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Microsoft and Sony: 6 Things The NextBox and PlayStation 4 Need

Microsoft and Sony: 6 Things The NextBox and PlayStation 4 Need

We humbly suggest….

by: AxiDer

©2012 Alex Baldwin

With current estimates putting the next Xbox and PlayStation home console launch dates around 2013-2014, this article may seem a bit premature.

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

Taking this into account, we can estimate that the relatively finalised console designs are ready at least a year before release for development, marketing and manufacturing reasons.

If we take the rumors of a 2013 launch seriously, that would put 2012 as the year Microsoft and Sony begin locking down their next-gen consoles.

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.

Need we mention this?

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

The simple fact is that putting certain peripherals into the hands of every owner of a console helps adoption of that feature tremendously.

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.

Now a year later Kinect sales are still booming while Move has stagnated with only 1 million further units shipped since the initial launch batches.

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

This one is more aimed at Sony.

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.

First and second-party developers usually have more freedom with deadlines, but most importantly first-hand access to hardware and software support for development to make the most of the hardware.

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.

"We promise, it CAN do more than movies!"

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 generation Microsoft has been leading the way with the XNA framework for independent development for Xbox 360, Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Indies (not available in Australia).

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

Several weeks ago I got in the mood to revisit some of the JRPGs from this generation, and realised a gaping hole in my collection was Tales of Vesperia.

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 

Microsoft, take note.

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.

Remember me?!

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 off-brand ones don't work, buy these $50 ones!"

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.

What would you like to see? Comment below.

©2012 Alex Baldwin

xxxxxx


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About AXiDER (63 Articles)
B. Games and Interactive Entertainment Honours in Game Design PhD Candidate in Game Design and Player Experience

14 Comments on Microsoft and Sony: 6 Things The NextBox and PlayStation 4 Need

  1. I do agree with most comments. However I fear that even if the above were all taken forward we would still be missing something and to some extent this is why we have next gen consoles.

    To some degree all the issues raised are down to poor forward planning, both from manufacturers and also consumers. For example the hard drives. Yes most people brought a core as it was cheap and found the space to little but say if it was the 4gb console this would be fine for Joe average as he wouldn’t need dlc etc.

    By the time the 250 slim consoles arrived people were beginning to use dlc and games on demand alot more. The knowledge of what you may require in the next year of having rhe console were there and so buying a 4gb over the 250 was a mistake down to the public.

    I would never have replaced my core with a 4gb console having any idea of where the gaming industry appear to be going. Both of the 2 consoles ficused on above have made mistakes and also made some massive successes. however the focus is very obviously against the Wii.

    Is this because it appears from early words from Nintendo we know that their new focus is on the rubbish sounding Wii U console?

  2. i disagree with budget versions. im happy to just pay for what i use. im never going to use kinnect so i dont want it bundled. also, if the higher package comes with movie streaming or social media add ons i dont want them. or a huge hard drive, im not downloading anything! i just want a machine to play games on so as long as i get that as cheaply as possible im happy

  3. What Sony should do is let MS sink money into Kinect 2.0 with every console plus a controller, and put that money towards more ram than the Xbox 720. That’s what was the big killer this gen.

    If Sony had put 512mb ram plus 256mb instead of the 256mb split, the PS3 would have passed the 360 much earlier on with visuals and had the developers more on board by not having to deal with that more complicated ram split.

    • Kinect doesn’t cost that much to make. The added cost of a Blu-ray drive would offset most of that cost. And if Kinect is included, Sony has to include Move. MS will also have an advantage in it’s chips.

      They will most likely have fused CPU and GPUs from the beginning. That will save a huge amount of money. Unless Sony has developed the same ability or has an updated Cell that really can do the graphics too, MS will be able to under-cut them on price.

      Or just make a nice profit day one.

  4. most of the extras you mentioned for xbox are much much cheaper in america…
    also the arcade version wasn’t bad as a replacement for the RROD issues going on. but i agree the core edition was way to small.

    SSD is stupid as an idea because of cost. in reality it would be better to just have 4gb or ram instead of the current 512mb or so.
    with 4gb, most of the game or level can be loaded into ram. Ram is also one of the biggest developer complaints.

    on HDD though, the current slow hard drives are 5400rpm. which is low end laptop status. of course update to 7200 rpm. also starting with 500/1tb hard drives.
    SDD would be too expensive to be useful.
    it wouldn’t be able to install a game to it because it is to small. at most an internal 5-10gb SDD would be used.

    one thing that should be added is linux support as the PS3 did in the beginning. THIS is why the PS3 took so long to crack. consoles are hacked because people want homebrew.
    give them the ability for homebrew from the start and no one really tries to hack the console
    therefore, if you don’t want to worry about pirated games and cheaters as much allow linux.

    • They could add 30gig SSDs for less than $20 when buying in bulk. The game could load to that drive with a separate drive for storage. Or a hybrid drive. It wouldn’t be that expensive if it’s proprietary.

  5. You can forget about most on that list for the next PlayStation.

    Nobody in the industry likes Cell so Sony have a tough choice to make. Continue with Cell and be pissed on by the gaming community for lacklustre game support or ditch it and drop full backward compatibility in the PS4 and instantly killing the PS3.

    Sony don’t do easy architecture (they do that on purpose according to Sony themselves).

    They will just continue to screw over everyone in the industry and their consumers. Quality’s gone down (not just PSN) and Sony and PlayStation are just not popular brands anymore because of it.

  6. Built in SSD is a great idea though.

  7. I’m not sure I’d want to swap MGS4 / Uncharted / Killzone / LBP / Flower etc. for bunch of generic cross platform Unreal engine games. As far as I’m concerned the lazy developers meme comes not some much from last minute polish, but the fact they pick engines optimized for a PC/XBox architecture and just try and apply them to the PS3. These engines simply treat the PS3 as an XBox or PC, with the problems that ensue.

    That said, in most cases the differences are so overblown, I’ve played lots of multiplatform games and the things people moan about barely affect gameplay at all. So I’d rather have cross platform games at the level we have (increasing the memory will immediately get rid of a lot of those issues anyway) along with exclusives optimized for the PS3, rather than loads of games running off a single cross-platform engine with the limitations that entails.

    • The PS3 port issues were more prevalent earlier in the generation, where some ports were quite shocking (The Orange Box) or even lead to games being delayed for PS3 (Alone in the Dark, The Last Remnant).

      Making the PS3 more developer-friendly would not mean we wouldn’t get all those great exclusives; it would mean third-party developers would also be able to invest more time in the actual game development rather than engine optimisation. This would have no impact on first-party developers beyond them also having an easier time, although they obviously have the benefit of direct access to Sony engineers.

      All third-party games already run off cross-platform engines (Unreal, MT Framework, Frostbite 2, CryEngine 3, RenderWare, Crystal, Unity) – hence the ability to release them on multiple platforms.

      That is not going to change, but by making development easier for all platforms it is also easier to squeeze more power out of each instead of simply trying to get the game to run acceptably.

      More challenge on the technical side does not result in better graphics, it actually results in worse when developers must cut back to meet deadlines.

      • I certainly think it should be developer friendly, but that’s more a tooling/api issue than anything and at the start of the development cycle the maturity just wasn’t there on the Sony side.

        The issues with cross platform engines are normally due to memory issues, something that can easily be sorted with a new hardware revision.

        I hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bath water when there are so many developers out there who can work wonders with the cell (which is after all just a standard core with some extra vector processors and a very fast bus).

  8. i would like to see at least 4GB of ram ,because ram is a good way to get better performance and is cheap to buy these days.

    And the thing with SSD drives will be a good thing for a gaming system , hey i herd that people use them in gaming computers to help performance of the video games because the operating system is running off of the SSD .

    And possibly a video card with a bit more video memory like a 512MB card to 1GB card. and Microsoft should try making something that can compete with blu-ray well and to have a game all on one disc and instead of 2 or 3 disc’s.

    For a CPU maybe something a little bit faster or in the quad core area .

  9. Well, I want FULL backwards compatibility on PlayStation 4.

    If there’s not a significant focus on bringing our existing library into the next generation then I’m out. I don’t mean only games either, but also digital items such as trophies, purchases from the virtual store etc. That’s a lot of time and money spent on my hobby, and I would like a smooth transition where I can bring this stuff with me to the shiny new box.

  10. I would like to see a disc changer, although that concept may become obsolete soon enough with digital distribution.

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