These secondhand copies will offer only limited access to the game’s full functionality, with the remaining portion available for a certain online fee. However, users who buy a new game in stores will have the option of installing the entire game to their HDD, or downloading a copy of the game at a later date if their disc is lost/sold.

There are no technical limitations that would prevent Sony or Microsoft from employing this strategy. A portion of the game disc could theoretically be left open for writing information about a user’s PSN account, tying that disc to the user forever. This would create a check that, upon inserting the disc into any Orbis console, would limit functionality of the game if the written information and the current user ID don’t match. The only question is whether Sony has the balls to do it. If consumers can be convinced to accept this change, each publisher stands to make a LOT of money. People who buy new games will instantly have access to the full experience and can immediately put the game disc back into circulation after installing to the HDD. Every copy that heads back to used game stores will then continue to generate money for Sony as used game buyers pay an extra fee to overwrite the previous user ID and unlock the full game. Make sure to let us know in the comments how you feel about this strategy – without online passes or other extraneous counter-measures, is this the answer that both honest consumers and publishers have been waiting for?

Developers have apparently been receiving Orbis dev kits since January, and refined models continue to be sent out. As with all rumors and speculation, every detail here should be taken with more than a single grain of salt. Sony has refused to comment, leaving the validity of these claims open to interpretation.

For the time being, we encourage our readers to sound off in the comments with their feelings on these leaked Orbis details. Are you worried about price or the decline of used games? Does the GPU’s rumored power excite you? Is 2013 a realistic launch window? Join the conversation and let us know!

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About Kyle Prahl

You can friend him on PSN (geist226) and follow him on Twitter: @PaybackPrahl