It’s only human to dream of bigger and better things. When a high-profile game releases, people, be it the gamers or media, automatically start talking about what the sequel holds. When viewing an upcoming sequel in a long-running series, thoughts of how it fits into the overall trilogy begin flowing. How many articles have you read, talking about the “Top 5 Most Wanted Features” for an upcoming theoretical sequel?
It’s because continuations are a part of life – no matter where you go, evolution is inevitable. As the infamous saying goes, “The only constant is change”. And so it goes with consoles, as we constantly speculate about the latest follow-ups to the current generation. This current generation includes the Xbox 360 and PS3 – Nintendo has been counted out of the race for being too “casual”, and anyway, the Wii U is considered to be Nintendo’s leap into the next generation.
On January 2nd, Microsoft’s Larry “Major Nelson” Byrd posted on his blog about the upcoming E3 2013. More to the point, he posted a countdown timer preceded by the words “And it’s on”, counting down to the next Electronic Entertainment Expo. No talk of what to expect. No news of incoming revelations. Nothing even remotely stating that this was related to the next Xbox.
Here’s your timer, here’s your loose association to whatever value this could have to the next-generation follow-up and boom. Go to work, fanboys, and sell our upcoming conference for us.
But don’t worry. Sony isn’t very far behind when it comes to “talking about the Playstation business”, which it will indeed be doing on February 20th when its first major Playstation event in years in New York. The last event, held in January 2011, culminated in the reveal of the Playstation Vita’s prototype.
Even further back in 2005, it held another a meeting just a few months after initially revealing the concept of the Playstation 3. It doesn’t take a scientist to conclude that both events preceded the announcement of both devices by a good year to year-and-a-half. So you can bet that Sony will live up to the hype (generated by it’s snazzy video) and indeed show us the future of Playstation in just a few weeks.
Let’s talk about this briefly. While it’s wholly possible that Sony will show us something related to the future of Playstation, it may not necessarily be an announcement of the the PS4. Remember – this is a company that went ahead with announcing prototypes and concepts beforehand, and then going on to enunciate about it’s actual console.
Plus, the timing of the event is quite conspicuous – AMD’s Jaguar APU (more on that below) will be releasing in the first quarter of 2013, the Game Developer’s Conference which features developers talking about game mechanics and design philosophies is little more than a month away from the event, and there are still a number of titles to be released, specifically for the PS3, which from a marketing perspective wouldn’t benefit from a PS4 announcement at this time.
After all, would you go for a Samsung Galaxy S3 later if you knew the Galaxy S4 was going to be announced next week?
But expect a fair share of tech demos, announcements regarding the technology that will be powering Sony’s next generation console, revelations about the upcoming motion control systems (again, more on that below) and much more going into the Playstation event.
And we’d be surprised if there wasn’t something there that involved the Vita as well. As it stands, this is a good way for Sony to get the jump on Microsoft in marketing terms without them actually having to reveal the PS4 before Microsoft shows their hand first.
Now, let’s get back to talking about what the future holds by looking at the original rumours of specs and development kits.
The biggest development in the saga was the leaking of development kits for the next Xbox online by a user named DaE, who then attempted to sell them for $10,000. VGLeaks covered the leaking of the kit and its identity, along with the so-called “anonymous-looking black box”, with the code name “Durango” being seen on the placeholder dashboard.
For the uninitiated, it’s been rumoured for a long time that the code name for the next Xbox was Durango. Two applications can be seen on the dashboard – D3D11Game1 and NuiView. The former of course relates to Direct 3D 11, part of the DirectX 11 API used for the Xbox 360 and every single PC game worth a damn, while the latter is “a simple tool for rendering camera views and data from an attached Kinect peripheral.”
Kinect will be the biggest buzz-word going forward with the next Xbox given the obscene success the motion detecting camera has seen with the Xbox 360. It only makes that Microsoft would add more advanced features, which includes the Kinect Glasses for Augmented Reality as seen from recent patents and the like, and even talks of tablet integration.
Of course, there are plenty of listings from engineers hiring for “the next generation of Natural User Interface (NUI) technologies”, “rapid prototyping” and also that a “successful candidate must be able to come up to speed with new technologies.”
Another engineer speaks about “designing, building and delivering the devices and the innovative solution for Xbox and various future NUI applications” along with a mission “to re-invent entertainment, led from the living room, powered by the cloud, across multiple screens and best experienced on our devices”.
Based on the analysis of next generation Xbox specs, Kinect will also be getting its own dedicated input, bypassing the USB input of the current generation, but still upping the standard to USB 3.0. Echo cancellation also appears to be a feature for the Kinect, though how this will play unknown.
Various developers has also spoken about their involvement in upcoming titles for both the next generation Xbox and Kinect but we’ll get to that in a bit.
It’s been rumoured for a long-time AMD’s upcoming eight-core Jaguar APU will be powering both the next Xbox and PS4. AMD will actually look to ship the Jaguar by the first quarter of 2013, and Rory Read, chief executive officer and president of AMD stated that “We have strong design wins for our embedded and semi-custom APUs. Initials products based on these APUs are expected to launch later this year, driving our embedded semi-custom business to more than 20% of our revenue mix by the fourth quarter”.
A lot can be – and has been – gleaned from that statement. This revenue is expected to be attributed to major announcements regarding the technology’s usage in the next generation of gaming consoles.
Considering that graphics technologies from AMD’s Radeon were used in the recent Nintendo Wii U, and that the combined embedded APUs, CPUs, chipsets and GPUs provided 5% of their total revenue last year, and its plainly obvious that AMD has some kind of hand in next-generation console development.
The Jaguar boasts boosts clocked speed by 10% without any increase in power consumption and also features 15% higher efficiency for the new cores compared to last generation’s tech. The 28 nm semiconductor manufacturing process is a huge leap from it’s predecessor Bobcat, which featured a 40 nm process with memory address space increasing from 36 bits to 40 bits and support for SSE4.1, SSE4.2, AES, PCLMUL, AVX, BMI, F16C, and MOVBE instruction sets.
One of the biggest features is the improved power consumption – the design itself is built to provide added a significant boost in performance without overtly heating up the device.
The Xbox 720’s AMD will apparently be clocked at 1.6 GHz would feature 8 GB of RAM of DDR3 RAM, it will also feature about 32 MB of fast work RAM directly connected to the GPU, referred to as ESRAM, and a 12 core Radeon running at 800 MHz.
The PS4 is expected to go with the same configuration, but will feature a 16 core Radeon clocked at 800 MHz and 4 GB of DDR5 RAM, over the much slower DDR3 RAM. The performance deficit is expected to be about 1.23 teraflops for the next Xbox versus 1.84 teraflops on the PS4.
So how does the PS4 differ from the next Xbox? For starters, the CPU won’t take up much space thanks to the reduced semiconductor manufacturing. But this also leaves room for a more significant graphics component to be implemented on the die, the overall result being improved production costs besides the decrease in power consumption.
The basic process of having the GPU handle essential tasks like physics processing to free up the CPU for more important tasks still remains intact, but the Sony will be going for an embedded GPU over a discrete GPU, codenamed “Liverpool”.
Other factors come into play as always. And we’re not just talking about the mysterious “Data Move Engines” that the next Xbox is supposedly touting.
While the PS4 will reportedly allocate 512 MB of it’s precious DDR5 RAM for it’s operating system, the next Xbox is reported to go even further by allocating two cores for customizable apps running in conjunction with your games and 3 GB of RAM for operating system.
This sounds just about in line with Windows 8, which only requires 2 GB of DDR3 RAM to run smoothly. So in terms of pure gaming power, the PS4 will win out. However, the success of the Nintendo Wii and subsequent success of Kinect shows that power isn’t everything, whether in this console war or the next.
To that end, Sony has filed several patents for its own motion detecting camera – one that will allow for finger tracking and depth sensing, which also extends to audio (Microsoft is also working on the same for the next Kinect as well, apparently). Sony’s patent claims that many of the gestures and orientations will reflect within the game itself.
“For example, the user may be able to shoot by different hand gestures, may be able to reload the gun with different gestures, and the different positions or orientations of the user’s hand may cause different graphical renderings of the user or gun on the display screen when the user is interacting with a particular game program”.
We would hazard a guess that these enhancements would come into play with the Playstation Eye. Then again, where does that leave Move? Another article for another day, perhaps.
Among the other next-generation features we haven’t heard about is 3D. Not that both companies were exactly screaming from the roof-tops regarding the implementation of stereoscopic 3D in gaming (just one – Sony).
But with falling costs and a deeper market penetration – further aided by the introduction of 4K resolution TVs – we probably haven’t seen the last of this technology. Expect at least basic stereoscopic 3D support for some games in the next few years.
As for developers, both Sony and Microsoft have a fair amount of support allocated to their sides. Microsoft has Rare, dedicated to developing Kinect games, and 343 Industries which is reportedly working on the next Halo while Sony has its own internal studios like Naughty Dog (despite being terrified of it) and Quantum Dream working on next generation efforts.
In fact, Quantum Dream inadvertently revealed that their next game – Singularity – would be heading to the PS4 via a website registration made last month.
Other efforts from third party developers are harder to predict, but it would be pertinent to mention a particular tech demo that sparked a lot of discussion over next-gen specs: Agni’s Philosophy, from Square Enix. When they revealed the initial specs for developing it, which included a whopping 32 GB of RAM, it was purported that the next generation of consoles would in fact feature this kind configuration.
If the overall makeup for the systems, aiming for lower power consumption and reduced production costs, didn’t make it clear enough, Agni’s Philosophy was a tech demo designed over a period of one year with Intel Core i7 and GeForce GTX technology powering it.
The PS4 and next Xbox will be looking at more power friendly solutions – think in line with today’s notebooks and ultrabooks that can run the latest games on settings that stop just short of full. Given the improvements being made to the architecture, AMD’s technology seems best suited to that task while offering no increase in power consumption.
Think of it as the debate between pre-rendered graphics and real-time graphics. The former may look prettier but it takes many more months to build than the latter. Plus real-time graphics are what will contribute to the overall gameplay.
Having graphics that render more smoothly on the fly are what the next-generation consoles will focus on – as always – and though we may see a lot games emphasize aesthetics over technology, as we did in the previous generation and the one before that, suffice to say that many developers will be getting their heads together sooner and focusing on the practical side of graphics rather than the most visually pleasing.
As it stands, there is a long, long road ahead for the next generation of consoles. Valve is yet to reveal it’s official Steam Box console but are intensifying efforts in the living room PC market, offering an accessibility to dwarf the efforts of companies like Microsoft and Apple.
The OUYA console, running on Android, is a dark horse. It seems like a dream come true for independent developers and could become a major contender given the ever decreasing number of AAA studios and the success of indie games and smartphone titles like Angry Birds, Temple Run and the like.
There is a big, bright future involved, but you can bet that none a single one of these companies will give up without a fight. And let’s not forget Nintendo – they’re still yet to fully show their hand in regards to the next generation, despite several high profile announcements at the recent Nintendo Direct.
For better or worse, regardless of Sony’s announcements on February 20th, the road to E3 2013 and the next generation of gaming begins now.