Are you hungry for power? No, I don’t mean your nefarious plan for world domination involving an army of hamsters; I’m talking about consoles. And, more specifically, whether the new consoles have got enough grunt in them to keep up with PC games for the next 9 years or so. Crytek’s US engine business development manager, Sean Tracy, is implying they may run out of steam much sooner than that, as reported by CVG News. Ah, but there are counter arguments flying around. Counter arguments that say, basically, you ain't seen nothin' yet. So what's the deal?
Just to be clear, neither machine is going to explode in a cascade of Photoshopped sparks (courtesy of yours truly). Tracy is concerned that the new consoles will run out of RAM sooner rather than later when trying to run the newest engines on the market. "We already had to manage quite intensely our memory usage throughout Ryse and this will be one of the limiting factors surely in this generation," said Tracy. "I would have to agree with the viewpoint that 8GB can easily be filled up, but also keep in mind that developers don't necessarily even have access to all 8 gigs of it," he added.
RAM (Random Access Memory) is the stuff that the computer accesses in super-fast time, holding it ready to recall in an instant, instead of having to load it off a disk and decompress it before it can do anything with it. So 8 gigabytes of the stuff may sound massive, but it can be all-too-easily filled with textures, game engine and what-have-you. And yet, counter to Tracy's fears about console RAM, both Xbox One and PS4 have seen stories this week saying their computational power is set to increase.
Let’s start with Xbox One. With Kinect finally being relegated to 'optional extra' status, Microsoft has said publicly that the processing power previously set aside for Kinect’s functionality and future, unannounced Kinect upgrades, could feasibly be freed up for developers to use, therefore boosting the performance of the core machine. This is arguably necessary, as multiplatform games are running pretty much universally better on PS4 compared to Xbox One at present, namely in terms of frame rate and screen resolution. Quite how much extra power this Kinect reserve will free up remains to be seen.
What about PS4? Recent rumours suggest that PS4 may also be in line for a processing boost. This could be coming from the 'ICE' team, who are responsible for graphics technologies used by first-party Sony developers. And that includes Naughty Dog. Just imagine what Naughty Dog could do with Uncharted on PS4, with massively enhanced graphical capabilities. Yes, that is some super-tasty mind candy. Sony has actually got a track record of boosting performance midway through a console's life; PSP was deliberately underclocked for the sake of battery consumption when it was first launched, but the true power of its processor was ‘unlocked’ for God of War: Chains of Olympus. Some games like Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep even give you the option: faster clock speed for less slow-down, or lower clock speed for longer battery life.
One thing we can be certain of is that any upgrade will come from firmware/software rather than hardware. The days of N64’s Expansion Pak or Sega Saturn’s 4MB RAM cartridge (sold in Japan only, fact fans) are long gone. The new consoles may be based on PC architecture, but the only component Sony doesn’t mind you replacing is the hard drive, likely another example of not wanting to split the marketplace. There’s no way an official RAM expansion is coming to the new-gen machines any time soon. Or, indeed, ever.
Crytek will want to push the graphical envelope as far as an envelope can be pushed, and that means the most up-to-date graphics cards and drivers, which will only be available for PC until the next generation of consoles arrives. In that respect, yes, consoles could be left behind as PC continues its inexorable march towards photorealism. But honestly, history shows us that all developers really need with any hardware is time. If a ZX Spectrum can run Doom, I’m sure PS4 and Xbox One will do just fine anyway. Clever optimisation and a better understanding of the system architecture should keep console games looking great--and contemporary--for the foreseeable future. Despite Tracy's fear of RAM limitations, there's really no telling what the graphical future of PS4 and Xbox One will hold five or six years down the line.