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!
Originally, I posted the bulk of this as a reply to LOSTHAMMER’s Next-Gen Predictions post on facebook, but the MIGHTY THOR has requested that I ‘reblog’ here, and I am honored to do so. 🙂 As I’ve never posted here or on blogs before, to introduce myself, my name is Chris Tang. Where Thor is well-known for being the Nintendo World Champion, I am the somewhat lesser-known SEGA World Champion, having won their world tour and $25,000+ Championships held at Alcatraz and televised on MTV in 1994. (I was also the Los Angeles NWC Champion, and came in 8th in the grand finals for those wondering). I’m also a 20+ year veteran in the game industry and worked at companies like Atari, Capcom, and BPS along the way, having contributed to games and franchises such as Primal Rage, Street Fighter III, Street Fighter Alpha, Resident Evil, Marvel Vs. Capcom, Transformers, and Tetris. Nice to meet you all!
TV Stole Your Memory
Thor’s post on the next-gen predictions is an amazing read – the most comprehensive article on system specs and capabilities I’ve read thus far, before or after the “Xbox 180” of yesterday, in which Microsoft reversed their draconian DRM and daily check in requirements for the system to function. (Wait, was that really just a day ago?) The only thing I found to be missing, was the issue of the Xbox One’s RAM usage in regards to system overhead. We know the RAM in the PS4 is faster than the Xbox One, but one major issue of concern is that due to Kinect 2 and the fancy-schmancy tuner system, the XBOne’s OS takes up a whopping 3GB of that RAM, leaving 5GB or less for developers to actually run the game on. While I don’t have the exact number for the PS4 – it suffers from no such overhead limitation and thus, is more developer-friendly. Also, the PS4’s DDR5 memory is unified so that it can be used for either graphics or the CPU – a unique ability that can lead to some optimizations and future features – providing a potential performance edge that not even PC games can currently utilize.
The First Year
My prediction is that starting out the gate, Microsoft will be at a slight disadvantage due to the $100 price difference, the publicized difference of specs, and of course – the loss of brand trust due to the whole DRM fiasco. There’s also people’s mistrust and apathy towards the “required” aspect of the Kinect sensor, which is one of the last glaring issues Microsoft has to address to get on more equal footing with Sony. I don’t think the gap will be even remotely as big as it could have been if they kept the anti-consumer policies in place, but they are now at least a contender if they play their cards right.
The Seeds of a Stronger Library Have Already Been Planted
For the future beyond the console’s launch year, if I were to put money on a platform with what I know now, I would still bet on Sony. Here’s why… The seeds have been planted in minds – especially at E3 – that the PS4 is more developer-friendly, and has better specs. If a talented developer has the means to make a game on either or both platforms, they will likely choose PS4 due to those factors and larger userbase resulting from Sony’s lower price point. Add to that, Sony’s embracing of indie developers; giving them the means to self-publish makes makes releasing a game possible on PS4 while it may not be economically viable otherwise. Result: the first generation of indie devs will become more comfortable and friendly with PS4 as their platform of choice. What happens to successful indie developers? They can BECOME successful AAA developers, case in point, Media Molecule – the developers of Ragdoll Kung Fu, Little Big Planet, and the upcoming Tearaway. Unless Microsoft finds, then outright buys, pays, or supports promising indies directly, those up and coming stars of the next-next generation will plan to launch their creativity on PS4, not the Xbox One. As an indie developer myself (despite my lengthy career having started at AAA companies), the choice for the current platform is a no-brainer. A year from now, the developer preference will most greatly affect the indie selection of offerings, but in 3 or 4 years it will begin to affect the main library as the talent blooms, grows, and evolves. Microsoft’s insistence on publisher-publishing and outrageous fees for title updates compound this problem that may compromise their game library’s quality and diversity down the road.
You Need to be the Target Platform
The difference in hardware power may not seem like much on paper, but given what happened last generation where the more-difficult-to-develop-for PS3 often produced inferior versions of the same game despite the potential of the system, it is now more crucial than ever to be the “target platform”. Despite what first party console makers may have you believe, multi-platform games DO matter, and not all versions of a multi-platform game are created equal. The repercussions of not being the target platform can be deadly, as the system that sells less software units can easily become a dumping ground for “bad ports”. As we saw in the last generation, secondary platform SKU’s often suffer from low framerates and much less polish and optimization from those that are the target. Publishers tend to show their best SKU off the most, and sweep their quasimodo ugly version under the rug, only to have those flaws revealed by irate customer reviews upon release. This problem tends to multiply itself as gamers who own both platforms generally buy the better performing version, leading to lower sales for the other; lower potential sales means a lower priority for developers and publishers. With PS4’s better specs, lower price = larger userbase, and more generous development policies, the roles for this generation may be reversed; Sony is in the perfect position to claim primary SKU status for the upcoming console generation. The difference in quality may become more apparent as the systems mature, when higher development costs invoke the “bad ports” phenomenon. At some point it becomes economically unviable to spend the extra resources to make the lesser-selling or more difficult to develop version perform up to standards.
A Winner is You
I am very happy that Microsoft reversed their DRM policies, and I can say with confidence that I will own both platforms eventually. Competition is a good thing, and even though I feel Microsoft is at a disadvantage – and deservedly so for attempting such offensive anti-consumer tactics – I’m glad they survived. Even if the Xbox brand loses in this generation, they now have a chance to come back in the next hardware generation. Sony learned from the mistakes they made when they launched the PS3, and now it is Microsoft’s turn to regroup. This epic battle between brands has been unlike anything seen before in the game industry – or any industry for that matter. We saw the creation of evil, heard the plight of the masses, and saw a champion rise to the cheers of the people. What happened here has taught the industry an important lesson and gives players an unprecedented voice, the likes of which have never been heard. The future is promising, and it is empowering to know that as players and consumers, we can make a difference.