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The technological limits of consoles
Posted on Sunday, January 24 2010 @ 08:40:13 PST

After reading an article in 360 Gamer (issue 72) I came to wonder just how much life is left in today’s generation of consoles, this is an expansion of the issue that article touched upon.


We are currently in the seventh generation of consoles. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 give us access to stunning visuals and have done for several years, so long in fact that that if this were any previous generation we would be looking forward to the next series of consoles. However, this generation is different; in years gone by the focus was in progressing to the next, more powerful console and this was possible thanks to simpler programming and smaller production costs. While many consoles enjoyed extended lives and developers certainly uncovered hidden power of the magic boxes the successors of generations of consoles arrived quickly and picked up pace as the original console slowly died. The first PlayStation was introduced in late 1994 and officially discontinued in 2006, six years after the introduction of the PlayStation 2. Similarly the software for the PS2 has been severely dialled back as of late but it is still being supported and new consoles are sold for around £100 (only £50 cheaper than a brand new Xbox 360 Arcade for non-Brits).


The Xbox 360 has been available for coming up to five years now and is still going strong; so strongly that a successor is only rumour and developers are still managing to push the envelope graphically. Compare Gears of War with Gears of War 2 or Mass Effect with the upcoming Mass Effect 2 and you’ll see enormous leaps and bounds. While the 360 and PS3 both have an enormous amount of processing grunt they are not bottomless pits of power and the honeymoon is over. Developers are pushing the machines to their brute force limits and are now coming up with ingenious ways of writing more efficient code. Graphics may continue to improve on the current generation of consoles (look at God of War 3 and be blown away) but in ever decreasing increments and when the clever people who write code need to spend more and more time figuring out clever ways to work around the console’s limitations they’re taking time away from themselves.


The most obvious limitation to the Xbox 360 is the lack of a high capacity drive. The PS3 has the enormous capacity of Blu-ray to put towards expansive exclusive titles such as Heavy Rain, Metal Gear Solid 4 and God of War 3 while Microsoft hedged its bets in the HD war and went with the standard and ubiquitous DVD format for the console. While such a decision was, in hindsight, a good one since HD-DVD died a death and would have left the 360 with a useless and obsolete format (hello GD-ROM!) it was also somewhat of a double edged sword giving the 360 a comparatively tiny amount of storage per disc. MGS4 purportedly occupied all 50GB of a dual layered Blu-ray disc which would mean that around 6 DVDs would need to have been used for all the content to be transported to the 360. Gamers can’t be expected to purchase an add-on Blu-ray drive to be able to play upcoming games which leaves the 360 stuck with outdated DVD technology. Again, thanks to the efforts of developers this has done little to stop the success of Microsoft’s latest console but it is the most damaging element of the 360.


Where this generation of consoles differs from previous efforts is the sheer cost of game development. Following the upward trend set out by the previous generation blockbuster games these days can cost millions of dollars to produce and distribute. Obviously, as knowledge of the hardware improves costs can be lowered and once a new piece of hardware hits the market the cycle starts again with programmers having to get to grips with the new architecture before true advancement can occur. Additionally Microsoft and Sony have hit a steady track now with both the 360 and PS3 having a market set up, the technology is easy to manufacture and everyone knows what the consoles are. To interrupt this flow by introducing a new console to the market would cost the companies billions of dollars and perhaps this money would be better spent on promoting their online services and creating in-house games for the moment.


The obvious exception to Moore’s Law (the concept that computing power doubles every two years to the benefit of everyone) is the Wii. This console features processing power only just better than the PS2 but has quite solidly beat the **** out of the PS3 and even the 360 in terms of sales. It’s thanks to its family friendly motion controls and simplistic games that this console has managed to appeal to everyone from the elderly grandmother who lives down the street to her irritating ADD riddled grandson to the Wii Fit girl to anyone who needed to break the ice at a quiet party. Its games appeal because they’re simple: Wii Sports require your ability to swing the remote; Mario and Sonic at the Olympics require... the same; Wii Fit allows people to exercise without feeling like they’re exercising. The gaming market is a large one but it’s not as big as the non-gaming market and that is the unusual niche the Wii occupies.


Thanks to Nintendo’s astonishing success with the Wii both Sony and Microsoft are looking into motion controls in an effort to increase their market share to more casual gamers and, although it worries me to think of these consoles as home to casual shovelware, it is a very smart way of increasing appeal without increasing cost. The 360 and PS3 are both perfectly capable of processing whatever is necessary to monitor a person’s body and movements and translate them into the game without so much as breaking sweat and this is an avenue for Generation Seven to explore before its end.


The black box sitting next to your TV isn’t an endless magical box; its technology is firmly rooted in reality and as such has limits which we will find sooner rather than later but thanks to clever coding, lateral thinking and the odd trick or two developers are finding more and better ways of improving the end product.

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