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Was PS3 hard to develop for?

10 Years Ago This Month: Sony's sales pitch as the powerful system took a hit when EA had to explain why Madden 08 on PS3 was noticeably worse than the Xbox 360 version

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Was PS3 hard to develop for?

The biggest news from 10 years ago this month happened right up front with the delay of Grand Theft Auto IV from its October release window (that had just been announced at E3 the prior month) and would now arrive sometime in the February-to-April stretch of 2008. That was huge at the time, but delays happen, and it's not the sort of thing we usually lead this column off with. In fact, the reason we're going over it here is the possible reason for the delay.

The day after GTA IV's delay was announced, long-time industry analyst Michael Pachter put the blame on the PlayStation 3, saying, "We think it is likely that the Rockstar team had difficulty in building an exceptionally complicated game for the PS3, and failed to recognise how far away from completion the game truly was until recently." Combined with a contractual obligation to not launch the game early on one platform or the other, that meant pushing back all versions until the next year.

Granted, the deductions of an analyst aren't confirmation, and Pachter doesn't have a flawless track record when it comes to bold speculation. (Here's one from later that same month that he might like back.)

That said, this was far from the only suggestion that developers were having difficulty with the PS3. Sony had already been chastising third-parties for not taking full advantage of the hardware, and it didn't help having massive publishing partners like Electronic Arts publicly explaining why the PS3 version of Madden NFL was noticeably inferior. It's particularly damning considering the company didn't even attempt to refute the game's inferiority in any way.

"In the case of the next-generation consoles, many publishers have been developing titles for the Xbox 360 for over three and a half years while everyone who publishes now for the PlayStation 3 with the exception of Sony has been developing for the PlayStation 3 for only a little over one full year," the company said.

At least Ubisoft was a little more diplomatic, with Yann Le Tensorer, co-founder of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare studio Tiwak calling the idea nonsense, and then basically repeating what EA had said.

"It's not harder to develop on the PS3 than it is on the 360; it's just a different console. Developers might say it's harder because it just takes time to understand the technology. We're still early in the lifecycle."

By the time October rolled around and Midway delayed PS3 releases for BlackSite: Area 51, Stranglehold, and Unreal Tournament 3, the PS3's reputation was essentially set in stone. And while Sony was able to overcome the PS3's rough start and turn it into a very successful system over the long haul, the "hard to develop for" tag persisted for years.

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Latest comments (4)

Alex Barnfield Senior Engineer, 17-BIT15 days ago
"It's not harder to develop on the PS3 than it is on the 360; it's just a different console. Developers might say it's harder because it just takes time to understand the technology. We're still early in the lifecycle."

This was exactly it.
Designing around the cell processors architecture you could get code that performed well on every system, but a traditional engine couldn't be ported as was. Going back to basics and building from the ground up was the correct way forward, but in the learning period many developers simply converted individual tasks to run on the SPUs. Taking a last gen engine, or even just one designed with the XBox-360 in mind therefore gave the false impression of special optimization being necessary.

The truth was closer to a comparison between Vulkan or DirectX12 and their predecessor APIs - it's easy to make an engine designed around a modern API work with a more traditional one under the bonnet, but trying to brute force the use of either of these APIs into a more traditional design leads to a hacky under-performing mess.

It's a shame the architecture was dropped, it was starting to drive much better engine design in my view - but we are now in an era where software, especially 3rd party engines, are driving hardware decisions, rather than vice versa. It's a shame it was the last system out of the gate.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Alex Barnfield on 2nd August 2017 9:52am

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee15 days ago
I don't think its a shame at all. Generally, most companies don't have the time or money to jump through hoops to get games to perform well. Cell was also a technology deemed to also provide less performance for a similar cost and its also an architecture that didn't match up well to where the industry was headed.
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Alex Barnfield Senior Engineer, 17-BIT14 days ago
At the risk of repeating myself - the architecture didn't require you to jump through any additional hoops - that was a total misconception. It simply encouraged programmers to design better, thread-safe code that benefited all systems. No programmer I know has ever been inclined to go back to the more naive approach of multi-threaded code.
Towards the end of the generation PS3 ports were performing better, despite the comparatively poor GPU. And whilst we may bury our heads in the sand temporarily, eventually the direction hardware is taking will force code which can be scaled to any number of cores.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex Barnfield on 2nd August 2017 1:44pm

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee14 days ago
And yet, the cost/benefit analysis of Cell versus other solutions didn't justify continuing the architecture. Something which three semiconductor companies, including Sony paid a heavy price for. PS3 and the Cell approach wasn't developed to make us code better, it was pretty much an engineering led design with no wider consideration. To counter your claim, I know few people that miss an architecture that took a generation to optimise and still didn't leave a lasting benefit. Now we have PS4 and Xbox One.
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