Nuts and Bolts

Whenever new information about the relative advantages or disadvantages of a games console come to light, two things inevitably happen: 1. Fanboys and fangirls adopt this information as ammunition for the ongoing mud-slinging matches over who supports the best consumer product, and 2. Some people assume that the general discussion or all discussion of that new information is only relevant to those pointless console wars. A similar thing also happens when we learn of major technical differences between systems and games. Any in-depth discussion of technical disparities does get dominated by dyed-in-the-wool hardware fanatics, but this also leads some people to believe that the only people that discussion and information are relevant to are those with an intense interest in hardware alone.

I think we’ve seen all of these occurrences in the recent discussion of the hardware disparities between the Xbox One and PS4. I won’t go into details, but on the off-chance you’ve not heard, launch games for the Xbox One are running at a lower resolution than launch games for the PS4, and the Xbox One can’t move data in and out of RAM as fast as the PS4. I know that’s a bit of a reductionist explanation, but the specifics aren’t important here, and there are places where you can look this up yourself if you want to. The upshot is that for many, especially those who are really into their hardware, this has been a big deal. As is ever the case with console discussion, much of it has ranged from slightly misguided debate to outright insanity, but while I can’t quite bring myself to get fully caught up in that conversation, I also can’t bring myself to reject it entirely.

The Importance of Hardware

Sometimes it's important to discuss the technical side.

Not everyone discussing these topics is a console fanboy. I think there are plenty of rational, level-headed people talking about console hardware, and sometimes hardware and graphics are just the special interest people happen to harbour. For most of us video games are about much more than that, but if that’s what gets someone excited about video games then great, I’m not going to tell anyone that the thing they subjectively value is wrong. In fact when these discussions get really in-depth I think it’s cool to see people nerd out about something they’re passionate about, and explore the fact that consumer electronics are more complex than we often give them credit for. While far too many of these discussions have been fuelled by meaningless console politics, when they’re conducted correctly they can only teach us more about games and game hardware and help us provide constructive criticism of them.

It’s common to hear some variation on the sentiment that “The hardware itself doesn’t matter, what really matters are the games”, and while I agree with that to a large extent, I think this thinking sometimes ignores that games can only do as much as the hardware they’re running on allows them to do. The sights, sounds, and everything else we experience when we play games happen in a direct sense because of program code and data interfacing with a specific set of hardware, and so hardware with a certain degree of power and certain capabilities is and always has been important. New hardware isn’t the be-all and end-all for those trying to push the boundaries of games at this point, and I’ll come back to that, but a fresh box of parts can still open up the potential for more realistic graphics, more complex AI, larger worlds, fewer and quicker loading screens, and so on. Given this fact it seems perfectly relevant to discuss exactly how much larger that scale can get, or how much more complex that AI can be on new consoles. So yes, the games matter, but the hardware itself matters because it’s essential to those games.

Red Herring

All that being said however, I conform to the basic opinion that too much attention is being given to the hardware specs and graphical capabilities of the new consoles. While being interested largely or solely in graphics is one thing, there are many of us who love games as a whole, and yet get way too caught up in discussions about pixel counts or DDR3 vs. DDR5 as if they’re the life force of a video game. Most of us here have this general idea in our heads that what you do with your graphics matters more than how much raw power you have behind your graphics engine, and yet in gaming discussion spaces the number of conversations about art styles and visual design still pales in comparison to the number of discussions about maximum resolutions and system requirements. Similarly, the ratio of discussions about hardware specifics like memory size and CPU power to serious discussions about game design, writing, and other factors doesn’t seem to line up to how important each of these factors actually are in making a good game.

As much stock as people might put in hardware, it's not usually what makes a console their favourite.

This all seems particularly silly because looking back at the history of games consoles we can see that it’s not been the raw power of the hardware that’s decided which consoles the majority of people buy or hold in high regard. Look at the way that the Nintendo DS trounced the PSP, or the way that the PS2 won out over the more powerful Xbox, or the way the NES steamrolled the Master System. Of course not everyone is going to agree with every one of these examples, but anyone who has been part of video games for a significant amount of time is likely to remember an instance when their favourite console just wasn’t the most powerful one on the market.

Another problem with these arguments rests in the fact that hardware alone has never been the sole decider of how a game performs, even on a technical level. Developers having a feel for how to build and optimise for the console they’re working on plays a major role too, and they get better at this over time. This is why we can see games as graphically disparate as Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 both running on the NES, or Amped 3 and Halo 4 both running on the Xbox 360. So while we can have many relevant discussions about the technical side of upcoming systems, these discussions can never produce a single exact answer to how well-executed the technical aspects of future games on that hardware will be.

It should be noted that this hardware obsession isn’t just perpetuated by the gaming community. For years we’ve had a lot of the industry, including the console manufacturers themselves, telling us that tech specs are a lot more important than they actually are. When E3 conferences are about showing off the flashiest games possible and games are marketed so heavily on how real they look and how detailed the visuals are, it’s no surprise we’ve ended up where we have.

Decay

Among other things, it’s important for us to remember that hardware power is becoming less and less relevant to video games. I stand by what I said about hardware having relevance and being able to open up new potential in certain areas for games, but on the whole, new hardware isn’t giving us what it once did and we’re getting diminishing returns as we go on. The most obvious department this is happening in is graphics, for reasons probably best explained in this image (source):

That image is a little off because there’s a fair few wasted polygons in that model, and this particular picture also doesn’t take into account the good that high quality shaders, animation, etc. can do, but I still think the message comes through. As the level of detail on which graphical improvements are being made increases, our ability to tell the difference between these incremental improvements weakens, and these diminishing returns are happening in more than just the graphical department.

For example, there was a time when video games being able to display a very limited number of objects on screen at once meant that there were fundamental limitations on what games could do in terms of gameplay. Even a graphically simplistic Geometry Wars wouldn’t have been possible on certain very early retro systems because they just could not support that many bullets and enemies being held in memory and being updated at once. When hardware advanced to be able to cope with storing and processing more at a time, it opened up a lot of new possibilities for designers. Gameplay systems expanded to accommodate more moving parts. But now, when we’re talking about expanding memory or processing power, it’s rarely for fundamental gameplay changes. It’s so we can play the same games, but with more players than before, or on a larger map, or with slightly smarter AI.

New hardware can't bring the change it once did.

For another example think about the way that the new hardware of the Playstation/Nintendo 64 era meant that 3D gameplay was now possible where it wasn’t before. Without that advancement, games like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid couldn’t have existed. Now however, there is nothing as big as the 3D graphics barrier to surpass. Overall, these really major restrictions have been overcome and every new set of hardware is about overcoming less and less serious limitations every time, meaning that just having more powerful hardware is becoming less relevant and valuable to us every time. You could hypothesise that there are obstacles that we haven’t yet found that we need more powerful machines to overcome, but even under this mindset you can’t actually name any major gameplay advantage that will be granted to consoles through more powerful hardware.

Of course, new consoles don’t have to be sold on more powerful hardware alone. They can also offer unconventional hardware or other features and services we can’t get elsewhere, and we’ve seen plenty of this in recent years in the form of online multiplayer services, motion controls, and consoles trying to develop themselves into all-in-one media boxes. However, not all of this is as relevant to us as it might sound at first. While the worth of services like Xbox LIVE and PSN is obvious, they and their development don’t require new consoles; motion controls have facilitated many light-hearted casual games, but for 99% of the games we play they haven’t changed things dramatically; and while services like Netflix and Hulu on consoles can be really cool, they’re still not about enhancing the games themselves in any way. There are other newer features such as live streaming or social media environments in which to view friends’ gaming achievements, but while I think these features have some potential, they're not advancing things in any radical way, and they still seem to be more about systems surrounding games than the games themselves.

The Reality

To be clear, I’m not suggesting for a second that originality in games is dependent on fancy new hardware. There are so many places for video games to go that they haven’t gone before, but I think new console hardware has less and less to do with games getting to those places. In fact, while console manufacturers are predictably eager to tell us about how every new console is a revolution for the industry, in practical terms the costs of developing for higher-end hardware almost always mean that developers can afford fewer risks and less experimentation when taking full advantage of these systems. It might look fine on paper to point to a new console and talk about how its bigger memory and faster processing will allow developers greater freedom than ever before, but when the more original games we’re seeing now can usually run on cheaper, lower-end systems, and are frequently independently-developed, while AAA games are having to play it increasingly safe, that marketing pitch just doesn’t fly for anyone paying attention.

This isn’t me angling for you to be all doom and gloom here. The fact that so many technical hurdles standing in the way of games have been overcome is a positive, and I’m not saying we can’t get excited about new consoles and better graphics and all those things, but I think it also benefits us to take stock of what exactly new hardware means and what raw technical power brings us in terms of the bigger picture, lest we end up like the people who can’t see beyond arguments about screen resolution and DDR versions. Thanks for reading.

12 Comments
12 Comments
Posted by Video_Game_King

I thought this was going to be about Banjo Kazooie >:|.

Posted by Demoskinos

I thought this was going to be about Banjo Kazooie >:|.

x2

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Posted by TheManWithNoPlan
Posted by ajamafalous
Posted by YukoAsho

Well, never let the importance of smarter AI be underestimated. Honestly, with gaming running head-first into the giant brick wall of diminishing returns, that power could be better served in making enemies that behave and react better to player actions, as well as the world around them. You ask me, that right there is the final frontier.

You do make a point, however, that we're getting to the point where there's not much limit (other than budget, of course) to what can be made. Perhaps streamlining development tools should be the next big tech project?

Edited by TruthTellah

@gamer_152 Thanks for bringing this up.

After studying game design and working with fellow artists and programmers for a few years, I see more of the hope in better technology as a matter of developer capability and improved tools than simple raw power on display. I think people often focus too much on the diminishing returns of hardware on realistic graphics. What is so promising is reaching a point where hardware gains are spent less on bumping up poly counts and more on how the game itself is designed and runs. So, the idea that graphics may not improve as dramatically this generation is actually encouraging to me, because it means developers may potentially put more of that power into achieving smoother or wider experiences.

Next gen game engines and developer tools are going to make it easier for less people to do more. This previous/current gen has allowed independent developers to achieve games that rival traditional developers, and a lot of that rests in the accessibility and power of the tools available to them. The progress of technology in gaming is most exciting in the ways in which it empowers developers to craft better and faster. Whereas a developer might have once spent days to get just the right path for enemies in a level, new tools for next gen have the power behind them to arrange and modify enemy paths with ease in under a few hours.

Higher level tools that were once only within the reach of top-tier developers are now feasible for even a startup developer looking to make their own grand experience. And if a few people can do so much, imagine the potential of big companies today using the best tools available to craft massive, dynamic experiences. The advances in baseline gaming hardware and technology are not just a matter of polygons or resolution; they are opportunities for developers of all sizes to be able to achieve more in the games they set out to make.

Edited by Chaser324

Totally agree. While the PS4 and Xbox One are absolutely more capable pieces of hardware than the PS3 and 360, the amount of discussion centered around picking apart their specs is pretty absurd, and it also seems like an increasingly trivial discussion. With both moving towards more conventional x86 PC style architectures, the differences are starting to move towards being more and more inconsequential. It's likely going to be easier than ever for third-party multiplatform developers to build engines that work well on both rather than having to focus more on a "lead platform".

This generational shift feels more purely iterative than any other, and that's a bit disappointing when you think about it. Neither console seems to have ambitions of doing something drastically different (at least in terms of games), but instead both are positioned primarily to just continue building upon what current consoles are already doing. As a result, it seems likely that a lot of what we're going to see in coming years is just iterative software - bigger and better versions of things we've already seen.

The future of the video game industry is unclear, and these new consoles don't do anything to clear it up. It's going to be very interesting to see where things go in the next few years.

EDIT: Apologies to Nintendo for pretending you don't exist while I was in the process of writing this post. You guys still can make good games, and I respect you trying different things with your hardware.

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Edited by Gamer_152

@truthtellah: @yukoasho: I appreciate the comments. Not all of this response is going to be relevant to both of you, but it's much simpler to reply to both of you at once. Better AI can be really cool, but I just don't see "These dudes react better in an FPS" as anything revolutionary for the medium. I think you're both right that better developer tools can go a long way and are something games are going to benefit greatly from being improved on though. I mean look at what UDK has been able to do for people, or the effect that middleware like Havok and Scaleform has had on AAA games. That being said, we're not really playing a zero sum game here where because hardware is giving us more diminished returns this generation that means the industry has 5 skill points left over to spend in the software design category. How well a game is designed is also not really a product of hardware improvement.

When it comes to budget potentially limiting games it kind of does, but as I said at the end of my blog, I don't think this is a simple case of higher budget = more can be done. A higher budget can mean better graphics and sound on a technical level, it can mean more content, and that studios can hire lots of talented people and buy lots of important tools, but to reiterate, in another way it's incredibly restrictive for games because high budget games can almost never take as many risks as low budget games.

This all seems to be kind of narrow thinking to me though, and I think this kind of thinking is indicative of what's gone wrong in a lot of wider game discussion. There's way more to working out how to built good games than better hardware and better development tools and bigger budgets, because games aren't just run-of-the-mill software projects, they're a creative medium. Games as a medium are still finding their feet and there's a lot of unanswered questions out there right now. I think something far more important than just working out how many thousands we can bump up poly counts by or how many clock cycles we can get out of console CPUs is the body of people who create games working out how to better design gameplay systems, tell stories with games, make statements with them, make them more inclusive, and generally evolve them and explore all the things we can do with them that we haven't done yet.

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Posted by big_jon

I came here for Banjo-Kazooie! I left here without it! >:(

Posted by TruthTellah

@truthtellah: @yukoasho:

This all seems to be kind of narrow thinking to me though, and I think this kind of thinking is indicative of what's gone wrong in a lot of wider game discussion. There's way more to working out how to built good games than better hardware and better development tools and bigger budgets, because games aren't just run-of-the-mill software projects, they're a creative medium. Games as a medium are still finding their feet and there's a lot of unanswered questions out there right now. I think something far more important than just working out how many thousands we can bump up poly counts by or how many clock cycles we can get out of console CPUs is the body of people who create games working out how to better design gameplay systems, tell stories with games, make statements with them, make them more inclusive, and generally evolve them and explore all the things we can do with them that we haven't done yet.

I actually think this is one of the ways in which improved hardware and technology is helping gaming and continues to have potential to help it further. This technology is allowing more and more people to be able to make games, and for those making games, they can no do even more. As a medium, this is great, because videogames have for a long time been a rather restrictive medium as far as who can truly utilize it. Improved baseline hardware and thus more powerful and accessible tools allow more people to be able to make the games they want to make.

I see the improvement in technology as a boon to the medium, and I think we've already seen that with small teams or even individuals able to make innovative and interesting games. As a creative medium, this is like allowing more people access to the brushes, paints, and canvases they need to craft magnificent paintings. Or providing more people with the instruments and sound equipment to make amazing music. We are seeing the potential not only for established developers to do more with the tools they have but also more people and smaller teams to be able to get into gaming and craft the games they envision. That has been one of the biggest areas of progress in the last few years of gaming, and I have a feeling that will be an even bigger factor in the years to come.

Posted by TyCobb

I said it in one of the many E3 threads earlier this year about the PS4 and Xbox One -- I was more excited for the new consoles to see what new game mechanics could be introduced now that there is a lot more processing power. Graphics are great, but as Steam has shown with indy games -- game mechanics are greater than graphics (pricing helps too, but lets not dive into this minutiae).

Everything that has happened in this generation's launch has actually made me not want to even touch the PS4 or Xbox One. I have been thinking heavily on getting a Wii-U because it happens to actually have games that look a lot more fun. Sure there are games I would love to play like Dead Rising 3, but I can always just hope for a PC release and if I want to play a AAA FPS that doesn't look like crap (not talking about graphics), I have my PC. As a quick side note, I would have never thought I would have said I would take a Wii-U over the PS4 or Xbox One, but damn, I really want one instead.

Posted by Gamer_152

@truthtellah: You're absolutely right. Perhaps I should clarify: I meant that good hardware doesn't mean a smarter design, but I don't deny that better hardware can help developers run software which allows for better and easier application of their design. While neither of us have mentioned it directly, I will also concede that it can make for better design in that being able to get a rough version of a game up and running quickly allows developers to start seeing where the flaws in their game are and work on them in a more immediate way. While I still believe the painter and general knowledge of how to paint are much more important than the paintbrush, I don't want to deny how useful these tools are. I would like to note though, that this is not the kind of hardware I was talking about in my blog. I was talking about consumer end hardware, mainly in the form of consoles, while here we're talking about PC hardware on the developer end.

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