Last Friday, I spent the morning visiting Volition. They are the game developer responsible for the Descent series, Red Faction, Summoner, The Punisher and the upcoming Xbox 360 title Saints Row.
Adam Pletcher is a Volition veteran and technical artist on Saints Row. He translates artistic vision into strings of code and is concerned with the 360's number-crunching power every day. What does he see as the biggest technical problem in the new system?
"The streaming stuff."
"The Xbox 360 is a wonderful machine and we can do a ton more, but one thing that hasn't changed is the dvd transfer speed," Producer Jacques Hennequet explained. "It's become the new soundbarrier."
And his colleagues agree. With all the worry about graphics chipsets and processor cores, no one questioned the transfer speed of DVD. Sure, Sony has talked about blu-ray until they've become blu in the face, but early blu-ray players aren't significantly faster than standard DVD: the same speed players we will see in the PS3. Can DVD technology get faster? Blu-ray can. Theoretically 12x blu-ray could reach transfer speeds of 400mb/s while 16x DVD only clocks in at 21mb/s.
But such is a moot point. Sony and Microsoft cannot simply put faster drives into their existing console platforms. The very idea of performance-based upgrades applies to PCs, not game consoles.
For my final interview of the day I spoke with Randall Turner, Engineering Architect on Saints Row. (I hope that's his title - a very loud fan from a PS3 dev kit really messed with my audio). Before video games, Turner worked for the military developing software for multiprocessing computers, his area of expertise.
"The amount of data we need to display one building [in Saints Row] is 4 times that of Xbox - maybe more, actually," Turner explained, "...probably more like 8 times as much."
And all that data has to come from somewhere, Turner explained. Even with games like Saints Row utilizing 90% of the 360's processing power, even with advanced development tools not available to true first generation 360 titles, even with more efficient coding that programmers are bound to design, titles on the 360 (and PS3 for that matter) will always be limited by the narrow bandwidth of DVD technology.
"What I see as potential solution is in the next, next gen, [is] an increase in ram that is so enormous you can store gigabytes [in the ram]," Hennequet said.
I asked if a bigger hard drive might be a solution - even in this generation of consoles. "Even the hard drive is not going to be fast enough," he replied.
But despite the bandwidth limitations, Volition feels optimistic for the future of the Xbox 360 platform.
"We have tons of room to grow," Turner promises. "From first to second generation it's not even hard."
We'll see what he says in three years.