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What Game Devs Want From Next-Gen Consoles

March 30, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

In an industry that at times seems constantly obsessed with the Next Big Thing, it's no wonder there's always so much hype that swirls around the introduction of a new generation of video game consoles.

Console gamers don't have the same geek luxury as, say, Apple fanatics, who get a couple shiny new devices every year. Typically, it's only once every several years that a major new home video game console launches. That's a long time for anticipation to build up.

For game developers, it can be an exciting time as well as a time of uncertainty. But you can't stop progress, and as the current generation of consoles grow long in the tooth, it's time for a change.

So much has evolved since the Xbox 360 kicked off the current generation back in 2005 -- new business models, new distribution methods and new ways to interact with games and fellow gamers will all have an influence on new consoles.

So what exactly should game developers expect, and what do they want from the next generation of consoles? We already know the basics of Nintendo's offering with the Wii U, but what about Microsoft and Sony? As rumors about a new Xbox and PlayStation continue to swirl, Gamasutra speaks with several top-tier game industry figures from Crytek, DICE, Epic Games and others to answer the question: What do you desire from the next generation of hardware?

Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games

Cary, North Carolina's Epic Games has built its business this generation on high-tech visuals, sound, online play, and core-focused game design with Gears of War and Unreal Tournament. The highly-influential company has been known to push the boundaries of new hardware, with its commercial game releases also serving as convincing advertisements for Epic's widely-used Unreal Engine. 

"For us, there are two things that are going to be essential to the console market going forward," says Epic founder Tim Sweeney. "One is bringing together all the features and expectations that gamers have built up from all the main platforms out there today. There are great games with Facebook integration that enable you to hook up to social networks and find your friends in there. To be able to do that from next generation games and consoles would be really valuable."

And it's not just social integration that gamers expect, says Sweeney -- mobile platforms have shifted player expectations of how they get their games, and new consoles should allow developers to meet those expectations.

"To be able to easily buy and download games on future consoles as we do in the iOS App Store would be really valuable to us as developers," says Sweeney, "and make it easier to get our games out without an over-reliance on manufacturing a whole bunch of pieces of spinning plastic that we'd ship to consumers."

"So, having all the things you'd expect from the game industry as a whole, and the best that's been done elsewhere, and bringing that to the console platform is really important," adds Sweeney.

"We went from consoles as a little, fixed, TV-connected device to an online-networked gaming device on which you could play with your friends, get updates, watch movies, and we love that," Sweeney says. "I think a huge portion of the business opportunity in the next generation will be extending that concept even further, that this is a mainstream computing device that hooks into all of your social circles as well."

There's another thing that Sweeney and Epic want to see introduced in the next generation of consoles: "Raw performance," Sweeney says. "The thing that separates consoles from FarmVille is the fact that consoles define the high-end gaming experience. When you look for the best graphics in the home gaming industry, today you look at Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and those games are the best out there, bar none. The big opportunity for future consoles is to bring that to an entirely new level by delivering a dramatic increase in raw computing power."

"We measure that in floating point operations per second," he continues. "Now we talk about teraflops, trillions of floating point operations per second. We want as many teraflops as is economically possible to deliver to consumers, because that allows us to create the best quality experience possible, and that will drive people to buy new machines."

Hooking early adopters and hoping they drop a few hundred dollars is one of the most nerve-wracking parts for game companies that are backing new hardware. "That's the big challenge with consoles, is that you reset your install base from millions and millions back to zero, then you have to convince everybody to buy new hardware," says Sweeney, illustrating just how daunting that task is. "To do that, you need to have awesome games that provide a level of graphical fidelity that people have just not seen, or even imagined, previously."

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Johnathon Swift
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Lots of "more power!" Which... ok. I mean, you can argue against it, but until we get to the holodeck "more power" is always going to be useful. What I'd be concerned about, from the point of view of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo (though I doubt Nintendo is smart enough to worry) is the new breed of games that can be a success overnight.

The PC has that better than any platform, it's the only platform with wide reach, a guarantee of working, and the ability to buy from anyone, anytime, in any fashion. Consoles can't really COMPETE with that, you're not going to get Drawception, or any other "zero to massively popular" in a day kind of game on the consoles. But they do need to try to compete, to move towards allowing "games as a service" type of stuff.

So it'll be interesting to see who is smarter about that. Sony or Microsoft? Who will streamline the process for delivering updates to games as much as possible, who will be willing to give up some of their control over patches and how consumers buy products in order to support more business models? Connecting to your friends through Facebook is easy, and obvious, it's a done deal. But how well is each company going to support the next Minecraft, Dungeon Defenders, or Team Fortress 2?

Speaking of which, as a side note, since Call of Duty is just the same game with some updates sold again and again someone could, if free (or freemium) updates are allowed on the next generation of consoles a savvy developer could undercut Call of Duty in a huuuuge way. Why pay $60 every year plus map packs when you could buy Counterstrike 2 and pay $10 for an update and new maps every four months?

The same COULD go for sports games, or any "formula" game. But sports games will be harder to beat with licensing stuff. Anyway, that's what I see as a huge possibility for next gen consoles.

Jonathan Jennings
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i dont mean to be a pessimist but considering how much developement costs changed the game developement frontier between this generation and last i am worried about what happens next? of course more horsepower is always a good idea but i am more curious about what limitations developers are currently experiencing on modern platforms that will most easily be addressed with more power?

Nathan Mates
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Over on RealWorldTech, David Kanter proposed this rule. Unfortunately, it was off in a comments thread that I can't find quickly at all to link to give credit where credit's due:

Kanter's law: "The cost of a game is proportional to the power of the targeted GPU"

I see a lot of truth in that statement. Despite the occasional people saying that procedural (i.e. fractal or the like) art/models/animation/etc will take over, it really hasn't made a dent in asset generation pipelines. As far as I know, Speedtree is about the only system out there that makes art creation somewhat procedural and optimized. Everything else in modern games needs a team of artists to create more and more content. And that team gets bigger when you have more horsepower to deal with.

As long as AAA games aim for $60+, there's going to be a huge arms race between the top game makers to make consumers think they got their money's worth. For $60, you can get 30-60 iDevice games. (Or 10-12 top titles of yesteryear on Steam sales.) So, you better be 30x better than those.

Johnathon Swift
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Don't be, there really isn't much more to do in terms of creating art assets, and that's what costs money. All the models in triple A games are already super high poly, developers will just be able to display more of those polys in the final game and more models as well, with textures at higher resolutions (this really doesn't cost anything more). I'm sure some more materials will take some consideration (think marking out skin, metal, etc.), but it honestly won't be that much.

And this, along with "free", as in built into development costs and wont actually taking anymore effort, improvements will allow most games to reach "good enough" levels without spending appreciably more money than 360 or PS3 titles.Besides, if market equilibrium has been reached in terms of game budgets then its been reached, and that's that. Game companies, on average, are NOT going to spend themselves into oblivion, because obviously that would be stupid.

Karl E
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Good question. There are fewer of these limitations than you might think. For example, developers like to complain about the small amount of RAM in current consoles. But tens of millions of PC:s already have 4GB or more. So if this really is a problem, i.e. there are many new game features that absolutely require lots of RAM, wouldn't more of these already be present on PC games?
Yes, you can have 64 instead of 24 players in Battlefield, but that doesn't warrant a new console.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Cost is why you absolutely need to keep working on improving your pipelines, your tools and your software architecture. Ive never seem a team where those were anywhere close to perfect, and its amazing how much more you can produce for the same cost with improved tools.

The biggest limitation I currently see is the number of characters on screen. Look out there, games with more than a dozen character on screen at the same time and very few. A certain 2011 game of the year had to limit its epic "battles" to something like 6v6. We can make a single character or building to be very pretty and well animated, but we can't push so many of those on screen at the same time.

Wylie Garvin
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@John Swift: "Don't be, there really isn't much more to do in terms of creating art assets..."

I think this isn't true at all. More advanced techniques can end up requiring new types of assets, that can require a LOT more asset creation time (e.g. wrinkle maps). Or just lots more assets. One current-gen AAA game I worked on had more than 25,000 animations in it. As we add all of these complex techniques that affect their assets, the time to create a single character is ballooning into man-months. And some AAA games need a lot of different character rigs (for different types of clothing/armor/whatever).

Justin Nafziger
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I found it strange that there weren't any requests for better tools or anything to help bring development costs down.

Matt Nolan
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Yeah, there wasn't a lot of talk about that in this article, though a couple of the interviewees did mention having the consoles be more similar, which would cut down on development costs in developing for multiple platforms. I feel like there's probably other things these developers are saying to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo as well that they just feel is more technical than they wanted to go into for this article.

Robert Green
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Justin - probably because there's not a lot that they can imagine that would really bring down the costs of making a AAA game for a console as powerful as a modern PC. There are a few potential easy wins, in areas like tessellation and post-process anti-aliasing, but short of doing something radical like including Unreal Engine in the SDK, there may not be a whole lot that the manufacturers can do to lower the costs of development, beyond lowering the costs they themselves charge and not introducing any radical hardware changes (Sony I'm looking at you here).

Brian Tsukerman
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I know what I want out of my next console! Well, honestly, it's what I want in my next personal computer. However, I will separate stuff that we aren't really up to yet with these brackets [], while the rest is stuff I think is pretty manageable right now.

It's primary function should be to gather player input data as broadly as possible. Why? Because these proprietary control schemes are what justify the existence of proprietary games, and what will make it stand out from the competition. The default should be a two-part control system, made up of:
1) player movement sensors, as inspired by the likes of Kinect, PSEye, and the infrared reader for the Wiimote. However, the sensor should either be a part of the console itself, or be connected to it wirelessly. [Furthermore, it should be a floating orb like the PS9 in the commercial for PS2].
2) A rechargeable wireless headset, to serve as a communication device and a means of honing player positioning data. [Alternately, it could be a full headset and goggle/visor setup, if we can manage to get the goggles to work like that 3D VR Headset that Sony is working on. I'd love to use something like that.]

HARDWARE: The console needs to be outrageously more powerful. Several orders of magnitude more processing so we can simulate everything as finely as possible. Massive amounts of space, let's go with... terabyte [petabyte]). Continue the use of standardized USB ports for recharging controllers. Include 2 headsets in each console pack. Offer deluxe input pack which has 2 classic-style controllers (d-pads, analog sticks and shoulder buttons) as well as a proprietary remote control that has Wiimote/PSMove functionality. [Better yet, make it the portable extension of the console, a la PSVita or the Wii U controller. Make it either like a smartphone or as simple as the Wiimote, with the d-pad and buttons the far ends of a rectangle, and the center as a touch screen display, with touch screens on the shoulder positions and back as well (not sure why yet since I don't have a Vita, but why not?)]

SOFTWARE: At this point, this encompasses the OS, the games, apps and media services, and by extension the contracts and technology needed to support them. At the moment, the only ideal environment is the PC environment, because it lets you access all your licenses and data easily. Going online shouldn't add anything to your monthly internet bill since you're using the same internet connection to begin with. If a game needs to provide it's own subscription fee to pay for server usage, make them deal with the customer directly like WoW, rather than using a monthly billing system for online play in general like Xbox Live. [If we could make the necessary agreements to legally emulate older systems and play Flash games online, that would be absolutely unbelievable. Once again, something the PC and even some smartphones are already capable of.]

I doubt this happening in the upcoming generation, solely because of how complicated the legal climate is regarding technology patents. Still, I'm certain that everything outside of the square brackets is easily feasible at present in terms of tech, and is only being held back by licensing and copyright agreements. As for the rest, I see them being utilized within the next decade. So perhaps I'll have a computer... ahem, console like this in the generation following the upcoming one? I sure hope so.

Mike Kasprzak
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I realize the rumors seem to suggest it anyways, but getting away from Big Endian CPUs sounds awfully nice, given that everyone's PC's, Phones, and Tablets all feature Little Endian chips.

Rob Allegretti
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As a developer, I have yet to find a better platform than the PC for my end of the task. I think they give much more flexibility to the game's options and potential peripherals.

So, basically...what devs want is a powerful PC that plays nicely on a TV, with a nice rounded compact case and a ballsy graphics setup.

Dan Jones
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A couple wishes that have nothing to do with the games themselves:

1) Quiet. If I'm going to use a console as my primary entertainment device, I want it to be silent. Whether I'm playing a game or watching a movie, I don't want the hardware to be adding its own soundtrack to the experience. My high-end gaming PC is so quiet it makes my 360 sound like a jet turbine, so there is room for improvement.

2) A snappy, responsive out-of-game UI. Presently, I spend more time waiting for my consoles to respond to my menu commands than I do actually deciding what commands to input. True, more horsepower could address this... except that more horsepower also means designers chomping at the bit to add more feature-bloat which will make the user experience even more sluggish than ever.

Here's some free market research: I have a number of devices in my home which are capable of running Netflix and/or allow paid rentals of streaming content to my TV. The one that wins out most often is the one that starts up the quickest, offers the simplest interface, and runs the quietest. And it isn't one of my game consoles.

Nick Harris
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Absolutely this.

1) Everyone is clamouring for an uber-powerful GPU, but this will need a powerful fan.

2) More RAM enables speculative caching of: Album Artwork / Movie Posters / Game Boxes.

The Xbox 1080 needs to be a kind of "Multimedia Jukebox" like the iPad. Have you noticed the way that iOS lets you resume a game that you had paused by pressing the Home button. You do not have to reach an in-game checkpoint or muck around managing a bunch of Save Slots unsure of which pertains to the Campaign you were last playing, it is just 'persistent'.

Frankly, it is stupid that we can't turn our consoles off without it ruining our game progress.

Adam Nielsen
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Maybe this seems really simple, but can't we find away to get rid of long load times?

Graham Luke
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That's a software problem for game devs. If you've got more RAM or a faster hard drive or a faster disc reader, devs can just use them to increase the scale of what's loaded into memory at any time - that's what normally happens. Better hardware means more content. Load times are a design problem. A game needs things like smaller levels, predictive loading, or more re-used content to speed up loading times. And all of those things are hard to engineer or justify. ... Not that it's impossible.

Timothy Larkin
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Ditto on Techni's 60 fps comment. It should be default in all games without loading hiccups/glitches. Smooth gameplay should be the next gen's primary goal.

Graham Luke
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That's software. Dev's can get 60fps whenever they want. They've just got to program better or dial down the quality. I hope everyone focuses on 60fps too.