It was a late night in March 2007 where deep in the bowels of the Belconnen shopping mall dozens of consoles gamers gathered. I sat there, my extremely patient and soon to be wife by my side, alongside them eagerly awaiting what was to come, adrenaline surging despite the hour rapidly approaching midnight. We were all there for one thing, the release of the PlayStation 3, and just under an hour later all of us would walk out of there with one of them tucked under our arms. I stayed up far too long setting the whole system up only to crash out before I was able to play any games on it. That same PlayStation, the one I paid a ridiculous price for in both cash and sleep, still sits next to my TV today alongside every other current console.
Well, apart from one, the Wii U.
The reason behind me regaling you with tales of my more insane gamer years is not to humblebrag my way into some kind of gamer cred, no it’s more to highlight the fact that between then and now 6 years have passed. I’ve seen console games rapidly evolve from the first tentative titles, which barely stressed the hardware, to today’s AAA titles which are exploiting every single aspect of the system that they run on. Back in their day both the PlayStation3 and Xbox360 were computational beasts that could beat most other platforms in raw calculative potential without breaking a sweat. Today however that’s no longer the case with the PC having long retaken that crown and people are starting to notice.
Of course console makers are keenly aware of this and whilst the time between generations is increasing they still see the need to furnish a replacement once the current generation starts getting long in the tooth. Indeed if current rumours are anything to go by we’ll likely see both the PlayStation4 and Xbox-something this year. However the rather lackluster sales of the first installment in next generation consoles (the Nintendo WiiU) has led at least one industry critic to be rather pessimistic about whether the next generation is really needed:
Whatever the case, what lessons can Sony and Microsoft take on board from how their rival has fared, as they prepare to make their moves into the next console generation? Well, there’s one immediately apparent lesson: Don’t start a new fucking console generation, because it’s a bad climate and triple-A gaming is becoming too fat and toxic to support its own weight. If you make triple-A games even more expensive and troublesome to develop – not to mention forcing them to adhere to online and hardware gimmicks that shrink and alienate the potential audience even further – then you will be driving the Titanic smack into another iceberg in the hope that it’ll somehow freeze shut the hole the first one made.
The thing is the problems that are affecting the WiiU don’t really translate to Sony or Microsoft. The WiiU was Nintendo’s half-hearted attempt to recapture the more “hardcore” gaming crowd which, let’s be honest here, was a small minority of their customer based. The Wii was so successful because it appealed to the largest demographic that had yet to be tapped: those who traditionally did not play video games. The WiiU, whilst being comparable to current gen consoles, doesn’t provide enough value to end users in order for them to fork out the cash for an upgrade. That then translates into developers not wanting to touch the platform which starts a vicious downward spiral that’ll be incredibly hard to break from.
However the biggest mistake Yahtzee makes is in assuming the next generation of consoles will be harder to develop for, and this is simply not the case.
Both the Xbox360 and the PlayStation3 are incredibly complicated beasts to program for with the former running on a custom variant of PowerPC and the latter running on Sony’s attempt to develop a supercomputer, the Cell. Both of these had their own quirks, nuances and tricks developers used in order to squeeze more performance out of them, none of which were translatable to any other platform. The next generation however comes to us with a very familiar architecture backing it (x86-64) which has decades, yes decades, of programming optimizations, frameworks and development behind it. Indeed all the investment that game developers have made in PC titles (which they’ve thankfully continued to do despite its diminutive market share) will directly translate to the next generation platforms from Microsoft and Sony. Any work on either platform will also directly translate to the other which is going to make cross-platform releases far cheaper, easier and of much higher quality than they have been previously.
In principle I agree with the idea, we don’t need another generation of consoles like we have in the past where developers are forced to retool and spend the next 2 years catching up to the technology. However the next generation we’re getting is nothing like the past and is shaping up to be a major boon to both developers and consumers. As far as we can tell the PlayStation4 and Durango are going to be nothing like the WiiU with many major developers already on board for both platforms and nary a crazy peripheral has been sighted for either of them. To cite the WiiU as the reason why the next generation isn’t needed is incredibly short sighted as Nintendo has shown it’s no longer in the same market as Sony and Microsoft are.
The current generation of consoles have run their course and its time for their replacements to take the stage. The convergence of technology between the two major platforms will only mean good things for developers and consumers alike. There are issues that are plaguing the wider industry, there’s no doubt about that, and whilst I won’t say that the next generation will be the panacea to their ills it’s good step in the first direction as there’s an incredible amount of savings to be made in developer time from the switch to a more common architecture. Whether that translates into better games or whatever Yahtzee is ultimately lusting after will have to remain to be seen but the next generation is bright light on the horizon, not an iceberg threatening to sink the industry.
You don’t have to look far on this blog to know that I’m a Sony fan although my recent choice in products would tell you otherwise. I do genuinely appreciate them as a company as whilst they’ve made a whole bunch of mistakes they’ve also delivered some amazing products on the years, typically in industries where they’re far from being industry leaders. My relationship began with them many years ago when I first laid my hands on the original PlayStation console and has continued on since then.
Today they announced the next generation of their home entertainment systems: the PlayStation 4.
Whilst the event is still unfolding while I’m writing this there’s already been a lot of rumours confirmed, surprises unveiled and of course a whole bunch of marketing blather that no one is interesting in hearing. Among the confirmed rumours are the fact that it’s an x86 platform under the hood, the controller has a touchpad on it (among several other features including a Kinectesque motion tracking system) and a customized PC GPU. Of course the really interesting things are the features that have managed to remain secret throughout the various leaks and speculative sprees that have been occurring over the past couple months.
For starters it appears that the PS4 will come equipped with a whopping 8GB of GDDR5 rather than the 4GB that was previously advertised. This is interesting because the Durango apparently faced issues trying to integrate that amount of memory due to the bandwidth requirements and thus opted to go with DDR3 and a speedy 32MB cache to counter-act that. Sony has either made a last minute change to the design to get specification parity (although 4GB GDDR5 is arugably much better than 8GB of DDR3) or had this planned for quite a long time, meaning that they overcame the engineering challenge that Durango couldn’t (or wouldn’t, for various reasons).
One of the much speculated features was the integration of streaming services allowing users to share screenshots, game clips and all manner of things. Part of the leaked specifications for both Durango and Orbis hinted at an external processing unit that would enable this without the main GPU or CPU taking a hit. This has come to fruition and it appears that Ustream will the the platform of choice. Whilst I know a lot of people aren’t particularly thrilled with this (it seems a lot of us gamers didn’t get out of the anti-social gaming box we cocooned ourselves in during our formative years) for someone like me who reviews games it’s an absolute godsend as it means that my convoluted recording rig won’t be required just so I can get a few in game screen shots. Realistically this is just an organic progression of features that have been present in some games to making them available natively in the platform, something I’m sure the developers are thankful for.
There’s also a swath of remote play stuff which looks like a natural progression of the stuff that’s already in the PS3/PSP combo. Some of the pictures shown during the stream indicate that it might extend further than just the Vita and that’d definitely be something as not everyone (not even me, shocking I know) wants to invest in a Vita in order to get that kind of functionality. With their acquisition of Gaikai, which was ostensibly for the streaming backwards compatibility that’ll come for PS1/2/3 games, they do have the opportunity to take that same streaming and let you play your games anywhere with your PS4 providing the underlying grunt. There’s no mention of that specifically but all the key parts are there and that’d certainly give them a leg up on Microsoft when it comes to delivering a ubiquitous platform.
Fanboyism aside the PS4 does genuinely look like a great piece of hardware and the services that are being built on top of it are going to be really competitive. Sony has been lagging behind Microsoft for a long time in the services space and it looks like for the first time they’ll at least be at parity with them. We’ll have to wait for the Durango announcement first before we can make true comparisons between the two but if the leaks are anything to go by it’s going to be a good time for us gamers, whatever our chosen platform is.
Now if only they gave us a release date. That one delicious piece of information is curiously absent.
There’s an expectation upon purchasing a console that it will remain current for a decent length of time, ostensibly long enough so that you feel that you got your money’s worth whilst also not too long that the hardware starts to look dated in comparison to everything else that’s available. Violating either of these two constraints usually leads to some form of consumer backlash like it did when the Xbox360 debuted rather shortly after the original Xbox. With the next generation bearing down on us the question of how long this generation of consoles will last, and more importantly stay relevant, is a question that’s at the forefront of many people’s minds.
Certainly from a purely specifications perspective the next generation of high performance consoles aren’t going to be among the fastest systems available for long. Both of them are sporting current gen CPUs and GPUs however it’s quite likely that their hardware will be superseded before they ever hit the retail shelves. AMD is currently gearing up to release their 8000 series GPUs sometime in the second quarter of this year. The CPUs are both based off AMD’s Jaguar micro-architecture and should be current for at least a year or so after their initial release, at least in terms of the AMD line, although with the release of Haswell from Intel scheduled for some time in the middle of this year means that even the CPUs will be somewhat outdated upon release. This is par for the course for any kind of IT hardware however so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that more powerful options will be available even before their initial release.
Indeed consoles have always had a hard time keeping up with PCs in terms of raw computing power although the lack of a consistent, highly optimizable platform is what keeps consoles in the game long after their hardware has become ancient. There does come a time however when the optimizations just aren’t sufficient and the games start to stagnant which is what led to the more noticeable forms of consolization that made their way into PC games. It’s interesting to note this as whilst the current generations of consoles have been wildly popular since their inception the problem of consolization wasn’t really apparent until many years afterwards, ostensibly when PC power started to heavily outstrip the current gen consoles’ abilities.
Crytek head honcho Cevat Yerli has gone on record saying that even the next gen consoles won’t be able to keep up with PCs when it comes to raw power. Now this isn’t a particularly novel observation in itself, any PC gamer would be able to tell you this, but bringing in the notion of price is an intriguing one. As far as we can tell the next generation of consoles will come out at around $600, maybe $800 if Sony/Microsoft don’t want to use them as loss leaders any more. Whilst they’re going to be theoretically outmatched by $2000 gaming beasts from day 1 it gets a lot more interesting if we start making comparisons to a similarly priced PC and the capabilities it will have. In that regard consoles actually offer quite a good value proposition for quite a while to come.
So out of curiosity I specced up a PC that was comparable to the next gen consoles and came out at around $950. At this end of the spectrum prices aren’t affected as much by Moore’s Law since they’re so cheap already and the only part that would likely see major depreciation would be the graphics card which came in at about $300. Still, taking the optimizations that can be made on consoles into account, the next gen consoles do represent pretty good value for the performance they will deliver on release and will continue to do so for at least 2~3 (1~2 iterations of Moore’s Law) years afterwards thanks to their low price point. Past then the current generation of CPUs and GPUs will perform well enough at the same price point in order to beat them in a price per dollar scenario.
In all honesty I hadn’t really thought of making a direct comparison at the same price point before and the results were quite surprising. The comparison is even more apt now thanks to the next generation coming with a x86 architecture underneath which essentially makes them cheap PCs. Sure they may never match up to the latest and greatest but they sure do provide some pretty good value. Whilst I didn’t think they’d have trouble selling these things this kind of comparison will make the decision to buy one of them that much easier, at least to people like me who are all about extracting the maximum value for their dollars spent.
Ever since the first console was released they have always been at arms length with the greater world of computing. Initially this was just a difference in inputs as consoles were primarily games machines and thus did not require a fully fledged keyboard but over time they grew into being purpose built systems. This is something of a double edged sword as whilst a tightly controlled hardware platform allows developers to code against a set of specifications it also usually meant that every platform was unique which often meant that there was a learning curve for developers every time a new system came out. Sony was particularly guilty of this as the PlayStation 2 and 3 were both notoriously difficult to code for; the latter especially given its unique combination of linear coprocessors and giant non-linear unit.
There was no real indication that this trend was going to stop either as all of the current generation of consoles use some non-standard variant of some comparably esoteric processor. Indeed the only console in recent memory to attempt to use a more standard processor, the original Xbox, was succeeded by a PowerPC driven Xbox360 which would make you think that the current industry standard of x86 processors just weren’t suited to the console environment. Taking into account that the WiiU came out with a PowerPC CPU it seem logical that the next generation would continue this trend but it seems there’s a sea change on the horizon.
Early last year rumours started circulating that the next generation PlayStation, codenamed Orbis, was going to be sporting a x86 based processor but the next generation Xbox, Durango, was most likely going to be continuing with a PowerPC CPU. As it turns out this isn’t the case and Durango will in fact be sporting an x86 (well if you want to be pedantic its x86-64, or x64). This means that its highly likely that code built on the windows platform will be portable to Durango and makes the Xbox the launchpad for the final screen in Microsoft’s Three Screens idea. This essentially means that nearly all major gaming platforms share the same coding base which should make cross platform releases far easier than they have been.
News just in also reveals the specifications of the PlayStation 4 confirming the x86 rumours. It also brings with it some rather interesting news: AMD is looking to be the CPU/GPU manufacturer of choice for the next generation of consoles.
There’s no denying that AMD has had a rough couple years with their most recent quarter posting a net loss of $473 million. It’s not unique to them either as Intel has been dealing with sliding revenue figures as the mobile sector heats up and demand for ARM based processors, which neither of the 2 big chip manufacturer’s provide, skyrockets. Indeed Intel has stated several times that they’re shifting their strategy to try and capture that sector of the market with their most recent announcement being that they won’t be building motherboards any more. AMD seems to have lucked out in securing the CPU for the Orbis (and whilst I can’t find a definitive source it looks like their processor will be in Durango too) and the GPU for both of them which will guarantee them a steady stream of income for quite a while to come. Whether or not this will be enough to reinvigorate the chip giant remains to be seen but there’s no denying that it’s a big win for them.
The end result, I believe, will be an extremely fast maturation of the development frameworks available for the next generation of consoles thanks to their x86 base. What this means is that we’re likely to see titles making the most of the hardware much sooner than we have for other platforms thanks to their ubiquity of their underlying architecture. This will be both a blessing and a curse as whilst the first couple years will see some really impressive titles past that point there might not be a whole lot of room for optimizations. This is ignoring the GPU of course where there always seems to be better ways of doing things but it will be quickly outpaced by its newer brethren. Combine this with the availability of the SteamBox and we could see PCs making a come back as the gaming platform of choice once the consoles start showing their age.
The current generation of consoles is the longest lived of any generation of the past 2 decades. There are many reasons for this but primarily it came from the fact that the consoles of this generation, bar the Nintendo Wii, where light years ahead of their time at release. In a theoretical sense both the Xbox360 and the PlayStation 3 had 10 times the computing power of their PC contemporaries at release and they took several years to catch up. Of course now the amount of computing power available, especially that of graphics cards, far surpasses that which is available in console form and the gaming community is starting to look towards the next generation of consoles.
The last couple weeks have seen quite a lot of rumour and speculation going around as to what the next generation of consoles might bring us. Just last week some very detailed specifications on the PlayStation4, codenamed Orbis, were made public and the month before revealed that the new Xbox is codenamed Durango. As far as solid information goes however there’s been little to come by and neither Sony or Microsoft have been keen to comment on any of the speculation. Humour me then as I dive into some of the rumours and try to make sense of everything that’s flying around.
I’ll focus on Durango for the moment as I believe that it will play a critical part in Microsoft’s current platform unification crusade. Long time readers will know how much I’ve harped on about Microsoft’s Three Screens idea in the past and how Windows 8 is poised to make that a reality. What I haven’t mentioned up until now is that Microsoft didn’t appear to have a solution for the TV screen as the Xbox didn’t appear to be compatible with the WindowsRT framework that would underpin their platform unification. Rumours then began swirling that the next Xbox could be sporting a x86 compatible CPU, something which would make Metro apps possible. However SemiAccurate reports that it’s highly unlikely that the Durango CPU will be anything other than another PowerPC chip, effectively putting the kibosh on a Three Screens idea that involves the Xbox.
Now I don’t believe Microsoft is completely unaware of the foot hold they have in the living room when it comes to the Xbox so it follows that either Durango will have a x86/ARM architecture (the 2 currently confirmed WinRT compatible architectures) or WinRT will in fact work on the new Xbox. The latter is the interesting point to consider and there’s definitely some meat in that idea. Recall in the middle of last year that there was strong evidence to suggest that Windows 8 would be able to play Xbox360 games suggesting that there was some level of interoperability between the two platforms (and by virtue the Windows Phone 7 platform as well). Funnily enough if this is the case then it’s possible that Metro apps could run on the Wii U but I doubt we’ll ever see that happen.
Coincidentally Orbis, the PlayStation3 successor, is said to be sporting a x64 CPU in essence eliminating most of the differences between it and conventional PCs. Whilst the advantages to doing this are obvious (cross platform releases with only slight UI and controller modifications, for starters) the interesting point was that it almost guarantees that there will be no backwards compatibility for PlayStation3 games. Whilst the original PlayStation3s contained an actual PS2 inside them the vast majority of them simply emulated the PS2 in software, something that it was quite capable of doing thanks to the immense power under of the PlayStation3. Using a more traditional x64 CPU makes this kind of software emulation nigh on impossible and so backwards compatibility can only be achieved with either high end components or an actual Cell processor. As Ars Technica points out it’s very likely that the next generation of consoles will be more in line with current hardware than being the computational beasts of their predecessors, mostly because neither Microsoft or Sony wants to sell consoles at a loss again.
The aversion to this way of doing business, which both Microsoft and Sony did for all their past console releases, is an interesting one. Undoubtedly they’ve seen the success of Nintendo and Apple who never sell hardware at a loss and wish to emulate that success but I think it’s far more to do with the evolution of how a console gets used. Indeed on the Xbox360 more people use it for entertainment purposes than they do for gaming and there are similar numbers for the PlayStation3. Sony and Microsoft both recognise this and will want to capitalize on this with the next generation. This also means that they can’t support their traditional business model of selling at a loss and making it up on the games since a lot of consoles won’t see that many games purchased for them. There are other ways to make up this revenue short fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can keep using the console as a loss leader for their other products.
All this speculation also makes the idea of the SteamBox that much more interesting as it no longer seems like so much of an outlier when lumped in with the next generation of consoles. There’s also strong potential that should a console have a x86/x64 architecture that the Steam catalogue could come to the platform. Indeed the ground work has already been done with titles like Portal 2 offering a rudimentary level of Steam integration on the PlayStation3, so it’s not much of a stretch to think that it will make a reappearance on the next generation.
It will be interesting to see how these rumours develop over the next year or so as we get closer to the speculated announcement. Suffice to say that the next generation of consoles will be very different beasts to their predecessors with a much more heavy focus on traditional entertainment. Whether this is a positive thing for the gaming world at large will have to remain to be seen but there’s no mistaking that some radical change is on the horizon.