Today’s Response: Hardware and Video Games!

15 December, 2009

There is a constant battle being fought by computer enthusiasts all over the world: which element affects development more? Hardware or software? Certainly hardware drives the capabilities of software, but without solid software there would be no need for hardware. It seems like an endless loop. People will continuously find ways to improve software without hardware improvements. People will always push the envelope on what hardware can accomplish. So how does the improvement of hardware affect the software of game? I’ll start with Moore’s Law. “Moore’s law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware, in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.” (from Wikipedia). With such a rapid improvement in hardware, processing speed, and memory capacity it should be easy to document the effects in video games. Well, it kind of is and isn’t. Certainly graphics have improved, and physics are a lot smoother because of processing power. The mechanics behind a game have constantly improved as well, but that isn’t a direct cause from the hardware. Code under the hood of a game is extremely important, its what makes or breaks a game.

It used to be that games could only be a certain size, which was limited by the capabilities, or bits, of the popular consoles at the time. Game developers had to watch their limits carefully; if they went over the limits they would have to find something to cut out. Chris Crawfordtalks about this in his book Chris Crawford on Game Design. He describes how people would shout out their frustrations if a game was one or two bites too big, even after cutting what seemed like essential elements from the game. This doesn’t happen much any more. There is plenty of room for graphics, sound, videos, game data, code, and even save files. The bit-rating of systems became unnecessary with the rise of sixth generation consoles.  From a wikipedia article on Sixth Generation video game consoles:

Bit ratings for consoles largely fell by the wayside after the 32-bit era. The number of “bits” cited in console names referred to the CPU word size, but there was little to be gained from increasing the word size much beyond 32 bits; performance depended on other factors, such as processor speed, graphics processor speed, bandwidth, and memory size.

The importance of the number of bits in the modern console gaming market has thus decreased due to the use of components that process data in varying word sizes. Previously, console manufacturers advertised the “n-bit talk” to over-emphasize the hardware capabilities of their system. The Dreamcast and the PlayStation 2 were the last systems to use the term “128-bit” in their marketing to describe their capability.

Developers had a lot more freedom as each generation of consoles progressed. Each generation brought on whole new capabilities for the developers. Games didn’t necessarily become more creative, but developers could express themselves in new ways. Instead of saying, “This dot represents a dragon”, they could actually make a graphic of a dragon and place it in the game. Developers could worry less about if a console could handle the demands of a game.

Where is this advancement leading us? What is happening is that developers are capable of creating their ideas. Its like handing Mark Twain a pencil and paper; he could tell stories without pencil and paper, but people couldn’t recall them exactly the way he wrote stories down. Well, I suppose its more like handing Mark Twain a single piece of paper and saying “write that Huck Finn story you talk about all the time.” He would have to condense the story by an absurd amount. Readers might understand the plot, but they might not enjoy the robustness of an entire book. When you give him the ability to write as much as he wants, he can take his time writing all the details he desires. People who read the book will be able to picture the story more vividly than if the book was only one page long. Developers can now write their epic games that could only exist as a dream a few decades ago.

While hardware improves, software will improve along with it, maybe software will push the hardware too. Game developers in the next decade may never need to worry about fitting all their ideas into a game. Perhaps the only thing holding developers back will be managing the complexities involved with massive games.

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