This quarter saw the release of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 gaming consoles. To those of us that have been around a while it all seems so familiar. Newer, faster, better, brasher and the moniker 'next-gen' bandied about with glee by marketing departments.
Like others who've seen this cycle many times before, I find myself wondering if this will be the last of its kind. Since 2005 when the Xbox 360 was launched we've seen a seismic event occur with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and perhaps more importantly, the introduction of the App Store in 2008. Google has since followed suit and the mobile app has become the zeitgeist.
I remember seeing that announcement with the introduction of the more affordable – read, affordable – iPhone 3G and instantly realising what it meant. Suddenly, we'd see indie developers get a shot at reaching large audiences without the need for a publisher. I was thinking back to the one-man efforts of yesteryear like Frontier: Elite and SimCity. I was extremely excited. For once, I was right!
So we have a launch of a new wave of consoles set against the backdrop of a rapidly emerging mobile computing market. That alone is enough to make things interesting, but I think there's a bigger, more holistic context in which to put this. To illustrate, I'm going to liken it to a funnel.
I just read on the The Loop a throwaway remark made by Jim Dalrymple that this generational leap in performance for the gaming consoles wasn't as dramatic as previous ones. I disagree with that, but I see what he means. I'd slightly rephrase his sentiments as 'this leap isn't as impactful as previous leaps.' I'd also add the word 'yet.'
The computational power of this crop of consoles is many, many times greater than that of the 2005/6 consoles they replace. It has to be said, it's astonishing what is achieved with these machines given they are eight years old! Who still runs a PC or Mac that old, yet alone gets to run the latest gaming titles in full HD? The power leap is as enormous as ever, but it isn't producing the same 'wow, we couldn't do that before' effect.
Why is this? I think it's because we are emerging from a computing power funnel. How deep into the funnel we are is a big question. We might be sat pondering the same thing after another wave of consoles in another eight years, or we might be able to see that we have emerged. Let me explain.
So does this mean that the possibilities are endless? I don't think so. What it means is that we are approaching a point where computing power will be so great that it is no longer the bottleneck on what can be done with computers. At the same time, for all our impressive technology, it seems that time is teaching us that our computer technology is actually quite nascent in the grand scheme of things.
This leads me to two questions for the gaming industry and the hardware makers.
Hollywood Production Values
Over the last decade we've seen the advent of the game with Hollywood-level production values. Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, Forza Motorsport et cetera are huge production efforts whose credits roll longer than most summer blockbusters.
More CPU/GPU speed and RAM theoretically allow more to be done by the user's computer or console but that doesn't mean that the full potential of that hardware is easily reached by the developers of its software. I think this is the effect we are seeing now.
Textures can get more beautiful, that's just a matter of rendering 3D models and artwork at a higher resolution. More instances of each element can be put on screen at once. What can't be stepped up with just a slider in a dialogue box is AI intelligence, fun factor, story. Those things need hard work done by talented humans.
That creates an interesting question to ponder; what can be produced procedurally by a computer unaided by a human? You might choose to model a car for a Forza title, for example. You might decide to stop trying to make a car's handling feel right and simply program every detail of the engine, chassis and bodywork of a car into highly accurate modelling software and let that software tell you what the handling for such a car would be like. The car gets more realistic – and more fun through being more visceral to drive – without the human developer needing to do more and more work for the gains. Once that master software is written, the human just needs to do the measuring of the real-world car components…once. As computers get more powerful, that computer model can be re-rendered using previously-taken measurements but at with a higher degree of accuracy. Don't repeat yourself.
What requires more work from a human being in order to improve? What limits the scope of a game by the manageable size of the team needed to produce it? This is the first question for gaming.
The second question for gaming revolves around the distribution method of the hardware.
As we approach the mouth of our funnel, hardware power is becoming easier to package and mobile devices are showing us this in a dramatic way.
The 64-bit Apple A7 SOAC is approaching the power of a 2008 MacBook Pro. Think about that for a moment. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 were from 2005 and 6 and look what they can do. What will the A8 be capable of? The A9? It is not just faesible, but probable, that we will have a hand-held device in millions of pockets around the world that will be capable of running Xbox 360/PS4 titles within eighteen months.
Now factor in two existing facts. The Apple TV box that retails at £99 has an Apple A5 SOAC in it. It is also capable of facilitating AirPlay from any recent iOS device. What happens if Apple update that box in the summer with a year-old-at-the-time A7 chip? Suddenly, you're a controller away from a console with the power of a 2008 MacBook Pro. Second fact: Apple added controller support with iOS7. That console would have native support for third party controllers. Next year, it could have an A8, the year after an A9 and so on. Could Microsoft or Sony match that rate of power increase?
Apple could find itself a major player in the gaming hardware world within a year with almost no effort. If that isn't a concern for Microsoft and Sony then they are in for a big shock.
What About Non-Gaming Software?
Where I think we'll see the plateau is in non-gaming software. How much added value can endlessly more powerful hardware bring to a news reporting app or a word processor? We can add quicker streaming to an ESPN app but at some point it gets as fast as we could want. Non-gaming software is designed to fulfil a purpose and once that purpose is fulfilled it becomes a matter of doing it with more finesses, more intuitiveness. Those things are not endlessly aided by computational power. Designers need to put the hard graft in to make those things better. They also need taste and an understanding of their non-technophile fellow human beings.
…but I digress.