A Look Back at the PlayStation 2
The first public unveiling of the PS2 was at the same Game Developer’s Conference where NVIDIA launched their Riva TNT2. What’s important is that although the PS2 represents technology that is almost 7 years old, games like Metal Gear Solid 3 and Gran Turismo 4 have graphics that still hold their own against modern PC games. The secret to the PS2 was its non-traditional parallel architecture.
By developing the Emotion Engine with two “vector units” and a Graphics Synthesizer that had 8 pixel pipelines, the PS2 was able to leap-frog the performance potential of anything that could be offered in the PC platform at the time. However, this parallel architecture made development extremely difficult for the PS2. Just compare the difference between a screenshot of Gran Turismo 4 (from the photo mode to reflect the 1080i mode):
and this screenshot of Midnight Club: Street Racing for the PS2, a game that was released at the time of launch:
(Midnight Club is so old that I couldn’t find any press screenshots: Gamespot seemed like a good choice since that’s where Bob, Sarju, and James call base now)
Anyone can see the difference between these two games, but the important point is that the difference in graphics quality has nothing to do with hardware – it’s purely a difference of programmer experience.
The PS2 was a paradigm shift
While the vector units in the PS2 aren’t equivalent to multi-core processors, the vector units still required programmers to think and consider about managing multiple processing units and streams of data. The concept of gaining performance through a parallel architecture wasn’t new. The transition from single-threaded to multi-threaded programming wasn’t the paradigm shift. That was always a question of when not if. What was special about the PlayStation 2 was that it accelerated that timetable.
Sony was instrumental in convincing or even “coercing” developers to learn and explore unusual programming paradigms through simple market forces. Instead of developing a console intended to make the life of a software developer easier, Sony made a console that made the life of a hardware engineer easier and succeeded. They built a powerful console that was difficult to work with, but ensured their success through the sheer size of their user base. That was the paradigm shift.