Sony and Microsoft will be duking out the next console war for years to come, but there's one company that wins no matter what: chipmaker AMD, which managed to put processors in every new console, including the Nintendo Wii U, the PlayStation 4, and the Xbox One. If you buy any new game console this holiday, you'll be helping to fill AMD's depleted coffers — but AMD's sweep could have far more significance than that. The company's dominance in next-gen consoles could actually make PC gaming more relevant than it's been in ages.
x86: a familiar architectural shift
You might be aware that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 won't be backwards compatible with games built for prior systems. As Sony and Microsoft both explained, it's partly because the new consoles use an incompatible processor architecture. While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 used PowerPC parts, the new consoles have AMD chips that run on the x86 instruction set. If that sounds familiar, it should: Apple made the very same shift in 2006, when it started putting Intel processors into the Mac.
In each of these transitions, there are ways to stay compatible, but it’s a difficult and costly thing. Apple’s Rosetta software for translating between PowerPC and x86 didn’t have the speed for intensive applications. The PS3 originally shipped with the guts of a PS2 inside, increasing the cost of the machine. Inevitably, legacy software gets the boot. But now that the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC all share the same x86 architecture, it could be much easier to port games between PCs and next-gen consoles.
Perhaps that's why Nvidia is managing to sound so upbeat. Though Nvidia didn't convince Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft to adopt its tech this time around — formerly, Nvidia provided the GPU for the PlayStation 3 — Nvidia SVP Tony Tamasi still called the consoles "nothing but goodness for the PC" when he spoke at the Electronics Entertainment Expo last week.
"Maybe we should ask the consoles if they'll ship day and date with PC!"
The gaming PC felt like something of a second-class citizen this previous console generation, with developers building games first for the consoles and then only perhaps a second time for Windows machines. But Tamasi says games could actually be developed first for PC this time around — and it might already be happening. The Nvidia exec pointed out that console games are already being built on personal computers, and sure enough, we noticed that many of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 titles we saw at E3 were running on PCs during their early demos. "Maybe we should ask the consoles if they'll ship day and date with PC!" said Tamasi, responding to a question about relative video game release dates.
Unsurprisingly, AMD senior product marketing manager Marc Diana is also bullish on the PC. "We're struggling to find a name for what used to be called porting, because there's not really a problem with that anymore," the senior product marketing manager told The Verge. "It's a thousand times easier now because it's all x86 based," he said.
But speaking to actual game developers on the E3 show floor, not all of them agreed that x86 would fundamentally change their efforts. "In the end, it's the same amount of work," said Eidos' Nicholas Cantin, director of Thief, a game coming to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC. Cantin pointed out that the controls are different on each platform, among many other things.
Though developers are already finding they can simply add a tablet app to mimic the Wii U Gamepad experience on other platforms, and you can indeed buy a Kinect-like depth camera for PS4 or PC, it won't always make sense for games that rely on a platform's native functionality. Nvidia's Tamasi readily admits that might be the case. "If that's the thing that's going to drive you," he says of voice commands and full-body motion control, "Then gosh, you'd better get a Kinect."
Exclusivity for fun and profit, or by necessity
Special financial arrangements between companies could also torpedo the possibility of some games going multiplatform. There was a very awkward part of an otherwise quite lovely conversation with Respawn Entertainment's Joel Emslie when I asked him whether x86 would help his studio's Titanfall in any way. I'd forgotten that Titanfall is a Microsoft exclusive, headed to Xbox and Windows but not PlayStation 4, and he was trying his very best not to admit that on the record.
Why not? It’s hard to say for sure, but it sounds like his studio was forced to accept a deal from Microsoft in order to weather the storm when Activision tried to sue Respawn into the ground. "We got hit with an insane lawsuit, we barely survived, and we're a small studio trying to get out a next-gen property," Emslie finally explained. Respawn’s story isn’t an ordinary one, but it underscores a common reason why a developer might choose to build for a limited number of platforms: exclusivity.
Karl Magnus-Troedsson, general manager of DICE (Battlefield, Mirror's Edge, Star Wars: Battlefront), does indeed think the new platforms make development easier, but also believes that the decision to build for one or for many platforms hasn't fundamentally changed. "It's up to each individual developer how they want to do it. Some people might focus on one platform because that's what they do." Still, he argues that there's value in building multiplatform games when you can. "Those big blockbuster games … they are probably going to continue striving to get out on as many platforms that make sense as possible."
Solution for a problem already solved?
But Magnus-Troedsson points out that the game industry doesn't necessarily need x86 to flourish across Xbox, PlayStation, and PC. Cross-platform game engines were already in place to help facilitate broad game releases. Unreal Engine 3 in particular got huge traction in the last console generation, allowing developers to build a variety of high-quality titles across many different systems.
Not all game developers license game engines from other companies, though, and AMD's Marc Diana says those engines aren't as efficient as could be. "The publishers still had to take their time and decide, do they really want to launch on the PC?" Diana said. "I don't think they have to answer that question anymore."
Electronic Arts is one company still asking that question, though, and not necessarily for the reason you'd expect. EA Sports boss Andrew Wilson says that one reason none of its next-gen sports games are coming to PC is because Microsoft and Sony's new game consoles are actually more powerful than many PCs in a very specific, subtle way: "How the CPU, GPU, and RAM work together in concert," Wilson told Polygon.
That might sound suspiciously vague, but we spoke to AMD and it's actually true. The AMD chips inside the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One take advantage of something called Heterogeneous Unified Memory Access (HUMA),
Good for gaming, good for AMDwhich allows both the CPU and GPU to share the same memory pool instead of having to copy data from one before the other can use it. Diana likened it to driving to the corner store to pick up some milk, instead of driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's one of AMD's proposed Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) techniques to make the many discrete processors in a system work in tandem to more efficiently share loads.
While the EA Sports example shows that HSA and HUMA aren't necessarily good news for today's PC gamers, it might actually give AMD a leg up in PC gaming tomorrow. AMD's new desktop and laptop processors will bring HSA features to the table later this year, and games built for those features could theoretically run better on AMD chips than components from Intel and Nvidia.
There’s still a lot of work to be done before PC gaming is as easy as sitting down on a comfortable couch with a wireless controller and simply playing a game. We're still hoping that Valve's Steam Box will light the way. But if or when the PC industry figures it out, AMD’s victory could mean more games, and better games, for everyone.