Insomniac Games Chief Creative Officer Brian Hastings discusses why the PS3 is the console to beat.
"First of all, let me make it clear that Insomniac is a 100% independent development studio. Sony has neither endorsed nor authorized what I’m writing here.
When I started this blog post I was planning to write about Home and Little Big Planet from a developer’s perspective. But as I read some of the media and message board responses to Sony’s GDC presentation, I wanted to address an ongoing industry phenomenon. Specifically, the sheer volume of negative spin toward Sony from both the mainstream press and the internet community. Mere minutes after Sony announced a beautiful, ground breaking, free, community-enhancing online PS3 service, 100 internet posters were trying to argue that this was somehow a bad thing. Whether you love or hate Sony, if you’re trying to spin Home as a bad thing I can only conclude that you’re part of Microsoft’s $3.2 billion viral marketing campaign.
For the last nine months it has been fashionable to bash the PS3. At first it was controversial, even titillating, to make sensational and dire predictions about the PS3’s future. You could watch it happen again and again – a rumor starts on a message board (“The PS3s all caught on fire at TGS!”, “Blu-Ray won’t have any Porn!”), then it gets picked up by a games industry website, and a few days later USA Today runs the story with the headline “Experts Say PS3 Doom3d!1!!” But the tide has changed so much now that it’s downright controversial to suggest that the PS3 may yet be a success. So, in the spirit of sensationalism and controversy, let me present to you 10
1. Home & Little Big Planet
One of my jobs at Insomniac is to try to come up with “the next big thing.” This is something everyone at Insomniac does, but as Chief Creative Officer it’s also part of my job description. For the last two years there have been two concepts that I have felt had the strongest potential to be the next big thing. At GDC, Sony came out of the blue and delivered fully-realized versions of both concepts.
The first concept is a realization of the ‘Metaverse’ from Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking novel Snow Crash. For those who haven’t read it, it’s what inspired Second Life. Over the last couple years, many of us at Insomniac have come up with lots of different ideas on how to make such a system for consoles. So when Home came out, already nearly complete and looking beautiful, it was both amazing and humbling at the same time. In short, Home is exactly what the online console community needs. I’m not saying that because it’s on the PS3. I’m saying that because Home is a fully realized version of something I’ve been trying to figure out how to do for two years.
The other “next big thing” I had been thinking about is how to make a game that is primarily driven by player-generated content. So when Little Big Planet was announced I felt like Orville Wright tinkering on a bicycle-powered balsa wood plane as a learjet suddenly flew overhead. Not only does Little Big Planet have stunningly beautiful graphics, gorgeous animation, brilliant physics and intuitive controls, it’s also a cooperative four player online game! This alone makes it accessible to a much greater audience than player vs player games. And most important of all, it has an absolutely ingenuous system for creating and sharing your own levels. This is HUGE. This is something that’s never been done on consoles and now it’s being introduced not as a half-baked add-on to another game, but as an absolutely brilliant, fully realized, breathtaking experience. You can bet that dozens of developers will create their own Little Big Planet levels as soon as it comes out. Many future game designers will get their start by designing Little Big Planet levels. Gamers who previously had no way to get their foot in the door as a game designer will have developers calling them in the middle of the night if they make a top-rated LBP level. I say again, Little Big Planet is HUGE.
It’s humbling to know that other developers had not only thought of these two concepts, but brought them to fruition in such stunning fashion. Mostly, though, it’s very encouraging to see Sony taking more of a lead in online innovation. While some people were accusing them of merely copying the competition, Sony has been quietly working on two of the most innovative ideas of this generation. “Mii too?” Give me a break.
2. Free Online
Among all the talk about the price of Sony’s console, I almost never see anyone mention the significance of Sony’s free online service. Xbox Live Gold costs $70 to sign up for 1 year, or $20 for three months. You can renew your membership for $50 a year. So if the Xbox 360 stays around for five years, you’ll be paying 70 + 50 + 50 + 50 + 50 = $270 to access features that Sony gives you for free.
I agree, Xbox Live is overall offering a better online service right now. But $270 better? And Sony is steadily narrowing the gap in online features. With improvements to the messaging system and support for background downloading, Sony is rapidly catching up with many of the key advantages that Live has enjoyed. Add to that the fact that Sony is offering virtually lag-free dedicated servers at no cost, while on Xbox Live you are paying for a more laggy peer-to-peer service. Furthermore, one of the biggest advertised features of Xbox Live is matchmaking, yet the implementation of this feature has been inconsistent since it is left up to the developer. The matchmaking service on Resistance: FOM, meanwhile, has been one of its biggest successes, proving that even at this early stage the PS3’s online capabilities are very competitive. And free. As the PS3 community continues to grow with new features and player-generated content from Home and Little Big Planet, Sony’s online service is looking better and better. And, again, they’re not charging you $270 for it.
3. 50 GB games
If you ever hear someone say “Blu-Ray isn’t needed for this generation,” rest assured they don’t make games for a living. At Insomniac, we were filling up DVDs on the PS2, as were most of the developers in the industry. We compressed the level data, we compressed the mpeg movies, we compressed the audio, and it was still a struggle to get it to fit in 6 gigs. Now we’ve got 16 times as much system RAM, so the level data is 16 times bigger. And the average disc space of games only gets bigger over a console’s lifespan. As games get bigger, more advanced and more complex, they necessarily take up more space. If developers were filling up DVDs last generation, there are clearly going to be some sacrifices made to fit current generation games in the same amount of space.
Granted, some really great Xbox 360 games have squeezed onto a DVD9. Gears of War is a beautiful game and shows off the highest resolution textures of anything yet released, partly because of the Unreal Engine’s ability to stream textures. This means that you can have much higher resolution textures than you could normally fit in your 512 MB of RAM. It also means that you’re going to chew up more disc space for each level. With streamed textures, streamed geometry and streamed audio, even with compression, you can quickly approach 1 GB of data per level. That inherently limits you to a maximum of about 7 levels, and that’s without multiplayer levels or mpeg cutscenes.
Sometimes people ask us, “If Resistance takes 14 gigabytes, why doesn’t it look better than Gears?” Well, for one, Resistance didn’t support texture streaming, so we had to make choices about where we spent our high-res textures. Resistance also had 30 single-player chapters, six multiplayer maps, uncompressed audio streaming, and high-definition mpegs. That all added up to a lot of space on the disc. Starting with Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction we are supporting texture streaming, which will make the worlds look even better, and will also consume even more space on disc.
There’s no question that you can always cut more levels, compress the audio more, compress the textures more, down-res the mpeg movies, and eventually get any game to fit on a DVD. But you paid for a high-def experience, right? You want the highest resolution, best audio, most cinematic experience a developer can offer, right? That’s why Blu-Ray is important for games, and why it will become more important each year of this hardware cycle.
4. Casino Royale
Casino Royale is the first high definition title to crack the top 10 on Amazon’s DVD charts, rising up to number seven shortly after being released. This is significant because it dispels the myth that high definition discs are merely a niche and will never take off with the mainstream.
A lot of people have been waiting on the fence to see whether Blu-Ray or HD-DVD would emerge as the winner of the format war. Well, at this point the war is as good as over. Blu-Ray has won a TKO. It always had superior technical specs and much wider studio support, but there was the question of whether HD-DVD’s earlier release and initially lower price would capture enough of the market to make it the winner. But Blu-Ray has already surpassed HD-DVD in overall discs sold, and is currently outselling HD-DVD discs at about a 3:1 rate. Many neutral observers in the A/V community have called the war in favor of Blu-Ray. If you want minute-to-minute updates, you can follow what’s left of the format war at various locations on the internet:
These sites mainly compare Amazon sales data, but the Nielsen sales data shows the same thing: Blu-Ray discs are outselling HD-DVD by a steadily increasing margin.
Many of Disney, Fox and Sony’s biggest box office movies will release exclusively on Blu-Ray in the next three months, likely pushing the sales separation between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD to a margin where many retailers will begin phasing out HD-DVD. Retailers hate a format war even more than consumers, and I suspect they’ll take the initiative to end it as quickly as possible.
A lot has been said about Sony’s choice to ship with composite cables. I won’t say I agree with that decision, but I think too little has been said of the fact that even the cheaper PS3 SKU supports HDMI 1.3. The PS3 was the first consumer device to support it, and this is a very important future-proofing step. When you go to buy higher-end TVs, the PS3 will support the highest possible audio and video input the TV and receiver can accept. If and when high-def movies start requiring an Image Constraint Token, the PS3 will still be able play them in high definition.
Right now, HDMI seems primarily to be a selling point to the hardcore audio and videophiles of the world. But HDTVs are getting cheaper and more popular all the time, and consumer sophistication and knowledge of high definition audio and video is growing. In a couple years, HDMI devices will be the standard. Graphics and audio in games will also continue to improve, and more and more consumers will want HDMI in order to get the best results on their home theater setups. As this happens, Microsoft has a difficult choice – do they stick with “last gen” video output, or do they release a premium version of the Xbox 360 that includes HDMI but effectively forces early adopters to re-buy the system to get the best results? Sony ultimately made their console more expensive by including HDMI, but over the next couple years it’s likely to play out as the right choice.
6. Standard HDD
When we were developing for PS2, I was jealous of Xbox’s standard hard drive. There are so many things this allowed you to consider as a developer – virtually unlimited save data, improved load times, custom music, downloadable content and user-created content just to name a few. But since hard drives, no matter what the size, never get cheaper than about $50, Microsoft lost money trying to compete with the PS2’s price. That may be the reason they left it out of the cheaper Xbox 360 SKU, thinking that Sony would again leave out the hard drive on the PS3. Instead, Sony made the hard drive standard for both SKUs. This added to the cost of the PS3, but it also let developers use the HDD in games.
The problem with including a hard drive in one version of the 360 and not in the other is that developers can’t use it for the games. Or, at least, they can’t use it for any required features. When you are guaranteed to have at least a 20 GB hard drive in the console, you can write your load caching routines around it, or use it for your application’s storage needs. To a developer, an optional hard drive is roughly equivalent to no hard drive at all.
Another advantage of the PS3 is that it will let you put in any third party hard drive you want. From a developer’s standpoint, this is good news because the market will gradually be able to support larger downloadable games over the course of the PS3’s life. As downloadable content gets larger and more sophisticated, PS3 owners can choose to buy larger hard drives at the best market price. The more this happens, the more developers will be encouraged to create better and better downloadable games.
7. The Wii Fad Will Fade
OK, this one’s going to be controversial, but I have to say it. I like Nintendo a lot. I think Nintendo has innovated far more than any other company in the industry. And I think the Wii is really, really fun. But… let me relate to you a story that may sound familiar:
Your friend Reggie invites you over for a Wii Party. It’s awesome. You and your friends partake in whatever beverages are legally appropriate for your age group. The next day everyone who went to the party rushes out and buys a Wii.
A week later Reggie hosts another Wii Party. This time only half the group comes. It’s still fun, but there isn’t quite as much shoving to get at the Wiimote.
The next week Reggie hosts another Wii Party. You tell him you have bird flu.
Obviously I’m exaggerating, but the Wii does have many characteristics of popular mainstream fads. It’s instantaneously accessible, it’s unlike anything you’ve tried before, and it’s great fun to share with friends. In short, it’s everything Nintendo said it would be and it has captured the world’s imagination. The only downside is that the world is easily distracted. Tickle Me Elmo captured the world’s attention at one point, as did Furbies. They were both instantly accessible, were unlike anything people had seen before, and were fun to share with friends. But a year later, after everyone had seen them and tried them out, their popularity waned.
The Wii is currently riding on a massive wave of mainstream attention and has been purchased by lots of people who don’t normally play games. But how many of those people who are hooked on Wii Sports will also buy Wii Need For Speed? Mainstream fads usually run their course within a year. As the honeymoon period fades, the Wii will be going up against more and more graphically impressive games on the PS3 and Xbox 360. More people will be buying HD televisions and looking for the most immersive and stunning experiences available. For these reasons, I think the Wii will be more successful than the GameCube or N64 but in the long run will still be outsold by the PS3.
8. PS3 Has a Major CPU Advantage
The GPUs on the Xbox 360 and PS3 are roughly equivalent, with the Xbox 360 arguably having a slight edge. The difference in CPU power, however, is far greater with the PS3 enjoying the advantage. The PS3’s eight parallel CPUs (one primary “PPU” and seven Cell processors) give it potentially far more computing power than the three parallel CPUs in the Xbox 360. Just about any tech programmer will tell you that the PS3’s CPUs are significantly more powerful. The problem is that it has been challenging thus far to take advantage of the Cell’s parallel architecture.
With the PS2, Sony got away with making a fairly developer-unfriendly system, and its success allowed their hardware designers to ignore developer’s complaints as they made the PS3. People high up at Sony have realized that approach simply won’t work anymore and are trying to fix the problem. Sony is actively improving their libraries, tools and developer support in order to make PS3 development easier. They are giving first party developed techniques and code to third-party developers so that multi-platform games should start looking better on PS3.
Games developed from the ground up on PS3 are the ones that will really show off the PS3’s CPU advantage. The complexity of the distributed processing architecture means that PS3 engines won’t fully blossom until a little later in the lifecycle than the PS2. This has put the PS3 at a disadvantage early in its lifecycle, but within two years you will see games that surpass what is possible on the Xbox 360.
9. PS2 still outselling 360
I know, it’s outselling the PS3 by an even larger margin. But the continued strong PS2 sales really are a good thing for Sony. Anyone buying a PS2 at this point is probably not going to buy a PS3 or Xbox 360 in the next year. And when they do choose to buy the current generation of hardware, the PS3 will be in a lot better position. The price will have come down, the game library will be broad, and the top PS3 titles will probably have the edge in both graphics and sound. Just as important, the people buying into the PS2 now will be getting into many of Sony’s exclusive franchises that they will then later want to play on the PS3.
10. Something For Everyone
One of Sony’s biggest advantages is that it has strong franchises in every genre. Whereas Microsoft’s successful titles are mostly M-rated, and Nintendo’s are mostly E-rated, Sony has a big list of hit titles across the spectrum. When a 30-something gamer (like me) goes to buy a game console, it’s a lot easier to justify the purchase when there are games he can play with his kids as well as more mature stuff.
To Microsoft’s credit, they are doing a good job of catching up. The acquisition of Rare and the development of Viva Pinata have helped to broaden their spectrum. But it takes time to build a franchise, and Sony has been building their suite of titles for over a decade. Consider the breadth, success and critical acclaim of some of their exclusive properties: The Getaway, God of War, Gran Turismo, Hot Shots Golf, Jak and Daxter, Killzone, Ratchet & Clank, Shadow of the Colossus, Singstar, Sly Cooper, SOCOM, and Twisted Metal. These are all million-plus sellers worldwide that are either already announced or likely to appear on PS3. Add to this Sony’s new line up of first-party titles, including Heavenly Sword, Lair, Motorstorm, Resistance: Fall of Man, Uncharted and White Knight Story, and they have an even deeper and stronger line-up than what they had on PS2.
A lot of industry watchers and even a handful of publishers have been quick to write Sony off this generation, and I think that’s near-sighted. Sony has made a lot of decisions with the PS3 that may have slowed them down in the short run, but should give them a big advantage in the long run. The high price, hardware complexity, and the uncertainty of the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format war have contributed to the PS3’s slow start out of the gate. But as the price drops, developers master the hardware, and Blu-Ray becomes the new DVD standard, Sony’s early disadvantages turn to advantages. As downloadable games become more common, the 60 GB hard-drive will be a big advantage to developers and consumers. As games get bigger and more sophisticated, Blu-Ray storage will increasingly become a major advantage. And as more and more of Sony’s exclusive first-party titles get released, the PS3 will begin to outsell the competition on a monthly basis. Those publishers who have shifted resources away from PS3 development will find themselves behind the curve and losing money as the market center gradually shifts toward the PS3 over the next two years.
I’m sure many of you may have comments about my point of view. If you do, please email blog(at)insomniacgames.com and I’ll do my best to respond. Also, I’ll be visiting the various forums to see what people think, including our own at www.insomniacgames.com (click on the community tab). Hope to see you there. "