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.