We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Battlefield 4 launch; whenever a new game launches that really pushes the hardware and raises the bar, it makes sense for us to be psyched since we are, after all, in the hardware business. The Call of Duty: Ghosts launch has been somewhat troubled, but both of these games are notable for one very important reason: I believe that in terms of technology and how games are developed, they’re indicative of things to come.
To understand what I’m getting at, you have to understand the previous generation of consoles and, specifically, their architectures. Porting games between the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the PC was…fraught. The PlayStation 3’s CPU was essentially a proprietary design jointly developed by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM called Cell. This is an extremely complex piece of silicon with a very exotic design (seven cores…sort of) that proved to be incredibly difficult to develop for. On the graphics side, the PlayStation 3 employed a derivative of NVIDIA’s GeForce 7800 GTX, their final generation of DirectX 9 hardware. Strapped to all of that was 256MB of XDR system memory and 256MB of GDDR3 video memory.
Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 features three IBM PowerPC cores and an AMD designed “Xenon” core, essentially DirectX 10-class hardware that was the predecessor to the Radeon HD 2900. The Xbox 360 also shared 512MB of GDDR3 memory between the GPU and CPU cores. A simpler design and oddly prescient, but extremely different from the PlayStation 3 nonetheless.
So basically what we’re dealing with when we talk about cross platform games in the last generation is having to make the game speak three different languages. It’s like translating between Greek, Latin, and Chinese. It’s no wonder PC ports of console games were often roughshod and slapdash; why burn development time adding DirectX 10 or 11 support and optimizing the PC experience when it was enough work just getting the damn thing to run on three platforms?
With the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, everything changes. Sony’s PlayStation 2 and 3 consoles had been powerful but extremely difficult to develop for, but Sony deliberately made the PlayStation 4 as easy to develop for as possible, and in some ways that was the missing piece. Architecturally, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are extremely similar; on paper, the PlayStation 4 is almost directly superior to the Xbox One. Most importantly, they’re both extremely similar to the PC.
So what are we working with?
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are both employing eight of AMD’s “Jaguar” cores, which are the same cores found in their low end PC parts. That means that right off the bat, the CPU sides of these consoles are both heavily threaded (catching up to where desktop CPUs are) and instruction compatible with the PC. Meanwhile, the graphics hardware consists almost entirely of AMD’s DirectX 11.1-class GCN architecture, with the only major difference being that the PS4 just has more of it. For those keeping score, GCN powers all of AMD’s Radeons from the 7000 series up. Finally, both systems have 8GB of shared memory, with DDR3 on the Xbox One (along with a smaller 32MB cache of embedded high speed memory) and GDDR5 on the PlayStation 4.
If you take an extremely simplistic, overhead look at everything, the takeaway is this: the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the PC are all speaking the same language at the hardware level. Scaling and optimizing between the consoles and the PC isn’t as much of a red nightmare as it was last generation; assets should be fairly easy to scale up and down between the platforms. I hesitate to classify the platforms as good/better/best just because PCs can hang out at just about any point on that curve, from the lowly Intel HD Graphics packed into an Atom CPU to a monstrous NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti tri-SLI configuration strapped to a Core i7-4960X.
The name of the game has changed from having to heavily optimize for three different platforms to just having to create something that scales up and down the line. PC gaming has been gaining momentum over the past year, and I suspect that rather than stealing any of the platform’s thunder, this coming generation of consoles will actually give it another shot in the arm. We’re seeing it with Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts; Battlefield 4 runs at a higher resolution with better effects on the PlayStation 4 than the Xbox One (commensurate with Sony’s more powerful hardware), and it in turn can look better still on the PC where it has access to similar hardware, just faster. Call of Duty: Ghosts scales roughly the same way between the three platforms. These are two very big launches, and I strongly believe that they portend a bright and revitalized future for the PC as the ultimate gaming platform. For the first time, we have a generation of consoles that have the potential to improve PC gaming instead of holding it back.