Consoles : Learn To Respect What’s Under The Hood

BY Andrew Miesner / April 7, 2009

It just seems that no matter how many times game developers go out of their way to blow people away with what is possible on a dedicated gaming platform, so many out there, to my absolute amazement, still continue to underestimate the capabilites of what is really running under the hood of consoles like the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. Now, I don’t intend to come off as if this is something that is solely unique to just the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3, because that isn’t the case. This all too common habit of underestimating the performance capabilities of consoles existed also with the original Xbox and the Playstation 2.  But with that in mind, I do however feel that the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 represent something more revolutionary in a way that neither the PS2 nor the original Xbox could ever hope to be. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are the first set of consoles that I personally feel pose a true threat to PC Gaming.

Now, what do I mean exactly? Clearly console gaming has, for years, exceeded the success of PC Gaming financially mainly due to the fact that consoles have the advantage of being dedicated gaming machines with set specifications, which in turn allows developers over a greater period of time to better target and thus unleash the full potential of the hardware they are creating their games for. Now, I don’t mean to downplay the success of PC gaming because I’m sure developers like Blizzard or Valve would surely have something to say about that. However, as a gamer I have to try to be as honest with myself as I can be. Consoles have been more successful not just because of the added convenience of not having the need to spend money in order to upgrade your computer so that it’s actually capable of playing a specific game or specific set of games at the best possible settings, but also because there is generally more variety, creativity and risk-taking happening on the console front and that has been the case for quite some time now. Now, in fairness, I have to show my respect to rare masterpieces like Bioshock, but we’ve honestly been waiting forever for something to come along and do something a bit more exciting than the norm and I don’t want to downplay the efforts of Valve with games like Half Life 2 and the episodes that followed, but I use to always find myself asking certain questions.  Where is the PC’s God of War? Where is the PC’s Shadow of the Colossus?  I don’t necessarily mean that I want PC versions of those 2 exact games, but where is the creativity? Why are so many of the most innovative game design breakthroughs taking place on the consoles?  Why do so many developers wait for newer, more powerful consoles to try all their most ambitious projects? The power necessary to accomplish all these things has always existed on the PC, so why haven’t developers jumped all over it? I already know the answer to all these question and so should you, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of asking them anyway. I’m not saying creativity, innovation or ambitiousness doesn’t exist on the PC, but for what most PC hardware is capable of, I just think it’s a shame that you don’t see more of it until some new console gets released. Am I to believe that the available for purchase PC hardware at the time or before the release of the Xbox 360 wasn’t capable of making something like Assassin’s Creed possible?

Below are the minimum and recommended hardware requirements for the PC version of Assassin’s Creed. Anyone else amazed that in some instances the minimum requirements exceed the recommended requirements for Crysis? Just as interesting should be the fact that, for the most part, the hardware inside the 360 and PS3 both in terms of sheer capacity and real world performance fall well short of some of the minimum and required specs listed below no matter how you choose to look at it, yet still run the game fantastically. Think about that one.

Minimum Requirements:

Processor: Dual core processor 2.6 GHz Intel Pentium D or AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
RAM: 2 GB
Video Card: 256 MB DirectX 10.0-compliant video card or DirectX 9.0-compliant card with Shader Model 3.0 or higher
Sound Card: DirectX 9.0 or 10.0 compliant sound card
HDD Space: 12GB
DirectX Version: DirectX 10.0

Recommended Requirements:

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHz or AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+ or better
RAM: 3GB
Video Card: 512 MB Card
Sound Card: 5.1 Sound Card
HDD Space: 12GB
DirectX Version: DirectX 10.0

Anyway, a few more important questions require asking. Why, despite the fact that we’ve had shader model 3.0 capable graphics cards on the pc for such a long time was Crysis the very first game that actually REQUIRED the use of Shader Model 3.0? Why, despite the fact that we’ve had Shader Model 2.0 Graphics cards for such a long time, was Elder Scrolls Oblivion the first game to actually require no less than Shader Model 2.0? It’s a bit funny when you think about it, but the large part of what blew people away about Crysis’ impressive visuals in the first place was purely technology that had already been on the market for a good long while before anyone even knew Crysis existed. Most of what blew people away was not actually Directx 10 technology initially, it was 100% Directx 9 technology finally taking advantage of the Shader Model 3.0 capabilities that had always been available, but were never taken advantage of by game creators on the PC. You believe that?  Just stop and think about all the incredibly capable processors and graphics cards that have been sent to an early death without ever seeing their proper potential put on display. Now I find it absolutely hilarious, or sad depending on how you choose to view it, that it’s left up to the PS3 of all things to finally show us what a 7800GTX was capable of achieving.

The PS3 has inside it what is basically a slightly weaker 7800 GTX and at the height of the GPU’s release on the PC, we never saw anything that looked as good as Killzone 2 running on a 7800GTX did we? No we didn’t. We never saw anything that looked like Resident Evil 5 running on a 7800 GTX did we? No we didn’t.  I’m purposely leaving out the fact that it isn’t just up to the GPU to produce something that looks quite like those games, but the point stands that it plays a significant role, so what gives? The 7800GTX most people bought was capable of nothing like that, or was it? Well, this brings me back to the point I brought up earlier.


 

 

The Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 are the first set of consoles that pose a real threat to PC Gaming from the console space. The reason why I say this is quite simple. The console space has always had the diversity advantage as far as the types of games were concerned but I feel that, with these 2 very capable machines, it is the first time that the consoles also have the power necessary to truly blur the line between what has been the pc’s biggest advantage for years: A raw, brute force performance advantage that was constantly growing wider and wider as months and years passed by. That gap hasn’t disappeared with the release of the 360 and PS3. It still exists. You have graphics cards and CPUs that can significantly outperform what the 360 and PS3 are capable of, but with the kinds of visually complex games being released for either the 360 or the PS3, that line has officially been blurred. Now let me get down to the gritty details of what I’m trying to say here.

I said this earlier, but consoles have an advantage of having set in stone specifications that will never change. Meaning a developer can be comfortable in knowing that there is nothing stopping them from completely exhausting all measures necessary to get the best results possible out of that console’s available capabilities. Even better is the fact that when they are done, they can rest easy knowing that the results that they see in front of their own two eyes, texture quality, frame rate, animation, physics, lighting, shadow detail, motion blur and other bells and whistles that they manage to squeeze out of the console, will be present and accounted for operating as they should for anybody that purchases their game. From that simple fact alone, console developers are able to do things to take advantage of the available specs put before them in ways that pc developers cannot. No PC game developer can guarantee that, as they see a game running on their work computers, will be exactly how it runs or looks on someone elses computer because not everyone in the world is guaranteed to have the exact same computer. That, however, is a guarantee that more or less can absolutely be made about the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3. I feel it’s fair to say that PC game development over the years has been almost entirely dependent on getting by on brute force as opposed to specifically targeting a game to the strengths and weaknesses of the hardware whereas console development is a more methodical and precise matter.

Here are the facts when it comes to these new consoles. As it relates to real world game performance, the high end CPUs available today on the PC walk all over what is available on the 360 or the PS3. Compare a Intel Core 2 Duo 3.0GHZ Wolfdale CPU to either what’s running inside the 360 or the PS3 and you’ll find that there is no comparison. The Intel Core 2 Duo wins hands down. In reality, they are perhaps more comparable in performance to early Pentium 4 model CPUs and in many other cases worse than even that. The same would hold true for high end PC GPUs and even many mid range GPUs. There are GPUs that many pc gamers today consider obsolete that in terms of brute power run circles around the ps3 or 360 GPU. So why with these kinds of acknowledgments do I still consider the 360 and PS3 to be the first real threat to PC gaming or do I believe they successfully blur the line between the performance advantage that has always existed on the PC?  Well, there are two major reasons that include a number of other important factors. For one, with the significantly more powerful console hardware (compared to predecessors) now available to developers, this has caused development costs to skyrocket significantly. The money involved in making games is higher, the size of the development team necessary to get a game completed is higher. Not only are artists far more important this time around than they were with the previous generation of consoles thanks to the increase in available memory and graphics performance, but you now also need many more of them. Hi-Definition resolutions, as both these consoles are fully capable of, has it’s benefits, but then it can also quickly expose weak artwork in ways that were never possible when dealing with standard definition so the role of the artist increases significantly than was the case in any environment prior to the existence of the 360 and PS3. The significance of this is that the console and pc gaming worlds have become permanently interconnected in a fashion that it has never been before and this will only continue to increase as newer, more powerful consoles get released. This has caused many developers to re-evaluate how they do things and adopt very aggressive mult-platform strategies. I don’t really need to point out examples because you see it all over the place, but in case I have to, here are a few.

Grand Theft Auto 4 simultaneous release on 360 and PS3

Resident Evil 5 simultaneous release on 360 and PS3

Final Fantasy XIII simultaneous release on 360 and PS3 (in USA)

Assassin’s Creed simultaneous release on 360 and PS3.

Call of Duty 4 simultaneous release on 360 and PS3.

Devil May Cry 4 simultaneous release on 360 and PS3.


All except just one of those games have seen or will be seeing a PC release.

The releases don’t even have to be simultaneous for my point to be made. Lost Planet by Capcom was released on the Xbox 360, then the PC and finally the Playstation 3. There are many signs of very aggressive multi-platform strategies. Lost Planet 2 is on the way and that will no doubt also see a 360, PS3 and PC release.

Pay attention to all the major pc titles like Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, Rage, Wolfenstein, Elder Scrolls Oblivion, Fallout 3 and others that have undergone or are currently undergoing simultaneous development on the PC as well as on one or both consoles. In many cases, we are seeing that it is the consoles which are proving to be the primary breadwinner for developers over their PC releases. What is also becoming an all too common practice is that major titles are seeing release first on the 360 or PS3 and then are being released later on the PC with sometimes outright acknowledgment that they don’t expect the same kind of success on the PC as they are getting on the consoles, but that they feel it couldn’t hurt to take in some extra revenue from a pc release. We see one of the more exciting PC game lineups that we’ve seen in quite sometime, but is at all curious that a great deal of these amazing games are also on the 360 or PS3 or are titles that have already received the red carpet treatment on the Xbox 360 or PS3 some months before the PC versions ever saw a release?

Second, and one other major thing that people will have to understand and get use to is the fact that consoles often times prove to be far more capable than what most think their hardware should be able to achieve at first glance. Whatever you may think the capabilities of these machines are, even the most optimistic among us, it would probably serve you best to raise your expectations bar quite a few levels higher than even that. Long smashed to bits are the assumptions that after a new console has released and new, more powerful PC hardware gets released a year or even 2 years down the road, that the 2, 3 (or even 4 or 5) year old console won’t still be capable of blowing you away. Did people believe the PS2 was capable of producing something that looked like the first God of War until it did it? Did people believe the original Xbox was capable of producing something as graphically impressive as Spinter Cell Chaos Theory until it did it? How about God of War 2 on the PS2? How about Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2? People were shocked to see the level of motion blur in that game. How about the first Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox? How about Ralisport Challenge on the first Xbox which managed to pack in a wide variety of utterly impressive graphical touches while STILL running at a solid 60fps?  How about Resident Evil 4 on the gamecube? This pattern I feel has not only held firm for the multi-core PS3 (well the PS3 isn’t exactly multi-core in the traditional sense, but that’s another discussion entirely)  and 360, but I feel it has been far more pronounced. But before I go further, has anyone ever noticed that the PC requirements for certain PC titles that just so happen to be among the least impressive titles on either the 360 or PS3 are just out of this world? It isn’t a sign that the 360 and PS3 are just that powerful, but more a sign of the kinds of advantages that a dedicated gaming machine has over the PC platform. What causes the PC requirements to be so high is a lack of attention in comparison to the console versions of the game game. As opposed to doing more extensive programming work on the game to make sure it runs really well on most PC hardware, the developer is just content on doing as much as they need to and then letting the brute force of powerful PC hardware take care of the rest. This isn’t the case for all PC releases that also have console counter-parts, but it is very common. Hence, this is part of how the line starts to get blurred between the true power differences between the latest and greatest PC hardware and what is running under the hood of the PS3 and 360. If you need some very expensive pc hardware just to play every few big games released at a solid framerate with some acceptable or better than acceptable graphics (why should a gamer have to sacrifice?), wouldn’t that just convince many gamers to just go ahead and get themselves a 360 or PS3 that is capable of running the exact same game only for a cheaper price? It absolutely would and it has already happened, and continues to happen. Think about this for a second. What was undoubtedly THE top game during the Xbox 360’s launch? It was Call of Duty 2 which at the time was one of the PC’s top games so, needless to say, this was viewed by many as a first real test of the 360’s hardware capabilities. It was not only the top reviewed 360 launch title, but it was also the 360’s top seller and, I believe, the console’s first million seller. Take away this game and the 360’s launch would’ve been in trouble. That’s the short of it.

The 360 did a good job of it and maintained a nice 60fps for the good majority of the time, but most definitely not at all times. There were times where I found myself annoyed at the performance dips, even though they weren’t representative of the overall experience (perhaps only about 12% of it, but enough to annoy me). Now, if one were to make careless assumptions as to the 360’s capabilities based on the performance hiccups that took place in COD2, one of the PC’s flagship titles at the time, then wouldn’t it be considered a rude awakening to see a far more impressive looking Call of Duty 4 in just about every respect run at a flawless 60fps 100% of the time? It served as a ‘just in case’ for anyone thinking that things like Gears of War were the absolute best the console could achieve and if COD4 doesn’t do it for you, and if Gears 2 or Bioshock didn’t do it for you, then maybe the incredible looking Resident Evil 5 and some of the other impressive looking titles out there does.

The consoles available on the market today, like the 360 and the PS3, have, in my view, officially hit a point where they can truly stand up to the constantly evolving pc platform. I’m not naïve and I realize that these 2 consoles can’t continue to do so forever, but here’s the catch and why I believe that threat will continue to grow larger as opposed to shrinking. There will be a new Playstation. There will be a new Xbox. They will be more powerful than their predecessors. The processors will be more powerful, there will be more advanced memory and the amount of memory will increase, there will be more powerful gpus (GPUs that will be more powerful than the top DX10 GPU as of this writing), they will be capable of transferring data at much faster rates than their predecessors. So what I feel was started with the 360 and the PS3, will only become increasingly more significant with each new iteration of the Playstation or Xbox brand. I would’ve normally mentioned Nintendo in this group, but with the success of the Wii, I think it’s clear that they have a new path forward and it may not involve the same strategy as what Microsoft or Sony may be employing.

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