Tech Focus: Next-Gen Consoles vs. The Age of Austerity

Digital Foundry on how the console platform holders are factoring in the new economic era into their designs

As all eyes turn to the next generation in gaming hardware, expectations on the level of processing power we look forward to should perhaps be tempered. Call it austerity, call it simply living within your means, the fact is that it's not just governments and families that are counting the pennies - it's the console platform holders too.

In many ways, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are very much products of their era. Back in 2005 there was a sense of economic invincibility in the air - and this very much permeates the design of both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Let's take a look at the Microsoft console to start with: originally specced with just 256MB of RAM, it took an impassioned plea from Epic Games to see the console's memory spec doubled to its current 512MB - a move that Mark Rein reckons cost Microsoft a "hefty ransom" Doctor Evil would be proud of: one billion dollars.

"Xbox 360 and PS3 were products of an era of economic invincibility - their next-gen replacements will be built very much with cost in mind"

"We really wanted a hard drive in every single machine; that was something we really wanted but we realised that the 512 megs of RAM was way more important," Rein said in a Major Nelson podcast. "Otherwise you couldn't do this level of graphics if you had to both write your program and do your graphics in 256 megs. Nothing would really look that HD."

The story continues with an exchange that, taken at face value, perhaps helped define the quality standards of the current console generation - while at the same time revealing how desperate Microsoft was to challenge Sony's supremacy in the marketplace.

"So we argued, and argued, and what Tim [Sweeney] did is... he actually sent a screenshot of what Gears of War would look like if we only had 256 megs of memory. So the day they made the decision, we were apparently the first developer they called... we were at Game Developers Conference, was it two years ago, and then I got a call from the chief financial officer of MGS and he said 'I just want you to know you cost me a billion dollars' and I said, 'we did a favour for a billion gamers'."

Leaving aside the woeful Red Ring of Death scenario (which cost MS another cool billion), the boat was undoubtedly pushed out in other elements of the design. Microsoft went to AMD for an advanced graphics core design that featured technology that hit the market before it was even incorporated into PC graphics architecture. Not only that, but both the CPU and GPU were fabricated at 90nm - a production process that was state-of-the-art at the time and nowhere near mature: costly and with low chip yields. Factor in a UK launch price point of just £209 for the base "Core" model and £280 for the hard drive equipped Premium version and the amount of money the platform holder must have been losing per unit was surely eye-watering in the extreme.

To put things into perspective, Sony - launching one year later - was still having problems with the 90nm production process. The Cell processor had to have one its SPUs disabled in order to produce enough viable chips, whereas the RSX graphics core - a late addition to the PS3 spec when it became clear that a second Cell couldn't handle the job - featured a number of cut-backs designed to increase chip yields: the RSX design features 28 ALU (arithmetic logic unit) pipelines, but four are inactive in the final chip. Half of the 16 ROPs (render output units) present in the silicon are disabled. What issues Microsoft had with 90nm remain unknown but there were no known cutbacks in the actual designs. Crucially though, chip yield percentages for the launch period were never revealed - the company may simply have taken the hit, knowing that efficiencies would improve.

"It was a technological arms race gone mad, the irony being that Nintendo's low-tech Wii came along at a substantially lower price-point and in terms of hardware sales at least, blew both of them away"

Sony splashed the cash in other ways of course. Its Blu-ray drive - apparently the cause of its year-long delay - was extremely expensive at the time, but a key component in the company's attempt to dominate the HD movie market. Construction and finish of the launch PS3 unit was clearly a step above the Xbox 360: the additional complexity in the design was self-evident and the cooling system was clearly light years beyond the Microsoft box. Plus of course, every PlayStation 3 came with a hard drive as standard, and the vast majority of them featured WiFi too. Even with a launch price of £425 in the UK, Sony was still losing money hand over fist.

It was a technological arms race gone mad, the irony being that Nintendo's low-tech Wii came along at a substantially lower price-point and in terms of hardware sales at least, blew both of them away. It's widely believed that Nintendo was in profit on each unit from day one since the internals of the Wii are much the same as the Gamecube's, with a boost to clock speed.

Fast forward to today's era of economic conservatism and it's extremely difficult to imagine that we will see anything like this level of brilliant, breathtaking insanity again. Sony and Microsoft's console businesses are actually profitable now: it's hard to believe that either of them will ever recover the untold billions lost at the beginning of the current gen era and both companies will like the feeling of being solvent again. While we can still expect next-gen consoles to be sold at a loss at launch, it's very unlikely that the designs will be as advanced as they were back in the day and the projected return to profit will happen sooner rather than later.

With the new Wii U, we already have some measure of what Nintendo's plans are. This is a unit that attempts to refresh a current gen HD console design with a revised, more efficient tri-core IBM CPU and an AMD Radeon off-shoot that should be relatively cheap to produce. Mature, established production processes are used to maximise chip yields, while components that have collapsed in price over the years will almost certain offer Nintendo most of its competitive advantages - we should expect to see 1GB or 1.5GB of RAM in there, and a decent amount of flash storage to accommodate its ambitious digital download strategy.

Short of a massive last-minute spec boost, it seems clear that Nintendo is building this machine to a price - and hopefully that will be passed onto the consumer. Even the show-stopping tablet controller is based on cost-efficient parts: its screen is larger than PlayStation Vita's, but runs with a significantly lower resolution. The capacitive multi-touch screen we even see on sub-£100 Android tablets isn't present - instead, a less responsive single-touch resistive display is utilised, hence the inclusion of a DS-esque stylus.

"The exotic hardware designs championed by Ken Kutaragi have given way to the concept of cramming as much PC power as possible into a console-shaped box - at a price that's right."

As for the next-gen plans of Microsoft and Sony, just the timing of their new launches suggests some caution and an eye towards economy. The Q4 2013 release window being mooted for Durango and Orbis doesn't just give PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 another year to generate decent profits, it also allows for more ambitious designs to be produced more cheaply. The 28nm fabrication process we can expect to see utilised in both consoles is just moving into mainstream production now with the current-gen Radeon and GeForce graphics cards, but the technology is still expensive and chip yields uncertain. By the time we move into 2013 - where both Microsoft and Sony will need to commit to multi-million production runs - the amount of usable chips will be higher, and the costs to produce them lower.

Elsewhere within the designs we should expect to see other mature technologies deployed. Both Durango and Orbis will feature Blu-ray disc drives; they are no longer the exotic technology they were back in 2006 but mass-produced commodities. Memory has also collapsed in price, though whether 512MB GDDR5 RAM modules will be in mass production at a viable price-point in time for a next-gen console launch remains to be seen. In an ideal world, Sony and Microsoft would be looking at eight chips per motherboard for a 4GB capacity, but current volume GDDR5 production remains at 256MB per chip: this may be the area where the platform holders will need to take a hit initially.

Rumours from a number of sources also suggest that economies are also being made elsewhere. Increasingly stronger and more plausible sources are suggesting that Orbis is based on existing PC parts from AMD repurposed into console form. With PlayStation Vita, the post-Kutaragi era Sony went for off-the-shelf parts that offered the most power and performance for the best price-point. Licensing technology isn't cheap, but it's significantly less expensive than creating a brand new processing architecture from scratch - as Sony did with Cell. Other benefits include the ability to tap into AMD's proven expertise in combining CPU and GPU into a single chip (very useful for later console revisions) plus the fact that developers are simply more comfortable with more traditional processor designs.

Epic's love letter to the next-gen: the Samaritan demo. Now running on a single GTX 680 after debuting on three GTX 580s in SLI, it's likely that Durango and Orbis will be able to match this, even with less capable silicon: the advantages of fixed hardware design are numerous.

And what of Durango? By far the most interesting and plausible report on this comes from VG247, and it suggests a fascinating design choice: that the next Microsoft console will actually contain two graphics cores. This may sound like a somewhat exotic, expensive choice but it could make a whole lot of sense. Two slower, narrower chips should be easier to make than one larger one, and in theory it would be significantly cheaper to incorporate two 128-bit memory buses as opposed to one 256-bit interface. Cooling - a key failure in the original Xbox 360 - should also cheaper and easier to handle as heat would be more evenly distributed across the motherboard.

There would be advantages for developers too, as one source told me:

"In the worst case, you could tile, sending half the scene to one GPU and half the scene to the other, losing some efficiency on border-overlapping geometry; a deferred renderer would lose nothing in efficiency in all the lighting and shading passes," we were told.

"In some ways the lack of exotic hardware is a little disappointing. The grand visions we saw in years gone by have been replaced by a combination of pragmatic realism and economic necessity"

"In the best case, you can parallelise independent operations - for example, rendering the main scene with rendering the shadow map, rendering the different cascades of the increasingly popular cascaded shadow maps, rendering light buffers, rendering different portions of a complex post-processing chain (but post-processing is a good candidate for simple tiling too)."

Way back in 2005, the world was a different place. Sony wanted to re-define computing, replace DVD with Blu-ray HD movies and produce a state-of-the-art games machine. Microsoft wanted a high-end PC in a box, without involving Intel or NVIDIA after unsuccessful collaborations on the original Xbox. To achieve their goals, unimaginable amounts of money were thrown at the problem.

In Microsoft's case it spent a fortune to achieve a year's headstart over Sony - but arguably the effort was worth it. It has achieved wonders in breaking Sony's complete domination of the console marketplace, but stumbled in terms of reliability and build quality. For its part, Sony has seen off HD-DVD (though perhaps did not foresee the prominence of streaming movie services) and produced the most technologically advanced games of the era - but the full extent of Ken Kutaragi's vision for the Cell processor never came to be, and the PS3 with all its triumphs and shortfalls proved to the last console produced under his stewardship.

In some ways the lack of exotic hardware being mooted for the next-gen consoles is a little disappointing. The grand visions we saw - particularly from Sony - have been replaced by a combination of pragmatic realism and economic necessity: both of these machines will almost certainly be PC tech repurposed into games consoles. The challenge for Microsoft and Sony will be to produce a generational leap that matters to a mainstream audience at a price that works: £299, anyone?

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Latest comments (9)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 10 years ago
The thing is that the PS3/360 generation were forced to make a hardware leap to handle HD. This time round we have no such performance hurdle.
The current consoles do their job of running games and entertaining. Perhaps their biggest weakness now is the paucity of memory.
So where do we go from here?

It depends very much whether the platform holders optimise for AAA blockbusters or for an App Store. This will be the crucial decision. Has the consumer moved on from high cost boxed product? Is the return of gameplay and fun at an affordable price a permanent revolution?

The elephant in the room here is Apple. If/when they produce their media centre/set top box it will definitely be an overnight sensation and the biggest must have toy on the planet. And it will definitely use the App Store business model. How can the current platform holders pre-empt this?
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Lance Winter Senior Game Designer, Splash Damage10 years ago
The elephant in the room here is Apple. If/when they produce their media centre/set top box it will definitely be an overnight sensation and the biggest must have toy on the planet
Apple already make a media centre/set top box.

The change will come when they get developers making native apps for it (rather than just the airplay malarky that currently exists).

Even then, I doubt that Apple TV will have the same impact in the living room as other iOS devices have had in portables. The console experience is already rather good. The only real strength of Apple over existing consoles is their more open approach to third-party software development - for now, at least.
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The more interesting aspect would be the ratio of digital vs physical format for the consoles. There is nothing to pre empt because each format, will enjoy its own natural eco system
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Show all comments (9)
Felix Leyendecker10 years ago
Back when the 360 and PS3 came out, there was also a healthy PC market with lots of tech-pushing exclusives putting pressure on MS/Sony to one-up this competition. Since the PC in its former role is pretty much dead in the water, there is no such pressure on console makers this time around.

Still, I'm not buying into this just-good-enough projections. If they really go for a middle of the road approach, the graphical differences to the current gen will not be big enough to justify buying into a new, expensive platform. Neither will a new flavor of motion controls, which MS and Sony failed to convince core gamers with.

Just going to 1080p and/or S3D alone (which is standard on pretty much all TVs sold today) will eat up the extra grunt that "reasonably powerful" hardware has over the current gen, while not meaningfully improving graphics or gameplay experiences.

It's kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation for the manufacturers. I hope they don't skimp on the hardware. They might just stick to current gen if they do :P
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John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam10 years ago
Personally, if I were Sony or Microsoft, I'd probably hold back on releasing a new console. Lots of countries are in a double dip recession, unemployment is staying stubbornly high, the Eurozone is still teetering on the brink of a collapse that could make the banking crisis look mild by comparison, and the games industry is moving so quickly at the moment that a console designed a couple of years ago could be pretty much obsolete by the time it ships next Christmas.

You only need to look at the launch problems 3DS and PS Vita have had to see that even at around 200, well below the launch price of home consoles, a new gaming device isn't exactly high on most people's agenda right now. And a 200 austerity console probably isn't going to offer a big enough leap in performance to capture people's imagination in the same way that PS1, PS2, PS3 and 360 did.

Microsoft also have the problem that Kinect seems to have rapidly lost momentum after its stellar launch window. Star Wars is the only real success they've had in the last year, AFAIK. If their new console is bundled with a next gen Kinect, as rumours suggest, they risk alienating some of their hardcore fans and pricing themselves out of the market for more casual gamers.

As for Sony, Move really hasn't caught the public's imagination, so their best option might be to cut their losses, go with a standard joypad controller, and try to recapture some of the core audience they lost to Xbox 360 in the USA this generation. Throw in cross-game chat to shut up all the people whining about it online, and keep the basic PSN multiplayer package free, and it's a very good value proposition for customers. If they play up connectivity with Vita (and possibly even Android tablets and mobile devices) they might find some traction for both devices, especially if they can either undercut or out-spec the Kinect 2 / NextBox bundle.
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Dominic Jakube Student 10 years ago
It would be a disaster for developers if you had the Wii-u at current gen plus a bit power, an xbox with a moderatly powerfull next gen machine and then a Sony with "the skies the limit" performance or vice-versa.
Imagine having three consoles of varing power, sort of like the pc on low/medium/high presets.
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Dominic Jakube Student 10 years ago
@ John Bye.Well any Sony/MS machines wont be out for another 18 months at the earliest, that means an 8 year life for the 360 pretty much unheard of since the 80's.I think you have to consider they see Nintendo as a threat, they underestimated them last time at their peril.That simply cant allow Nintendo to have the market to themseleves for 2 or 3 years.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dominic Jakube on 9th May 2012 2:47pm

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 10 years ago
To hell with consoles.

Give me talent.

Give me game design.

The best future console will be the one that sits in the background, quietly invisible, where it should be.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises10 years ago
I'm really eager to spend $500 for something with mediocre power compared to current gaming PCs.
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