on Mar 5, 2013
The recently-announced PS4 is getting a bit of bad press lately because of the lack of backwards compatibility. My column this week explains why this was inevitable.
While reading up on how the Cell Architecture works for this article, my eye began to twitch s I pictured just what I complete mess it would be to emulate this beast. The cell lets a bunch of processors share different levels of cache. There’s all this stuff governing when memory writes are performed and it’s basically a bunch of distributed computers shoved in the same case. That’s awesome if you’re doing brute-force cryptography or building a render farm, but as a system for making interactive games it comes off as… weird.
I’ll repeat the borderline conspiracy theory I’ve floated in the past:
The Playstation 2 has the largest and most impressive library of any console, ever. It was competing against the still-not-ready-for-prime-time Xbox and the under-supported GameCube. The PS2 had solid hardware, a good price point, and weak opposition, which gave it a powerful and self-sustaining market dominance. All the developers went for the PS2, which means all the tools and engines were aimed at or optimized for the PS2, which made the games better, which made the platform more attractive to both consumers and developers, which led to more games, etc.
My crackpot theory: Sony looked at this perfect storm of fortune and assumed they were just the best by divine right. A majority of console gamers were PS2 owners, and those people would just naturally buy whatever Sony offered, and so they could use their position as leader to reinforce their position as leader. They chose the six-headed cell design not because it made technological sense, but because it would make porting FROM the Playstation 3 very, very hard.
Then they released their system long after the rival Xbox 360, at a stratospheric price point, with a shameful collection of launch titles, and sketchy or non-existent backwards compatibility. They promoted the platform based on “graphical performance” but the actual visual difference between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 was lost in the noise. Worse, Lair – one of the early launch titles – had abysmal performance, which undercut the whole “The PS3 is a powerhouse” idea. Sony discovered that the PS2 didn’t lead the market by divine right or brand loyalty, but based on crazy concepts like features, library, and cost. While it was the best Blu-Ray player on the market, as a game system the PS3 was a day late and a dollar short.
Then their own hubris came back to bite them. That developmental wall the built around the cell-based system wasn’t keeping developers IN. Instead it was keeping them OUT, thus making the library even smaller.
I could be wrong about the reasons why they chose the cell. That’s conjecture on my part and there’s no way to know the truth. But the outcome was clear. What a shame.
EDIT: The gamecube was under SUPPORTED, not under POWERED, Shamus. Fixed.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.