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Rumour Control

Rumour Control

Fri 06 Apr 2012 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
Hardware

Another week, more speculative reports on next-gen consoles. Is there a seed of truth in any of this? Rob Fahey has a few theories of his own.

Although there now seems to be a grudging acceptance that we're not going to see very much - if anything at all - of the next generation of console hardware at E3 in two months' time, that hasn't done much to clog up the gears of the frantically whirring rumour mill. Every couple of weeks brings a new dump of information from purportedly excellent sources, often conflicting, regularly controversial, rarely entirely believable.

If anything, you could view these various collections of guesswork and speculation as an interesting window into the issues that are really concerning the industry right now. Much as literary critics point out that science fiction is a useful way of discussing present-day issues at arm's length, rather than really being fiction about the future, rumours about the Xbox and PlayStation successors are largely a reflection of today's news agenda rather than tomorrow's consoles.

The next Xbox will lack a disc drive? That's a story tapping into consumer (and retailer) fears of an entirely digital future. It'll have always-on DRM? Another hot topic, and one guaranteed to set the more reactionary corners of the Internet ablaze. Both Sony and Microsoft are planning anti-resale systems that'll clamp down on second hand sales? There's another recurring story for you - barely a week goes by in which second hand sales aren't in the news in one form or another.

Rumours about the Xbox and PlayStation successors are largely a reflection of today's news agenda rather than tomorrow's consoles

This isn't to say that their newsworthy nature necessarily means that these stories are made up. After all, these issues are pressing for publishers and platform holders, too, but they fit a bit too neatly into the existing news agenda to be entirely credible. Furthermore, this doesn't mean that the news sites that report them are lying. They may, indeed, have heard such things from reputable sources, but game developers aren't all privy to insider information, are just as prone to gossip and speculation as everyone else, and tend to read the same news sites as everyone else. A rumour that starts off on a blog, gets reposted to a developer forum and embellished a few times ("I know a bloke who was talking to a bloke who's signed a Microsoft NDA, and...") and as soon as you know it, a major, reputable news site is reporting it as coming from an excellent source.

Under those circumstances, what's to be believed? Well, nothing, frankly. There's not a single word of any of the Xbox / PlayStation next-gen rumours that is actually believable, in a 'yes this is definitely what's happening' sort of way. The whole situation is complicated even further by the fact that Microsoft and Sony have both reportedly been approaching publishing and development partners with a variety of different next-gen ideas, sounding them out for responses on a number of different technologies and strategies. That makes sense - it's a standard consultation procedure for products whose success will rely so heavily on third-party support - but it does mean that features and concepts are being touted around which may not actually make it anywhere near the final console hardware.

If I were to guess, I'd say that the "driveless Xbox" rumour probably stems from that - Microsoft touting an idea around its partners and seeing what they think (then almost certainly scrapping it after universally negative feedback from key developers). I'd imagine that other ideas - always-on DRM, anti-resale systems - have also emerged in discussion with publishers, but remain, at least 18 months before either of these consoles actually launches, very much up in the air, and probably unlikely to see the light of day.

A sanity check always helps when you consider these rumours. Rather than thinking, 'my god, Microsoft is doing X, what does it mean?', it would be useful if journalists and commentators would think instead 'so it's claimed that Microsoft is doing X - what's the logic behind that? What are the costs and benefits? How likely is it in the real world?' Although I suspect that option A, as well as being easier, is also better for page impressions.

Take always-on DRM, for example, a system that would essentially mean that every Xbox in the world has to be connected to the Internet at all times. The immediate problem with that idea is glaringly obvious - broadband connections are still, in many cases, a bit rubbish, especially in Microsoft's home territory of the United States. In many areas it's slow or heavily congested. For other users it's capped at very low traffic levels. For some it's just expensive, and for a lot, it's provided through modems that only link into one computer, without the wi-fi or cabling required to distribute it throughout a household. In a great many places, broadband is unreliable, suffering from frequent outages.

Now of course, for the majority of users broadband is absolutely fine - fast, reliable, sensibly capped (actually, that one might not be true for a majority right now) and distributed throughout the household. However, a console can't just be designed for a majority of users. Microsoft will be working with stats that show them what percentage of users would be impacted by various types of always-on DRM (which could range from an authentication stage, which would almost certainly be broken by pirates at some point, to a policy of storing chunks of game logic code on servers, which would be almost unbreakable but also hugely expensive and difficult to execute over weaker broadband connections). Will it discuss those ideas with publishing partners? Sure. Will it, ultimately, make a decision that potentially prevents a significant number (and remember than even 1 per cent of Xbox owners represents over half a million consumers) of people from using their consoles and playing the games they've bought? No, it won't. Unless it's insane. Which it isn't.

Rather than thinking, 'my god, Microsoft is doing X, what does it mean?', it would be useful if journalists would think instead 'so it's claimed that Microsoft is doing X - what's the logic behind that?'

In other words - they're probably talking about it, they're probably researching it, but that doesn't mean they'll do it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Of all the rumour-mongering that has been done in the past couple of weeks, in fact, there's only one which I think deserves serious consideration as a contender for genuine accuracy - and that's the talk of Sony abandoning the Cell processor architecture and moving to a solution built by AMD. This has a ring of truth, for me, not least because it's exactly what you'd expect Sony to do in its present circumstances and with its present management. PlayStation Vita represented Sony's first console design since the departure of Ken Kutaragi, whose engineering-led approach created the technically fascinating but developer-unfriendly architectures of the PS2 and PS3. Vita largely employs off-the-shelf components that help to drive down costs and make things accessible for developers, and PS4 will be absolutely no different.

Still, dumping Cell will be a symbolic (and costly) move for Sony. It was a bold and fascinating architecture, one that remains potentially powerful and useful today - if Sony wanted to, it could certainly build a PS4 around a Cell chip running at a higher clock speed and with more SPUs on board, and it would be extremely competitive with anything any rival could put on the market. But Sony doesn't want to. It wants to build a console that developers can use easily and whose components are cheap, enjoying powerful economies of scale and the support of a world-class manufacturer. It won't have escaped the notice of Sony's top executives that, compared to Nintendo, Microsoft and Apple - world-class rivals that release hugely successful hardware without ever actually building any chips of their own - the whole Cell experiment, exciting and visionary as it was on a technical level, reeks of hubris from a business perspective.

So there - a rumour that actually makes sense. But then again, that's a rumour you could probably have guessed accurately even before you heard it. The news cycle churns. The blogs recycle and reiterate each other's rumours until everyone's tricked into thinking they're fact. Two months to E3; it only gets louder from here on in.

12 Comments

Not sure that bandwidth quality and ISP capping has much impact on the always-on DRM argument. Far more important as you point out later is the proportion of 360 owners that do not and would not connect their console to the internet. I'm slightly surprised when reading all the articles about this that nobody has referenced MS's own data:
In January this year (at CES) MS revealed that it had sold through 66m 360s to date and there were 40m XBL users. Although it is not clear whether the XBL stat refers to all time registrations or users active in the previous 6 months (their usual definition of "active user"), there is a strong indication that a significant proportion of 360 owners (possibly as much as 26m) never connected their 360s because they weren't able to or did not want to.
The question therefore is, does the revenue upside of an always-on DRM system outweigh the opportunity cost of potentially tens of millions of console owners. As you state, the answer is pretty obvious.

Posted:2 years ago

#1
I mentioned the bandwidth quality / capping aspect largely because it's relevant to certain types of always-on DRM. If you're just doing authentication against a remote server, you could happily do that over any kind of connection, no matter how poor quality it may be - but if you're hosting game logic code remotely, as some always-on DRM systems do, then quality of broadband becomes a major issue.

The problem is that a simple authentication against a remote server is easy for pirates to break through. In fact, the more secure the system, the more of the game is being stored "off-console" - I guess you could think of it as a spectrum where a simple authentication is at one end of the scale, something like World of Warcraft (where the server does most of the heavy lifting in terms of logic code) being about 60% of the way down, and at 100% you have services like OnLive, where no code at all is executed locally. The more code is server-side, the harder it is to pirate a game - but the more code is server-side, the more reliance you have on excellent, reliable and uncapped broadband connections, which are far from being guaranteed.

As you rightly say, though, even the most basic form of online DRM - the key authentication method - falls foul of the sheer number of people can't (or simply don't) connect their consoles to the Internet. That's a complete deal breaker for this technology - even ignoring the fact that home console piracy doesn't appear to have been remotely as major a problem for the 360/PS3 as it was for their predecessors, so the actual impetus to move to always-on DRM is lacking.

Posted:2 years ago

#2
Completely agree

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,266 2,404 1.1
Rob, any chance you will tackle the recent deluge of contradictory Wii U rumors? Or would that be difficult given that GI.biz is the source of one of the major rumors?

Posted:2 years ago

#4
Jim, I think the Wii U stuff is fairly daft, but understandable in context. Lots of developers have their hands on Wii U kits and are working on software for the system already, and what we're seeing now is different developers privately passing on their assessment of performance. Some of them have various axes to grind with regard to their own preferences among the systems or the platform holders' businesses; others are just at different stages in ramping up to working with the platform, or bluntly, just have different skill levels in terms of exploiting the hardware, and that explains the contradictions.

I totally understand the temptation for news writers to pass those comments on - but ultimately, it's pretty meaningless stuff. Unless there's a serious power differential, which looks completely unlikely, the fact is that some games are going to look great and some will look awful, and Internet trolls will still be arguing over which system is most powerful long after launch (just as they are with 360 and PS3).

Posted:2 years ago

#5

Curt Sampson
Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
Well, there are a number of technical rumours that are quite believable. The switch from cell to standard parts is one that you point out. Another is no backward compatibility with the previous generation. (There are good and obvious technical reasons for that.)

Having a strong reaction even to seemingly implausible rumours such as always-on DRM or killing used sales is probably a good thing; it will help to reinforce manufacturers' opinions that such things are a bad idea. (Deliberately spawning such rumours in order to gauge public reaction is not an implausible idea itself.)

Then again, sometimes companies do dumb things. Sony still not having PSOne compatibility on the Vita is one example; why on earth would they have not yet implemented such a seemingly simple thing?

Posted:2 years ago

#6

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,174 1,124 0.5
@Curt: I bet real money that Sony wants to show the Vita off as a something that can do better graphics than PSOne games and they're trying to get away with ignoring the fact that most users won't care at all. Hell all I want as a Vita owner is to play good games no matter what era they're from.

Posted:2 years ago

#7

Alex V
Executive Editor

10 12 1.2
Excellent article, that reflects not only on separating fact from fiction, but also the very poor job that some of the "big sites" are doing when reporting all these rumors as facts.

Posted:2 years ago

#8

James Butterworth
IT Hardware & Software

24 1 0.0
@ Curt: "Then again, sometimes companies do dumb things. Sony still not having PSOne compatibility on the Vita is one example; why on earth would they have not yet implemented such a seemingly simple thing?"

Simple? Try massively outdated! Why are "passionate" Sony fanboys still obsessing wanting PSOne and 2 compatibility? I stopped playing or getting urges to play those antiquated games about 8 years ago! I look back at the shoddy blocky graphics and oily lighting, and shudder. My Xbox 1 outdid the old Sony rubbish.



Another reason is probably because Sony never got it right with the PSP. I tried hundreds of PS1 games on that. Their catalog of officially tested compatible games was limited, and if you made your own using tools from the web it was hit and miss, games would crash, not load properly, or at all. To be honest I'm glad the feature isn't in the Vita, it was a pain in the rear with the PSP :(

Edited 4 times. Last edit by James Butterworth on 9th April 2012 12:15am

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Rodney Smith
Developer

81 40 0.5
I think now is the time for an Apple console. Apple could use the same identikit hardware (AMD APU/GPU) that Sony and MS are using (and therefore get all the AAA ports) but totally destroy them by having their app store and itunes on it. Never happen of course because of all that ipad money.

Posted:2 years ago

#10

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

480 451 0.9
James - Actually, lack of PSOne compatibility is one of the main reasons I haven't bought a Vita yet. I recently bought a lot of old Final Fantasy games from the PSN store which I'd like to play on the move. I can do that on my PSPGo, but not on a Vita. I'm not going to carry two handhelds around with me, so far now I'm sticking with my PSP.

It's in Sony's best interest to support back compatibility, because it gives them another way to make money from their extensive back catalogue. There are already a lot of classic PSOne games available for a few quid each on the PSN store. The PS2 selection is far less impressive so far, but it's a start. They also have a ton of old Mega Drive and NEO Geo games on there - the old Simpsons Arcade game was actually one of the top sellers on PSN last month.

There's obviously a big market for this stuff, and it makes sense to make it as widely available as possible, both to increase the choice of cheap games on Vita and PS4, and to maximise the revenue they can earn from these old games.

As for issues with compatibility, I've never had that problem with any PSOne game I've downloaded from the PSN store on my PSP or PSPGo. And the choice is far less limited now than it used to be.

Posted:2 years ago

#11

James Butterworth
IT Hardware & Software

24 1 0.0
@ John Bye: Some people just can't let go of the past. Whatever floats your boat though, each to their own. But if the computer and console industry was left to retro obsessives, we'd all still be using Amigas, Megadrives, and BBC Micros. The fastest PC available would still be a Pentium or 486 to play Doom 1 & 2 on!

Maybe it's just me, but I like the thrill of graphics getting better, game physics improving, each and every year. GTAIV was a prime example, it was like GTA 3, the game that changed GTA forever, but IV was much better in terms of depth, gameplay and graphics quality, not to mention the awesome ultra modern game engine at the time.

I leave old retro games where they belong. In their past era. I like the idea of programmers bringing up to date modern rewrite versions of old games out. Then you could have modern versions of classics that make use of modern kit. But, it'd cost a fortune, like it does to HD upscale old films, I guess.

Posted:2 years ago

#12

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