While Microsoft hastily reassembles its Xbox One message, Sony is continuing its PR onslaught on the development community.
At this year's Develop Conference in Brighton, there were several PlayStation 4 sessions, as well as a fascinating keynote from the machine's architect Mark Cerny. Certainly, this was a very similar talk to the one he gave at the Gamelab event in June, but for those who didn't catch it first time, there was some great stuff on the design ideology behind the new console.
Later on, Neil Brown, the head of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's R&D group, gave a feature-packed introduction to developing on PS4, revealing lots of intricate details about the hardware and features.
We've compressed all the best bits from those two talks into one easy-to-digest list. The following 14 points reveal lots of interesting details about the PS4 proposition.
1. Sony included developer input right from the start of R&D
During Mark Cerny's keynote, he spoke about how, when development of PS4 started in early 2008, the team was writing the software tools at the same time as designing the hardware. In short, ease of use for developers was considered from the outset. Sony also sent out a questionnaire to 30 third-party teams, asking about the future of graphics and games consoles and what they wanted to see in a new PlayStation. The key piece of feedback was to use unified memory ("Just one high speed pool of memory, not the two found on PC or on PlayStation 3," said Cerny) and to avoid an exotic new GPU standard that would require studios to radically change their existing practices and technologies. So the basic structure of the machine's processor was built on third-party developer suggestions – which very much aligns with what Sony has been saying about listening to game makers.
2. PS4 was designed like an Atari coin-op game: easy to play…
"It should be easy to develop games in the early years of the console's lifecycle," said Cerny. "But there should be a rich feature set for developers to explore in the later years." So on the ease-of-use side, the architecture employs a 256-bit bus and GDDR5 memory, a combination that provides 176 gigabytes per second of bandwidth; this set up allows straightforward programming techniques to result in impressive graphics, without the need for highly specialised coding. Cerny reckons the time it'll take studios to start chucking polygons around the screen in a PS4 project will be one to two months – the same as PSone, and a big improvement on the six to 12 months it took on PS3.
3. … but difficult to master
According to Cerny, to ensure longevity for coders, the advanced GPU can be used for far more than just conventional graphics. "We've enhanced the chip to make asynchronous fine grain computing practical on the platform," he explained. In other words, the GPU can handle lots of other tasks apart from graphics rendering, including physics simulation, collision detection, ray-casting for audio and decompression – all allegedly with little impact on those polygon and effects calculations. "Later in the console life cycle we will see richer, more interactive worlds," he concluded.
4. Making things simple for children
The way that children become gamers has changed. In the past they'd often be introduced to consoles via cheaper handheld systems like the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, which featured similar buttons and inputs to larger machines. Now, however, most kids learn about games through smartphones and tablets, so traditional controllers are somewhat bewildering. The addition of the touchpad on the new Dualshock 4 pad was perhaps partly influenced by this realisation. Some other elements of the controller may also have been tweaked with kids in mind. As Cerny explained, "As part of our design process we ended up making a giant controller, 50% larger than usual so that we could directly experience what it felt like being a child trying to play a game. We immediately understood that the shoulder buttons are simply out of reach for the typical eight-year-old."
5. Making things simple for indies
"Variety of experience is a key part of the appeal of PlayStation," Cerny said, before admitting that PS3 had lots of issues with infrastructure: it was optimised to help larger publishers create big AAA games. Furthermore, the approval and QA processes were designed with the costs and scope of AAA development in mind. Now though, Sony has changed approach, making the tech more approachable, streamlining QA and ensuring that indie titles are more easily discoverable on the PlayStation Store. "With the release of PS4 we understand that we have the opportunity to fundamentally alter the landscape of gaming," he exclaimed. Partly, he reckons, the straightforward but powerful tech will allow smaller studios to create detailed animations and rich virtual worlds – even with very few staff. The hardware is the enabler not the central player: "Octodad is not about triangle count," he joked, "It's about keeping your cephalopodic nature a secret from your human family." Part of this is also supporting self-publishing and allowing business models such as free-to-play, episodic release and micro-transactions.
6. Designed to be a balanced system
In his talk on developing for PS4, Neil Brown promised a system with no bottlenecks. "The Jaguar CPU is a state-of-the-art 64bit X86 architecture which will make it easy to port PC code. It has eight cores, and each core has 32KiB of D and I cache, and each four-core group has 2MiB of L2 cache". More importantly, he says, it's a modern general purpose CPU, which means unlike the in-order processors of current consoles it uses out-of-order execution, executing instructions depending on when they are ready rather than in the order governed by the original programming. Meanwhile, the GPU has 1.84 TFLOPS of processing power and a greatly expanded shader pipeline compared to PS3 to remove bottlenecks. There's also much better utilisation of the low-level hardware, via the GNM low-level API, for coders who really want to control who data is accessed by the GPU. Finally, the 8GB 256 bit GDDR5 memory reduces the bottlenecks associated with generating lots of large textures, while Brown says the PS4 has enough render back end units to ensure consistent pixel fill rates. There was also something about vertex shaders and dense meshes but he lost me there.
7. This is the age of 'asynchronous compute'
"One of the big new features of this generation is Compute, which allows you to use the GPU as a general purpose processor," said Brown. And on PS4, asynchronous compute means that general tasks such as physics and AI calculations can be executed in parallel with graphics processing. Effectively then, within a single frame of the game's runtime, each of the GPU's 18 compute units can seamlessly switch between general computing and graphics tasks depending on what is most pressing.
8. DualShock has been redesigned for feel and responsiveness
It's not only children with teeny hands who are benefiting from a controller rethink. According to Brown, the new device has tighter analogue controllers with a reduced dead zone improving accuracy on smaller movements, and concave tops for improved grip. The triggers are now curved and offer smoother linear output – perfect for car acceleration in racing games. There's reduced latency so the controls are more responsive and improved rumble with one small and one large motor ("both are 8bit controllable," says Brown). Brown also mentions the built-in speaker, which he reckons developers will use to inform gamers of important events. The headset port allows the connection of a wired headset which comes free with every PS4. Oh and the LED display on the front of the pad, which works with the PlayStation Eye to provide motion control, can also change colour and be controlled by the game – so it could give you a burst of orange to simulate muzzle flash from a gun, or flash red along with rumble pulses to suggest a heart beat. Controllers can also charge while the machine is on standby.
9. PS4 features a new 'connected UX'
As Brown explains, "The PS4 user experience, which we're calling 'the connected UX' is a new paradigm where everything and everyone is connected. We aim to transform how users engage with and experience content across our platforms." Okaaaaay. So what does that mean? Well, the menu systems are built around five core principles: simple, social, immediate, integrated and personalised. It seems you'll be able to customise the layout, manage downloads and see friends' content and activities - all in your own way, the layout reflecting your priorities. It's all a bit airy, but the not thing Brown did specify was, when the machine boots up, it defaults to a 'What's New' screen, which shows everything that's going on in your network, from what your friends are playing, to videos they've posted, to news from publishers. The main UI shows recently played games, and each has its own 'live tile', which reveals news feeds, lists any friends who own the title, and shows the game's most viewed videos and news feeds. Developers can also create more complex tiles complete with game stats, real-time social leader boards, live updates on in-game events, and animated game items or characters. The live tiles can also immediately send the player to a specific mode, game save or challenge, without them having to go through the in-game menu options first.
10. Moving toward a real social network
Which means real photos of players and real names shown above characters in multiplayer sessions. However, your current PSN avatar and user name will still exist and you'll have control over who gets to see your real details. Players can also immediately join a friend's multiplayer session from the PS4 main menu.
11. The Share button and how it works
The most obvious addition to the DualShock 4 controller, apart from the touch pad, is the Share button. Apparently, a long press will take a screenshot of the current action, without interrupting gameplay, while a short press brings up the Share menu. On here there's the option to view, edit and share the last few minutes of gaming footage. PS4 uses a dedicated hardware encoder to continually record the last "several minutes" of footage, without taking any processor resources. So if anything interesting happens, you just hit share and upload the video. The video chip also allows players to live stream their gaming to the wider community. Spectators, meanwhile, will be able to chat to other viewers, or choose to join in the game if they own it themselves. If you don't own it, you can opt to start downloading it while still viewing the live footage. Brown also says that developers will be able to add a selection of spectator commands that the game can dynamically respond to. For example, if the onscreen player is fighting an end-of-level boss, but is low on health, a spectator could click a Heal option to help them out.
12. Seamless Remote Play
The PS4 implementation of Remote Play should be much smoother than PS3's thanks to the built-in video chip, which means there's no performance overhead for the game itself – plus the Gakiai technology is used from streaming so it's apparently very low latency. According to Brown, PS4 remote play also supports a local multi-user lobby, so up to four players can connect to the same PS4 at once – and all saved games are bound to the user not the device.
13. Seamless companion apps
Meanwhile, the PlayStation App for iOS and Android devices allows you to browse friends lists, PSN options and the PlayStation Store as well as controlling your PS4; so you can tell it to start downloading a new game while you're on the bus home. And of course, Developers are also able to build their own companion apps, offering 'second screen' experiences to enhance the main screen action or providing remote functions so players can, say, tweak their Fifa teams via their smartphones, then get home and try out the new formation on the console. We're already seeing this happening, but it's likely to be a lot more common in the next generation.
14. Instant access to downloads
A lot of this is already known, but Brown went through it anyway and it's worth re-stating. Basically, when downloading digital games from the PlayStation Store, purchasers are able to start playing almost immediately. This is because developers are able to split game code into chunks, and as soon as the first section is downloaded, you're ready to go, with the rest coming down in the background. Players can choose to download either the single- or multiplayer component first, while patches and firmware updates will download automatically overnight if the system is left on standby. Brown also claimed that you'll be able to log on to your digital games library from a friend's house and start playing immediately. There's no word yet on the DRM aspects of this, but it's exactly what Microsoft was boasting about with Xbox One. It will be interesting to see how both manufacturers expand on all these concepts at the major Gamescom event in August.
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