Shank’s Spiel: Next Gen Cowardice

Admittedly, I briefly touched on this topic during the first episode of Shank’s Spiel. However, I view that first episode as a pilot, really, so I thought it best to revisit this notion in a far more fleshed out and realized manner. As such, please excuse any implicit reticence.

So, where to begin? I suppose it’s logical to first look at our current situation.

This past November, we were told to buy the PS4 and Xbox One. Indeed, many of you (myself included) went out in droves to get our hands on the latest consoles. The grand majority of these gamers are loving their machines and play them almost daily (myself included).

However, a minority few along with some PC gamers (myself included) can’t help but see these machines for what they really are: a timid excuse for true next generation hardware.

Now, I fully realize that hardware isn’t necessarily the sole determining factor when developing games. Masterpieces like The Last of Us and GTA V are proof of this. But, it is perfectly reasonable and logical to submit that hardware does play a significant role in determining gameplay experiences. The PC version of Crysis 3 is the tried and true example of this.

That being said, Sony and more obviously Microsoft were far too conservative in their approach to their next generation of gaming.

Both of these machines really aren’t any more powerful than mid-range PCs from 2012. Considering that they released late 2013, they were already behind at launch.

Do not interpret my statements here as mindless bashing on consoles. Remember, I own both of them.

Sony almost had the right idea by including 8 GB of GDDR5 unified memory. That’s huge and cannot be downplayed nor understated. Microsoft chose a far more exotic and inefficient DDR3 coupled ESRAM approach which is creating some very real bottlenecks.

Both machines use multi-core, low TDP, underclocked CPUs coupled with relatively more powerful GPUs. Both the CPU and GPU are combined on a single die in what’s called an APU.

Obviously, APUs have their advantages, such as lower power draw compared to the discrete chip layout found in PC rigs. This is why and how these consoles manage to stay quiet and cool in your living room.

However, APUs are hopelessly underpowered in order to seriously compete with modern gaming PCs on a strictly processing power level. The CPUs used in both machines are just tweaked and customized mobile processors. This saves money and power draw, but the trade-off in processing power is substantial.

That brief meander through technical specifications aside, you should begin to realize just why I accuse Sony and Microsoft of being far too conservative.

They played it safe. They didn’t really take risks with the hardware. And already, a mere six months after launch, this is plainly evident.

Games like Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, Titanfall and the upcoming Watch Dogs all look and run far better on a moderately equipped PC than these machines.

And this gap is only going to widen.

Contrast this with the previous generation where, at least for the first year, the consoles were more powerful than some high end PCs. Of course, the arrival of the 8800 GT completely changed all that. Soon enough, PC performance quickly outstripped the consoles and has stayed there ever since.

What this means is that these consoles will begin to hold back the industry sooner than their predecessors, stifling any additional progress, and stagnating growth.

If this doesn’t worry you, it really should.

The ramifications of this cannot be understated. Growth is the true driving force behind the industry. Stagnating that growth is unbelievably dangerous.

It should be said that this growth will stagnate if Microsoft and Sony commit to another 8 year generation cycle like they did with this last generation. That is something the industry absolutely cannot afford to go through again.

Of course, the simplest way to circumvent this is to go back to the 4-5 year console cycle. This keeps technology and growth moving at a set pace, but also allows developers enough time to create some amazing experiences.

My rightful cynicism and worry aside, I am not without suggestions and musings on what could have been and more importantly, what should have been.

So, let’s begin this little thought experiment.

New consoles take a long time to create. However, even though the concept for a new console begins very early, the actualization of the hardware becomes far less nebulous the closer you get to launch. This is because Sony and Microsoft can more easily determine trends and look at far more accurate projections on future hardware growth.

That being said, from a purely technical perspective, what should the next PlayBoxStation-thing have been in order to be truly “next generation”?

Well, what is available today? Once again, we turn to the PC. Discrete graphics cards like AMD’s 290x and Nvidia’s 780ti showcase the ridiculous power that is available right now. The 780ti, for example, operates at ~5 TFLOPS, whereas the EVGA superclocked variant operates at 5.8 TFLOPS. And, if you’ve overclocked even that card like I have, my 780ti operates at a truly insane 6.2 TFLOPS.

Compare this to the 1.8 TFLOPS of the PS4 and the 1.2 TFLOPS of the Xbox One. It’s a monumental difference. This is an insane amount of power. Did it cost more? Absolutely, but more on this later.

So, Shank’s PlayBoxStation-thing would include a GPU equivalent in power to the top of the line graphics card of the day – one that the majority of PC gamers would not have in their rig. What this means is that even for PC gamers, this console would seem like a viable option – something that simply cannot be overstated.

On the CPU side, opting for a powerful quad core, multithreaded CPU similar to a high end 3rd generation i7 would similarly go a long way to further “future proof” the console and again, make it more appealing to PC gamers with mid-range builds.

Rounding off Shank’s PlayBoxStation-thing would be 1 TB of onboard storage and 8 GB of GDDR5 unified memory (why fix what isn’t broken?). All of this would sell for $499.

Right now, you’re thinking that I would be incurring a huge loss on the hardware – and you would be right. But think about it. The beauty of consoles is that manufacturers can afford to sell the hardware at a loss and make up that cost in software and services. Never has this model been more relevant than today.

Add to that economies of scale and optimizations in fabrication productions, and you will quickly see the manufacturing cost of your PlayBoxStation-thing reduce over time.

This is the “next gen” console I wanted to see last November. This would have been a much greater mark of progress and growth than the PS4 and Xbox One can ever hope to be. Had Sony or Microsoft released a console like this, it would have been a true “wow” moment for me, something that would truly blow our collective minds and give us a very real glimpse at the future of our industry.

But in the end, we did not get the PlayBoxStation-thing. And I find it so depressing that Sony and Microsoft were just too conservative and frankly, too damn scared to take a true leap forward.

Instead, what we got was a small, awkward stumble where something that should be so trivial as 1080p is not a given.

For my sake, and yours, I certainly hope the real next generation of consoles arrives sooner rather than later. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play some more inFamous: Second Son.

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