Microsoft and Sony: 6 Things The NextBox and PlayStation 4 Need
We humbly suggest….
©2012 Alex Baldwin
After all, there’s still plenty of time before we’re asked to open our wallets again for the latest and greatest lumps of silicon and plastic, right?
For console manufacturers, hardware designs are ‘finalised’ (other than minor tweaks) significantly before release. The Xbox 360 was officially announced on MTV in May of 2005, 6 months before the US release, while the PlayStation 3 was announced a whopping 18 months before Japanese and US release.
Taking the quickest announcement-to-launch period of 6 months for the Xbox 360, further time is needed before announcement for developers to have their hands on development kits to begin creating launch titles that must be ready to stand on show at the console announcement to begin building hype.
While development kits can change as console specification change, generally these are generally minor changes and avoid major architectural changes lest developers be unable to make launch, a critical time for the console.
Announcements to come in 2012
So with that in mind, for any Sony or Microsoft designers and engineers reading, here is a list in no particular order of some of the changes other than just ‘more power’ I would personally like in the next wave of consoles.
Sony and Microsoft: What we’d like to see
1. Built-in SSD (Solid State Drive)
Loading times have been one of the banes of this generation, with some even enough to make me return what would otherwise be an excellent game (MotorStorm Apocalypse).
Early on the solution of a few games was either to use dynamic hard drive caching (Oblivion, Halo 3). Additional data that could not fit in RAM was loaded onto the hard drive in the background, as loading new data onto RAM from a hard drive is significantly faster than from DVD. It doesn’t help when not all consoles contain a hard drive either, Microsoft.
PlayStation 3 games took a similar route of forcing installs for certain games to cut down on loading.
While no Xbox 360 games require installation, many PS3 games do due to the higher difficulty of rapidly loading from Blu-Ray discs.
While a dual-layer DVD can hold approximately 9gb, a dual-layer Blu-Ray disc contains approximately 50gb on a disc of the same physical size. As the data stored is physically about 5 times smaller than on a DVD, current Blu-Ray drives can take longer when jumping between points on the disc for on-demand loading.
While movies are linear and can therefore smoothly load without rapid searching, games use all types of data that could be stored anywhere on the disc and be needed at different times depending on the context. This leads to the laser needing to jump about; hence the audible uneven whirring and slight clicking from PlayStation 3 disc drives during gameplay, particularly in open-world games.
With next-gen games undoubtedly set to increase filesize once again and likely use Blu-Ray as the optical disc format, a potential solution could be a small, perhaps 20gb SSD (Solid State Drive) hidden from user access in the console for the sole purpose of on-demand caching. SSDs are many times faster than standard hard drives (HDD), although a lot more expensive.
However, a small 20gb one could solve the loading-time issues by storing as much as the specific game requires to severely cut down on loading times so the disc drive is then free to only come into play for elements such as video cutscenes and audio.
Another benefit of SSDs is the low power they require.
The PSPgo contained a game ‘pausing’ feature that allowed the user to completely exit a game and even turn the console off, but providing a different game was not then started it could jump directly back into the ‘paused’ game in only a few seconds at the same point the player quit by caching to the in-built flash memory.
Similarly, the Apple Macbook Air which uses a SSD instead of an HDD advertises the ability to stay in sleep mode without being switched off for a month on battery.
Consoles could work in a similar fashion using a game-caching SSD, allowing you to start up your console and jump back to where you were up to in the game in only a few seconds, providing a different game is not played in-between. Much better than the 1-minute startup on Uncharted 3 before even getting to the main menu.
2. Package both standard controller and motion controller with console
Far more people use voice on Xbox Live than PSN since a headset is bundled with every 360 console, while building Blu-Ray into every PS3 console significantly assisted it in winning the HD movie format wars over the optional HD-DVD drive Microsoft opted for.
The current status of Kinect and Move can be seen the same way, with almost every Xbox 360 bundle containing the peripheral while Sony only provided a single ‘premium’ bundle for Move packaged with the PS3 console.
To drive acceptance and triple-A development with motion control, both Sony and Microsoft need to package their controllers alongside traditional controllers from day 1 in the next-gen consoles.
When developers and publishers are choosing their next project, potential profit is a big part and seeing 55 million potential customers compared to 8 million who own the controller required is a big argument.
The extremely few number of MotionPlus-utilising Wii games is testament to this.
3. Developer-friendly architecture
It has taken a ridiculously long time for engines to be optimised for the PlayStation 3’s unusual architecture and developers to work out how to make the best of the system.
Until the last year or so, third-party games almost always looked and performed better on the Xbox 360 than the PS3, even when they started development as PlayStation 3 exclusives (Assassin’s Creed).
While many misinformed gamers credit poor PS3 ports to ‘lazy developers’ due to their inability to match PS3 first and second-party games such as Uncharted and Killzone on a technical level, this is quite ignorant.
If you think about the development of multi-platform games, these are usually created as a single unit for the majority of development to prevent the time that would be needed adding and changing content on multiple versions of the same game.
It is at the tail-end of development that optimisation for specific platforms occurs. If it takes, say, three months to optimise a game for Xbox 360 but 6 months for the PS3 (see Sony president Kaz Hirai’s comments early on the PS3 life claiming this is an ‘intentional’ decision), why would a publisher want to spend the money for 3 more months of development when the 360 version is ready to ship?
It makes much more business sense to release the game as soon as possible, which often leads to the PS3 version not being as polished or technically proficient as the Xbox 360 version.
Sadly many gamers confuse ‘tight deadlines and business demands’ as ‘lazy developers’.
In addition, many of the middleware engines used by third-parties such as the Unreal Engine 3 followed the industry trend just before the beginning of the generation of less focus on CPU (central processor) and more on GPU (graphics processor) which the Xbox 360 fits, while the PS3 went in the opposite direction with a significantly stronger but more complex CPU (the ‘Cell’) but middling GPU.
To be honest, the initial comments from Sony that making the PS3 more challenging to develop for ‘leading to better games’ are ridiculous.
While I can see the implied meaning of games getting better technically over the years, this means early games are given ‘an arrow to the knee’ until over the years they learn how to remove the arrow as they work the PS3 out.
Why not have no arrow to begin with and allow developers to work optimally for as long as possible, instead of just the end of a generation?
Let designers and artists create for as long as possible before needing to stop for lengthy optimisation. There is understandable frustration as features and art needs to be pulled as the programmers spend far more time than necessary unraveling the hardware.
Ensure your hardware is developer-friendly and hand them the needle instead of trying to convince them that searching to haystack for it is a privilege.
4. Better indie support = $ saved and made
This provides methods of both official publication of your game through Live Arcade or on Xbox Indies for smaller / unsigned games.
It has been with the rise of the smartphone that we have seen the true potential for indie game distributional and visibility, and undoubtedly Microsoft and Sony can see the potential for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of low-priced or freemium games to be available, pulling in the audience who might not be as tempted by the latest $100 blockbusters but prefer something cheaper and simpler.
Combined with Kinect or Move, we could see some truly innovative concepts unhampered by the need for massive budgets, huge development teams and publisher green-lighting and approval for it to see the light of day.
5. Price-parity for digitally-distributed games
It is an exceedingly difficult game to find in Australia, with very few stores still having even a single copy and usually still at RRP in spite of its age due to demand.
Being out, I looked it up on the Xbox Marketplace on xbox.com on my phone and was very pleased to see it for $29.99. Once I returned home and brought it up on my 360 I found the Australian price to be $49.95. In spite of the Australian dollar being on par with the US, and no packaging or transport costs, I was being asked to pay almost twice the price. (ED: Amen! And thus my worry about a fully digital future…)
In the past the excuse for Australia’s ridiculously inflated game prices ($100-120 RRP for new releases) has been the manufacturing and shipping needed for only a small market. Obviously this does not fly for digital distribution, which requires neither manufacturing nor shipping.
This needs to change in the next generation, and not just for Australia.
I’m happy to see Sony putting PS Vita game prices about 15% less digitally than at retail, but keeping digital prices consistent around the world is essential as the game market begins transitioning away from optical media.
It is for this reason that my PSPgo is actually hooked to a US account I feed with PSN cards purchased on eBay, as new release games on the PS Store tend to sit around $29-39 US compared to the $59-69 US demanded is Australia, not to mention a much larger range of titles available.
6. Forget the budget console model
Back at the launch of the Xbox 360, we were offered two models: Pro and Core (later renamed to Arcade). While the Pro came complete will 20gb HDD (wow, it’s been a while), wireless controller and component cables, the Core was shipped with only a memory unit and wired controller to push the initial price down.
This was a mistake, preventing more games from using hard drive caching as mentioned earlier and obstructing Core owners from utilising the surprise success of Xbox Live Arcade and DLC due to the lack of storage space without purchasing the ridiculously priced 20gb hard drive separately.
While Sony went a bit too far in the opposite direction, throwing in everything and the kitchen sink into the 60gb PS3 that resulted in a launch price of $999 AUD, Microsoft’s method of stripping down the console to shave a few dollars off often came back to bite consumers.
If you wanted to play in HD, you needed to go and purchase the official component cable or VGA cable. If you wanted to make use of the Xbox Marketplace for games and DLC, a hard drive was needed.
Perhaps most criminally, for owners of both Pro and Core consoles a $150 AUD wireless adapter was needed to hook into your home WiFi network. A bit later on, the $250 AUD HD-DVD drive was also released as an add-on.
Once buyers realised all the extras required to make use of full functionality of their console, it was an expensive proposition that increased the price significantly above simply buying the Pro model to begin with.
(Ed: This has continued with the recent 4GB 360 console and Kinect bundles: several of my friends have purchased a cheap 4GB console just for Kinect games, only to find that their free Gunstringer DLC Kinect game code can’t be used because the game is around 3.8GB! They never expected that they couldn’t play a Kinect bundled game on a console meant for Kinect users…and feel unhappy as a result.)
The lesson here is to ensure consistency in the next-generation models of each console.
Both Microsoft and Sony appear to have learned their lesson (mostly), with models at each price point varying in only two major ways: hard drive storage and motion control inclusion.
Those looking to save a few dollars can still make use of downloaded games, DLC and patches but can opt for lower hard drive storage if they don’t feel they need as much as the top model offers, and all the essentials such as WiFi and wireless controllers are standard.
There is still the very questionable practise from both Microsoft and Sony of not including HDMI cables, leading to a shickingly high number of consumers plugging their HD console into their HDTV with SD cables, accepting the blurry picture as standard.
As it is physically impossible for expensive HDMI cables to offer any image or sound improvement over cheaper ones, the minimal extra manufacturing costs of including their own cables is baffling.