19 January 2013

The times, they are a'interesting...

According to this article over at GamesIndustry.biz... Aww, hell, I'll just post and excerpt and let you read it yourself:

Both the next generation PlayStation - and its Xbox competitor - feature eight-core CPUs clocked at 1.6GHz according to sources trusted by Digital Foundry. The main processor architecture driving both consoles is said to be derived the new "Jaguar" technology currently in development by Intel's arch-rival, AMD. 
Married to the eight-core processor, Orbis also features Radeon HD graphics hardware. We've previously suggested that AMD's mobile "Pitcairn" design - the Radeon 7970M - could be a strong basis for a next-gen console graphics core in terms of power consumption and die-size.

This is, or has the ability to be a complete game-changer.

Now, let's start with the facts: AMD hasn't been in a great financial position for a long time. They're not moving that many units and their parts are lower-priced, in general, than Intel's stuff. They're also on a larger process node technology which means they get less bang for their buck, more risk of failures affecting the yield from the wafer and higher energy and heat costs when the parts are put in users' machines. They are also lagging behind Intel in virtually every performance test used for benchmarking (except, I believe, efficiency under extreme parallelism).

Real gamers do not buy AMD CPUs and they tend not to buy their GPUs either; Nvidia is pretty much on par with AMD but NVidia has a strong brand and history with gamers and so many stick with "what they know". Don't believe me? Just look at the Steam hardware survey.

CPUs: 27% AMD
GPUs: 34% AMD

That's less than half the market in both sectors - again, given for the reasons above.

Secondly, though there are some custom bits and bobs reportedly mucking around in these two new consoles, these parts are pretty much off-the-shelf AMD developed hardware: multithreaded, out-of-order execution etc... basically they are PC parts. I can't say this as a fact because I don't know if any console did this before but certainly the majority of consoles have previously had much more uniquely customised hardware and they were in-order execution units. This makes a huge difference when porting between platforms as code that worked on one won't have a parallel on another or it won't work as effectively or at all! This meant huge costs for developers and publishers who wanted to put their game out on as many platforms as possible.

So, moving on to the unbridled optimism on my part.

These deals give AMD a huge lifeline in the form of licensing. Like I said above, they are losing in the PC market on both fronts but now they have a CPU in both Microsoft's and Sony's next console AND a GPU in all next(now current, really) gen systems. Now, obviously, I have no idea how they've worked out the money - whether AMD have simply designed altered versions of their stock hardware for these two systems and do not get a cut "per device" like they most certainly do with the Xbox 360 and Wii/Wii U which only had money from licensing the design - but there are ancillary benefits to these deals that I've not seen anyone talk about yet.

Which I'll get back to later on.

On the software side of things the implications of article are immense: We have two major consoles that are targeted by every large A to AAA game publisher/developer that basically have standardised PC hardware inside. This potentially means that porting a game from one system to another is much, much easier than it ever was at any point in the history of console gaming. Both systems will be so similar that code designed to work on the CPU will work on the other's CPU (and so on with the GPU). There may be some issues with the difference in the amount of power allocated for the OS and background services between the consoles but in general they will be very similar. Furthermore, PC architecture will also be very similar meaning that porting to the PC will be just as easy.

This could allow lower overheads on developing games for three major platforms as you no longer need such significant resources to be specifically allocated to whichever SKU you have... AND your tools and middleware will be much more cross-compatible as well - increasing the efficiency of your development pipeline and assets too!

It's almost as if Sony and Microsoft got together during this previous generation and looked at the costs and pitfalls of the PS3 and 360 and unofficially shook hands and decided to a gentleman's duel of "whose brand and service is best", allowing them to save on hardware uncertainty and other costs associated with going down the bespoke hardware path. It's equivalent to them picking a guy to bring them both a duelling pistol along to the duel and having both the same type of weapon, relying only on their personal skill at shooting instead of designing and manufacturing their own, oft-misfiring pistol.

If this is how it's going to be then I can only imagine how happy and relieved developers and publishers are.

Now, back to those ancillary benefits for AMD.

IF all target hardware for most big-name publishers and developers is AMD-based then it stands to reason that those software will be designed to take advantage of its quirks and architecture. These games will be optimised for AMD CPUs and GPUs. They will literally, most likely, run best on AMD hardware - despite that hardware not being the fastest or best out there. We're talking about less need for driver specific optimisations on AMD hardware, requiring fewer patches and updates to those drivers and, potentially, no more releases of drivers that increase optimisation on "Game X" like we've seen over the last half a decade in the PC space.

There are tangible differences in Intel, NVidia and AMD hardware and architecture: how the GPUs handle anti-aliasing, rendering when using crossfire/SLI or multiple monitors, for example or hyperthreading and cache/multicore switching and load handling on the CPU side of things. If games are designed to take advantage of these different features then it stands to reason that they will need to be tweaked to run on a competitor's hardware and take advantage of their differences.

Could, in this scenario, we expect gamers to start moving to prefer AMD systems over Intel/NVidia, despite any synthetic benchmark performance lag? I know that I would. This could boost sales for AMD and launch it back into being a major competitor in both CPU and GPU markets again.

In short, this is potentially quite the coup.