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Great news for gamers that needs to be celebrated!

June 26, 2013

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Hi readers! Welcome to LostHammer and thanks for coming to visit with us!

I have an observation that I think bears consideration and celebration in our industry, one that is very easy to skim over and forget about, but one that really will be a gigantic boon to all of us, developer and gamer alike.

This secret sauce is : x86 platform becoming the de-facto standard for serious gaming!

Think about the history of gaming overall, it’s been dominated by drastically varying platforms and architectures. Even when more than one system used the same CPU, a lot of times there were wildly different special supplemental chips to consider which were crucial to making games for the platform. Well, all of that is about to go out the window in a big way!

With the current-gen stuff, you had :

PC with x86 CPU / Direct3D / OpenGL + Varying GPUs

Playstation 3 with Cell CPU + Nvidia GPU

Xbox 360 with IBM Xenon CPU + ATI Xenos GPU

What did all of this mean for developers? To start with, to do things right they had to take into consideration their weakest target platform when planning development, as being too ambitious with the design might make their plans impossible otherwise. Following that, they had to allocate very significant resources into merely getting the title ported to work correctly on each platform, even before any optimizations were undertaken. As far as optimizations, this was another round of expenses and delays, to get the title working optimally on the target platform. For gamers, this meant that there were often delays in getting versions of the titles they wanted released, and that in the $50-$60 that they spent on that title, a decent chunk of that money actually went into the resources necessary to even port the title. Lastly, less ‘proven’ titles, or entries from smaller publishers might not even see releases on multiple platforms due to the obstacles in expense and manpower.

Unification to the rescue!

What we have now moving forward with the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC gaming platforms is a dramatic improvement at every level. Both the PS4 and XboxOne have hardware in the exact same families and generations even, and all of it is made up of variants of ordinary PC gaming lineups. There remain differences in capability, and some unique oddball considerations such as Xbox One’s 32MB embedded cache (which remains, sadly, too small and too slow to compete with GDDR5 for top-tier 3D performance), but by and large, one can very easily develop for all of these platforms with a minimum of effort in contrast to the current status quo.

The Playstation 3 was a prime example in the negatives of having a very unique system architecture. Although a handful of titles such as Uncharted 3, The Last of Us, and so on do show the PS3’s full capabilities, far too many are simply disappointing, and this shows most clearly in cross-platform ports. Even the Xbox 360 was fairly unique in it’s own rights, however it was indisputably easier to produce titles on by comparison, and closer to the PC in terms of being able to port over easily.

Both the Xbox 360 and especially the Playstation 3 also held up game development due to their very limiting RAM setups. Even for 2005/2006, 512MB of total memory was already becoming quickly obsolete in the PC gaming world. Even taking into consideration the large overhead of the Windows operating system and APIs such as DirectX, there was still a lot more RAM to work with on PCs. This led to many PC titles showing enormous capability when coded to take full advantage of high end hardware, but much more often what happened were terrible ‘consolized’ ports that were written for systems with tiny amounts of memory, and with barely an effort at all to give PC gamers the advanced modeling/AI/maps/content that their systems were truly capable of achieving.

With the move to 8GB, these consoles are much further ahead of the curve in contrast to the 360/PS3 were at launch, even as their CPU/GPUs are somewhat weaker in the big picture compared to those days. At launch, the 360 and PS3 had GPU power that rivaled the best gaming systems out there, and only eclipsed by super expensive PCs. This time around, the GPU power in the new consoles is a bit more sedate. Still, with the large system ram and hugely updated graphics power, games should look amazing on the new consoles by comparison to PS3/360.

Perhaps the largest bonus, depending on how they roll this into their business models, will be in the reduced costs of porting titles across platforms for the developers. Now, the same budget will allow for a lot less time worrying about system X, Y, and Z, and this will shave dollars, labor expenses, and scheduling allocations out of the equation. Not only will this make more multiplatform titles almost inevitable, but it will make developers more profitable. To a team given the same amount of resources, this should enable a better final product. Instead of spending a huge amount of time optimizing for other systems and architectures, much more time can be spent making a good GAME.

This is great news for everybody. The only outlier in this regard is the Wii U, which remains on non-x86 hardware. This bodes poorly for cross-platform gaming on the WiiU moving forward, but Nintendo above all should be able to rely heavily on top-quality 1st party titles as long as they can move them along. If they get at least one full-fledged Mario/Zelda/Kart/Metroid/Smash/etc every 3-4 months at the longest, they will stay in the game as a very vibrant 3rd place. If they drop the ball, or try too much filler such as the Windwalker remake (hardly a Nintendo gamer alive wouldn’t MUCH rather see an actual new Zelda adventure before they re-skin an old title!), they may find themselves in trouble.

All in all, we’re in for a unique generation, and the potential to have the best gaming lineups in history! Thanks for reading, and comments and feedback are always appreciated!

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