Tech Focus: The Rise of Cross-Gen Development
Digital Foundry on how next year's AAA games will bridge the upcoming generational divide
Games publishers face an interesting challenge in 2013. As soon as Microsoft and Sony officially announce their Durango and Orbis projects, time is called on the current generation era and interest in the existing platforms tails off as the core audience look forward to new console hardware. So where does this leave the industry when so much of its bread and butter comes from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? With tens of millions of dollars invested into a single game, the implications are potentially catastrophic. Thankfully, E3 offered up some intriguing answers.
First of all, an enormous amount of AAA titles saw release dates revealed for Q1, early Q2 2013 - effectively ducking out of the transitional challenge by getting games to market before the official announcements of the next-gen machines.
"Next-gen and PC alone can't sustain AAA development budgets in a difficult time of transition, but a multi-platform approach encompassing Xbox 360 and PS3 could make the difference."
This is potentially excellent news for committed gamers: the sheer volume of quality big budget titles should be relentless from Q4 this year and into the next as publishers seek to avoid the oncoming transitional period. Based on the quality we saw at E3, the current gen era should peak in pretty spectacular style.
However, games take years to create and obviously not every title can be shoe-horned into the current-gen window of opportunity. What about the games that have had mammoth budgets invested into them, but won't be ready until the tail-end of the year? The danger here is that the Xbox 360 and PS3 markets will be fractured into gamers retaining their current consoles and those awaiting next-gen hardware. Potentially the market will be compromised to a degree that puts the profit of these projects very much into jeopardy.
One way to tackle the challenge rose to prominence at E3 this year: what I'd call the "cross-gen" model, perhaps best exemplified by Ubisoft's Watch Dogs and LucasArts' Star Wars 1313. The full range of supported platforms has not been confirmed for either of these games, but they were shown running on high-end PC hardware at E3, and they're clearly too early in development to be anything other than Q4 2013 games - if we're lucky.
The LucasArts title, based on Unreal Engine 3, looked spectacular, demonstrating superb art direction and technical accomplishment. Epic has been gradually evolving its platform to fully support the rendering enhancements brought about by the DX11 generation of hardware, and this is perhaps the best commercial example we've yet seen of what the technology is capable of when these new features are implemented.
Factoring in the talented tech team LucasArts possesses (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was technically brilliant, even if the game disappointed), initially the studio's decision to license UE3 was puzzling, but the fact is that the middleware provides a firm foundation for the same game to be run on both this generation and the next. Epic has a unique relationship with the console platform holders, and will be aware of its partners needs in this regard, and will be working tirelessly to make UE3 perform well on Durango and Orbis. Equally we can be sure that competitors like Crytek will also be offering robust cross-gen functionality in their own middleware.
This approach is how many publishers are set to handle the upcoming transitional period: it's all about making a splash on the next-gen platforms without leaving the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 markets behind. The sorts of budgets third party AAA development demands can't be met with sales from two fledgling consoles and the PC market alone. Only by inviting along the current-gen userbase do these projects make commercial sense.
"The stunning new engine in Watch Dogs wouldn't be developed solely for the PC market, or for current-gen machines reaching their sell-by dates. The E3 demo is nothing short of Ubisoft's next-gen vision."
One of the most promising-looking titles of E3 was another cross-gen shoe-in: Ubisoft's stunning Watch Dogs. PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC were confirmed as platforms, with Yves Guillemot hinting on SpikeTV that the game will also be available elsewhere - I understand from a well-informed source that those additional systems include Durango and Orbis (but then, that is surely obvious, isn't it?).
Typically Ubisoft doesn't work with third party middleware, but the firm is capable of producing some stunning technology - the under-used Dunia engine that powered Ubi's Far Cry titles is an excellent example of the quality it produces, while the evolution of the Assassin's Creed engine has also been impressive. Watch Dogs runs on an entirely new engine - a colossal investment that simply wouldn't be warranted, nor make financial sense, for a single game on current-gen platforms swiftly reaching their sell-by date.
Elsewhere we have already seen overt efforts to create game engine technologies that straddle the upcoming generational divide. The recent announcement from EA's John Riccitiello that the firm is to invest $80m into next-gen console development may seem somewhat lacking bearing in mind the wealth of titles the company produces and the cost of game-making in general. However, the figure makes a lot more sense if EA were to pursue a cross-gen strategy similar to what we've already discussed: the cash becomes an additional layer of investment to produce next-gen SKUs alongside the PS3, PC and Xbox 360 versions. Not only that, but thanks to DICE's Frostbite 2 engine - which has already rolled out beyond the Stockholm-based studio with Need for Speed: The Run and Medal of Honor: War Fighter - the company already has a technology that complements the feature-set we should expect from next-gen console hardware.
A transitional period of cross-gen development is inevitable, it's just a question of how long it will last. Already developers are investigating the raw potential of the fresh hardware and working on new rendering paradigms that only new devices will be able to accommodate. The E3 reveal of Unreal Engine 4 was remarkable not just for the technical brilliance of what we were seeing, but because the basic principles on which the whole technology are based effectively precludes current-gen versions being produced. At least, not without fundamental compromises.
UE4 is all real-time, all the time. The existing approach to lighting environments in most current-gen titles (including UE3) is to pre-calculate light and shadow, then pack up your bag and go home - because the whole process of "baking in" the light-maps takes a long, long time. The real-time approach UE4 represents means almost instantaneous iteration, meaning enormous leaps in productivity. It also means that the games themselves have a new level of fidelity we haven't seen before - but it comes at a cost: the fundamentals of the technology make a direct port to previous generation platforms extremely difficult indeed.
If there is no path for 360/PS3 support with UE4, there's the suggestion that Epic is effectively foreseeing a time not so far into the future where the cross-gen transition period comes to a close. It's something the company has witnessed before of course: Unreal Engine 2.5 straddled generations, before eventually being mothballed in favour of its successor.
"Unreal Engine 4 is real-time, all the time. It looks beyond the cross-gen transition to a new age of games that more fully exploit the capabilities of next-gen hardware."
All of which presents an interesting challenge for Nintendo with its new Wii U console. Everything we have seen to date suggests that this is a concept-driven machine based on a processing architecture that lacks horsepower compared to the next-gen devices, sharing much in common with the existing PS3 and Xbox 360. The dual screen concept - something I'll be looking at in more depth in a forthcoming article - opens up a rich vein of gaming possibilities, but Nintendo has been overt in its pursuit of third party games to the point where the core architecture of the machine has much in common with the Xbox 360. There's a tri core PowerPC processor (albeit a significantly more efficient, modern design compared to Xenon) and an AMD GPU, for starters.
However, the worry from a third party perspective is that in being "somewhat competitive" to current-gen performance - as one development source described it to me - the shelf-life of the machine could well be limited to this cross-gen transitional period. Beyond that, production on prospective Wii U versions (if there are any) would likely decouple from the main developmental effort, in much the same way that ports for the original Wii were handled. Historically this rarely helps the product. While I fully expect Nintendo's first party titles to shine, I do fear for its chances with third party titles and its longevity with next-gen just around the corner.
Conversely, the situation is a complete reverse for PC gamers. For too long, multi-platform titles on PC have been held back by the technical limitations imposed by the current gen consoles. Generally speaking, an embarrassment of processing power has been used for little more than higher rendering resolutions, increased precision in effects work, higher frame-rates and some DX11 enhancements if we're lucky. In preparing for the next-gen consoles, PC owners are already reaping the rewards: titles like Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2 are just a taste of the kind of quality that is to come.