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Game over


I recently attended Game Over: the future of gaming, a presentation by Mike Froggartt of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. It started with a brief history of games (which he claimed started with Spacewar on the PDP-1 as early as 1962) as well as some of the consoles throughout history.

Interestingly, the original PlayStation used a 68000 chip which was developed something like 10 years before it found a home in the games console, whereas with the PlayStation 2, the MIPS chip had been developed only 5 years before its use in the games console. This is a stark contrast with the Cell processor in the PlayStation 3, which has pretty much been custom designed and straight off the production line into the console.

The clock speed of each of these consoles has gone up roughly a factor of 10 each time, and the computational power a factor of 20. This allows games to swing back to realism; early games may have been blocky, but there was more focus on gameplay. With the PS2 generation, more work was done on graphics; but unfortunately, the characters are generally static and although the textures might be higher definition, the worlds felt much more alien because they were attempting to present reality and missing (if only by a bit).

Looking to the future, and what's available on the PS3 now, the fact that it has 6 cores available for the programmers use (the cell has 8, but to improve yields, only 7 are enabled, and one is reserved for DRM internal use) means that there's a lot more processing power available. This allows games to become better for two reasons:

  • The physics of worlds can be more realistic. Instead of having to define objects as graphics with boundaries that the character can't interact with, the world can be defined as a set of objects which have certain properties (weight, strength, and so on). This actually makes game development easier, since once you've got a library of such objects, you can start making arrangements of games easier rather than custom-drawing every location uniquely.
  • Lighting can be calculated more accurately. At present, games tend to 'bodge' lighting by assuming that every surface gives off a tiny amount of light, equivalent to the 'average' light reflecting off it. However, if you have the power, then doing full ray-tracing from the light source can give a better effect, since you end up with diffused shadows and reflected colours.

A few games were shown; there as a PS3 in the room but frankly little point; everything (except the Folding@Home demo) was video previews rather than actual gameplay. Instead, it just made it a bit more of a juttered presentation as he switched back and forth (from his MacBook, I might add). There was even a competition to win a PS3, which sadly I didn't win. (I wonder if there's one for writing up the best blog entry about it ...)

Games aside, it looks like Sony have cottoned on to the idea of virtual worlds. There was a video demonstration of Sony at Home, or some such marketing name, which looked to all intents like SecondLife. I figure that they've realised there's mucho moolah to be made in the virtual world, and so are trying to tempt people in via PS3s. I wonder if it will have the success of SecondLife, if only because of the customisation and scripting that can be done in the SecondLife environment seems likely to be painful with a Sony PS3 controller (though apparently you can hook up a USB keyboard). I think the thing that will make on-line gaming popular is the fact that every PS3 has a network socket; the reason why it didn't work with the PS2 was that although you could buy it as an extension, not many people did. Compare that with either the XBox2 which shipped with a network connection out-of-the-box, and that was one of the main reasons why the on-line gaming succeeded whereas it flopped with the PS2.

So, all in all, the lecture was enjoyable but nothing terrifically new coming out of it. As far as the future of games (and game development) the GameOn talk at the Science museum had more interesting points, such as the big deal being the memory bandwidth and generational textures. Still, you can judge for yourself; the lecture presentation was webcast (including Nigeria, who ironically asked a question about how easy it would be to defeat the Draconian Rights Management) and recorded for posterity on Sadly, the site is a JavaScript minefield and you can't post direct links to any of the recordings, but if you search for Game Over you should be able to find it.