Over the past 10 years, the concept of Next Generation Gaming has always referred to pushing the boundaries in realism with graphic performance that can generate phenomenal detail, and creating immersion that takes the user out of their world and into the far corners of the imagination. These are key elements but what about the user experience? How are Next Gen consoles making it easy for us to enjoy these experiences? They really aren’t. Thus, we are forced to choose sides and sometimes this causes us to lose out on playing certain games, or isolates us from joining other friends. It has been a longstanding issue in the gaming world, although that could all change.
The end of 2013 brought some big changes to the gaming industry. After almost a decade since the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 were initially made public for retail, both Sony and Microsoft released their long anticipated Playstation 4 and Xbox One to the market, bringing us into the 8th generation of gaming consoles. At a glance both systems have undergone some serious hardware enhancements. The previous generation had processors clocked in at high speeds but with less cores, and used ridiculously minimal amounts of memory to share between graphics and the overall system. It was amazing how games were even capable of rendering in high definition resolution with such little resources. Now with the recent improvements, both systems are using 8GB of memory—although Playstation is using GDDR5 which is graphics memory but unified and shared with the system—and 1.6GHz 8 core processors. Not to mention the newly remodeled PS4 XMB or Xbox One Dashboard. Some extra features include the 1080p Kinect and Playstation Camera, or stock Blu-ray and 500GB hard drives in either console; plus the new Dualshock 4 and Xbox One game controllers that have built-in ports for gaming headsets. While these are most definitely awesome features, does this justify the title of Next Gen? It still resembles the presence of last Gen. Although, there is one thing that could most define the Next Gen, and it was one of the primary key points mentioned to ease the workflow for developers: the architecture!
Within the past decade, Sony and Microsoft used custom PowerPC cell-based processors inside their consoles. These were powerful chips, but nothing like the processors seen in personal computers, which are known as x86 (32bit) and x64 (64bit)—except at one point in time Apple used them in all their Macintosh computers, dubbed as the Power Mac G3, G4, and G5. This meant that the development and testing of new games had to be done with dedicated hardware specific to the console. Both Sony and Microsoft had development kits that functioned like two systems in one. One side would use PowerPC with a custom BIOS to emulate the console, and the other would run on x86. You can imagine that this took a lot of time and money, and then making the games available to other platforms like the PC even more of a challenge because of the different hardware requirements. In the past, console versions of games would typically be released first due to the gaming systems having higher demand and popularity in households, being three times cheaper than your average $900 mid-range gaming PC. Six months to a year later, the market would eventually see a PC version of the same game. At that point, the game most likely lost its popularity and/or the users lost desire to play it amongst others online, and sometimes the entire gaming experience is completely desiccated as a poorly ported game with too many bugs to make it enjoyable.
Having said all that, this is where the announcement of an architecture change has opened the door to a much more streamlined development cycle. Sony and Microsoft have chosen to use standard PC architecture, your typical x86_64 processing chips, inside their now present game systems. So this means developers don’t need dedicated hardware for creating and testing, and new game titles can be released across the three common platforms, all within the same approximate time frame. It’s really exciting for developers but what does it mean for gamers? The obvious quick release time is high on the list, but now there is absolutely no reason why there can’t be cross-platform gameplay amongst gamers online, and developers cannot give excuses as to why their games are favoured or updated more on one platform compared to the other. Essentially the playing field is being leveled, and it is the stepping stone towards what could be considered uniformity: One piece of hardware fits all. Companies like Valve are already pushing towards this with their Steam Machine beta hardware: a powerful gaming system that employs the robust foundation of Linux with Valve’s renowned Steam pipeline for distributing games across multiple PC platforms. See that’s the key word, PC. With Sony and Microsoft getting on the bandwagon using x86_64, there’s no telling how this uniformity will take place. Most likely it will be left to the developers to decide how they want to distribute their games and which company has the best implementation for doing so.