With the European PSP launch due to take place only the next day, a session on the portable console’s immediate past and present seemed particularly timely at the Game Developers Conference Europe today in London. Taking place immediately after lunch, as part of the Techniques & Tools Track, the three part session was headed by Sebastien Rubens of the SCEE (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe) Technology Group, Mike Froggatt of SCEE Studio Cambridge and Dave Burrows of SCEE Studio Liverpool.
Rubens began with an overview of the PSP’s achievements to date, beginning with its various features for those not entirely familiar with the device. Although his thick French accent was at times difficult to understand Ruben’s affable charm was enough to keep the audience’s attention. After describing features such as the Cross Media Bar (XMB) interface, USB connectivity and Wi-Fi communication he gave a brief overview of the Japanese and American launches.
Rubens highlighted the eighteen launch titles for the Japanese launch eight months ago and the 2.7 million units now shipped in the U.S. since its launch five months ago, although he failed to address in any way the PSP’s disappointing sales so far in Japan this year. For the European launch he pointed out that there would now be thirty-two titles available for launch – a record for any console to date.
|The European PSP launch is just around the corner.|
According to Sony’s figures the company has now shipped (as apposed to sold) 5 million PSP consoles worldwide and 11 million games. Rubens also announced that there are now 200 PSP licensees worldwide, including UMD movie and music publishers. He ended his talk by emphasising that the PSP was meant for all ages and for many different forms of entertainment besides video games. Rubens also took the time to highlight how easy it was for developers to work on due to its similarity to the PSone and PlayStation 2 and the high level of support being promised by Sony.
The next speaker was Mike Froggatt, the lead programmer on MediEvil Resurrection at SCEE Studio Cambridge. From this point on the session became highly technical as he tried to warn potential PSP developers of the various potential pitfalls, or “gotchas” as he put it, when developing for the PSP. To the amusement of the audience his initial slide suggested that almost every element of the PSP, from the CPU to the Network functionality had its potential problems – although he was keen to point out that overall the PSP was very easy and enjoyable to program for.
Froggatt explained that MediEvil Resurrection (a launch title for Europe, but not released in the U.S. until September 13th) was based on the engine used for the studio’s previous PlayStation 2 titles Primal and Ghosthunter. The process of converting the engine for use on the portable was described as relatively easy, but with some unforeseen issues.
One of the first problems was that although the CPU (referred to by Sony as Allegrex) had a potential clock speed of up to 333MHz it was limited by the firmware to just 222MHz, making it functionally around a third of the speed of the PlayStation 2. Memory performance was also described as “not great” at between a half and one third of the PlayStation 2, with an ineffective scratchpad also coming in for some mild criticism.
Froggatt also warned about the FPU (Floating Point Unit) whose IEEE754 compliance makes it notably different to the PlayStation 2, resulting in a large number of exceptions being generating when first porting over PlayStation 2 code. The Vector FPU was said to be more comparable to the PlayStation 2, with the relatively minor differences being negated by its easy of use. The Graphics Engine (GE) was described as less flexible than the PlayStation 2 at a geometry level, but more flexible at a pixel level. One of Burrows most important “gotcha” warnings though related to clipping problems with the GE, which his team had solved only by implementing their own full 3D clipping system.
Froggatt’s final warnings were of a less technical nature, but he considered them no less important. According to his experience the sudden turning on or off of the network switch on the console caused numerous problems at the QA stage, with Burrows likening it to the “new memory card for TRC fails”. He also warned developers to beware of the Hold button, which disables the PSP’s button inputs and which had wasted many hours of development when switched on accidentally.
The third and final speaker was Dave Burrows of SCEE Studio Liverpool, the lead programmer on WipEout Pure who gave a brief description of working with the PSP’s “Game Share” option. This feature is similar to the single cart multiplayer feature on the Nintendo DS, where a version of the game is uploaded to nearby PSPs using an ad hoc Wi-Fi connection.
As Burrows demonstrated, the file which the PSP transmits can be any type of file, with SCEE already having experimented with single player demos and movie files (although the latter example included its own movie player rather than being simply a MPEG file itself). According to Burrows no matter the nature of the file it cannot be stored on the memory stick (answering an audience question confirmed that Sony had a policy of only running executable files from a UMD) and has a maximum transmission size of 8MB, uncompressing to a total of 24MB on the PSP.
Apart from squeezing all the data into just 8MB, Burrows suggested that the only real problem encountered was the difficulty in debugging the feature in Wi-Fi mode. Once this was overcome SCEE began implementing the aforementioned demos and movie clips into its own games and hopes in the future that such demos will become commonplace.
In his closing comments Burrows suggested that Game Share would also be used for PlayStation 3 connectivity features, allowing the PSP to be used as a controller and for adjusting interactive game data. At this point he stopped himself from revealing further applications for the feature, which he claimed were being kept “secret” for now. With the session already overrunning its time slot there was little time for additional questions from the audience, but the exhaustive nature of the discussions appeared to satisfy all concerned.