Is the age of the home game console as we know it drawing to a close? There are those who say it is. But when, realistically, can the consumer expect the technology gap between the box they plug into their TV and the tablet they hold in their hand to close?
In an interview with GamesIndustry International, Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games and designer of the first Unreal engine, explained why he thinks doom and gloom are still many years away.
Mobile tech, phones and tablets, are iterating and evolving at a remarkable pace, he confirms, and consoles are on a much longer development cycle. (The Xbox 360, for example, launched six and a half years ago and as yet has no replacement officially on the horizon, although many expect an announcement sometime this year.) But the sheer physics of consoles — the electricity they use, the speed at which they work — still keeps them ahead of other devices:
The big difference between a console and a tablet is the console can consume 100 or 200 watts of power, while the tablet consumes one or two or three or four watts. That's really the limiting factor of performance there. Just on the grounds of the laws of physics, you'd have to think it is three to four hardware generations, or six to eight years before the current highest end desktop or console performance you can achieve becomes achievable on tablets. To me, that really defines the role of consoles in the world. They define the highest and most impressive graphics experience anywhere in the industry. They focus on delivering teraflops of computing performance in a way that a portable device or an economical computer really couldn't, despite sheer focus on that one aspect.
And yet, Sweeney added, the rate at which Apple in particular pushes the boundaries of the possible in mobile technology is impressive. "I'm continually astounded by Apple's sheer will to push the industry forward," he commented, adding:
Apple is by far the leading phone provider in terms of profits or any other objective measure of how well they are doing. A company in that position could just rest on their laurels and keep making more and more profit from each new phone. Apple doesn't take that approach. Rather, they push the technology forward as fast, or faster than possible to go from lower resolution displays.
In discussing the ways that the platforms on which consumers play games are changing and evolving, Sweeney also addressed some of the implications of a project his own team at Epic recently showed off at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, where they ran games using the Unreal 3 engine in Flash, on a web browser. Nearly every piece of tech out there these days has or can have a web browser in some way running on it. So what does that mean for the future? Again, Sweeney replies, it comes down to the basic level of power a device can put out:
A lot of consumer devices that you wouldn't expect now have web browsers built into them, a lot of TVs. I think we're a ways away from the point where they have enough graphics horsepower to play games like Gears of War. If you look at a console, the key thing that they do is deliver a huge amount of computing power in a consumer-friendly form factor. A TV might have one-tenth or one-twentieth or one-thirtieth of the power of a console. So, I really don't see that being a substitute for the console game experience - unless you put in a two or three teraflop GPU in there.
So, six or eight years for the world to shift under our collective feet? That feels like forever, and gives us at least the next version of the Xbox and PlayStation (along with the Wii U) to have a comfortable, familiar lifespan. But then again, time flies. A mere few years ago I wouldn't have thought one could play a big-budget Grand Theft Auto game well on a telephone, either.
An Epic Interview With Tim Sweeney [GamesIndustry International]