The animosity between gamers of different system platforms is a timeless source of ranting, presumed to be inevitable in the games industry. However, as more information about the next generation of home consoles comes to light, the line between PC architecture and the typical console assumption blurs. This notion began with Sony’s February reveal of their contribution to the technological arms race: the PlayStation 4. Boasting improved specifications across the board (excuse the pun), the system promised an innovative and socially-integrated gaming experience. Although this introduction alone raised plenty of eyebrows, particularly those of software developers, it was not until Gamasutra’s interview with Mark Cerny, the lead architect for the PlayStation 4, that sufficient information was available to make any judgment calls. Cerny’s no-holds unveiling of the PS4’s true hardware prowess drove the final stake into the coffin of console inferiority, and, while leaving PlayStation gamers dancing in the streets, also gave PC gamers equal reason to rejoice.
There’s more than fanboy-ism at play in the “PC vs. Console” divisiveness. Developer, publisher, and game preferences aside, the main argument is that consoles inhibit the potential of modern video games while PCs, with their upgradeability and hardware superiority, represent the more advantageous platform. This is a fairly accurate claim; current consoles are genuinely unable to hold a candle to PC architecture in most, if not all strengths. It is a complaint based in cries of hardware inadequacy and the difficulties inherent for developing on multiple platforms, of which consoles are the lowest (and weakest) common denominator. Thankfully, the PS4 has made strides in both aspects that render the aforementioned argument moot.
The first and most stressed goal of the PS4 is to demystify the software development process. This has been repeatedly asserted from day one, and Cerny was even quoted saying: “The biggest thing is we didn’t want the hardware to be a puzzle that programmers would be needing to solve in order to make quality titles.” This reflects the most limiting aspect of current-generation systems: their convoluted infrastructure. The PlayStation 3, for example, offers a powerful CELL processor which, as recent games have shown, is more than capable of supporting high-resolution, CPU-intensive gameplay. However, the processor’s structure was so alien to developers and programmers that it remained largely untapped for several years. This is where we derive the term “golden years,” the period when developers finally develop a firm understanding of how to create games according to a platform’s capabilities.
This accessibility barrier affects the quality of games on both systems, as PC counterparts reflect the base value of the console version. Sure, hardware improvements help close the gap between the two and improve the fluidity and graphics of a game, but the disparities between console ports and PC exclusives are still depressingly huge.
The PS4 aims to tear this barrier down by using a more familiar system—in this case, x86 architecture. This shift will surely help alleviate the stress of console development, but there’s still more to be said about Sony’s “developer-centric” intent. More than just offering familiarity, the PS4 is designed to remain relevant for years to come by, as Cerny says, maintaining “a balance between features which you can use day one, and features which will allow the system to evolve over the years.”
Again, this is great news for the console population, but PC gamers share stock in this as well. By simplifying the development and porting processes, the PS4 will allow companies to create games for both platforms more easily. This will diminish if not eliminate the many bottlenecks of consoles; framerate caps will be a thing of the past; graphical differences will become imperceptibly small, and conversion (porting) timeframes will be shrunk from months to weeks.
Ultimately, the PS4 is raising the lowest common denominator of video game development to the point that the gap between PC and consoles will be a non-issue to all but the strictest of eyes. Allow me to put this in perspective: It’s like comparing 80FPS to 70FPS—one may technically be better, but your eyes won’t even notice.
This brings us to the hardware side of things. Philosophy is great and all, but nothing speaks more than numbers in the hardware industry, right? For brevity’s sake, I’ll trim things down to the more prominent innovations of the PS4. The first and arguably most impressive is its 8gb of unified DDR5 RAM, comprising the core of its “supercharged” APU. Although 8gb is a bar-setting amount for consoles, it’s nothing compared to modern PCs (after all, most z77 chipset motherboard can support 16gb of RAM without breaking a sweat). However, that little 8 is deceptively valuable, as it can be addressed independently by the CPU and GPU. This will lessen stress on both operations and allow the PS4 to allocate memory to specific functions to improve performance. It also means that the PS4 GPU has access to more VRAM than the most powerful discrete video cards.
We’ve also got the addition of a third GPU bus which simplifies the communication process between the GPU and CPU, one of many unique modifications to AMD’s basic architecture that the PS4 design team has made. Another such modification is that the GCN compute command source count, originally confined to two, has been raised to 64, which creates more avenues of allocation for the PS4’s graphical computations. The system’s GPU L2 cache has also been modified with what has been dubbed the “volatile bit,” which “reduces the overhead of running compute and graphics together on the GPU.” Meanwhile, the board itself has been fitted with dedicated units to accommodate peripheral functions such as audio decompression.
However, despite its impressive figures, the PS4 will still be unable to trump PC development, simply because, as a console, its hardware will remain stationary while PCs continue to evolve. However, this handicap also represents how the system will help PC gamers: by staying relevant, and staying competitive. By raising the bar of home console performance so drastically, and lowering the difficulty of cross-platform development just as far, the PS4 is poised to stabilize the gaming market in a way that no other system has.
Oh, and the fact that AMD, the go-to hardware manufacturer for next-gen systems, will be raking in the dough after selling hundreds of thousands of chips consistently is nice too. After all, landing this kind of chipset deal means they’ll have the time and resources to expedite the PC side of things. So, why don’t PC and console gamers shut up, shake hands, and play nice for a generation or two?
Date: May 8, 2013