I didn't initially want to write this blog. See, it involved bringing up something I've already discussed in my last two blogs: the Wii U. I didn't particularly want to write a third successive blog about the console, when the truth is, I've yet to pick mine up. Terrible, I know. Chalk it up as one of the joys of being a minimum wage monkey working temp shifts. One month you think you have money, the next you discover you really, really don't. But anyways, initially I was going to leave the topic be, and try and find something else to try and discuss. But then, as often happens, I couldn't help posting responses in a forum here, or an article there, and all of a sudden I was knee deep in debates I'd already told myself I wasn't going to have, and so I thought fuck it, I'll just get the whole bloody lot out of my system.
See, I've been noticing something recently. It's not something new in and of itself. In fact, it's a trend that's been around for as long as gaming has. And yet, now more than ever it seems to be becoming more prominent. It's what I like to call the Jeremy Clarkson problem.
If you're from the UK, chances are at some point or other, you're going to have seen Top Gear. Even if not, I'll wager you've at least heard of it. It's got one of the biggest audiences of any tv show in the world. And one of the show's most endearing/controversial (depending on your political and cultural preferences) elements is Jeremy Clarkson, the curly haired embodiment of a perpetual mid-life crisis. Ostensibly, Clarkson is an automobile journalist and critic. He is paid to talk about cars, and hopefully review them in a balanced, measured way. But as anyone who's watched the show knows, when it comes to driving, there's only one thing Clarkson ever looks for in a car.
In his defence, his lust for torque and horsepower is regularly portrayed as a bit of comedy, a single-minded, lunk headed pursuit for speed which exasperates his fellow presenters. After all, if you're actually reviewing a car, there are a whole host of factors to consider: how it handles, how it rides, fuel consumption, reliability, etc etc. A good car isn't just about horsepower, it's about how efficiently and reliably the thing as a whole works. As an example, a Lotus Elise has got far, far less raw horsepower than your average supercar, yet it could probably still outperform the majority of them round a racetrack due its superb handling and light weight.
What on earth does all this automobile rambling have to do with games? Well, it seems to me that more and more of the gaming community is succumbing to this Jeremy Clarkson mindset of:
...except without the self-referential irony.
When it comes to videogame hardware, it seems like the entire community is only ever concerned with GFLOPS and other raw numbers which scream "Lots and lots of polygons!!!!" How efficiently gaming hardware is put together, how well it works within the limits set for itself, is something which is still nigh on ignored by the majority of tech-heads. To illustrate this, I'm going to use two examples:
First up, the aforementioned Wii U. The reason I'm using this console as an example is because of a thread which was posted on Neogaf, examining the consoles innards. Now, if you're aware of the Wii U, you're probably aware of the claims that it's no better in terms of hardware than the PS360, or only marginally better.
As it turns out, this is actually balls. If you go simply by GFLOPS, then yes, the Wii U isn't as huge a step as, say, the PS4. But what you're doing there is focusing purely on one element of the hardware which is used as a yardstick for "POWAH!", and ignoring the rest of the architecture. Architecture which is actually pretty crucial to understanding why the system works the way it does. The main example of this is the Wii U's power draw.
The PS3 and 360 both draw around 70W of power when playing games, sometimes more. As a result, you get two very noisy consoles with a load of fans whirring away in order to get rid of the huge amounts of heat that are built up. The Wii U? It draws around half the power of either console. According to Eurogamer, playing something like Fifa 13 only drew 32W of power, whereas something simpler like watching Netflix only drew 29W.
This is with hardware which, no matter how you slice it, is more powerful than current gen hardware. And yet, it is also able to perform with smaller power requirements. At a time when custom PC builds will soon be needing their own nuclear reactors in order to power all the insane hardware, a console which manages to outperform the others while requiring less juice is surely something that, purely from an engineering perspective, should be celebrated? To return to the car analogy, it would be similar to someone inventing a car that manages to go faster than, say, a Lancer Evolution whilst at the same time having much better fuel efficiency.
Or there's the fact that rather than using an off-the-shelf GPU, Nintendo decided to go for something almost completely custom. Anyone who's looked at the pics posted on Neogaf knows that the Wii U has got a highly unique GPU running inside it. In fact, to anyone with a sense of history, it's almost as if Nintendo has gone back to the Gamecube days. Anyone who remembers that console will remember that despite its lowly specs, the custom hardware meant that developers were able to put out amazing looking games for the time. I believe Rogue Squadron II has officially the highest polygon count of any sixth-generation console game. And yet, at the time, the Gamecube's specs on paper were paltry compared to the Xbox's.
Does that mean the Wii U is going to outperform the PS4 and Nextbox in terms of graphics? I highly doubt it. But what it does mean is that you can't simply look at the number of GFLOPS the Wii U has, and then write it off. One of the guys at Chipworks responsible for taking the Wii U die shots said himself that the Wii U is a highly efficient, impressive bit of silicon. Not because of raw power, but simply because of how cleverly engineered everything is.
I'd like to contrast that with another console, and I know that this may well raise ire with certain gamers: the 360.
When the 360 came out, it was praised for having a top of the line GPU and tri-core CPU. In terms of hardware, it had huge amounts of "POWAH!" and looked like it had everything it needed to keep hardcore gamers happy. What happened next? Well...
Yeah, I'm sure we all remember that. But why did the 360 have such a catastrophic RROD failure rate? Because, to be blunt, despite having cutting edge parts full of "POWAH!", the original 360 was an incredibly badly designed piece of engineering. Parts were simply bolted together, without much thought spent on how much heat they would generate. Fans were then stuck in to deal with the excessive heat, without much thought given to how much noise they would generate. And the whole thing was so badly put together, that the console would damn near melt itself if given half a chance. No single reason had ever officially been given for the catastrophic rate of failure with the original 360s, and ideas range everywhere from the wrong kind of solder being used, to Microsoft cutting corners on the GPU that led to overheating.
By any definition other than pure power, the initial run of 360s was an engineering disaster. It made all the noise of a passenger jet taking off, it required a huge draw of electricity just to turn on, let alone play games, and it was as reliable as a Citroen C4 with a banged up engine. This should have been a defining moment for gaming: an example of what happens when you place more importance on 'power' and 'hardcore graphics' than on good old clever and reliable engineering.
And yet, we're still in that Jeremy Clarkson mindset. We never seem to care about how reliable a new console is, or how likely it is to implode on itself. We never seem to care about how much electricity it requires, or how efficiently the inner-parts works in harmony. It's all about Power! Power! Power! And to me, that seems rather sad. Sure, gaming will require leaps in technology in order to advance. But surely there are technology leaps other than how many hundreds of millions polygons a second can be rendered? What's the point in making a console with huge hardware potential if it soaks up electricity like a lightning conductor, and melts if you so much as point your hair dryer at it?
What exasperates me even more is those gamers who constantly go on about their dual-GPU custom build PCs. OK, yes, you've got a PC that can easily push Crysis 3 at maximum. But how are you keeping that thing cool? Oh, you've rigged it to the mains water supply. Well, I'd like to see what happens if that ever goes wrong. How much power does it draw? Wow. I'd love to see that electricity bill. How much of the hardware is actually taken up by OS and other software bloat? I see. Really efficient machine you've got there.
I kid, slightly. Not every gamer with a gaming PC is one of the PC master race, jacking off to their 8 core CPU. But still, I find it rather ironic that so many claim PCs are superior bits of gaming hardware, when your average PC can take anywhere from 1-2 minutes just to turn on, before any games have been so much as selected. PCs are powerful, and they're wonderfully customisable, but efficient they are not.
So, what's the conclusion here? I dunno. Part of me hopes that sometime soon we can stop judging hardware just on one small part of its specs sheet. Part of me hopes we can recognise bad engineering work when we see it, no matter how 'powerful' it may be. Part of me is just plain old tired of this graphics circle jerk that's going to bankrupt the industry. But that's a topic for another thread. Right now, I guess I'm just encouraging your guys to go out and appreciate the finer points of tech engineering. Anything which requires motherboards and chips is a lot of work, and we should always be mindful of all the areas in which such design can succeed, not just one narrow category.
Because believe it or not, Jeremy Clarkson is a bit of a dick. And I'd rather the industry as a whole doesn't try and emulate him.