Developers Shift To Leading On PS3
Portal 2 has been announced and we’re rather disappointed, but not surprised, that a PS3 version of Valve’s sequel to the show-stealing Orange Box game has been conspicuous by its absence. Valve has long said that it finds PS3 development too difficult and cumbersome to be cost-effective and for a long time many developers agreed. Again and again the ease of moving from the last generation of hardware or from PC development to Xbox 360 meant that the PS3 got a ported version, often to the detriment of the final product. Valve it seemed was right. The PS3 and its unique Cell processing architecture was simply too hard to make games for.
According to Final Fantasy XIII producer Yoshinori Kitase, the challenge that the PS3 sets developers is an exciting one of just how far they can push themselves. “When you talk about graphics you can see immediately that the hardware of the PlayStation 3 offers a much higher capacity and is much more powerful,” he told NowGamer, comparing PS3 with Xbox 360. “With regards to designing the game everyone knew that the highest limit of what we could achieve graphically couldn’t be much higher. That made it difficult to set our target of where we should be reasonably happy or satisfied with what we had produced. Is our aim high enough or should we be going even higher?”
But a fear of coming up short or not being able to fulfil expectations wasn’t the reason many shunned the PS3 at first. That had more to do with the configuration of the hardware. BioWare’s Ray Muzyka insisted that the only way to approach the PS3 was to embrace its differences and then it would open up to you. “Well, you know every platform has its pros and cons and they’re all challenging in different ways,” he explained to us. “The interesting thing about approaching a new platform like PlayStation is that it’s very powerful and it’s just different from anything else. You have to embrace that and make sure that you’re fully aware of the technology differences and make use of all the strengths of the platform.”
For Crytek, currently making Crysis 2 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, that meant a completely new engine and in places a new way of thinking. “Since we started developing CryEngine 3 we always knew it was going to be a cross-platform engine and so immediately started thinking about how to minimise the dedicated work for PS3 while still being able to run our codebase at full PS3 utilisation,” said Crytek’s lead PS3 programmer Michael Glück told NowGamer. “Therefore we developed a system in-house making the very different build and deployment process for PS3 as ‘PC like’ as possible to give all developers the feeling that it is not as complicated a platform to develop on as most people thought.”
So, like a lion tamer, Crytek has managed to contain the PS3 to be approachable and predictable for its development team. While there had been rumours that the original Crysis was going to come to PS3, Glück insisted that the old engine simply couldn’t have done the game justice on the vastly different PS3. “The re-factoring, along with some very important technical changes like Deferred Rendering and a new shader system were definitely necessary to get it working at the quality level we always want to achieve,” he explained.
So power alone clearly isn’t all that much good if you can’t utilise it, but bending the PlayStation 3 to your will isn’t the only way to get the best out of it according to Brink developer Splash Damage. Its creative director Richard Ham revealed to us that the PS3 completely changed the way his company approached game development across the board. “To get the most out of the PS3, we’re required to split our code into lots of separate jobs that can be spread around among the Synergistic Processing Elements (or SPEs), and this is kind of contrary to the more traditional approach to game coding,” he told NowGamer. “However, we’ve decided to adopt this practice as our standard for all our platforms, so in the end, there’s no real difference between the three for us.”
But like Crytek, Splash Damage needed to make the PS3 work for it a little, too, and once a hook was found that the development team could latch onto the whole system began to open up. “Because id Tech 4 was Mac compatible, there was some PowerPC code in there that we could utilise,” Ham revealed to NowGamer, referring to the id Software engine Splash Damage has been using since developing Enemy Territory: Quake Wars in 2007. “And since some of the Mac PPC code optimisations worked well for PS3, it gave us a little bit of a head start.”
It‘s not always that simple, though, particularly if you’re using your own engine that wasn’t designed with the PS3’s technology in mind and there was a lot of sympathy from those we spoke to for developers who have struggled with the platform. “You have to spend lots of effort to get code running on the Synergistic Processing Units (SPUs) properly if you don’t want to stick entirely to third-party solutions,” said Glück. “A lot of knowledge is required to achieve a top-looking and fast-running cutting-edge game on PS3. A straightforward port from PC is almost possible for Xbox 360, but can’t be done on PlayStation 3.”
Ham also feels the pain, but has come to believe that it’s essential as the PS3 is leading the way to the future of game development. “There’s been a learning curve, but we feel it’s worth it in the end,” he said. “Multi-core development is the future. It’s not impossible to imagine PCs with 24 cores in them within the next few years, so we figure, why not get going with it now?”
Price was also an issue in the past, with the prohibitive cost of consoles scaring developers away from expending effort on a console with a limited user base. “I personally don’t think there’s much difference between developing a game on PS3 or Xbox 360 any more, but I think it used to be quite difficult partly because the machine was so expensive,” Square Enix producer Yosuke Saito told us. “But it’s not expensive any more so it’s not an issue.” Ray Muzyka was equally dismissive of the price concerns that once dogged the PS3. “I think it’s a huge opportunity with the pricing changes, now the platform is definitely on the upswing and there are some great games coming,” he enthused. “We’re planning to work more on it. We haven’t announced any future projects, but I’d love to see more BioWare games launch on PS3.”
The best news for PS3 owners is that while developers are finally getting to grips with the console and producing games like Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, FFXIII, Brink and Crysis 2, this is still early days for the life cycle of the hardware and the best could well be coming. “It’s amazing what developers have done so far, but we haven’t seen all that the PS3 is capable of,” said Richard Ham. “By comparison, just look at the last PlayStation generation. Shadow Of The Colossus came out near the end, and no one could have predicted such a thing of beauty in the early days of the PS2 life cycle. The same thing is true for PS3. Killzone 2 and Uncharted 2 are incredible milestones, but there’s still more to squeeze out of the big black box!”
And the so-called PS3 haters at Valve could well be gearing up for a push on the platform with the recent discovery that a number of key Naughty Dog staff have joined the Half-Life developer in recent years. Could this small band of rebels be the springboard of expertise Valve has needed to make a proper stab at PS3 development? We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that they are.