By Gamer_152 12 Comments
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.