The generation game

The generation game
David Braben

By David Braben

June 24th 2011 at 10:00AM

David Braben reflects on the console cycle, and wonders if things are about to change

Since about 1982 there has been a generational update of multi-purpose games machines, starting with 8-bit machines like the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and NES, approximately every six years, each with roughly equivalent hardware performance to others in the same generation. With each cycle not every machine was spot on this ‘tick’ but they were close – a year or so either side – something like this:

 1. (1982) 8-bit: Apple II, BBC, Spectrum, NES, C64, Atari 800, Amstrad CPC etcetera
 2. (1988) 16-bit: Atari ST, Amiga, Megadrive, SNES, PC
 3. (1994) 32-bit: PS1, Saturn, N64, PC
 4. (2000) PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, PSP, PC
 5. (2006) Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC

From the late ‘80s onwards the PC joined the fray, but with a more continuous rate of updates – with the consoles typically slightly ahead of even the top PCs in performance at the start of the cycle, and significantly behind by the end.

Yet the convenience and compatibility of consoles and their much lower cost outweighed any performance benefits of the expensive and fragmented PC market for all but a small minority who felt that the expense of being on the ‘bleeding edge’ was absolutely justified.

Between now and around Easter 2012 we expect the release of a slew of tablet machines using new mobile hardware based around dual or quad core ARM Coretex A9 CPUs and up to four graphics cores, which brings their performance very close to that of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

This is significant, as the mobile arena is getting updated continuously; much more like the PC of old.
The iPad 2 has already passed the performance of PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and is comparable to Wii – and given the timing between the release of the iPad and iPad 2, there will be no surprises if an iPad 3 comes out in a year’s time.

The big issue, with the iOS machines especially, is that they are much closer to the hardware monoculture of the console, with similar convenience and compatibility. They really are small portable consoles, but with an annual update rate.

EASY WINNINGS

Some have speculated that this will destroy the console as the update rate of mobile platforms is prodigiously high, but there is a huge assumption behind this.

The reason that the update rate has been so high is that they are playing catch-up with the current forefront of technology, and by this time next year, the ‘easy wins’ of taking technology proven in either PCs or console environments will have been near enough exhausted.

For the last couple of generations at least, consoles have driven the forefront of technology at great expense to Sony and Microsoft, and the tools and technology developed as a result have benefitted our industry as a whole.

The fierce rate of mobile development may continue, but someone will have to fund that development, and it is less likely to happen at such a fierce rate as a result.

As this forefront is approached, power will become a major issue; the battery technology is a big barrier. Look what percentage of the volume of an iPad is battery already. This may be why Apple is rumoured to be announcing a games console of its own.

The requirement for power alone will keep the console ahead in performance at least. Perhaps this will be less important with focus on interfaces – touch screens, motion control, augmented reality – but personally I cannot see the console disappearing any time soon.

Perhaps the six-year tick will change, and blur into a continuum of improvement, but that is more likely to be a good thing for the industry. Change is something we have dealt with for the last 30 years in this business, and I don’t see that changing.