Another thing the PlayStation 4 team did to increase the flexibility of the console is to put many of its basic functions on dedicated units on the board -- that way, you don't have to allocate resources to handling these things.
"The reason we use dedicated units is it means the overhead as far as games are concerned is very low," said Cerny. "It also establishes a baseline that we can use in our user experience."
"For example, by having the hardware dedicated unit for audio, that means we can support audio chat without the games needing to dedicate any significant resources to them. The same thing for compression and decompression of video." The audio unit also handles decompression of "a very large number" of MP3 streams for in-game audio, Cerny added.
At the New York City unveiling of the system, Cerny talked about PlayGo, the system by which the console will download digital titles even as they're being played.
"The concept is you download just a portion of the overall data and start your play session, and you continue your play session as the rest downloads in the background," he explained to Gamasutra.
However, PlayGo "is two separate linked systems," Cerny said. The other is to do with the Blu-ray drive -- to help with the fact that it is, essentially, a bit slow for next-gen games.
"So, what we do as the game accesses the Blu-ray disc, is we take any data that was accessed and we put it on the hard drive. And if then if there is idle time, we go ahead and copy the remaining data to the hard drive. And what that means is after an hour or two, the game is on the hard drive, and you have access, you have dramatically quicker loading... And you have the ability to do some truly high-speed streaming."
To further help the Blu-ray along, the system also has a unit to support zlib decompression -- so developers can confidently compress all of their game data and know the system will decode it on the fly. "As a minimum, our vision is that our games are zlib compressed on media," said Cerny.
There's also another custom chip to put the system in a low-power mode for background downloads. "To make it a more green hardware, which is very important for us, we have the ability to turn off the main power in the system and just have power to that secondary custom chip, system memory, and I/O -- hard drive, Ethernet. So that allows background downloads to happen in a very low power scenario. We also have the ability to shut off everything except power to the RAMs, which is how we leave your game session suspended."
Sounds Good, But... Bottlenecks?
One thing Cerny was not at all shy about discussing are the system's bottlenecks -- because, in his view, he and his engineers have done a great job of devising ways to work around them.
"With graphics, the first bottleneck you’re likely to run into is memory bandwidth. Given that 10 or more textures per object will be standard in this generation, it’s very easy to run into that bottleneck," he said. "Quite a few phases of rendering become memory bound, and beyond shifting to lower bit-per-texel textures, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Our strategy has been simply to make sure that we were using GDDR5 for the system memory and therefore have a lot of bandwidth."
That's one down. "If you're not bottlenecked by memory, it's very possible -- if you have dense meshes in your objects -- to be bottlenecked on vertices. And you can try to ask your artists to use larger triangles, but as a practical matter, it's difficult to achieve that. It's quite common to be displaying graphics where much of what you see on the screen is triangles that are just a single pixel in size. In which case, yes, vertex bottlenecks can be large."
"There are a broad variety of techniques we've come up with to reduce the vertex bottlenecks, in some cases they are enhancements to the hardware," said Cerny. "The most interesting of those is that you can use compute as a frontend for your graphics."
This technique, he said, is "a mix of hardware, firmware inside of the GPU, and compiler technology. What happens is you take your vertex shader, and you compile it twice, once as a compute shader, once as a vertex shader. The compute shader does a triangle sieve -- it just does the position computations from the original vertex shader and sees if the triangle is backfaced, or the like. And it's generating, on the fly, a reduced set of triangles for the vertex shader to use. This compute shader and the vertex shader are very, very tightly linked inside of the hardware."
It's also not a hard solution to implement, Cerny suggested. "From a graphics programmer perspective, using this technique means setting some compiler flags and using a different mode of the graphics API. So this is the kind of thing where you can try it in an afternoon and see if it happens to bump up your performance."
These processes are "so tightly linked," said Cerny, that all that's required is "just a ring buffer for indices... it's the Goldilocks size. It's small enough to fit the cache, it's large enough that it won't stall out based on discrepancies between the speed of processing of the compute shaders and the vertex shaders."
He has also promised Gamasutra that the company is working on a version of its performance analysis tool, Razor, optimized for the PlayStation 4, as well as example code to be distributed to developers. Cerny would also like to distribute real-world code: "If somebody has written something interesting and is willing to post the source for it, to make it available to the other PlayStation developers, then that has the highest value."
A Knack for Development
There's another way Cerny is working to understand what developers need from the hardware.
"When I pitched Sony originally on the idea that I would be lead system architect in late 2007, I had the idea that I'd be mostly doing hardware but still keep doing a bit of software at the time," he said. "And then I got busy with the hardware."
That detachment did not last. "I ended up having a conversation with Akira Sato, who was the chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment for many years. And his strong advice was, 'Don't give up the software, because your value is so much higher to the process, whatever it is -- whether it's hardware design, the development environment, or the tool chain -- as long as you're making a game.'"
That's the birth of Knack, Cerny's PlayStation 4 game, which he unveiled during the system reveal in New York City. And it's his link to understanding the practical problems of developing for the PlayStation 4 in an intimate way.
From a Thanksgiving weekend reading technical documents through a difficult and complex engineering process and finally to the development of a big new IP launch for Sony -- you can't say Mark Cerny isn't a dedicated, passionate, and busy man.
"I have not been this busy in 20 years. It's nice. But, definitely, I'm very busy right now," he said, to laughter from everyone in the room.
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