Category Archives: Hardware

Sony 4, Microsoft One

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“You make a gnarly run like that and girls will get sterile just looking at you.”

I’ve always been a little hard on Sony. For five years I’ve been bemoaning the decisions they made with the PlayStation 3, including but not limited to the price-inflating integration of Blu-Ray into a system that was too far ahead of its time for its own good; when the PlayStation 3 came out in 2006, it was priced at $599 for the 60 GB model while competing against the year-old Xbox 360 Premium, which offered only 20 GB of storage but sold for $200 less than the PlayStation. The cost and lead-time disparities ensured that Microsoft enjoyed a larger North American market share than they’d had with the original Xbox, which (compared to the PlayStation 2) sold like lemongrass-arugula-tofu burgers at Sturgis.

I’ve always been inclined to root for the underdog. Maybe most people are the same, I don’t know, but I like to watch something that sucks become something that doesn’t suck. I like to see improvement lead to success, and I like to see success maintained through merit, as opposed to draconian end-user licensing policies and back-room exclusivity deals. Now that more information about each console has been released at this year’s Esoterically Eclectic Excellent Exhausting Elephantine Entertainment Electronics Exposition Extravaganza — E3² — including full hardware specs, price, and a few launch titles, it’s time to prognosticate a winner for the eighth generation of game systems. On each of the previous two occasions that these companies launched a system, they’ve done so either ahead of or behind the other, but this will be the first time that they’ve left the gate together. To extend the racing metaphor even further, one of these horses is faster, but the other has a better jockey.

"I've been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I'm no dummy."

“I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.”

The PlayStation 4 is using GDDR5 system memory, which is faster than the GDDR3 found in the Xbox One, but the Xbox One uses 32 MB of SRAM, which can offset the slower memory by reducing GPU memory bandwidth requests if the SRAM is managed as a cache. In this case the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One would have similar memory bandwidths, but at the cost of a more complex development process for the Xbox; will this be enough to make an effective difference in the games that you play? Probably not. Keep in mind that GDDR3 is less expensive than GDDR5, which might favorably influence Microsoft’s price policy a few years down the road, but Sony is committed to using pricier GDDR5 for the life of the PlayStation 4.  (Please allow me to clarify a previous statement; when I say “better jockey,” I don’t mean “more skilled.” I don’t even mean “talented.” I don’t mean “ethical.” What I mean is that Sony’s horse is faster, but Microsoft’s jockey is willing to drive an animal — and you — half to death in order to move it across the finish line before anyone else. So by “better jockey” I guess what I really mean is “maniacal vertically challenged demon horse-hater with a spike-studded crop and an wicked laugh.”)

The PlayStation 4’s GPU is also faster, boasting 33% more peak theoretical shader throughput than the Xbox One’s GPU. What does this mean, in practical terms? Not much when it comes to cross-platform titles, but it might give PlayStation-exclusive studios like Naughty Dog and Insomniac an edge in making their games look richer when compared to those developed by Xbox-exclusive developers. Also, the fact that the PlayStation 4 is (in some areas) significantly more powerful than the Xbox One will not hurt its perception of value to on-the-fence adopters.

"Truly a sight to behold. A man beaten. The once great champ, now a study in moppishness. No longer the victory-hungry stallion we've raced so many times before, but a pathetic, washed up, aged ex-champion."

“Truly a sight to behold. A man beaten. The once great champ, now a study in moppishness. No longer the victory-hungry stallion we’ve raced so many times before, but a pathetic, washed up, aged ex-champion.”

Another thing that won’t hurt the PlayStation 4’s perceived value is the fact that it is a better value right out of the box; at $399 it’s $100 cheaper than the Xbox One. The Xbox One does come with the required Kinect sensor, so some would argue that the difference is made up right there, but let me phrase this another way; Sony is not requiring the use of a camera peripheral that must be plugged into the PlayStation 4 at all times, thereby mitigating the possibility of pictures of your crotch appearing in some formerly super-secret NSA database, and in the process they save you $100. And it’s got faster RAM. To me, that’s a better value.

When it comes to lending games to friends and family members, the PlayStation 4 comes out ahead once more. (Watch this video for a series of comprehensive instructions on the process.) With Microsoft’s new policies regarding game trading, lending, and renting, coupled with the higher price of the Xbox One, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the PlayStation 4 become the must-have holiday item for 2013. If it receives a price drop, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wii U pick up some much-needed steam in terms of system sales towards the end of the year. (I’m pulling for you, Wii U! Suicide is never the answer, little trooper!)

As far as the always-on broadband connection goes, the PlayStation 4 wins again; if you don’t mind the notion that your Xbox One must connect to the internet every 24 hours in order to play games offline, then this won’t be a problem for you. But if you resent the assurance from Microsoft that this is okay because “every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection,” and if you find it unappetizing to mix in a liberal helping of tautology with your steaming rationalizations, the Xbox One probably isn’t the machine for you. Sony has stated that there will be no restrictions placed on trading, selling, lending, reselling games, and that there will be no daily online verification system for games to be played offline.

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I think all you need is a small taste of success, and you will find it suits you.”

SCE seems to be enjoying a favorable spotlight for the first time since the last century, when their stock peaked at $150 and the PlayStation 2 was the machine in everyone’s targeting reticle. While the system specs for both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are similar, the perception of their differences, along with the restrictions Microsoft has placed on the way that you use their system, has put Sony in a very good position for the start of the next generation. Personally, I have no interest whatsoever in a system that dictates to me how I’m going to use it, when it has to be online, which useless (to me) peripherals must be connected at all times, what I can’t do with its games, all while using its interface to repeatedly remind me that I’m not spending enough money on its products. I don’t think I’m alone here.

While Microsoft is busy trying to forcibly change the user experience across all their platforms, Sony seems content to get out of the way and let the PlayStation 4 be primarily about gaming. Only time will tell, of course, but it’s been a while since I’ve been sanguine about any Sony product; with all things considered, but mostly regarding price and policy, for this coming generation my money’s on the fast horse to win by a length.

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There’s No Need to Fear!

Holder

The secret profusion of red rings is still / A problem that Microsoft struggles to kill

Whispers and rumors of whispers continue to circulate about the new Xbox and its increasingly probable lack of compatibility with Xbox 360 games. Most industry analysts are convinced that this will hamper sales of the coming console, and with good reason; a long list of backwards (forward?)-compatible games gives fledgling hardware instant added value to potential buyers, lifting the purchase of a new system out of the arena of frugal practicality (“$500 for a machine that will only play these six lousy launch titles? Are they crazy?”), and boosting it into the aurora-rich thermosphere of spendthrift rationalization (“Not only will it play these six great launch titles, but all my current games to boot! This is the best bargain in the history of gaming! All for only $500!).

The reason for the change lies in the systems’ CPUs; the 360’s Xenon processor is based on the PowerPC instruction set architecture, and the forthcoming Xbox (and the PlayStation 4) will use the x86 architecture. This will make the newer systems simpler to write software for, but it’ll also make backwards compatibility impossible without the use of either an emulator, or — in the case of the Xbox — the inclusion of a Xenon CPU alongside its AMD Jaguar APU, a feature which would be prohibitively expensive. There’s no other way around this; trying to play a 360 game on a system without emulation software or a PowerPC-based processor would be like trying to get a chimpanzee to read Les Miserables to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The Cry Goes Up Both Far and Near

Asking people to give up eight years’ worth of 360 titles in exchange for a promise of better things to come will cause many potential early adopters to put off the decision to buy, so sure, eliminating backwards compatibility will hurt sales of the new Xbox at first. In the 26.2 of things, though, it’ll lead to better games.

Riff Raff had only moments to contemplate his faux pas.

Riff Raff had only seconds to contemplate his faux pas before discovering Underdog’s reaction to the words “now go home and get your fuckin’ shine box!”

When the original Xbox was released in November of 2001, there was no previous system for it to be backwards-compatible with; it was essentially a cold-call on the console gaming industry by a salesman with no track record in that field. As a result, the good gaming folk at Microsoft realized that they had to provide a reason for Jane and Jim Regularius to hand over their denarii in exchange for a console that competed against two other machines and essentially had nothing going for it; the PlayStation 2, which was released a year earlier, was backwards-compatible with original PlayStation games and had begun to pick up serious traction with Grand Theft Auto III. The GameCube, which was launched concurrently with the Xbox, offered no backwards compatibility, but rode the inertia of the Nintendo name for a little while before fading to third place in the sixth-generation console standings. At the beginning, and for the first time in a generation, Microsoft was the little guy in something. You might even say they were the…well, you know.

Because of this, they realized that they couldn’t skimp on content; as noted, there was no previous-generation console library to fill the gaps between new Xbox releases. They needed at least one title that would draw people away from the known entities of Nintendo and Sony, people who were hungry for something more sophisticated than the traditional cold-supper fare that consoles had offered up to that point. While Grand Theft Auto III would continue to sell trillions of PlayStation 2s exclusively for another two years, it was Halo that carved out a tenuous toehold in the industry for the Redmond rookies almost 12 years ago.

Dog and Polly

When Polly’s in trouble, he is not slow, as evidenced by the speed lines and van Gogh-esque starry splotches to the left.

Why? Because Halo was unlike anything that had ever been seen on a console before. Its production value was unparalleled in its day, its graphics were beyond PC-quality, its mechanics hold up well even today, and for two years the only way you could play it was on the Xbox. (Windows and OS X ports were released in late 2003.) There were other exclusive titles released for the Xbox at launch, including Azurik: Rise of Perathia (about a week after launch), Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, Project Gotham Racing, Fuzion Frenzy, Mad Dash Racing, Dead or Alive 3, and NFL Fever 2002, with Blood Wake coming about a month later, but nothing could touch Halo when it came to putting controllers into people’s hands, and $299 into Microsoft’s wallet; along with the launch of Xbox Live in November of 2002, it’s the reason why Microsoft is still in the industry today.

There’s not enough of a sample to cite cause on this, but when a console manufacturer is up against burly competition, when they know that they can’t rely on last-gen software to push next-gen hardware sales, good things can happen. Whether that’s Halo on the Xbox, or Rogue Leader on the GameCube, Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64, or  Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast (all except Soul Calibur were first-party publications), there’s a visible history of systems without backwards compatibility delivering launch titles that are designed to keep people coming back. That high level of quality doesn’t always hold up throughout the life of the console (see: CameCube), but I’m in favor of any factors that encourage a first-party publisher like Microsoft to hit the ground with both feet and a big-ass hammer on launch day. If Bungie had continued to develop Halo as a real-time strategy game for Mac and Windows, the gaming landscape would be very different today; indeed, fourteen people would have played Halo, Microsoft would have relied on Azurik to boost system sales, and we’d all be speaking Sony.

To Right This Wrong With Blinding Speed

There are further rumors that Microsoft will release a peripheral called the Xbox Mini that will allow 360 games previously purchased and downloaded through Xbox Live to be played on the next Xbox, but that’s not really the same, is it? The majority of my 360 games are disc-based — I can list on the fingers of one finger the number of full 360 games that I’ve downloaded through Xbox Live (BioShock), so while I don’t put much stock in the rumor’s credibility, it’s not likely to offset the adoption rate of the new system one way or another. Unless the peripheral is a pack-in with the Xbox, charging money for people to maintain the value of the games they’ve already purchased will have a negative effect on the console’s initial sales.

This won’t be an issue unless Microsoft fails to entice the reluctant adopters with attractive content, which in my world means only one thing; Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Facebook and Twitter integration, and anything what-so-fucking-ever to do with Kinect might be fine for some people, but for me they’re just another layer of ossified dinospoor that I must drill through in order to reach the only thing that truly matters; spectacular games.

Microsoft seems to have forgotten this lately, as the aforementioned non-essential applications have relegated games to a third- or fourth-tier relevance on their system. Not having the plush little cushion of backwards compatibility nestled beneath the new Xbox’s powerful gluteals might just be just the thing to remind them of why people buy gaming consoles in the first place.

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It’s Not U, It’s Mii

"Like a frightened turtle!"

“Like a frightened turtle!”

Let’s say you’re an architect. After many successful years of designing and building homes, you finally decide to build one for yourself, so you go to the hardware store, spot a hammer that you absolutely must have, and immediately ask yourself, “what kind of dwelling could I construct with this-here fine and heavy implement of repeated forceful striking?” At this point you proceed to draw up plans for your new dream home based entirely around the hammer that you just bought for $159 at your local Big Orange-Themed Hardware Conglomerate. It was, after all, a rather expensive implement of repeated forceful striking, and you need to justify its cost by working it into the design at every possible opportunity.

Each element of construction in your house requires the use of this spectacular hammer; components that normally call for screws have been refitted to use nails, and even those that still require screws are having their screws pounded in with ferocity, fervor, and an utter disregard for physics and sound mechanical principles. Even the electrical and plumbing systems have been installed using nothing but your hammer; certain concessions must be made, of course, in order to live in a home for which the standard of design and construction is a single simple tool, but it will definitely be worth it, as your hammer house will forever change the way that architects, builders, and homeowners interact with their domiciles. As any connoisseur of specious, unexamined premises can tell you, any change is good change. Right?

It’s Like Elmer Fudd Sitting On a Juicer

"All right, that's it for me!"

“All right, that’s it for me!”

The problem with the hammer house is that it was designed by someone with inverted creative standards; tools must always be the servants of ideas. Any hardware — whether that’s a bucket of nuts or a fancy semi-next-generation game system — is only a means to an end; whenever ideas are not technology’s master, they become its slave.

What’s wrong with designing a house around a hammer? The same thing that’s wrong with designing a game around an input device; in that instance the device (the tool) does not facilitate creativity, but instead shackles it with an arbitrarily imposed set of nonessential standards, the highest of which is the principle of gratuitous change. Requiring people to stand up and perform the Electric Slide in order to open a door changes gameplay in the same way that riding a llama to the dentist’s office changes root canal; you’re still going to the same place, but now your ass is sore and you smell like sweaty ruminant. And for what? To the serious gamer, how you get there is not the point.

The serious — or hardcore — gamer is someone who holds content above all other considerations. Content consists of everything that happens on the screen, which means that the interaction between the player and the hardware is immeasurably less important than the interaction between the player character and the game world; input method can’t resurrect a horrible game, but it sure can ruin an otherwise good one. As such, anything that comes between the serious gamer and a game’s content (like a series of shakes, contortions, thrusts, swings, and convulsions that cause the player to resemble a chihuahua humping a Pringles can) hinders the goal of every publisher or developer who claims to want the hardcore audience on their side. This is where Nintendo went wrong with the Wii, and where certain developers have already gone wrong with the Wii U.

"My mother caught me."

“Ooh, what are we gonna do? I’m shaking, I’m shaking.”

There’s nothing wrong in having fun with an input-centric game like Wii Sports or Wii Play, or even the Wii version of The Force Unleashed, which I played more often than any of its siblings from another system. The problem lies in the fact that those who routinely spend money on games (again, the serious and hardcore) realize that such input methods employ nonessential and convoluted control mechanics — dividing the players’ attention between what’s on the screen and what’s in their hands is a surefire route towards alienation, which will ensure that such games are purchased and played only as a novelty or a curiosity.

UbiSoft’s Wii U launch title ZombiU commits this error in zaftig abundance. Forcing players to constantly shift their attention between the TV and the controller is an immersion-breaking gimmick that hijacks the experience instead of augmenting it, subjugating the game to the device on which it is played. Forcing the player to use the touch screen for contextual actions, such as dragging items from a looted container to the player’s inventory, is a gratuitous attempt at using the software to justify the existence of the hardware, turning what ought to be a completely forgettable, mundane little task into a drawn-out exercise in frustration, tedium, and unpleasantness, kind of like gaming’s equivalent of Brussels sprouts. There’s already a method for accomplishing such things in games; it’s called the A button. Or the X button. Or the right mouse button. Or the E key.

gaming_mass_effect_3_wii_u_pad

“Everybody’s doing something, we’ll do nothing.”

By contrast, the Wii U version of Mass Effect 3 uses the touch screen primarily to enhance its gameplay by keeping the map open at all times, which aids in navigation without the need to pause the game, open the map, find your way, close the map, and resume playing; a quick glance at the GamePad orients the player without so much as a press of a button. Less input, less cumulative downtime, and less clutter on the main screen keeps players in the game much more effectively than, let’s say, placing a series of unnecessary hurdles in their path. After all, just because you can place hurdles doesn’t mean that you should.

Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

The fact that Nintendo is going after a deeper audience with the Wii U is a good thing. It means that they acknowledge that they made a few mistakes with the Wii, and they’ve addressed them in the Wii U, primarily in the type of gamer that they want to attract to the system — technically, and as far as the differences that are discernible while playing a game, the Wii U is a continuation of the current console generation. Sure, it has twice the usable RAM of the Xbox 360, but that memory is on a slower bus. Its CPU is slower than those of the Xbox and the PlayStation 3, but it’s also more efficient. The Wii U’s GPU is reportedly faster than its contemporary cousins’ GPUs, but that slight advantage is lost in the bottleneck of its slower CPU. In all, it’s a wash.

And that’s okay. The standard of my enjoyment is the game, not the system, the content, not the way that I use the hardware. Some developers don’t get this, and will continue to try to force players to jump through hoops and run in circles and Waldo Pepper their way through each and every title they release by holding the GamePad up to the screen, holding it sideways, standing on it like a skateboard, or swinging it like a baseball bat.

Such games can certainly be fun for a little while, but when it comes to long-term profit and survivability, the company that ignores the difference between gimmickry and innovation does so at its own risk. No console generation has ever been dominated merely by the most powerful hardware, but instead by the system that embraces its role as a facilitator and an enabler of creativity within the context of the software.

It’s been a long time since that’s been a Nintendo console, but I wouldn’t mind seeing them return to the position they held in the industry twenty-odd years ago, when they had so much hand they were coming out of their glove.

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