Issue: Volume 37 Issue 1: (Jan/Feb 2014)

Game On


By Carey Chico
First things first – this will not be a fanboy-driven comparison article weighing Sony’s PS4 against Microsoft’s Xbox One! If you are looking for that matchup, search elsewhere. This is an article about innovation, the kind that comes around once a decade, the kind that delivers Triple-A, immersive game experiences to the masses. These are the “buy this game to show off your console to others” moments in the industry that we all anticipate with childish glee. There is much to like and much to see, so hang on to your Drivatars, grab your voxels, and take an illuminating ride in the technology fast lane to see how the new console generation will innovate both our games and our living rooms.

Under the Hood
With their combination of glossy and matte-black finishes, there isn’t much anyone can discern about the new consoles from their exteriors. Both machines arrive with an air of sophistication that generally accompanies most components you find underneath your television. But this form belies the function. Under the hood is a carefully designed machine for running the most advanced games and entertainment that developers have to offer.

With every new console come new obstacles. Developers are keenly aware of this fact, having fought many battles in the previous wars of system design complexity. As such, developers always view new consoles with some degree of trepidation over how different the process and tools will be from the past generation. In the last cycle, the PS3 and Xbox 360 had widely divergent architectures that made developing for both simultaneously quite a chore.
 
“When you’re moving from a piece of hardware that you have nearly a decade’s worth of experience with, there’s a bit of a shock when all of a sudden the problem you’re running into is brand new and no one else has seen it yet,” says Liam Gilbride, technical art director on Capcom’s Dead Rising 3 for the Xbox One. “You have to re-invent all new tricks; a lot of the old ones either don’t work or aren’t valid anymore.”
 
Luckily for developers, the PS4 and Xbox One are much more closely related in specs and are practically distant cousins to one another. On the CPU side, both consoles tote 64-bit x86 cores based on the AMD Jaguar compute units for a total of eight cores each. The Jaguar processer was basically AMD’s version of the Intel Atom. In this case, these are custom-made for the consoles. As such, they have 20 percent more instructions per cycle than the standard compute unit.

“The CPUs on the new consoles are fast,” says Chris Jurney, senior programmer at indie developer Supergiant Games, “but per-core they are slower than desktops, so we’ve had to do a lot of work threading our engine to take advantage of the increased core count.”

Each console also contains 8gb of RAM, which is shared between the CPUs and GPUs. That gives this generation of hardware 16 times as much memory as the previous generation (Xbox 360 and PS3). On the GPU side, both consoles are running AMD Jaguar compute units at 1.6ghz with an 800mhz clock speed. Sony, however, has 18 compute cores, while Microsoft is running with 12. This technically means that the Xbox One peak shader output is 1.23 teraflops (Tflop), while the PS4 puts out 1.84 Tflop. This is where the true power of the consoles comes from. Developers are keenly focused on utilizing those GPU compute cores, along with that huge amount of memory, to do amazing things.
 
“We’ve definitely taken advantage of all the extra power by increasing the complexities of our shaders and the density of content in our levels,” says Jurney from Supergiant Games, makers of Bastion and the upcoming PS4 title Transistor. “With a smaller game and having so much memory, we don’t really have to worry about load times or asset sizes. Our whole game will likely fit into RAM on the PS4.”

Not only do the new hardware systems provide a bump in RAM, but they provide much larger hard drives, as well – 500gb in each. This enables the practical option of running the game from the hard drive instead of the disc, a move that has its own benefits.

Gilbride says, “All games are installed to the hard drive instead of running from the disc. This allows us to load data into memory much faster than we could previously.”

Dan Greenawalt, creative director at Turn 10 Studios, the facility responsible for the Forza Motorsport 5 game on Xbox One, affirms this capability. “Thanks to the higher computational power of the Xbox One’s GPU, as well as the dramatically improved memory bandwidth of the console’s ESRAM, we can fit more effects into less time when rendering, dramatically increasing the quality of the images.”

There is a perception that the new console generation isn’t only about power, and the other features that these units tout are a testament to that sort of thinking. When you add Blu-ray players, app stores, motion and voice interactivity, and cloud-based gaming, you begin to see that more power is just the tip of the iceberg. Even still, as we progress through this next generation of games, the power will increasingly be used to enhance the immersive quality of the graphics.
 
Game Graphics
By now, many of you will have checked out the numerous graphics comparison videos that can be found on YouTube and various game sites. Immediately, thanks to the titles having more memory on hand, we can see a greater level of graphic clarity, both in the near and far scenes. The number of higher-resolution textures has increased, along with the application of normal maps and enhanced lighting methods. But, this is only scratching the surface.

We can anticipate developers employing the power of parallel GPUs, allowing them to execute multiple operations simultaneously without bottlenecks. This means more complex shading on surfaces in games. Forza 5 Motorsport is using this power to help convey the most realistic car visuals to date.

“When it came time to thinking about how we could improve our graphics for Forza 5,” says Greenawalt, “we wanted to move beyond mere polygon counts.”
 

SUPERGIANT GAMES is using the newly available power on the PS4 by adding more content to the levels in its upcoming Transistor title.

Turn 10’s approach came through a physically-based rendering solution. Physically-based rendering simulates the interaction of light on material surfaces. It employs algorithms that accurately depict light reflection and absorption on any sort of material. For the cars and world in Forza 5, Turn 10 created thousands of real-world materials using this method. By using albedo maps to specify the amount of light that gets absorbed/reflected on an object’s surface, the artists can give every object more realistic and variable surface characteristics than ever before.
 
“All these materials are built to reflect and refract light precisely as they do in the real world,” explains Greenawalt.

The extra memory and processor power will also be utilized to bring real-time global illumination and raytracing to games in this generation of titles. Geomerics, a middleware developer, is bringing its own real-time global illumination lighting technology, Enlighten, to the new console platforms.
 
“For Enlighten, specifically, I’d probably single out the increase in memory as the single biggest win,” says Rob Precious, director of business development at Geomerics. “Enlighten was capable of running happily on the PS3 and 360, but it was tough getting developers to free up the memory we needed. For developers used to squeezing into 512mb of RAM, the 8gb of memory available on new hardware seems almost limitless!”

Voxels will also be making a comeback with the help of the PS4 GPU compute cores. Resogun, a side-scrolling title from Housemarque that was available at launch for the PS4, is bringing voxels (three-dimensional pixels) to the next-gen screen. In the case of Resogun – which plays like the old arcade game Defender – the entire game world is made up of voxels that are accelerated on the GPU side to allow the game to explode with millions of tiny particles and with little or no frame rate hit.

“The combination of GPU compute, GDDR5 bandwidth, and unified memory make the special effects possible,” says Seppo Halonen, engine architect at Housemarque. “The volumetric data, loose cubes, and the enemy geometry together take several gigabytes of memory and a large chunk of GPU processing time, as well. Without unified memory, we could not feed the compute shaders.”

The unified memory architecture provided by the new consoles has advantages that are not found on current desktop PCs. “On the PC, for instance, PCIe bus already would be a serious bottleneck. What some people miss is that our cubes are not point sprites, they are complete polygon cubes. Point sprites are what we use for bomb and overdrive, and we use them by the million.”

Knack on the PS4 is also taking advantage of GPU compute to help bring the title character to life. “Knack himself is a bit of a showcase for the power of the PS4 – his size-changing character model comprises up to 5,000 individually rendered objects, which explode off him in a variety of different ways when he performs special attacks and techniques,” says Nick According, associate producer at Sony. “Only the power of the PS4 could allow us to give players control of such a dynamic character, while at the same time maintaining a smooth frame rate and a native 1080p resolution.”

The advantages that the new consoles bring to the table are not only for the giant “Triple-A” scale games, but can be utilized effectively for the indie-size teams, as well. Supergiant is most well known for its independent hit Bastion, but with its next game, Transistor, the studio is taking full advantage of this extra power by increasing the complexities of its shaders and the density of content in its levels.
 
“The difference,” Jurney says, “is that it’s now available to us as a small team because of the ease of implementation and the reduced need for optimization to make [the title] shippable.”

Cloudy with a Chance of Everything
We are living in a cloud generation. When we say “cloud,” we mean one or more computer servers ensconced in one of the thousands of data centers spread across the globe. As bandwidth has expanded over the last decade, so have the purposes of these data centers. The old generation of cloud access merely meant storing your saved games on the servers. Now, developers have the ability to off-load computations that are less sensitive to latency onto the cloud, allowing for the game system to take on additional loads from other, more latency-sensitive operations.
 
Greenawalt definitely sees the potential of this technology. “While Microsoft introduced some limited cloud-based services on the Xbox 360 with features like cloud saves, as a developer, the possibilities of cloud computing have taken a huge step forward on the Xbox One.”
 

TURN 10 STUDIOS is driving up the quality of the visuals and sound in its Forza 5 Motorsport for the Xbox One.

The huge step Greenawalt speaks of in Forza 5 is with its AI “Drivatars.” As players get behind the virtual wheel in the game, the title tracks their strengths and weaknesses via their Drivatar profiles. These stats are reported back up to the Xbox Live servers, which crunch all that data across millions of players. These AI profiles then power the human-like opponents in a player’s races when the person is not racing against real people. In Forza 5, the computer-generated racers on the tracks that the player is up against in the Career and Arcade modes are all Drivatars that were pre-trained by the computer.
 
“The result for the player is AI opponents that behave nothing like traditional racing AI,” says Greenawalt. “These aren’t merely brain-dead cars stuck to the racing line and turning laps with no situational awareness.”

The variability that the Drivatars provide to the racing experience is what makes Forza 5 so addictive. It’s never the same game twice, and that’s what players want.
 
“I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what is possible with cloud computing,” Greenawalt says. “Because we are a first-party studio, we were in on the ground floor with developing for the cloud on the Xbox One. From first-person shooters to real-time strategy games, the potential of cloud computing is limitless.”

Taking Control
This new console generation is seeing advances and innovation in how we interact with our games. Microsoft recently touted that it spent over $1 billion developing the new Xbox One controller, making it feel just right and adding haptic feedback to the triggers. Sony’s new Dualshock 4 controller advances interaction by offering up a capacitive touch pad that’s clickable. Not only that, but the controller also has a glowing light and a speaker to make the experience more immersive.
 
According to Jurney, Supergiant is using both the light and the speaker to better immerse the player in the environment of its Transistor game. “Your character in the game wields the Transistor – a sword that glows when it talks – so it can map both the sound and lighting into the controller to make you feel more like you’re holding the Transistor directly.”


THE ENTIRE GAME world in Resogun, from Housemarque, is made of voxels.

Knack, the new PS4 game created by Japan Studio (the production and development arm of parent company Sony Computer Entertainment), features a character, named Knack, made up of thousands of small parts that work together to form the character’s body. In the game, there are frequent moments wherein the main character destroys yellow power gems. When this happens, the sound of the gem imbuing Knack with power can be heard over the speaker on the controller. The effect instantly connects the players to the game screen in a more immersive way, making them feel like their world is part of the game world.

On the motion-control front, Microsoft’s new Kinect pushes the voice and motion-control concept forward with increased speed and capability. It now comes with a 1080p camera (Xbox 360 was only VGA) and processes 2gb of data per second to track what it sees. It can immediately identify someone through biometric scanning methods, such as voice and face recognition, so that it can greet a person when he or she walks into the room.
 
…And More
In terms of media support at a base level, both the new consoles continue where the old ones left off: The myriad of apps that support different media types are still present. While a person can still watch NetFlix, Hulu Plus, and other services via the console, the big idea on the Xbox One is how it integrates with a person’s TV watching. When set up correctly, the Xbox One can control all the components (TV, cable box, receiver) by using the Kinect sensor to send out IR blasts. It also has a guide that displays channel content, just like your cable box.
 
So, what does this bring the console user? Perhaps for a gamer, these features are simply icing on the cake. But what this connected media approach will deliver is increased user engagement. Why? Immediate access begets more engagement. When developers offer immediate access to content and games, users wind up engaging this content even more. Both consoles have removed some of the waiting factors that tend to reduce user engagement. Of course, what better way to enhance this access than with your smartphone or tablet?

Ever since last year, the term “second screen” has been in the vernacular to mean using a smartphone or tablet to view enhanced content that supplements a primary device, like a game console or smart TV. You could watch a movie or play a game and, while doing so, gander at trivia, admire stats, or socially interact with others over shared interests. Now, the new consoles bring this concept to the market fully formed. Both platforms offer apps for Android, iOS, and Windows devices that allow users to connect with their consoles in unique ways. But one of the most impactful examples of this concept can be found on the PS4. Owners of the PS VITA, Sony’s portable gaming platform, can use their portable consoles as controllers on the PS4 or even play the PS4 game through the portable’s game screen. Imagine playing Knack from your PS4 while lying comfortably in your bedroom.
 

In the PS4 game Knack, the main character comprises thousands of small parts.

The concept of “more is better” can certainly explain how developers plan to utilize the hardware to improve the next generation of audio. With Triple-A development comes Triple-A audio, and the new consoles allow more dynamic audio than previously.
 
In Transistor, the team is taking advantage of the PS4’s ability to process a lot of real-time DSP effects, which are mathematical manipulated signals. For example, when players stop time and enter “Focus mode,” they pitch bend any active dialog down and then pause it. Then they add delay/echo to gameplay sounds using a low pass filter to make in-world events seem far away and muffled. They can also do unique things with the music in the game during these segments.

“Although time has stopped, Jurney says, “the music keeps playing, and since the main character is the singer, she hums along with the song in Focus mode. That’s done by adjusting the volume separately on each of eight tracks that make up a single song in our game.”

In Forza 5, the team took advantage of the dedicated audio hardware to do new things that had not been possible before, such as complex environmental audio used to simulate sound reflecting and reverberating from buildings and tunnels. Additionally, the team created a dynamic soundtrack that could weave in and out of the game without interfering with the crucial information that drivers need from audio – for instance, the sound of the engine redlining or the screech of the tires on the pavement. Every aspect of the soundtrack, even in the main shell, was designed to build excitement for the driver.
 
“To improve the overall experience of the game and provide another level of feedback to the player, we created a dynamic musical score – a big departure from simply playing a piece of music, as we did in previous Forza Motorsport games,” Greenawalt points out. “As you make your way through the game menus, for example, the music will gradually pick up in intensity the closer you get to the race itself,” Greenawalt says. During gameplay, “some [music] layers might be turned down when the player is struggling. On the other hand, if the player is doing well or on the final stretch of the race, the mix will change to heighten the intensity of the moment.”

So, with all of the possibilities that the next-gen consoles offer developers, when will we get to see it show up on our screens?
 
“We are only beginning to learn how to leverage the CPU and GPU compute capability of the new console hardware,” says Geomerics’ Precious, “and we are very optimistic about the quality we will see developed in this console cycle.”

As with all new console releases, there are a few standout titles that set the bar for what is to come, and more are on their way. Games such as Titanfall, Thief, Project Spark, Destiny, Infamous: Second Son, Watch Dogs, Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, and Supergiant’s upcoming Transistor all look to push the limits of the next-gen consoles. “I can’t wait to play Titanfall – big mechs, wall jumping, and explosions,” says Turn 10’s Greenawalt. “What else do you need?”

Over the next decade, developers will be discovering opportunities in the cloud, on the GPU, and in the living room. Given the sales numbers that Sony and Microsoft announced at CES in January, the public is certainly there, ready and waiting for whatever graphic wonders arise from the skunkworks of whichever developer has the ingenuity and drive to take us there.

Carey Chico is a freelance writer as well as an 18-year veteran of the games industry. He can be reached through LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/careychico/.
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