- Created on 19 January 2013
- Written by GTL Admin
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Privy to inside information but under NDA and not able to share specific details, a developer has revealed some amazing details on the next generation of Xbox and Playstation consoles. He has has detailed his thoughts to give an idea of what he's seen and where he thinks they are headed in. At this time he knows more about Durango (Xbox 720's codename) than Orbis (PS4 codename). The information below comes from a Reddit posting where he peiced together a bunch of items that he posted to developer's forums.
So, here we go.
When the xbox came out it opened the doors for Bioware to do console development, up until that point Bioware had never released a game on a console but KOTOR was released on both the Xbox and PC. The thing about the Xbox was that it was so similar to a standard PC it just made financial sense to develop for it as it was so easy and didn't cost a lot. This current generation both Sony and Microsoft went with standard GPU's, this is why we have so many ports between the 360, PS3 and PC, go back to the previous PS2 generation and it would have been extremely costly and complex to do porting, Final Fantasy X would have been extremely difficult to get on an Xbox.
If both the 720 and PS4 are running AMD CPU's then that is a revolution, what that means is every developer working on consoles and PC will have a grip on the architecture of all three platforms. The 720 is a Windows PC, the PS4 is a Linux PC. I was wondering how Valve were going to convince developers to put money into developing games for a Linux, they don't need to anymore, Sony just did that for them, porting to Linux just became trivial, you shouldn't be surprised if in a couple of years you end up seeing Max Payne 4 released simultaneously for your Windows or Linux PC, Steambox, 720 and PS4.
How console development works and a few details about the CPU
It's worth noting that development kits don't ship with final hardware, they ship with an "approximation" of what the final hardware will look, the GPU in the xbox 360 was changed around 3 months before the final version came out, they could change the final hardware for either console at any time but with the development kits in later stages we have a decent idea of what they are shooting for. The other thing to note is that both consoles have been in development for at least a year, maybe two. The way it works is that Microsoft will pop over to AMD and say "what are you guys working on" and then AMD will show them and Microsoft will say "hey I like that, can you guys set up a second team and develop a version for our needs".
AMD were working on these "Jaguar" cores for a while and they probably made a second team to work on a version for Microsoft's console. The AMD Jaguar cores are designed to be extremely low powered and they have numerous power saving features. Nowadays you don't really need a very powerful CPU since the GPU can do a lot more. The benefit of 8 cores is that you can switch off the cores that you aren't using. Imagine having a 2 core processor, it consumes 20 watts and each core is quite powerful. Now that 8 core processor, it also consumes 20 watts however each core is weaker than the 2 core processor. However the benefit is that if you can use all 8 cores you can get some serious performance out of it and on the other hand if you only need 1 core, when you switch off the other 7 cores you will only be consuming a measly 2.5 watts. Basically the AMD processor will not kick your i5 or i7's arse but it doesn't need to. Furthermore with this set up you can still call on a lot of power but you can also switch off what you don't need. You might boot up on your 720 and watch Netflix with one core working and the graphics card off, then you boot up Trine 2 and you have 4 cores and 20% of your GPU working, then you put on Battlefield 4 and the 8 cores and 100% of the GPU are singing. AMD are a big believer in heterogeneous computing, in other words everything works together and what isn't needed doesn't draw power, this could be exciting if they pull it off.
The graphics card
On the GPU part, about a few months ago me and colleagues were speculating about what we would see. In the end we whittled it down to two "performance envelopes". One was equivalent to a HD 7850-7870 and the other was equivalent to a GTX 680. It's worth noting that we didn't expect them to throw a GTX 680 in there, we just expected hardware that with the appropriate coding would perform to a similar level. I have to say I was holding out for GTX 680 like performance. The significance of that would have been the possibility of games that look something like Samaritan demo or Agni's Philosophy. Unfortunately at this moment in time it looks like we will be going for something closer to a 7850 but it's worth noting this could change even only months before launch. Either way the current configuration, with writing to the metal we should be able to probably get Battlefield 3 on high with most or all settings turned up full running at 1080P and 60FPS. It's nothing to sneer at but part of me is still holding out for even better. After all consider that if the next generation consoles come out in 2014 by 2016 they will be "base platforms" as PC's will have grown in power. Now if they can get Agni's Philosophy running on a base platform then imagine what they could do with a mid range or high end PC. Either way though with what we know about things expect a giant leap, consoles have an edge since you don't have API overhead, you write to the metal. Even a 7850 equivalent in a console is a big big jump up.
Sony and Microsoft's apparent strategy for next-gen consoles
Last thing I want to say about this is that it seems like Microsoft and Sony are taking different approaches. Microsoft are going with slower DDR RAM but more of it, they seem to be "saving" a lot of RAM for OS functions, in other words it looks like Microsoft have some sort of plans, maybe Kinect 2.0 or something. Sony on the other hand went with less RAM but it is faster GDDR RAM and Sony are also seemingly spending more money on the GPU. In other words the way it looks the PS4 will be engineered to be a pure gaming machine with more power, the 720 will fall in between the PS4 and Wii U in terms of power. It's interesting though because Microsoft are intent on saving a lot of money on memory and GPU from the looks of it and then they allocate a lot of RAM for some sort of software function. I'm thinking maybe it might actually be true that Kinect 2.0 is going to ship with all 720's, I thought it would be too expensive but considering how much they would save by going for slower RAM and a lower powered GPU and the fact that they are allocating a huge 3GB to software functions Kinect 2.0 makes sense. I have to confess I am a little disappointed with Microsoft's direction and I like the fact that Sony are so intent on lavishing every penny on making it a monster console. The two consoles from the looks of it should cost around the same but a lot of the money for the 720 will seemingly go to Kinect 2.0 while Sony will invest all that money in faster RAM and a more powerful GPU.
TL;DR/What to expect
The first version of the next generation consoles should draw less power than the first version versions of the 360 and PS3 which means there probably won't be a power brick and the cases might be a little smaller too. With sufficient RAM resolution becomes "cheap" so you won't be sacrificing much visual detail by going to a higher resolution, in other words 1080P and 60 FPS should be the standard across the entire board. You should have a sleek quiet little box that sits under your TV, has power gating so when you are Netflixing it sips only a tiny amount of power but stays quiet and relatively cool even when it's running full power. Your games will look around Battlefield 3 on high with most/all settings maxed, 1080P60. Basically as a console gamer you will see a huge leap and everybody else will see incredible bang for buck.
The next generation consoles are being designed in mind with components that should mean they can be sold for less and still make a profit. It seems like neither Microsoft nor Sony will subsidise their next generation consoles, they will make a profit with every console sold. In fact they might be able to make a profit with a launch price of $300 to $350 though of course they could sell it for more and just make bigger margins. Either way though this is a healthier strategy and if they don't go for huge margins you should be able to pick one up for a reasonable price. It also seems like Sony and Microsoft could each match each other for price, one companies console doesn't seem to cost much more to make than the others.
A few observations about the directions being taken
Some years ago console developers used to design hardware that was intentionally different, that was the era of exclusives. As games got more expensive it made sense to port them to multiple platforms to maximise sales. This turned out to be a sound strategy for developers and for platforms. With the coming generation this gap is likely to disappear almost entirely, ports will be easy.
There is a big reason for moving in this direction. A large number of console sales are made to "casual gamers", casual gamers largely play games to pass time and they can easily seek out another activity to do the same, gaming is just one of a number of activities for them to pass their time, people who are dedicated gamers, routinely buy games and would say games are important to them are what they call "core gamers". Jeff might pick up an xbox 360 and get a handful of popular games to play a little every now and then but Jeff is not a dedicated gamer and he might pass his time just as well with Fruit Ninja. On the other hand for Frank Fruit Ninja isn't enough, he likes gaming, thinks of himself as a gamer and wants to play Mass Effect 4 and discuss Final Fantasy 15 on the forums. See the thing is Frank isn't going anywhere, you can rely on his custom but Jeff on the other hand is content with his iPad. It might not seem like a big deal but this is happening a lot, casual gamers are really getting enamoured with the likes of Angry Birds. As a consequence of smartphones and tablets the sales of the next generation consoles are probably going to be lower than this generation, say for example the 360 and PS3 end up with 70 million a piece sold this generation, the 720 and PS4 might end up selling 50 million each, basically sales are likely to fall.
It's sort of like Sony and Microsoft are working together but indirectly, they both understand making porting so cheap and easy it's practically trivial benefits them and it benefits the entire industry. Then Valve come along and say "hey let's get our x86 OpenGL Unix box out there" around the same time as another x86 OpenGL Unix box with a remarkably similar architecture is coming out, I think Valve knew something we didn't.
Either way they expect console sales to fall but they are fine with that, they think they can still make plenty of money by better catering to developers and core gamers, they want to be the big boys of gaming and let smartphones and tablets do their own thing. The guys on the PC are in on the party and they are diversifying things to reach other markets. This is all preparation for a changing industry and you have to take your hat off to the parties involved for having vision.
What it means for PC gamers
This carries big repercussions for PC gamers. I mean for one any developer developing for a 720 or a PS4 for any period of time can do the same for a PC. We still have different configurations but that is really quite trivial compared to the current hurdle. Console gamers are going to have a lot of fun but PC gamers are going to go through even more rapid changes.
For one consider that at the moment the 360 and PS3 are "base platforms". In other words they are the weakest platforms the games run on. Now if in a couple of years the new "base platform" is running Battlefield 3 on high with most settings maxed and 1080P60 then what will a mid range PC be doing? Furthermore it may be a matter of time before 120Hz monitors become more common and 3840x2160 monitors appear. It's only a matter of time before you can max out anything at 1080P with a single slot GPU and run most games at 2560x1600 with a future equivalent of a 7850. You can already do that with most games but then consider graphics will be getting an uptick with a new generation of consoles so it'll be a couple of years till we get to that point. We seem to be concluding towards a point whereas a 1080P monitor is relatively low end and a 1440P monitor is mid-range.
Lastly one big downside of this generation was that the current consoles were stuck with DirectX9 while PC's eventually moved on to DX11. With all consoles having DX11 like functions we should see better ports on the PC. They could have low levels of tessellation running on the consoles and very high levels running on the PC. Basically games should scale better this coming generation to tide over those of us with very high end set ups. Priority for console versions probably won't disappear and there will still be issues but they should be much smaller issues and with less time spent on complex re-coding we should get more time spent on improving other aspects. The next generation is likely to be better than the current for PC gamers.
He goes on the further comment:
There's a lot more power to play with which is nice in of itself however the GPU's nowadays are a lot more diverse than the dinosaurs of old. The AMD GPU's ship with Compute Units. Basically your CPU is the programmable one while your GPU is the dumb one, your CPU can do many things but your GPU has been generally limited to graphics. Nowadays the GPU's are also put into supercomputers which is a very lucrative market. As a consequence GPU's are now programmable. To put it in short the GPU inside these consoles will be able to do more than just graphics. Given how powerful modern GPU's are there is going to be more power and space to play with other things. I'm not sure how much they will work on improving AI to be honest but if they wanted to they have more power than ever to play with. Physics and particle effects should improve dramatically. Of course developers could chose to use the compute units for even better graphics but they have those units at disposal for other things if they need them.
The technology for creating 2D graphics hasn't really stagnated, it's more that creating very good looking 2D graphics can be extremely expensive. With the next generation at the very least lighting, shadowing and particles should improve. There will probably be more anti-aliasing available too and cel shading should be better. The biggest problem with 2D is probably still going to be graphics though. 2D is an artform in many ways, it takes very talented people to draw everything by hand and frame by frame, with modern resolutions and graphical expectations it would probably take 6 months just to make an entire sprite. I'm hoping somewhere we see a 2D game that looks something like a Miyazaki film, we do have the hardware but it isn't cost effective.
I'm a fan of 2D myself, I used to day dream about 2D graphics approaching something that resembles anime or a comic book. It would be amazing to see visual novels or 2D fighting games again. The hardware is going to be there, it's up to them to find a market for 2D and start making the games again.
Most platforms start off different and then eventually converge on the "best" standard. Smartphones and tablets at the moment are in a precarious position because there are so many different configurations and furthermore most smartphones are not very powerful. However the power of smartphones and tablets is growing, eventually even a mid-range smartphone will have a decent GPU and when the GPU standards converge games will also start being ported more often. In other words the amount of smartphones and tablets that can play games will grow exponentially over the next few years. Furthermore it shouldn't be that long before it is easy to port from smartphones and tablets to consoles and the PC.
The reason I thought I'd throw this tidbit in is because we have had a number of internal debates about what we are going to do going forward. Nowadays all sorts of games are becoming viable, there is a potentially huge market for point and click games whereas 2 years ago they would have thought you were bonkers for suggesting it. Point and click games are now viable because they not only have an installed market on the PC but they work well on touchscreens and sell well on Live and PSN as well. Over the next few years you shouldn't be surprised to see "niche" genres get a lot more entries. Adventure games, Isometric RPG's, 2D games and turn based games are being treated as financially viable.
Thanks to digital distribution and the rise of the touchscreen a lot of genres and games are slowly coming back. At the moment it's looking like at some point there will be an explosion and eventually even the big publishers are going to get in on the act. I think there will certainly be an uptick in 2D in the next few years but I'm not sure if a big publisher will push 2D. A 2D turn based RPG from Square Enix is at the top of my list and who knows, in about 2 years with a changing gaming world it might be financially viable too if sold on smartphones and tablets as well as Xbox Live, PSN and Steam.