Xbox One – November 22nd 2013:
While PC gamers are fairly comfortable with the idea of digital marketplaces the console market has, until now, had a thriving used games market which has come with a cost to publishers and developers. Companies like EB Games have built entire business models around buying back titles for some times pennies on the dollar and then reselling them to gamers (who often don’t know they are buying used products) at near new prices. Publishers tried to work with programs like “Project 10 Dollars” by EA to counter this where multiplayer or exclusive content or multiplayer was locked behind DLC paywall so even if someone buys used they’d still have to send some money the way of the developer. EA and other publishers DLC locks went over like Microsoft’s DRM, in a phrase, a lead balloon.
Microsoft’s announcement was such a disaster they were in spin almost immediately out of the gate and at E3 Sony re-crafted their E3 presentation as a giant response, one video that drew a lot of laughs from the audience at Sony’s E3 was a video of two Sony Execs showing “how to share a game” with a video of one exec handing another exec a disk and then looking at the camera which would be impossible under the new DRM regime proposed by Microsoft. The entire Sony messaging was about how simple and “for the gamer” the Sony device was putting Microsoft on the defensive and really obfuscating the truth of the situation (Sony were in fact looking at similar DRM solutions and were killing long held features in an effort to promote their own services).
On top of the DRM issues, they also had a price issue. The Xbox One had a single launch SKU with a bundled Kinect. While Sony offered similar technology it was optional and the Kinect added 100 dollars to the ticket price bringing the launch Xbox One to 499 compared to the launch PS4’s 399. This all combined in to a severe impact to Microsoft’s launch to date selling 1 Xbox One for every 2 PS4s that hit the home.
slightly slower 1.75 GHz x86-64 Jaguar 8 core custom processor. While some may say this is an “inferior” piece of hardware it really comes down to how it’s being used and how it is optimized to interact with the rest of the hardware in the system.
The Xbox One uses another piece of AMD tech just like Sony, they are also using an AMD Graphics Core Next custom processor, in most areas it has a slightly lower specification than the PS4 with 12 Compute Units, 768 CPU cores compared to PS4’s 1152 but it’s a slightly faster processor at 853 MHz compared to PS4’s 800 MHz. Add to that dedicated eSRAM, this is high speed memory that has been restricted to the GPU and is accessible at 102GB/s (bi-directional effectively 204GB/s total). This creates a quick swap cache for textures to prevent “pop in” that is not present in the PS4. If you had to pull a piece of AMD hardware from the shelf this would most resemble the AMD R7-260 (those avid readers will remember from last week the Sony is using a card similar to the AMD R7-265).
Add to this graphics and processor disparity a hardware gap in the memory, the PS4 uses specialized memory until now only used in graphics cards, the Xbox One uses 8 GB DDR 3 with a 68GB/s throughput. The benefit is this is a type of memory that most developers will be very comfortable optimizing around as it is what is standard in computers as system memory.
So, we’ve got a slower APU, a slower GPU, and slower memory, though a slightly better storage option. On paper the Xbox One is slightly slower but pretty close to the same specifications as the PS4. Effectively the boxes are almost identical, out of the gate though that hasn’t proven to be the case. Many games shipping in 1080p for the PS4 (though there are a fair number of performance complaints across the system and one pending class action lawsuit claiming Sony and their first party studio lied about the resolution on a launch game). These same titles are shipping at 900p up-scaled for the Xbox One to the point Microsoft recently refused to clear Diablo III for the XBO unless they got it to 1080p. So why given these near identical specifications are the systems performing so vastly differently?
For this we have to look at the software, the operating system is actually three parallel operating systems. A modified Windows 8 operating system with one “core” operating system and then two virtual machines, the virtual machines allow for quick multitasking and swapping between applications. One layer is dedicated to gaming, one layer is dedicated to non-gaming applications and the third host layer operates as an intermediary navigating between the two. This is why when you switch between applications in the Xbox One it is very smooth with your last game sitting in the background right where you left it even after “turning off” the Xbox One which only truly goes in to a sleep mode to listen for vocal commands from the Kinect. The problem is a big chunk of resources were tied up reserved for the Kinect interface. Microsoft recently released a patch that freed up these resources allowing developers to make better use of the system at the expense of Kinect functionality so a game that doesn’t use any Kinect functionality will be able to get better performance. Since this change we’re seeing games with better performance hitting those 1080p benchmarks.
With the recent release of a second SKU minus the Kinect Xbox has been seeing a growth in sales claiming to have “doubled” their sales numbers but refuse to disclose exactly what those are and are still not to the point that it will match or over take the PS4 any time soon. There are a couple of big variables here that we have yet to see play out, Titanfall the first big exclusive for Microsoft did not hit the market it had hoped. Designed by Respawn Entertainment (the company founded by former Infinity Ward heads who were responsible for the Modern Warfare franchise) and published by Electronic Arts it simply did not see the dramatic uptake Microsoft and EA had hoped. Nine months in we’re starting to see more first party and first party partner titles come to fruition, this is the time in the console cycle where people start to look at the available titles and so far there are very few exclusives truly set either platform apart and as we see the games hitting market in the near future this is as likely to widen the gap between consoles as it is to close it.
One innovation that may help Microsoft in the long run is the Azure Cloud Server structure, Titanfall was one of the few programs to make use of Microsoft’s Azure Servers. The Azure Servers are scalable cloud based server clusters that Microsoft hopes will be the future of their branded cloud computing solutions. Able to scale up and rapidly deploy based on demand Microsoft hopes to use these servers as a soft back end for the Xbox One offloading heavy physics, AI and processor intensive demands to these machines that vastly outstrip anything that will be in our homes in the foreseeable future. Titanfall did not do this well (much of that blame potentially could be laid at Electronic Arts’ feet since rumour has it this exclusive Microsoft distribution was a late game addition meaning Respawn was not able to take full advantage of the resources available to them).
Join us next week when we wrap up our feature and discuss the red haired step child of the video game world, the PC gaming platform.