It is the year that we have been waiting for. 2013 is the year of new consoles from both Microsoft and Sony. What they will announce will likely be the last of their kind as we move towards an entirely online platform. If so, these new consoles will be transition products. They will need to provide us with more of the old. But also provide us with a glimpse of the future, a platform with which we will build our online gaming ecosystem.
They have the hardest job of all. Merging the new with the old, without being ancient or too ahead of their time.
We are at a crossroads where users want more power and more utility whilst demanding an ever decreasing price point. Manufacturers will need to focus on the price point and work around it. Where as the PC market can afford the luxury of producing a 16 core monstrosity and still expect sales, the console market is aiming at selling it’s goods to a more casual gamer. They do not need 8x AA and enhanced Post FX, if they get kicks out of a Call Of Duty multiplayer frenzy piped through a bogged down 5mbps internet connection.
The casual gamer will be looking for better graphics. But when we mention the word graphics, it can mean several things. The resolution of games needn’t change. It will be probably 5 to 6 years before there is a push towards 4k and 8k displays entering our living rooms. The future consoles can afford to stick to a 1080p resolution but lets talk about size and the big P. Physics.
Textures on PC games can be pushed to unbelievable levels. With 6Gb of DDR3 GPU memory pumping you can see details that you will not believe. Current console games often feel as though you are running through a corridor plastered with poor quality canvas’ of your so-called surroundings. We could do with an incremental increase in the size of the texture GPU allowances. Current consoles are running on 256mb of RAM. Merely a quarter of what is in your iPhone. An increase, which is dirt cheap in todays markets, to something like 8Gb could give our games that much more immersion, those little textural improvements that make our games that much more realistic. But, with such a relatively high resolution already being thrown at our retinas it would be flogging the preverbal steed to waste potential resources on matching current PC textures. If we could play our next generation consoles at current PC ‘Ultra Settings’ it would make the world of difference. Depth of field, topographical detail and shadow detailing would make the worlds we play in so much more real. Being able to 10x zoom into a piece of wood on the ground and expect to see finely crafted splinter details seems unnecessary, lets leave that to a water cooled desktop.
More important to our gaming experience are physics. The big P. In the real world every action has a consequence. In our games we are starting to see more consequences but we still walk around our surroundings without making much of an impact. Hiding behind a bush seems clever, its seems almost intuitive. But being able to brush each branch aside as you move through the bush, or preparing for an enemy outpost assault by carving a neat 50cal sniper barrel sized gap into thick trees above an enemy outpost seems even more realistic.
Physics also incorporates damage. Foliage manipulation is one thing, something that is not necessarily vital to a game’s realism beyond the fidelity. Damage caused by the player and AI on the other hand, is vital. Lets take Crysis, the original ‘big graphics’ game running a PC, compared to Killeen 3, one of the prettiest and most accurately presented console games. Adding damage physics such as bullet holes, spreading fires and maintaining this damage throughout the game makes it incredibly involving. You can spend hours destroying a small enemy outpost without ever shooting a living thing. Killeen on the other hand is more basic still. The limited memory on the PS3, a problem shared with the Xbox 360, means once you shoot at a thin supporting wall. An animated reaction may occur, but if you turn away and come back to that scene some five minutes later the supporting wall is back doing its job. But destroying our environments is only half the fun. What about creating, about manipulating them to our advantage, and just for plain fun. Shown by the unbelievable popularity of Minecraft gamers, hardcore and casual, want to create. To manipulate a world to appear as you want it. What we want from our consoles then, on a slightly smaller and ever so slightly more linear scale than Minecraft, is to be able to sculpt our world to how we want. If you wanted to easily pick off enemies on Far Cry 3 from a distance why not cut down every tree in a mile radius of their outpost?
Next generation consoles are not just about better looking games though. The PS3 was marketed upon release six years ago as a home media hub, not just a gaming console. It is the user experience for all manner of consumers that is vitally important this time around. Part of the experience is the power under the hood, swift loading times, quick web browsing and generally stutter free UI is essential. It is the minimum of what we now expect from such powerful devices. But how do we make the best possible product, and maintain a realistic price point?
The first major overhaul must be the storage solutions. Traditionally it was possible to put in a 250Gb hard drive and be done with it. Music, video, photos and game data could be easily stored and accessed. However, we are all used to flash storage in our lives one way or another. If you haven’t noticed its dramatic effects before think about this. Think about how long it takes to load iTunes on your brand new desktop computer with its 3.4Ghz quad core processor and 32Gb of Corsair DDR3 surging through its loins. Its still not instant. There is still a loading time. Now think to how fast loading the Music application and playing a song is on your iPhone in your pocket. It has far less power, it has far less RAM. It is the flash storage. It just makes everything run better. Why not fuse the traditional hard drive with some of this flash storage.
Let’s put this in an example. You buy a new console with a 1Tb hard drive. You use whatever methods will be announced to transfer your media on to your new system and off you go. However, your new hard drive is split. It is a 750Gb hard drive spinning at 5400rpm to give you all your storage for a foray of high definition movie downloads for example. The other 250Gb of storage is flash storage. It is running up to 10 times faster than the other partition. This flash storage is used to run your operating system and the immediate game that you have in the disk drive. Over time you will access certain files and folders, games and movies, if you use a particular one regularly the system will automatically move it on to the faster flash storage meaning your user experience is instantly faster. This seems like a good mix. Mass storage for all your media, combined with instant access to your current game, your downloaded movie or your family photos to show the relatives.
Online infrastructure is now just as important as offline hardware. Current generation console online services are very limited in their function. We need to continue the trend of automatically having our game saves uploaded on to our ‘cloud’ profile. It would ensure no lost data and easier access to our profiles on a friend’s console. Being able to sign in to your friends console and instantly download your game save data for the latest JRPG, just to show off your collection of trophies would be a truly great throw back to the days of taking your SNES cartridge to your friends. Ultimately we are limited by internet infrastructure itself but if console manufacturers can toke demand with services in place we could move to a completely online console.
OnLive pioneered streaming AAA games a few years back. Other firms need to follow suit and offer all games in their online stores as online streaming options. Working like Apple’s iCloud does now, once paid for you can choose to download it to your console or you can stream it. Your game save data is uploaded to your online profile either way so there is no excuse for fragmentation here. The opportunity to download and play a new game like SSX for a few months, then remove it from your console, then go nostalgically back to it online in a years time and carry on from where you stopped playing, would be revolutionary.
Another use for online services is just in trialling games. Test driving a car doesn’t mean waiting for it to be delivered to you, its there. To test. With games we have become used to leaving a demo download over night to complete, by which time the excitement and anticipation has gone, or you have forgotten you downloaded it at all. We want to be able to browse new games on the store, and instantly stream a trial level. No fuss, no downloading, no waiting. If I buy a game from a store I can play it the minute I get home, with downloadable content I can’t. Instant streaming is the solution to this and it will happen. It is just a matter of when and where.
Similar CPU and GPU structures have been missing in our current generation consoles. The PlayStation 3 is powered by CELL technology. A very different way of processing and coding than Microsoft’s off-the-shelf approach for the Xbox 360.
Messaging systems on current consoles are abodes for abusive mother jokes and organizing a team multiplayer match. It is a crude version of what we now use on our smartphones and tablets on a daily basis. With added power comes added multitasking abilities in terms of social platforms. We need to be able to use our social networking platform over the top of our game, with the option to integrate our chat into the game, but ultimately make it a feature in and of itself. Having similar CPU structures across the next generation of consoles would make cross platform chat and networking possible. With integration social networking logins there would be no need for manufacturers to build their own platforms, give us what we already use.
Something that is almost inevitable is 4k support. At CES 2013 it was everywhere and television sets with its quadruple full high definition were two a penny. We have a major hurdle to jump in the form of content provision. A 4k blockbuster movie would soon fill several 1Tb next generation consoles, and streaming such high definition video, without the artifacting that current so called ‘high definition’ streaming suffers from, would be impossible on 99% of the the world’s internet connection, let alone our tariffs. Nevertheless the next generation of consoles will likely need to include the technology to play and encode 4k video and perhaps upscale some 1080p game titles to 4k for those lucky enough to already own a 4k TV set. The CPU’s that plenty powerful enough, its just a matter of waiting for the content industry to catch up. Whether it be physical or digital.
The reason a gaming PC is always more powerful than a console is openness. Upgrading to the latest and greatest GPU card or CPU upgrades mean limits are only the available hardware in the market, not the available hardware in the system itself as is the case on consoles. Using optimized off-the-shelf parts could give console manufacturers the opportunity to offer hardware upgrades further down the line. Expanding the limits of the console, and providing buyers with a healthy media collection the chance easily upgrade storage as we make the transition to completely digital media.