Wednesday, 25 December 2013

MUSINGS: Those "next generation" game machines - PS4, XBOX One, Wii U...

Battlefield 4 - PC gaming time in the living room... Silverstone LC14 case in lower shelf. Arcade Street Fighter stick to the left. Old SNES still in the box to the right :-)
As I opened boxes and put things into place after the recent house move, I pondered about the living room situation.

I have a decent sized 46" LCD/LED TV there, my old Denon AVR-3802 receiver, the Squeezebox Touch, and a couple of old Tannoy MX2 bookshelf speakers. It's also where I will have the game machines - the good old XBOX 360 and Wii from a few years back mainly for the kids and the odd Kinect dancing game when friends come over :-).

Looking back, I basically grew up with computing technology... My first computer was the 5KB VIC-20, then Commodore 64, then Commodore Amiga before jumping over to the PC world in the mid-90's putting together my first PC in the venerable AT form factor. All along, games were the programs that truly utilized the computing power of the machines whether it was through hand-entering games published in the old Compute! magazine or being blown away when I first saw the "smooth" character and parallax animations in the Amiga game Shadow Of The Beast! Unless you're using the machine for frequent graphics rendering, or maybe folding, it's probably a safe bet to assume that it's the gaming software and the virtual worlds they create that will reveal the true power of the machine.

For video game machines, I think I've owned at least one representative from each generation. XBOX 360 & Wii, before that XBOX & PS2, before that PS1 & TurboGrafx-16/Duo & Panasonic 3DO FZ-1, before that Super NES, before that Atari 2600, before that Atari Pong (my dad got it as a novelty back in 1977 or so). But looking at the current offerings (a friend already has all 3 of these machines for me to try at his house!) - Playstation 4, XBOX One, and Wii U - I really have no desire to own any of these. I dunno, maybe I'm just getting old and tastes are changing... :-)

I suspect one thing that is changing for me since having kids a few years ago is just the time available for gaming (among other hobbies like audiophilia!). The push I see in this generation of gaming is that of extending the "social" experience. The opportunity to see what friends are doing, which games they're playing, sharing gameplay videos, and of course the ability to play online at the same time. I think that's cool and certainly for those who are looking for that experience, there's probably no better than the unified system that XBOX Live (which I used to subscribe to) and PlayStation Network have available (I've never tried Nintendo Network).

I don't know about you guys, but I'm feeling a bit of "Social Network Fatigue" (SNF) these days though... From the barrage of E-mails, phone texts, to FaceBook notifications, to LinkedIn, to Twitter tweets; I think I'm "good". Friends know how to contact me and I them... I'm not sure I need yet another network to join; especially one which is fee-based subscription and forces people to choose "sides" based on hardware preferences which is ultimately about securing financial revenue (isn't it always? here's a cute South Park take). Certainly you know this was what Microsoft must have been thinking when it first announced that the XBOX One had to be online for gameplay and also threatened to prevent the sale of used games early on. Thankfully, they later retracted this policy.

So, if we take a step back from the whole social gaming scene, what do we have left? The same thing as we've always had... Competing hardware platforms trying to provide the best interactive entertainment content either through inherent hardware superiority or exclusive games. And this is where I'm quite hesitant to buy in at this point.

For those who haven't read up on it, here are the technical stats: IGN Comparison and this from ExtremeTech.

In this generation, AMD's Radeon GCN rules in the graphics department. Every one of these machines is based on this internal graphics architecture which allows a much easier comparison of the graphical prowess. And in the graphics department, without dispute the PS4 is king. If one's priority is the potential to create the most detailed, smoothest gaming experience, then PS4 is the winner - especially that unified 8GB of GDDR5 RAM has thus far not been done and promises some amazing speed and texture quality. Already, with multiplatform 1st generation games like Battlefield 4, this has proven to be the case. Nintendo always seems to march to its own drummer and this is no different with the Wii U; it really cannot compete based on graphics hardware, and as always, must depend on first party titles (talk about proprietary hardware, the disc drive can't even play Blu-Ray movies for crying out loud!).

As for the CPU in these machines, it's very hard to get excited about those 8 AMD Jaguar cores in both the XBOX One and PS4 (the Wii U's PowerPC CPU a.k.a. Espresso is considerably weaker). Speculation is that already the OS is large with a couple of CPU cores unavailable for gaming use in both the PS4 and XBOX One. As to whether this might be a significant limiting factor to the gaming experience, I guess we'll just have to see (the Jaguar CPU core in Kabini is significantly slower than the Trinity core in the A10-5800 APU I've been running for about a year in my HTPC). Obviously offloading tasks to GPGPU streams can alleviate some of the CPU burden but it remains to be seen how this might also hinder the graphics horsepower.

Of course, currently we're only able to review first-generation games and as we have seen in previous console generations, things will only get better in time. With a specific target hardware, custom OS and APIs that can access abilities "closer to the metal", a lot of power can be squeezed out in optimizations. However, I suspect that since the XBOX One and PS4 are based on hardware already in existence in graphics cards for a couple years (GCN has been out since January 2012), the estimates of computing horsepower should be quite accurate and the familiar architecture will lead to optimizations sooner than something like what we saw for the PS3 and its unique "Cell" processor. Furthermore, I speculate that much of the programming optimizations probably will benefit across platforms due to these inherent hardware similarities, multi-core CPU optimizations should become standard for example.

As you can probably tell based on the tone of this post, I think I'm just going to wait on getting a game machine... Looking around here, I already have a number of pieces I can use... An old Silverstone Lascala LC14 case, 500W power supply, Blu-Ray SATA reader, XBOX 360 wireless controller receiver, nVidia GTX 570 from 2011 (still able to play a mean game of Battlefield 4 at 1080P)... On sale I got an AMD FX-8320 + 8G RAM + motherboard + HDD for <$350. Enough to put together a decent gaming rig for the living room which doubles as a general machine for fast NetFlix, streaming video playback off the NAS, etc. I've already got a few older games like StarCraft II, Battlefield 3 and Street Fighter IV which could be fun in the living room and maybe try out a few game downloads off Steam over the holidays. Heck, I might even go online to have a look (I think Battlefield 4 can handle up to 64-players). Another nice thing about PC gaming is compatibility with older titles numbering in the thousands; not to mention using emulators to run those old nostalgic ROMs I grew up to love (hey, my son loves Pacman). One thing I wish could be done easily would be to use the PS4's DualShock4 in a PC game machine; I love the feel of that controller. The Steam Controller looks interesting (probably released in 2014) - for now, I'm quite happy using the XBOX 360 remote controllers.

No matter what, merry Christmas everyone! I wish you all the warmth of friendships and family. To you gamers, I hope you find something you love under the tree on Christmas morn especially if you've been good boys and girls over the last 7+ years waiting for the next generation of consoles...

Till next time... Enjoy the tunes and games :-).

[Update Dec. 29, 2013]: I just watched the documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Wonderful snapshot into the world of independent gaming! I really enjoyed the quirky Super Meat Boy a couple years ago :-).

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