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Deciphering the Technobabble

Epic Designer Cliff Bleszinski

The final specs for the Xbox 360 and PS3 are finally out in the open (while Nintendo has only released the basics on the Revolution). Yet picking the most powerful of the three isn’t easy. No one has touched any of the final machines—they don’t exist yet. And since most developers have projects for multiple systems, they take a neutral approach when discussing pros and cons. “Neither side should be worried—they both have very nice machines,” says Todd Howard, executive producer of Xbox 360 role-player The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. “The PS3 has more processing power, but the memory is not as nice as the Xbox 360’s.”

Microsoft claims its system is 10 times more powerful than the original Xbox. The IBM-designed CPU in the Xbox 360 is a 3.2GHz, Power PC–based triple-core processor—essentially three individual CPUs on one chip. The ATI graphics chip, meanwhile, is a radical departure from current ATI graphics-chip designs for the PC. Whereas all current-generation PC graphics chips have hardware to do two types of processing—one for calculating the position of the polygons on the screen and the other to actually draw the polygons on the screen—the Xbox 360’s ATI chip uses a unified shader architecture, meaning it’s able to do both operations more efficiently. Additionally, the ATI chip has 10MB of embedded DRAM—ultra-high-speed memory that also has built-in circuitry to enable full-screen antialiasing, which makes for smooth polygonal edges.

The PS3 also brings a new CPU to the table—one that Sony and IBM call Cell. It’s also a multicore processor, but unlike the Xbox 360’s CPU, it has two different types of microprocessors on the chip. One of these cores is a Power PC–based processor, not unlike one of the Xbox 360’s three cores, but the difference is that the remaining eight microprocessors (one of which will not be accessible to game developers) are what Sony calls “synergistic processing elements,” or SPEs. Think of the SPEs as miniprocessors designed to be incredibly fast at performing the kind of math that games need most: floating-point math, which is primarily used for graphics and physics. Sony claims that in terms of floating-point performance, the PS3 is approximately 35 times more powerful than the PS2 and twice as powerful as the Xbox 360. The SPEs can also execute normal game code, but they have some limitations that make them harder to use than the Xbox 360’s general-purpose CPU cores. On the graphics side, Sony has teamed with Nvidia for a new chip called the RSX. Nvidia claims the RSX is faster than two GeForce 6800 Ultra chips running in parallel, which is the fastest graphics solution currently available on the PC. (Buying two GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics cards now would cost around $1,000!)

Not much information has been released about the Nintendo Revolution. What we do know is Nintendo has retained the same two partners that it worked with on the GameCube (ATI and IBM) and that together they are designing two new chips for the Revolution, dubbed Hollywood and Broadway. A Nintendo spokeswoman has gone on record as saying that the Revolution will be about two to three times more powerful than the GameCube.

Despite a statement from Microsoft claiming that the Xbox 360 is the mightiest system, it seems that Sony’s console will be the most powerful. Developers we’ve spoken with, however, are concerned that harnessing the power of all those SPE cores will be tricky and require a lot more work, especially if they lack tools and middleware to ease the workload. “Sony doesn’t have quite the same heritage of development tools as Microsoft,” says one developer. Even David Kirk, chief scientist with Sony partner Nvidia, admits that “larger studios that have a lot of technical resources where guys can create tools and train their staffs will have a real advantage over smaller studios with just five guys.”

Long story short: Each system has its strengths, and first-generation games on all three consoles will look similar. As this new generation ages, however, we expect the differences to become more pronounced, particularly when looking at PS3-exclusive games.

The Xbox 360, you know that Xbox Live is as important to Microsoft’s machine as any game or the hardware itself. Microsoft is giving everyone who buys the system basic access to Xbox Live, letting them create an online Gamertag identity, chat with friends, and download demos. Users who pay the $50 annual Xbox Live fee will have access to online multiplayer gaming, video chat, spectator modes in certain games, and more. Microsoft will also offer free limited-time trials of the full service to basic members.

“To be brutally honest,” says Shane Kim, general manager of Microsoft Game Studios, “we have this huge advantage over them to date online, and we’re going to continue to invest in it going forward. And so our Xbox game developers have already gotten used to creating great, integrated online experiences. We’re going to blur the lines between multiplayer and single player. It’s going to be really hard for them to catch up.”

The Online Revolution

But it’s not just Sony’s online plans that Microsoft has to consider. “I did not expect that Nintendo would come out and talk about their online strategy and say, ‘We’re committed. Every Nintendo product that we produce from here forward will be network connected,’” says Microsoft’s J Allard. But that’s what Nintendo did at E3, finally ending the company’s indifference to online gaming.

Revolution, like the DS portable, has built-in Wi-Fi access to the Internet. “The three things we want for online are ease of use, no cost, and reliable connectivity,” says Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, who has several games in the works for the new system. One key, Fils-Aime adds, is to eliminate what he calls “experience barriers”—to make it so newbie and casual players can easily find competitors at their skill level.

Playing online Revolution games—such as a Super Smash Bros. launch title—for free is only part of Nintendo’s online master plan. The Revolution also has a built-in “virtual console” that will let players download (for a fee) and play games from every Nintendo home system dating back to the original NES and continuing up to the Nintendo 64 (note that the Revolution accepts GameCube discs and controllers, so players won’t need to rebuy and download those games). Better still, “we are doing several experiments, including working with the original Super Mario Bros., with the new technology,” says Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. “The game itself and the gameplay shall be identical, but the look will be different—it’s possible that with Revolution, we may be able to see the old games with new looks.”

That’s what the next generation of hardware will bring us: a mix of old (all three systems are backward compatible) combined with a hefty dose of the ultranew (good luck affording the high-definition displays that most PS3 games probably won’t support for several years anyway). And while execs at Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo will exchange fighting words for months to come, at least they all agree on one thing. “You know, Sony didn’t come out and say the whole next-generation thing is about something else, that it doesn’t start until 2007, and that the whole industry should wait,” says Microsoft’s Allard. “I think it’s really good for the whole industry that all three companies are starting their next chapters at roughly the same point in time.”

Weapons Inspection Playstation 3

We size up each system’s most lethal guns—its games

“The demos you saw are the minimum bar that you would expect of PlayStation 3 games,” says Sony Computer Entertainment America President Kaz Hirai. He’s talking about the PS3 game videos—everything from a new Gran Turismo to a spectacular-looking Killzone follow-up—that Sony showed on a 50-foot high-definition screen at its E3 press conference. Attendees left wowed by the visuals, but still many wondered, “Will PlayStation 3 games really look that good?”

Truth is, the more spectacular demos, such as Killzone’s, were actually prerendered “target” videos designed to showcase what the system is capable of...someday. No developer we spoke to thought we’d see such visuals in the first generation of games (less-sizzling graphics, such as those in Fight Night Round 3—seen on one of the TVs to the left—and Insomniac shooter I-8—also to the left—are more likely). And let’s not forget that the final machine doesn’t exist yet. “No need to panic about the PS3,” says Tecmo’s Dead or Alive mastermind Tomonobu Itagaki. “I plan to say something about it once the machine becomes real.” A look at the more interresting games so far shows hit franchises alongside new properties....

Notable PS3 Games

Final Fantasy XIII—The unstoppable RPG franchise stays on a Sony system

Grand Theft Auto—Rockstar says its criminal-minded cash cow will go to PS3

I-8—Ratchet developer Insomniac’s first PS3 game is a first-person shooter

Killzone—The slickest demo at E3, but if the game looks this good, we’ll eat it

Metal Gear Solid 4—Series creator Hideo Kojima sets this sequel after part

Sonic Next-gen—We bet the supersonic rodent is coming to PS3

Vision GT—And you thought the Gran Turismo games looked good on PS2

Warhawk—The fan-favorite PS1 flight-combat shooter takes to the skies again

Revolution

When Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto took up gardening, he channeled his interest into making green-thumbed strategy game Pikmin for GameCube. After getting a new puppy, he crafted pooch-raising sim Nintendogs for the DS. So when we learned he’s working on a Revolution title not based on any previous characters, we hoped his current interest might give us some hints. “Well, I’m growing older and thinking about it more and more,” Miyamoto tells us, “so maybe I’ll make a game about that. Everyone will play it. It has a broad demographic built right in.”

OK, so we doubt that Miyamoto’s first original Revolution title will deal with middle age and male-pattern baldness. He did tell us that his next Mario game, previously known as Mario 128, is now bound for the Revolution’s launch. An online-enabled Super Smash Bros. will also hit at the same time. “And we are aggressively working on a number of new franchises,” adds Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime. The company swears that its mysterious, yet-to-be-revealed controller won’t be so unconventional that it’ll scare away third-party developers. In fact, Nintendo is pushing the Revolution’s more down-to-earth specs as the main reason smaller developers will embrace the system. “The dirty little secret of the two next-generation systems by our competitors,” says Fils-Aime, “is that to truly flesh out the technology, you’ll have to commit 100-plus-person development teams for a long time to create games. And for that middle-level developer who’s got a fantastic idea but a team of 50 folks, our system will be able to bring it to life and do it in a truly innovative way.” None of those quirky games have emerged yet. So far, we just know of these big guns....

Notable Revolution Games

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles 2—An online sequel

The next Legend of Zelda—Nintendo confirms that this key series is coming to the Revolution

Mario 128—Will hit Revolution at launch

Metroid Prime 3—All we know is that she-warrior Samus gets a new ship

Super Smash Bros.—Nintendo all-stars duke it out online at launch

XBOX 360

Notable Xbox 360 Games

Amped 3—The half-pipe looks so real, we can almost feel the broken wrists

Call of Duty 2—Hear the hollers of your allies in this intense WWII shooter

Dead or Alive 4—Team Ninja’s bouncing beauties return to battle

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion—Come for the pretty forests. Stay for the epic roleplaying

Fable 2—The follow-up to Peter Molyneux’s “greatest RPG of all time”

Final Fantasy XI—The massively multiplayer RPG comes to 360 without a face-lift

Full Auto—It’s like Burnout, but with guns and time powers

Gears of War—Epic’s atmospheric shooter is our most anticipated Xbox 360 title

Ghost Recon 3—First-person soldiering set in the near future

Perfect Dark Zero—Rare’s launch shooter has a ways to go in the graphics department, but the gameplay promises to be killer.

Project Gotham Racing 3—Furiously fast

Quake IV—Storm an alien world and eventually become one with your cybernetic foes

Splinter Cell 4—Sam Fisher is not getting too old for console-hardware wars

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland—The series pays tribute to the Dogtown boys

Too Human—It’s been dubbed the Xbox 360’s answer to God of War

Ridge Racer 6—Yet another hot racer for the Xbox’s hard-driving library P

All the big buzz Sony grabbed for its dazzling PS3 game demos had a flip side: The Xbox 360’s games looked a little lame by comparison. “Microsoft’s games look like games; Sony’s look real,” says Dean Takahashi, author of Opening the Xbox, a chronicle of the making of Microsoft’s original green machine. “True or not, Sony has used its marketing resources to hammer that message home.” The Xbox 360 game that has gotten the most grief is Rare’s Perfect Dark Zero, which is Microsoft’s premiere first-party title for the Xbox 360. The problem: the game’s blah, barely-above-Xbox-caliber visuals, which have been universally panned since we revealed the game last month. Microsoft’s response: Don’t judge the game until it’s done. “We’ve been designing games for launch, not for [the E3] show,” says J Allard, corporate vice president for Xbox. Tecmo’s Tomonobu Itagaki adds, “Everyone was worried about Halo when Microsoft first showed it at E3, because it ran so slowly. But the final version was great.” Microsoft also points to more stellar-looking Xbox 360 launch titles Project Gotham Racing 3 and Gears of War—which hold their own visually against the PS3’s game demos—as what to expect from the system. Now, here are the more exciting games bound for the system....

Hey, no one has called a truce yet. Read our extended interviews with the hardware wars’ top brass at consolewar.1UP.com.

Copyright 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Electronic Gaming Monthly.