I will start with an explanation for those PC hardware fans out there that may not be familiar with the goings on in the console wars with a little help from Wikipedia:
“"Console wars", also known as "System wars" is a term used to refer to periods of intense competition for market share between video game console manufacturers. The winners of these "wars" may be debated based on different standards: market penetration and financial success, or the fierce loyalty and numbers of the fans of the system's games. The term itself does not strictly denote a clear winner in each case, though. The outcome of a console war may however determine whether or not a manufacturer remains a part of the video games industry.”
Xbox Vs. Playstation
Historically the battles have been heavily fought with completely different architectures, for example Sony’s PlayStation 3 uses a Cell processor based on a 3.2GHz PowerPC based PPE running CellOS, which is believed to be a brand from the FreeBSD project and far removed from a standard desktop operating system. The Microsoft Xbox 360 utilises a different custom IBM PowerPC processor to the PlayStation 3 and an ATI graphics processor running predominantly on Direct3D.
With different competing architectures games have to be written individually for each console from the ground up, with little being able to be directly ported from one console to another. In real terms this means a big blockbuster like EA’s annual FiFa games have to be written almost from the ground up for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – meaning much of the production budget goes into coding the game twice not on improving the core game.
When you throw into the mix the Nintendo Wii and Wii U and you get a generation of consoles where development costs for the top tier blockbusters have reached levels that match and sometimes surpass the cost even for a Hollywood blockbuster film. It is no wonder the publishers seem reluctant to take a risk on a new game that thinks outside the box when so much money is on the line.
Thankfully for the latest generation of consoles AMD has stepped in and made a compelling solution both Microsoft and Sony have chosen to use in the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Just two years ago AMD started heavily pushing its APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) technology in PCs which have been something of a revolution amongst entry level PCs.
An AMD APU is quite an ingenious idea, by combining the power of an AMD graphics card and one of its processors into a single chip AMD have been able to offer graphical performance several times higher than that of a traditional integrated graphics solution while improving power efficiency, providing significant cost savings and providing increased overall system performance. There are plenty of articles online that go into great detail on AMD’s APU design so I won’t go too in depth on the specifics, just know that it is quite possibly the future of basic computing in the PC.
The AMD processors featuring in both the new consoles are for the first time ever based on the same underlying technology and architecture (x86). While there are still differences between the consoles, the fact that they both use the same architecture should make porting games between the two platforms substantially easier than in the past. For example developers might be able to port the whole physics and AI sections of the game over both platforms, massively reducing production costs and allowing the budget to be spent on new features or improving the graphics on both platforms. It can only be good news for multi-platform gaming and new unique games that it is easier to launch on multiple platforms.
Microsoft and Sony will have both chosen the same AMD solution for one reason and one reason alone, cost. With the AMD single chip solution no doubt costing less than integrating two processors, cooling two processors and providing memory for the two separate chips it is almost a no-brainer.
Now for the interesting part, the PC has used the x86 architecture for decades, with games being developed successfully numbering in the hundreds of thousands. This means there are already thousands of indie developers worldwide who make PC games that could now release games onto the consoles (Microsoft and Sony permitting) and it also means that there are thousands of console developers who will now be able to make PC games easily for the first time ever. Dare I say it, could it even mean the end of the “poor PC port” version of a game originally released on the consoles?
With there already being millions of PC gamers with hardware ready to go, the initial biggest market for the “next generation of games” could very well be the PC, not the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 as it will take time for them to get the hardware into millions of households.
Reducing the development costs of the big annual titles such as Call of Duty, FiFa, Madden and others will increase the profit margins for the studios and hopefully give them the confidence to invest in new titles that break the norm, without the risk involved that could potentially bankrupt even the largest studio if it is anything but a huge success. With the opening up of a potentially huge market of PC gamers already using “x86 hardware” we may very well be seeing the PC playing an even bigger part in the gaming landscape for this generation. Why only sell a game to 5 million people when you can sell the same code to 15 million when you release a PC version at comparatively little additional cost? I do hope the publishers see the sense in this after a couple of successes.
The other major advantage (and sometimes disadvantage) of the PC over the consoles has been its constantly evolving hardware. Almost every couple of months there are new CPUs, graphics cards, hard drives, motherboards and sound cards released. While this is fantastic as it means PCs constantly get improved and made to go faster unlike their console counterparts who get stuck with one year’s killer hardware, it also means developers have to code the games to work with thousands of components. If they had to work with one set of parts like in a console, they could extract 100% of the performance on offer all of the time, out of every PC. Rather than 65% of most PCs power due to a lack of optimisation thanks to so many hardware combinations.
The consoles inadvertently might prove to be the saviour of PC hardware. Due to using the x86 architecture in the consoles and the PC playing a part as another key gaming platform initially PCs will be able to make use of direct ports with similar graphics to those on offer on the consoles. However in a couple of years’ time it may get really exciting, once the PC’s power has doubled. It is conceivable that developers may start adding “extra effects” or longer draw distances to the console games in PCs with enough power, while keeping the console level of graphics as the entry level point.
This should finally allow PC gaming to stretch its legs and not be held back in the latter years of a consoles lifetime by the power available in the consoles. With scalable architecture and reduced development costs the current generation of games consoles with the support of the PC ecosystem could very well be the greatest ever.
What do you think?