Next-gen technology: What's under the hood

Reps from IBM, Microsoft, ATI, and EA emphasize the growing importance of content and middleware in E3 panel.

In an E3 conference program session held last week, four high-level industry players representing the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 platforms convened to discuss the next generation of game machines.

But for a panel that was originally slated to explore the technological capabilities of upcoming game platforms, the speakers’ focus surprisingly centered on the increasing importance of content and middleware.

Entitled “Inside the Next-Generation Game Machines” and moderated by Sony’s Mark DeLoura, the session featured Electronic Arts chief technology officer Scott Cronce, ATI Technologies director of advanced technology marketing Andrew Thompson, Microsoft technology director Laura Fryer, and IBM Fellow James Kahle.

From the very start, panelists pressed the issue of content. “We’re going to be able to create CGI-level quality in real time,” Cronce predicted, continuing, “That alone isn’t going to be enough for the next generation.” Cronce argued that the progression to more realistic graphics will not seem as impressive as the jump from 2D to 3D graphics. Cronce also observed that the industry is increasingly focusing on gameplay as a result. Fryer echoed this focus, stating, “It’s about the content going forward.”

Thompson also expressed concern over content--even when showing an ATI CGI sequence demonstrating new advancements in graphics processing. Prefacing the CGI video by commenting that developers must now tell “cool stories” rather than merely showing “pretty scenes,” Thompson told the audience to “focus on the camerawork, the light.” Most impressively, however, was the ability to interactively move the camera around the scene, a powerful new capability that Thompson predicts new graphics hardware will allow.

In regard to developing the content of the future, all panelists stressed the critical importance of middleware. Thompson even went so far as to assert that the advanced technology is in place but that developers just need “the right kind of tools and middleware” in the face of increasingly complex computer architectures. Fryer explained that game developers waste too much time writing the same boilerplate code, proposing that 80 percent of development time should be spent on features that make a game unique.

Cronce estimated that 10 percent of EA’s efforts are spent on developing internal middleware--so much so that EA has become the largest gaming middleware producer in the world. Cronce mentioned that EA would love to just purchase the middleware but that such tools just don’t exist.

In response, Fryer described the Microsoft XNA software answer to the middleware problem. Fryer touted that XNA, a software developer tool suite based on DirectX, would allow fluid development between the PC and Xbox and would offer an “ecosystem” of tool choices. Thompson also stated ATI’s commitment to “making the hardware as developer friendly as we can.”

Despite the software emphasis, the session did address several hardware issues. In particular, Thompson asserted that “we can still make the pixels look a lot better than they do today.” In particular, Thompson foresaw a more frequent use of antialiasing, increasingly complex pixel shaders, and progress toward HDTV-sized resolutions.

Kahle, drawing attention to broadband, envisioned a convergence of supercomputing, broadband connectivity, and entertainment. Kahle also stated that architecture designers must figure out where the computational power will come from--whether inside the game machine or from the server side. Cronce, however, appeared more skeptical of broadband integration, predicting that only 30 percent of gamers will go online with the next generation of consoles. Cronce largely blamed the high costs of broadband connection in the US.

Toward the end of the panel, Cronce challenged console designers to tackle the issue of peripheral devices. Cronce first asked whether general-purpose peripherals such as DVD players might interfere with game sales. As an example, Cronce related the concern of Nintendo GameCube designers that “if you’re not watching a DVD, you’re not playing games.” Later, Cronce pushed the need for standardized, cross-platform controllers. Fryer admitted the issue of peripherals was tricky, remarking, “It’s something we’re going to continue to struggle with.”

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