I am a doctoral student in Cultural Anthropology, with a bachelor's in English & Creative Writing. I specialize in subcultures and cognition.
I love gaming, and I have followed the industry and its technology since I was a kid in the 80's. I have gamed primarily on PC since 2000, though I still follow console news and hardware as well. I was also a sales associate at Micro Center for a while, which was a great experience and got me into PC hardware.
I worked as a mapper and beta tester for the mod Action Half-Life. My maps, most of which have vanilla Half-Life Deathmatch versions, are available on my website.
*rework of previous blog I did under the nick ‘cryotek’*
A frequent argument against new console hardware is that it would put a huge burden on developers. Many AAA titles already have budgets in the tens of millions, and the common wisdom is that building games to take advantage of next-gen hardware would further increase this expense. The reasoning seems self-evident: lower end hardware has less detailed games, meaning it requires lower quality resources and less work. This isn’t always the case, however, and this argument is based on some flawed assumptions.
We could say that consoles go through a three-stage life cycle when it comes to development. Early titles often wow because of the new hardware, but don’t approach the system’s potential. Then after a couple years we reach the golden age of a console, where developers know what they are doing and are putting out titles befitting a system’s capabilities.
There is a third phase, however, as a system ages. Gamers expect visual improvements over time, even on the same hardware. To meet these expectations, developers must put more and more technical work toward overcoming hardware limitations. Eventually a turning point can be reached. A game likeWatch Dogsmight be possible on the PS3, yes. But it would probably be less work to make for the PS4 because the developers wouldn't have to wrack their brains trying to “fit” it into the system's capabilities.
I do not envy Ubisoft the task of porting Watch Dogs to console.
The argument that game resources will become more expensive – from textures to models to game levels – remains, though. But not only can we refute this argument, we can turn it on its head. Let’s start with textures.
Higher Quality Game Resources
Most games start with higher quality texture resources than the current consoles can use anyway. This is clear from the PC versions of cross-platform games, which usually sport higher quality textures. So developers are already making next-gen quality textures – they just can’t use them on the PS3/360. They are also, as in the case of many Unreal Engine 3 titles, forced to implement buggy streaming tricks with texture resources due to RAM limitations. Again, this is more work they wouldn’t be doing with better hardware.
Alan Wake’s PC port shows that next-gen quality textures are already being made for games.
Let’s move on to creating models for players, monsters, and level props. When it comes to modeling, the work isn’t just making a highly detailed model– it is making a model that looks detailed but is efficient in its use of polygons, etc. More powerful hardware allows for more detailed models and reduces the need for agonizing levels of optimization. Yes, it can actually be easier to make high detail models.
The same logic applies to level design. I used to map for the original Half-Life, and making game levels that looked detailed, but stayed within the old engine’s polygon “budget”, was a lot of work. As a mod mapper I rather enjoyed the technical challenge. But professional level designers need to produce content quickly, not struggle to fit their vision into a system’s resource budget.
And don’t forget – some parts of development won’t change much at all. Voice acting, sound effects, and soundtracks, for example, have more or less peaked. Their quantity and quality is no longer a hardware limitation. Whether Uncharted 5 were to come out for the PS3 or PS4, there would be no reason to think the audio budget would be any different.
Learning New Hardware
What about the learning curve developers face with new hardware? Well, that depends on Microsoft and Sony. Current leaks suggest the new consoles will closely resemble PCs, a platform already familiar to developers. It’s doubtful we’ll see another system with an architecture as arcane as the PS3’s.
The PS4 doubles as a Frisbee when PSN is down, and the 720 spawns pod-people. True story.
Hardware is only one factor of the learning curve, too. There are already several game engines ready to take advantage of next-gen consoles – CryEngine 3, Unreal Engine 3, Frostbyte 2, and Unigine are all designed to scale up. Being able to use familiar engines would greatly reduce the learning curve for developers, and the engines themselves often do much of the “porting” work for developers. Doing cross-development on PC is good practice for next-gen console development as well. So developers will probably go into the next console generation with more resources and more readiness than you might expect.
Star Wars 1313 runs on an advanced version of Unreal Engine 3 and may be the first next-gen only title to be revealed.
“What about Unreal Engine 4?” you ask? Everyone seems to look at the screenshots and say “too expensive”… yet UE4 actually supports my lower-cost argument. Read the Wired interview with Epic’s Tim Sweeny, or watch the UE4 Developer Walkthrough. The engine is specifically designed to make development easier and faster – but it needs better hardware to run.
“Sweeney has stuffed UE4 with tools that promise shortened production pipelines and lower production costs (and all the profit that such efficiency represents).” – Stu Horvath, Wired.
It is only because the current console generation is shooting for a longer lifespan that these late-life development issues have become so relevant. Typically a new generation of consoles would already be out by now. Instead, developers are left to struggle with hardware that can barely run the games they are throwing at it. While they are putting out some amazing titles, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. As I have shown, working with old hardware can be inefficient and costly. You also have to wonder - how much more content could developers give us if they weren't fighting the hardware?
I think a lot of this “too expensive” talk is us, as gamers, projecting our own financial anxieties onto developers. But developers will be just fine. As with the current console generation, there will be plenty of room for both AAA titles and smaller download titles. And even small developers making budget titles will benefit from the extra horsepower available to them.
There are valid reasons to hold back on new consoles, of course. They are a big risk/investment for the maker, and in a bad economy that risk is even greater. Some gamers seem content with current offerings and don’t want to buy new hardware. All of which is fine – but let’s not pretend we’re out to help developers when we’re not.
*Part of the reason I reworked and reposted this blog is because it will lead into a few other articles I have outlined - most relating to next-gen console and PC hardware*