Summary: The Xbox 360 represents a step back in time for Microsoft. A chance to return to the 1980's when Microsoft took the world by storm by leveraging the experience and technology of its competitors. Check out Alan Dang's take on the next-generation console market and see why PC gamers should take notice.
Ironically, it was the PC architecture of the Xbox that gave Microsoft its success. While the PlayStation 2 was still home to the quintessentially "Japanese" blockbuster games such as Final Fantasy X, Ico, and Katamari Damacy it was the PC-style games like Halo, Knights of the Republic, and Splinter Cell, and technologies such as Xbox Live that forced console and PC gamers to give Microsoft a second look.
For the first time, the console gamer who never had the budget for a high-end gaming PC or the technical knowledge required to maintain it, now had a taste of what we've always known: first person shooters are fun. On the other hand, the Xbox did a lot for PC gamers. Many PC gamers who bought Xboxes did so to take advantage of games like Halo, or to hack the console to run Linux – but in turn, this gave PC gamers a chance to really see the simple beauty of a solid button-mashing console game such as Forza Motorsport, Dead or Alive 3, or Ninja Gaiden or an environment such as Xbox Live where a subscription fee supported high-quality servers and anti-cheating mechanisms. More importantly, behind the scenes, Microsoft's financial investment into getting software developers to exploit pixel and vertex shaders has had a direct and palpable contribution to improving the quality of PC games. If it weren't for the Xbox, PC graphics would be a one or two generations behind. Even competitors like Sony have Microsoft to thank, because it was the Xbox that showed them how important the GPU truly was and why it's was necessary to bring in outside help.
Almost everyone has benefited in some way from the Xbox, whether you only play PC games, only plan to buy a PlayStation 3, or don't play games at all and simply run a Linux machine with a Media Center front-end. Of course, Microsoft took a significant loss to create the infrastructure behind the Xbox. The first Xbox was a suicide mission, planting the seeds of warfare, obtaining reconnaissance of the battlefield, and engaging in psychological warfare to disrupt the confidence of their opponents. If you have any doubts about the success of the Xbox project because of its inability to produce a profit, consider the fact that today no one considers the Xbox 360 the underdog. 4 years ago, everyone knew that the PS2 would be the #1 console of that generation. Today, no one other than console fan boys would be willing to make a prediction on who will take the lead in this generation. Instead of laughing at Microsoft for creating a console, the world is not looking at them to see how they will compete against Sony for the position of #1.
The first Xbox represented the Microsoft of the dot.com world. Big, slow, out-of-date, and full of security holes. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft has done something different. Instead of trying to evolve, they've gone back to and captured the strength and essence of the 1980's Microsoft that took the world by storm. They've taken a look at their own mistakes and successes, but more importantly, like the 1980's Microsoft that "borrowed" the user experience from Apple and "collaborated" with third party companies such as IBM to subsidize the cost of their own research, the Xbox 360 represents the console built with the collective knowledge of their competitors.
SIDEBAR: Xbox 360 is a silly name.
At first glance, the second option looks better. It can transport more goods in the same amount time. In that same 8 hour work day, the second vehicle can deliver an additional 2 pallets. However, it's not so simple. What if your company only shipped 3 pallets a day? The first vehicle would only need 3 hours and the second vehicle would need almost three times as much time because you'd have unused capacity. What if your company needs to ship 11 pallets a day? It's the difference between an 11 hour task and a 16 hour one…
This captures the fundamental challenge of designing software for multi-core CPU architectures. From a hardware perspective, it's much easier to produce a CPU or GPU with parallelism than it is to increase clock speed. It's easier and cheaper to manufacturer a tri-core 3.2 GHz CPU or 48-shader GPU at 500MHz than it would be to manufacture an equivalent single-core CPU running at 9.6 GHz or an equivalent 12-shader GPU at 2GHz. Unfortunately, for software developers, multi-threaded designs are substantially tougher to work with. There’s a lot of potential in the hardware, but the trick is making sure that the workload on each unit is balanced and managing the overhead needed to distribute that data.
There’s no recipe for producing high-quality multi-threaded programming other than experience. Fortunately, Microsoft benefits from the work that Sony has done.
SIDEBAR: The Xbox 360 uses a unified shader 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.
Microsoft will benefit from the fact that most software developers have had experience dealing with the challenges of the managing all multiple concurrent streams of data with multiple processing. That said, the Xbox 360 introduces its own challenges. In order to produce a CPU with three dual issue, in-order, PowerPC cores with SMT, each with its own FPU and VMX128 unit (a SIMD unit) at a reasonable cost, IBM/Microsoft have had to make certain sacrifices. The loss of out-of-order execution and little to no branch prediction in the Xbox 360 CPU means that you'll need a combination of careful coding as well as high-quality compilers. One source we talked to suggested that first generation Xbox 360 games may be slower than the original Xbox when it came to non-graphics code.
The challenge for developers in this next generation of consoles is data management, making sure all of the computational units of the processor are active to maximize hardware capabilities while also ensuring that you don't run out of bandwidth or have too may cache misses. The parallelism of the PS2 and Xbox 360 is going to give developers greater flexibility and control, and the potential to tap into more powerful computional resources than were ever possible, but it does increase the amount of work required to push these systems to the limit.
Since the Xbox 360 contains three full CPU cores, the transition for developers should be easier than the transition from the PSX to the PS2. You will always have the challenge of coming up with a parallel algorithm for your code and managing multiple threads, however the capabilities of all three cores are identical. This is in contrast to the PS2 where the MIPS core and vector units required understanding three different capabilities or the PS3 where the PowerPC core is different from the SPE.
In comparison to the PS2, Xbox 360 should have a substantial head start when it comes to software development. That is, it took about 18 months year before games such as Gran Turismo 3 and Metal Gear Solid 2 were available for the PS2 – games that seemed to transcend the possibilities of what the best PC games could offer in terms of gameplay and the overall experience. Since Xbox 360 developers have the experience of working with multiple processing units and a well-designed SDK to work with, games of the Xbox 360 in Fall 2006 should exceed the capabilities of currently shipping PC games.
Why it matters for everyone
What the PS2 did for getting programmers to step up to the plate of managing multiple processing units, the Xbox 360 will do for dual-core and quad-core programming on the PC. With Athlon 64 X2's and Pentium D CPUs still making up a small portion of the processors used by most gamers, software developers are often unable to justify the expenses of moving to multi-threaded design to the producer in charge of the budget. The Xbox 360 is different – every Xbox360 owner can benefit from the multi-threaded software. As developers gain experience with the Xbox 360, they'll be able to apply that experience toward the PC. That's why developers such as John Carmack are enthusiastic about the PC.
With the Xbox 360, Microsoft has gone to industry standard USB ports. While the accessories for these ports have not all been announced, there's a strong likelihood that we will see USB accessories that are compatible with the Xbox 360, PS3, and PS2. This is particularly important for things like steering wheels or any other "genre-specific" input device. Knowing that a $150 steering wheel might work on a wide range of consoles will go a long way in making the Xbox 360 succeed.
RF Wireless Gamepad
The concept of a wireless gamepad is almost as old as gaming. The concept of a console with built-in wireless isn't new either. In 1981 Atari had magazine advertisements discussing a new gaming console that would bundle RF-based wireless joysticks (the 2700). Although that project never reached the market, Atari did ship RF based wireless gamepads for the Atari 2600. The 8-bit and 16-bit generation saw infrared based wireless gamepads and more recently, we've been able to enjoy high-quality RF through the WaveBird and various Logitech accessories.
Improved Media Center Abilities
While it was Sony who talked about the Emotion Engine and the PlayStation 2 being the media hub for the family room, it ended up being the Xbox which had the best media center type platform. Ironically, it took hacked software and running Linux on the Xbox to make this happen. By the time Microsoft made their Media Center Extender for the Xbox it was too late.
Better Contracts with Hardware Suppliers
With the first Xbox, Microsoft took the perspective of a PC builder not unlike Gateway or Dell. In fact, the original Xbox concept would have allowed Dell and Gateway to manufacture their own Xbox systems. This consequence of this decision was that Microsoft was always fighting their suppliers over various issues. The GPU and chipset were owned by NVIDIA, and so it Microsoft was always in the battle over negotiating a better deal for the cost of the chips. It wasn't NVIDIA pocketing all the cash though, they took a substantial hit after Microsoft decided to redesign the copy protection, rendering countless NVIDIA chips useless.
The first Xbox had a strong development environment and the Xbox 360 is substantially better. Although development on the Xbox 360 will inherently be difficult given the multi-core architecture, the documentation for the Xbox 360 is exceptionally good in comparison to what is available from Sony or Nintendo.
Better development environments can translate into better games. Graphics are an important part of all video games. Good graphics can support the gameplay and no matter how much of a purist you are, you can always appreciate the attention to detail that a graphics artist may make. However gameplay is more than just graphics. The ability to produce games like Halo with minimal loading times or any game with the "explore anything in the world" feature is contingent on having enough CPU power. You just couldn't do a game like that with an older system. Consider Half-Life 2 and the Gravity Gun – that was made possible by enough number crunching power to handle the physics engine.
When it comes to gameplay dynamics, it's not just physics. Right now most CPUs can handle rag doll physics pretty well and Ageia will try to convince you that you'll need more realism, but realism isn't the only solution for gameplay.
One of the best games ever made was Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo. I say this not because of some misguided nostalgia or attempt at being elitist pretending to be too cool to care about graphics. Super Mario World was excellent because of the pacing of the game as well as the finesse and polish of the gameplay. This was a game where every event was scripted and every level was hand designed. Those Goomba's always showed up in the same place and the magic invincibility stars were always carefully placed when you needed them the most. What this did was make Super Mario World a game where each level got progressively harder, but with careful balance. You didn't need a special "training" level to teach you how to use different styles of gameplay. It happened on your own. The difficulty level was smooth and progressive, something to keep your catecholamines and endorphins flowing, but never too difficult where it became frustrating.
In today's popular gaming genres, a fully scripted environment won't work. It takes some sort of AI. Suppose you wanted an adapative algorithm that learned your playing style and was able to strike that balance between being challenging but not frustrating. Suppose you wanted non-player characters to have intelligent pathfinding where the player you're supposed to be escorting or your teammate is smart enough not to walk into the line of fire?
What does all of this have to do with development ease? A lot. One developer we talked to summed it up very well:
Games aren't a science. There isn't a right answer or even a best answer on how to make a game fun. It boils down to trying a lot of stuff out. If you have to meticulously plan and figure out how you're going to get something to run at a decent speed because the architecture is needlessly complex, that's a few days not spent figuring out if the feature is even fun..
In order to provide the best experience in the next generation of games, it was essential for Microsoft to move to multi-core processors. This only makes developer SDKs even more important. From the developers we've talked to, the SDK for Xbox 360 is better than the original Xbox SDK, which was already very good when it comes to both documentation and tools. The level of support from Microsoft is on par with the SDK Nintendo provided with the GameCube, which reportedly was one of the most developer friendly kits. Ask a developer about the PS2 or PS3 SDKs, and the comments won't be as positive.
More Support from Developers
Making the Xbox 360 easier to develop has helped Microsoft but they've also taken a look at the value of bringing in more third party developers. In the West, Microsoft has enough talent with its first party studios. Bungie can take care of first person shooters, Rare is the long-term investment, and Ensemble Studios is rumored to be working on the RTS/MMO for the system. In the East, Microsoft will continue to have the support of Tecmo, but they now add Square-Enix, who will be supporting the Xbox 360 with Final Fantasy XII. Ironically, Square-Enix may become less relevant in the Xbox 360 era because it's Microsoft who has two exclusive RPGs coming from the Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator/producer of the Final Fantasy series. For those of you unfamiliar with the Final Fantasy franchise, each game has virtually no relationship to the another. That is to say, Sakaguchi's Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey for the Xbox 360 could very well have been called Final Fantasy XIII and XIV had it been published by Square-Enix. Even more important, both of these games having character designs from Akira Toriyama and music from Nobuo Uematsu, two of the key figures behind the some of the best games from Square and Enix.
In addition to gaining the support of the superstar team producing Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, Microsoft is also funding Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Q Entertainment and Yoshiki Okamoto of Game Republic. You may not know the name Yoshiki Okamato, but you will know his games. He was responsible for most of Capcom's best games such as 1942 and 1943 (yeah, that 1942 and 1943), Final Fight, Street Fighter II, Marvel vs Capcom, Super Puzzle Fighter, Devil May Cry, and so on. Tetsuya Mizuguchi is likely to be Microsoft's long-term investment in Japan. He was responsible for games like Sega Rally, but more recently for quirky games like Rez and Lumines that will be important for the Japanese market.
With developers already pushing the limits of the 9GB DVD support on the PS2, it's disappointing to see Microsoft only using DVD and only featuring a 20GB hard drive. Although a lot of the PS2's disc capacity was spent on pre-calculating lighting and graphics that would otherwise have been too difficult to calculate in real-time, the Xbox 360 faces its own storage dilemma due to the need for higher resolution textures and game art. The hard drive is also too small for anything other than storing some downloadable game demos and media. The solution isn't complicated – developers will just have to produce games spanning several DVDs. Still, it would have been nice if Microsoft considered a HD-DVD or drive, but Microsoft was likely unwilling to delay the Xbox 360 launch for a secondary feature.
Xbox Live is a more integral part of the Xbox 360 experience. The system is designed to be online all the time. The "Silver" support that comes bundled with the Xbox 360 is disappointing – you get the chat features, the ability to download free demos, patches, and the ability to buy downloadable content, but you won't be allowed to play any games online without shelling $50/year for an Xbox Live Gold subscription. With the premium system costing $400, as a reviewer, Microsoft should have considered offering 3 or 4 free hours a month for the lifetime of the Xbox 360. They give away Hotmail … so why not a budget version of Xbox Live multiplayer gaming? This would encourage more gamers to take up online gaming, and ensure that the Xbox Live service was rich and bustling with activity. The trial coupons just aren't the same. With their standard system, they're only attracting the hardcore online gamers who already would be willing to pay $50/year for unlimited use. The number of additional games and consoles Microsoft would sell would more than make up for the cost giving out a handful of hours.
One Far-Fetched Wish: A TV Tuner
Of course as a wish list, Microsoft would be wise to release a $100 USB NTSC or ATSC TV tuner upgrade for the Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 is already being marketed as a Media Center Extender and if the Xbox 360 could actually tune and record TV for the price of a TV tuner card on the PC, I'm sure there would be many interested people. With the Xbox 360, you'd be able to skip the cost of a Windows XP MCE2005 license. Since 20GB wouldn't be enough capacity, Microsoft would have to allow USB HDD support.
By being first-to-market, Microsoft will have a significant head start on the competition. Not only will this increase the number of systems in the hands of gamers, but this will mean that by the time Sony launches the PS3, Xbox 360 developers will have had a full year of experience with the system. There are those who will point out that the Dreamcast had a similar head start over the PS2. The difference now is that Microsoft has a good track record with the Xbox and graphics that will be able to compete aggressively against the PS3. By the time the PS3 is ready to launch, the Xbox 360 will likely see its first price drop and games that start to look better. Likewise, although Nintendo will have its unique controller and niche among the younger gamers, it will be difficult for Nintendo to challenge the Xbox 360 with Revolution given Microsoft's greater mindshare over those gamers and due to substantial improvements in the quality of the SDK.
The graphics quality of games in the next-generation of consoles will be stellar, but it will still take novel gameplay elements to make a pretty game *fun*. In the benchmarking lab, I expect the PS3 to exceed the performance of the Xbox – it should, it's coming out one year later. The graphics alone won't be the defining difference in this generation of hardware.
Who should buy an Xbox 360?
It's hard to answer this question. The Xbox 360 is incredibly expensive. Compared to other consoles launches in the past, Microsoft is now asking $400 for the standard system and $300 for the crippled Core version. When you factor in the costs of a bundles or a price premium you'd need to pay on eBay, you're looking at a $700 product. That's a lot of money.
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