March of the Consoles

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How quickly the years seem to pass. Has it already been nearly 7 years, since the first 'next-gen' console had its launch? Apparently so. Looking back at previous generations of consoles, the PS1 & 2, the N64, the first Xbox, a 7 year long cycle would've meant that new consoles would already be on the market. That is not the case, however - and the reason why is quite simple: The current gen of consoles have been quite successful and forward looking.

The Xbox360 and the PS3 still sell, and as long as they are doing that, MS and Sony will do their best to prolong this cycle. Games look quite good and are (generally speaking) running rather well, mostly due to ever more efficient software optimizations on the well-known platforms, and their closed-box nature. Going back to 2005, MS was rather lucky with their hardware ...not the stability of it, mind you, as the RROD problems of the first two sub-generations of Xbox360's was hard to ignore - but the feature set and performance of the hardware, not to mention the relative ease of developing software for it as well. In the long run it has made the console strangely competitive and elevated the XBox brand from being an outsider, a newcomer, to the console scene to a battle-worn veteran, with its share of victories and defeats behind him.

Initially it set the bar rather high for the competitor, and Sonys ambitious plans for the PS3 was somewhat crippled by the reality of production costs (among others), which was the main reason for the relatively unbalanced design - no matter how you feel about their console and its advantages and disadvantages, Sony went from market leader to figthing for the last place with MS - in terms of consoles sold. Nintendo surpassed both of them in console sales, but the attachment rate (and software sales) for the Wii has been significantly lower than for both of Nintendos competitors. Sony reacted to the success of the Wii (particularly among the so-called 'mainstream' gamers) with the Move controller, and MS's response is Kinect. Sonys deliberate inclusion of, and strong support for, blu-ray and some very strong exclusive titles did ensure that Sonys Playstation is still a very relevant brand on the console scene.

But no matter the history, the victories or the failings of the current gen of consoles, the time for a new cycle is nearing. In the last 7 years the performance of (high end) hardware has increased more than 10 times, and even the lowest estimates for the next gen of consoles from MS and Sony seem to put the performance between 4-6x the previous generation. Looking at the relative performance differences between earlier generations, and 8x increase of performance seem to be more plausible. If MS of Sony go the ambitious route of the current consoles, a 9-10x increase is possible.

People tend to forget that the Xenos GPU of the XBox360 was a bit ahead of the PC equivalents, in terms of features (not necessarily performance), and if MS go that route again, it will be hard to predict what will be inside the next console, as we simply haven't seen the hardware yet. It is not far-fetched, however, to expect a GPU from AMD, as rumours has persistantly pointed out AMD to be the sole provider of GPUs for all three next-gen consoles.

The world is a different place than it was in 2005. Xbox Live and PSN has become full-fledged online portals for communication, streaming, online play, messaging, demoes, arcade titles, and even full priced games (XBox360).. as such the future for consoles will very much depend on their online capabilities, which I fully expect the next gen to expand upon. What that means remains to be seen, but even in the current generation software updates of the consoles has expanded their online capabilities massively. If you had the Xbox360 at launch, think back on the first 'blades' dashboard and its online features, and it will pale in comparison of what you can do today.

But more importantly, as it cannot be changed in the course if its cycle, the hardware will play a predominant role for the success of the new consoles. More CPU cores (my guess is somewhere between 4-8 cores, each capable of handling even more threads), More ALUs on the GPU, more bandwidth and naturally more RAM will change the limits of what we can expect from games.

I've come to like the graphics of the current consoles, which have reached a natural plateau at this point in their cycle. But what can be achieved in the future is hard to imagine. Even a 'simple' 4x increase of performance will probably give better graphics than we have right now - at full 1080p resolution, instead of the usual upscaled 720p, and sometimes even lower resolution on the current consoles.

Imagine then an 7-8x increase of GPU (Dx11+ capable), CPU and RAM, and the next gen (AAA) games will surpass even the most demanding gamers initially... and hopefully give developers a platform on which there are even less creative restrictions and room for new ideas and technological breakthroughs.

In short, the march of the consoles are beginning. And me? Even though I enjoy gaming on the current gen, I'm beginning to look forward.

The last EVE

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A recent story on Eurogamer about the hardships of the online MMO EVE Online had me thinking about my experience of the game - which in turn seems to be more about my general view of MMOs, but EVE in particular, as that game is the only MMO I have spent a significant amount of time on.

For further information about the turmoil EVE has gone through, please look to this site and Eurogamer (or Google it), there are more than a dozen articles, forum discussions (and more) about the subject.

I stopped playing EVE just after the Incarna expansion. It is important to stress that I didn't stop because of the controversy surrounding the micropayments, or the annoying 'captains quarters', or even the arrogant attitude of CCP.. it was just getting boring. The problem with EVE Online is that it is hard to define any real goal, so after months and even years of looking through cost/income charts, reading about various low-sec tactics and trying out a lot of different ship fittings, one night a friend (who had started two months before) asked: "What is the purpose of all this?". I couldn't answer. There is no end-boss. There are no clearly defined goals, except amassing tons of ISK. But for what? More virtual spaceships? Better augmentations?

It is not because there is anything wrong with EVE in a traditional sense. It is an engrossing experience. And for the most part, you learn a lot from the game. Real trade skills, analyzing data and playing the market. It's just when someone shows you how pointless all your efforts are, and when the game's actual missions (outside PvP and corp wars) are rather repetive. It's like a cartoon character hanging in mid-air. As soon as he looks down, he will just fall.

Today, I'm back playing offline games.

To me, that the games actually end is becoming important.

And to me, that I play many different games is still very important.

Who knows? Maybe some day I'll get back to EVE and buy more virtual spaceships. But right now, that seems highly unlikely.

A short story full of bugs

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Let me tell you a story. An unpleasant one, in fact.

I visited a friend this weekend - one of these few but old, very good, friends. Visits has to be carefully planned months in advance due to family, children, work/school etc. In short, planning a long weekend with this particular friend is not a trivial matter and time passes much to fast in his company.

One of our plans was to play Might and Magic: Heroes VI. As longtime fans of the series, the slow turn-based gameplay is ideal for long sessions of gaming and talking about this and that. To be on the safe side, I downloaded the demo prior to the visit and packed my bags. If the demo turned out to be good, we would probably buy it the same evening.

However, when I arrived at his apartment, and opened Steam on my laptop, the demo wouldn't run.

This is a brand new Lenovo laptop with a fairly powerful GPU. All I got was a black screen, a mouse cursor that looked like a glove, and pushing ctrl-shift-escape, Windows could tell me that the game wasn't running anymore.

What should've been a good evening of Heroes and red wine, quickly turned into a futile hunt for bugs. I am by no means an apprentice on a PC - in fact I've built PCs since '98 and am currently learning OO programming - but no matter what I did, the same, cold black screen stared back at me, creaking 'Nevermore'.

I wasted much of that evening trying to get the game working - Ubisoft wasn't much help either. They stated that they don't support laptops at all - a bold (some would claim ridiculous) statement in 2011. Their forums is littered with people who has had similar problems.

If people ask me, why I mostly play console games these days, I turn and look them straight in their eyes and tell them the same story. Then I grab my coat and wander the lonely streets at night. Seconds later a slow whisper from the evening haze can be heard in the distance. "Stability", it says.

I think it is a keyword in this story. But then again, It might as well be a bug among so many others.

Apples and oranges gone bananas

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I often hear people, mostly dedicated only-PC gamers, talk about the technical superiority of the PC hardware - and why the consoles are 'inferior' compared to PCs. These arguments are used as proof of why consoles can't be taken seriously, and even in some cases, why the crossplatform titles should be bought for PCs instead.

Typically, if you follow these discussions a 'raw data' comparison will follow, like:"MyCPU has 4 OoO cores running at 3.2 Ghz, it has 8 GB system RAM, a GPU with 512 CUDA cores/1600 Alu's and 1 GB ram etc. etc. and the console only has a 3 core,in-order CPU at 3.2 Ghz, a 48 shader GPU and 512 MB RAM to share(or insert PS3 specs if you want to). Its easy to see the PC is the best and strongest gaming machine." Or something similar.

These comparisons/assumptions are IMhO inherently flawed because you are comparing apples and oranges - and not taking into account the ease of use of consoles, or the controller scheme, and just look at the technical and visual qualities of games, I will explain how the platforms are different and why I think the hardware and software is not comparable.

1. The hardware used in consoles are not off-the-shelf hardware
2. The 'closed-box' development insures better optimized games
3. And what PC do you compare with?

1. While the consoles have hardware that reminds a bit of the PC counterparts, the inner workings of the consoles are very different, and utilized differently, than the hardware in the PC. One example is the Xenos GPU in the Xbox360 - despite its age (2005), it has unified shaders, a feature set that could be placed somewhere inbetween DirectX9 and directx10, 10MB EDram (which no PC GPU has, the EDram has extremely high bandwidth) and it uses the shared system RAM of512 MB ram. This is just an example, the Cell SPEs and architecture would be another. Put simply, the console hardware is different and optimized specifically for the task at hand.

2. Another flaw in the 'my PC is stronger than any console' is the assumption, that console games are as poorly optimized for the hardware as PC games are. Before anyone raises their hand in objection, try to think about it. There are thousands to millions different PC configurations out there, from motherboards to GPUs, and although DirectX has gone a long way to make these different configurations work with modern day games, it also adds another layer of abstraction. And furthermore, different driver revisions for all these components in a PC also makes a difference. In other words, the developers are facing a host of challenges when making games for the PC - and most of these challenges are invisible to them, as it can depend on the specific combination of hardware and software at the end-user. That doesn't mean there aren't any well-optimized games for the PC, it just means that the developers has to work harder in order to get there.
The consoles, on the other hand, is a completely different development process altogether. The hardware is set, the software is set, and now its up to them to get the most out of it. Over the years, as developers get more experience with the consoles, the resulting games look, plays and runs better. In short - console games are (generally) very well optimized because of the closed-box nature of the consoles. Looking at some the best looking console games, like God of War III, Uncharted 2, Gears of War 2, Forza Motorsport 3 and others, you'll see what consoles can achieve with their 'inferior', specialized hardware and software.

3. And what PC do you compare with? Your netbook? Your laptop? Your Gaming rig? People have very different PCs for very different purporses - all are in theory able to play games. But in reality only afew will provide a better visual experience than what the consoles can offer, and even then the differences are minor. Rest assured, that the hardcore gamer PCs, that people often refer to in PC/console discussions, only stands for fraction of the total PCs used for gaming, as the Steam surveys imply. Consoles always provide the same experience, thats the whole idea.

The way it's meant to be biased

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This is taken from my Batman: Arkham Asylum review, and says a lot about my general thoughts on specific optimizations for one brand, standards and the role of game developers:

"If I had to point a finger at something wrong with this game, it is not something with the game itself, but more the technology behind it. This is an Nvidia optimized game for sure. What that means is, that the game uses the controversial PhysX based system in order to add a few effects to the game. But only if you own a Nvidia GPU... and a good one at that, as the framerate will be at least halved when turning on these effects. In my opinion, using PhysX effects in a game is a way to break the standards of the industry and give Nvidia an unfair advantage, and an unnecessary one at that. If we are to use physics accelleration in games, I would rather that the large GPU and CPU companies (with the possible help from Microsoft and/or OpenGL) find a standard - which they actually have - instead of using a proprietary standard owned by Nvidia. If anyone has followed the history of Creatives EAX system for 3D sound, they'll know the problems of having proprietary standards owned by single companies, and the negative effects for the end-user and their limited product choices.

These optimizations for Nvidia in this title goes beyond PhysX, however. Even AA cannot be turned on in-game on ATI cards, but it is possible with Nvidia cards - In short, just as brilliant as the game is on its own merits, just as biased is the optimizations of the game. Without AA and PhysX, the ATI cards perform rather well, however, and on my Q6600, 4 GB, HD5770 and windows 7 based system, the game had an average fps of 122 - and a minimum fps of 41 - which is great. With 4xAA we are talking around 98 fps (still a min. fps of 41) on my system, which is OK, but it requires you set the AA level through the catalyst control panel.

If developers would strive towards less biasfor a single GPU maker, no matter the fringe benefits of such a deal, maybe they would sell more units of the final game."

The game in question, Batman: AA is just an example. It might as well be some of the other Nvidia sponsored games, or even a few of the ATI sponsored ones. But if someone mentions Dirt 2, which contains a DirectX11 codepath, then the difference is DirectX11 is an industry standard, available for both Nvidia and ATI without being owned by either of them. PhysX, however, is owned by Nvidia and it doesn't require much imagination to find scenarios where that could be a problem, should ATI decide to go along with that standard. And that is why they don't.

The patch problem

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The PC developers seem to be very reluctant to support their games.

It's not that they don't make the necessary patches, although those come very late at times. No, the big problem is, that unless you've bought the games through an online service like Steam, that supplies (and installs) the patches automatically, you'll have to find and install the patches yourself.

It must be almost impossible to make an auto-updater to the game, or the developers have problems serving the files - whatever the problem, we as consumers are left to look fort he patches ourselves - depending on the developer and/or distribution method.

The reason I mention this is because I have a rather large collection of games - many of them in the goodole' DVD (and even CD) format. Those are the games that I've bought at the usual games retailers. Many PC games are flawed at the release, and as such you'll have to find the patches in order to enjoy the games as bug-free as possible. Logic would dictate that these patches should be readily available at the developers website, or even the publishers website. But this is not a logical world, and online services still have a long way to go - because patches are usually very difficult to come by, and when you finally find one, you usually have to register in order to get them - which I refuse to do, as I could've easily be a member of 15+ sites with different policies on privacy. And when you finally do find a place to download the patch (at, let's say, The Patches Scrolls), the DL speed is usually somewhere between 1/10th or 1/100th of your connection speed, making you wait for 30+ minutes, when it could've taken seconds. Hey, and the problem just gets bigger the larger your collection is, and if (and when) you have to reinstall your game collection after, let's say, a harddrive format or OS install, to name a few.

In short, it doesn't work,which in turn just means that in the future, I'll buy my games through Steam and hope that the service will last, and that the games retailers in the city will find something else to sell.

All because the developers and publishers seem unable to support their products on their own.

To bias or not to bias

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Looking at the forum posts regarding any console news, the ugly face of the biased comments is to be found just about everywhere. Its a bit funny, actually, because there is absolutely no need for these comments. They serve no purpose whatsoever, except to throw sand in the eyes of other reader and consequently turn the discussion into a kindergarten shouting contest. Or so it seems.

But more importantly, what is the purpose of these comments? Why do people, who has already made up their mind about X console, feel the need to comment or point out the flaws of the competing console at any chance they get?

Well, to be honest, I'm not sure. I guess you can look at these comments and their impact in both a positive and negative way.

To bias or not to bias

The positive approach would be to say, that the manufacturers are not getting the chance to rest on their laurels. The owners of a given console are constantly being reminded of the strengths of the competition and sometimes they may even find out they've actually bought the wrong console for their particular needs.

The negative approach would be to consider these comments as needless taunt. Pressure, and sometimes outright provocation, from the followers of the competition which makes it all the more difficult to discuss the real pressing matters, or even the subject at hand.

I guess I stand somewhere inbetween. I guess I can understand the need to participate in a discussion in order to make oneself heard, but at the same time I would've liked people to stay more on the subject, instead of killing or turning a discussion towards the usual "fanboy" discussion, in which both sides usually takes turn shouting. Not that I'm a fan of the word fanboy, as it turns out to be used primarily by the fanboys themselves, and the word seems to justify not taking the other side seriously, which in turn just makes any attemptto reason futile.

More importantly, the habit of thinking oneself 'right' and everyone else 'wrong' is the first sign of a near religious look at the consoles. If you're ready to participate in a discussion, the first smart thing to do would be to consider whether or not you have anything important to say about the matter. If 300 people has made the same comment as you are about to make, theres no need spam the thread with yet another one. The next thing to consider is whether or not you've read the article discussed. Some people feel as is the news being discussed is just a starting point for their own agenda - something that will surely lead up to the ever present shouting contest.

The Taunt

To be fair, I've succumbed to the dark depths of the taunt, feeling as if I needed to 'get back' at a ridiculous comment in a thread. But this temptation usually leads to the 'dark side' (this blog needed a reference to Star Wars, so here it is), and be sure, that if a comment is smelling to begin with, the rebuke will not get any better.
I try to discuss with people that at least has the courtesy to actually read what I say, and I tend not to adress my starting comment on a thread to anyone in particular, as I always try to start with a general view, observation, point or information before discussing the specifics. If other people has made a similar starting comment in the area I'm interested in, I usually adress them first. And not the trolls. But sometimes I fail, and address the wrong people first in a thread, and the discussion will suffer.

Some may be wondering now what my point is. The point is simple. Religious rhetorics and onesided views tend to attract opposite views. When two sides fail to communicate with eachother in a constructive way, the thread succumbs into chaos and shouting. And we've seen this happen way too often on Gamespot.

A final thought

One thing I've been thinking about lately, is why the fans of a particular console even bother reading and commenting the news about the competing console. They've already made up their mind, so why bother?

Is it insecurity? Curiousity? The need for confirmation of their choice? I'm not entirely sure,I think its a mixture of the reasons - there is a reason why the most heated "fanboy" discussions is always in the PS3 and Xbox360 forums (in my experience). I simply think its a matter of these two consoles being so close in terms of their primary customers and services, they simply attract the same people. So people have to make up their mind, but whatever they choose, they are never 100% certain they've made the right choice, so they have to put forward their insecurity to others. Which, of course,is absurd, as either side can feel absolutely comfortable with their choice as both consoles are excellent - in different ways.
There can, of course, be a number of other reasons for the need to pick on a console and a consoles crowd aside from this, but the above mentioned reason seem to be the one I think is predominant.

But I'm prepared to listen if you have other reasons. Always. If you're ready to listen as well.

Downgrading for a reason

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Well, it had to happen.

The point where I got tired of the big upgrading show PC gaming has turned into, and finally I made the decisive move to throw in the towel.

I'm selling my enthusiast gaming system, and instead buying a gaming capable laptop with decent specs, but a far cry from the enthusiast level PC I've been working on for the last many years. Actually, the last pre-built PC I've bought was back in 1998, since then I've been upgrading. Constantly.

I guess buying a laptop will ensure I don't fall for the temptation to buy even more hardware I don't need, in order to play games, that simply will be more fun on the 40" screen in my living room (in my case, on the Xbox360)

A laptop is, per definition, more practical and flexible, consumes less power and - if you are careful - will be powerful enough for most games. Yes, Crysis will probably not run well, but same goes for just about any other system in this part of the galaxy.

And gameplay isn't hurt by dialing down some of the more performance hurting capabilities - more importantly, I hope I'll start enjoying the gameplay and ideas behind games, instead of just benchmarking them (or looking for technical details) - a bad habit, I've had for the last 5 years or so.

Said in other words: I'm downgrading in order to enjoy my computer, instead of constantly working on it. I'm downgrading because I'm tired counting shader effects in games and I'm getting a laptop, because I'm tired of loud, demanding and expensive desktop computers, which you'll have to upgrade twice a year. And finally, I'm downgrading because I have a console, which is much more fun - and the games I do prefer on the PC aren't that demanding anyway.

If you have any comments, please do.

DX10, AMD and other recent failures

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So. This seems to be the season of broken promises, failures and high expectations.

First, whatever happened to DX10?

All games using "DX10 features" (mind you, DX10 was mainly about streamlining and futureproof the DX API) seem to run painfully slow, and/or have insignificant visual improvements compared to the DX9 graphics.

What happened? Developers seem to rally against the new DX API, as it is exclusively for windows Vista (and gamers are generally holding on to the aging XP) - furthermore, the few developers utilizing the new DX seem to do it wrong. Instead of using the streamlined API to make DX9 run faster, they try to use DX10 'features', as improved smoke and lighting effects, on a generation of GPUs not capable of running these effects (which only give almost insignificant improvements visually) - the results are games, that runs somewhere between 10%-60% slower in DX10 compared to DX9.

I somehow feel that the driver development for DX10 by Nvidia and ATI has been a half-hearted attempt as well. Combined these factors result in a mediocre API. The good news is, that the DX9 performance in Vista has been improved significantly lately, which gives Vista owners almost XP-like performance.

Still, DX10 is almost broken.I play games like Hellgate: London and CoH in DX9 and forego the DX10 features for now. Maybe in a year or two, things will change.

Phenom - AMD hype nothing but a dud

I was half expecting to drop everything I had in my hands and order a Phenom upon its release. As it turns out, I'm glad I waited for the reviews - and sad that AMD not only failed to design a C2D killer - but also failed to live up to their own hype.

All their 'real quad-core', '40% faster than the competition' marketing BS seems to blow up in their own face as the first reviews fails to see anything but a mid-end quadcore CPU struggling to fend of the aging Yorkfield and Conroe CPUs.

Considering the time it took AMD to get here, the R&D investments and the recent failures with ATIs HD 2900 XT (fortunately the new HD 38xx series seem to be a better price/performance part than the original HD 2xxx series) one begins to seriously doubt AMDs future. I've always been a huge fan of the AMD CPUs - had AMD been honest about the Phenom CPUs, and the performance we could expect from them, I might not be as dissapointed. As it is, though, AMDs credibility is at a all-time low. If AMD can survive a year more, we might see better CPUs (and a motherboard without the lackluster SB600) - because Phenom actually has a lot of great ideas, if we look at it as a platform (Spider) - but a promising platform with an unimpressive CPU is still nothing more than a sub-par offer, 'till AMD has higher performing CPUs. It seems like the days of the Athlon 64 design marvels is definitely over, and the old CPU developer has fallen back to its old niche.

Which is dissapointing considering the potential AMD had a few years back. And for us, as the consumers, this might a blow, as Intel will soon be able to either raise the prices for their enthusiast CPUs, or lower them to crush AMD economically.

Whatever path they choose, we will lose. The competition between AMD and Intel has always been great for the consumers, but I have a hard time seeing AMD gaining significant income with their new CPU line, and AMDs wallets has been empty for some time, so maybe this is the end of the line? Or has AMD something hidden in their sleeves? I doubt it, as the release seem somewhat desperate, (2.2 and 2.3 Ghz launch CPUs? A mighty Ghz below expectations if you ask me) - and AMD has to deliver. It will not get the benefit of the doubt this time. They've driven the expectations to a high level on beforehand, and as it is, AMD have no enthusiast CPU to show. Only buggy mid-end CPUs.

So here I sit. The E6420 Intel system I bought a few months ago seem to be a better buy for each day that passes. The 2.1 Ghz CPU runs daily @ 3.2 Ghz, no performance or stability issues whatsoever. A great gaming system.

Still, I wish that I could get a high performing AMD system again, as back in the golden Athlon 64 days. When you could almost smell the sweat of Intels CPU designers working hard to fight off the AMD 'whelps'. But alas, I guess these days are over.

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