Think back to where you were in 2005 and 2006. iPhones and iPads didn’t exist, artist Kanye West called former U.S. President George W. Bush a racist on live TV, and I was a senior in high school scrambling to figure out what I wanted to study in college.
It was a simpler time.
That was the state of the world when a new generation of consoles arrived: Sony’s PlayStation 3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii. The Wii is the most successful of them all in terms of lifetime sales—Nintendo has sold more than 100 million devices, with Xbox 360 at 84 million and PS3 at 80 million sold—but only the PS3 and Xbox 360 continue on nearly a decade after they launched. Many triple-A games still show up on these last-gen systems in addition to their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One counterparts, and this trend doesn’t look like it’ll stop any time soon.
Aside from their built-in audience of over 160 million people, these last-gen consoles offer more subtle benefits for developers that continue to stick with them. I reached out to developers Square Enix, Obsidian Entertainment, and other veteran studios to find out what it’s like to make games for the PS3 and Xbox 360 these days, and how that process has changed after spending so much time with them.
The early years
The most visible improvement the PS3 and Xbox 360 had over their predecessors was the graphics. Not only could developers push more detailed textures and polygons into their games, but for the first time on consoles, they could also show them off in high definition. Third-party powerhouse Electronic Arts was one of the first companies to jump into this era when it released Madden NFL 06 as a launch title for the Xbox 360 in 2005.
“At the time, we ended up thinking that we were gonna rewrite a lot of the systems across the board,” said Madden producer Seann Graddy. “Obviously, we wanted to have a huge payoff in graphics. So we built a pretty sizable team to try to deliver all that. … There was a lot of work done around our pipelines, our gameplay engine, our rendering engine—all that type of stuff just made that transition really difficult at the time, frankly.
“Not to mention that the PS3 had a pretty different architecture compared to the [PlayStation 2], and different than the Xbox 360. So our technical directors had to problem-solve it in a very unique way on that platform that was different than the previous [transition], and certainly different than the Xbox 360.”
Many developers had a hard time wrapping their heads around the PS3 during the console’s first few years. Sony was using it to push a family of devices that used its custom eight-core Cell microprocessor. Those who had the time and the resources to learn how to code for the Cell (like Sony’s in-house studios) were able to squeeze out a lot of power, but for others, dealing with this chip was a headache.
“Early struggles for a lot of us — and it was a struggle until the end of the console cycle — in some ways was just the differences between the PS3 and 360,” said Feargus Urquhart, the CEO of role-playing development house Obsidian Entertainment (Fallout 3: New Vegas, South Park: The Stick of Truth). “And so for an independent developer [like us], a lot of times … we have one version. How much effort do we need to put into the other version to make it look as good and work as well?”
According to Urquhart, devs needed either a large tech group to help get their engines ready for the new boxes, or they had to rely on existing ones, such as Epic Games’s Unreal Engine. “Unreal 3 really didn’t come online until a year and a half-to-two years after the last consoles launched,” he said. “For a while, a lot of us were using Unreal, but it wasn’t really done yet. So there were some challenges there.”
At this point, middleware engines like Unreal are well established, so devs don’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” as Eutechnyx chief executive Darren Jobling put it. Best known for its yearly racing games based on the NASCAR license, Eutechnyx was one of the few studios understood the Cell early on.
“During that phase, everybody was obsessed with the Cell architecture of the PlayStation 3, and that was really quite a tough thing for people to get hold of,” said Jobling. “However, if you were able to do it, your games could really go the extra mile—if you could actually crack how to use that Cell architecture. Whereas, nowadays, pretty much all the good developers are utilizing the Cells.”
The U.K.-based studio worked closely with Sony before the PS3 came out, back when development kits “were the size of trash bins.”
“I think it was really hard at the start for Sony to find people who could utilize that Cell architecture,” said Jobling. “No doubt it’s still confidential, but back in the day, we did a lot of work with Sony in terms of driving game technology. So we’re pretty much known as [being] quite technologically adept. It’s not unusual for the hardware people to come to us and say, ‘Hey, we’d really like a demo of X to demonstrate the capabilities of our new system.’
“So I can’t tell you exactly what we did, but we were right in there, right at the start with Sony, who we particularly have a good relationship with. … We showed ‘em what could be achieved with that Cell architecture.”
Memory, memory, memory
One issue the old consoles have is their limited amount of RAM, or system memory. All five developers specifically mentioned this in one way or another during our conversations. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have 512MB of memory, an amount that’s laughably low by today’s standards, especially when compared to basic gaming PCs.
Obsidian, who specializes in making huge role-playing games with a lot of characters and locations, has always been wary of the PS3’s and 360’s memory limits.
“The real challenge for us really was memory,” said Urquhart. “When you think about it, the 360 and PS3 with 512MB of RAM, almost everybody—the little device that everyone has in their pocket now, phone-wise, has more memory than those have. That’s the hardest challenge. … A lot of times you just have a complicated—you have a [non-playable character] that can do lots of things and have a lot of items and can kinda wander around the world, and that takes up memory. … You’re always hitting memory limits, particularly when you’re trying to make more larger, open-world games.”
Memory became a concern for Square Enix’s Final Fantasy team when it took on multiplatform development for the first time with Final Fantasy XIII. The 13th installment of the long-running Japanese RPG series was originally revealed as a PS3 exclusive in 2006, but by the time the game came out in 2010, Square changed its mind and decided to make an Xbox 360 version, too.
“When it was released … we really wanted to make sure we had a good balance of what qualities we could improve,” said FFXIII producer Yoshinori Kitase via translator. “For example, [we tried] to optimize for the specifications of the new generation of consoles while maintaining that balance and the graphics. Because it was our first time [making the game] for multiple platforms, we had to deal with Blu-ray vs. DVD, and we also had to be careful about RAM capacity.
“Final Fantasy XIII was released on a three-disc set [for the Xbox 360]. However, both platforms had to have equal qualities. RAM capacity wasn’t really a challenge, but we had to be very careful about it.”
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an infamous example of how precarious RAM can be on these machines. The PS3 version of Bethesda’s open-world action RPG was notorious for its performance-sapping bugs, some of which had to do with the way it managed the system’s memory.
Over the years, developers learned to make the most of these restrictions.
“Comparing the start to the end, [RAM] is certainly not much of a problem now. … People learn to optimize the hell out of the hardware,” said Jobling. “Everybody’s really going at it all the way through the generation. Optimizing the hell out of it to get that last bit of performance. And the stuff that limits you at the start? You just learn to live with it later on. Everybody’s done that, the hardware profiling. They know what they got available, and they know what they want to spend where, in terms of things like memory.”
Evolving with the consoles
After spending so much time with the PS3 and Xbox 360, studios have amassed a vast body of knowledge to draw from — a lot of devs know what it takes to create games for those consoles, and what they can and can’t do with them. This familiarity is one of the reasons why Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is skipping PS4 and Xbox One when it comes out on Oct. 14 for in favor of the PS3 and Xbox 360 (and PC, too).
Borderlands creator Gearbox Software is working with 2K Australia (one of the publisher’s in-house studios) for the latest installment of its first-person shooter/RPG hybrid, and it didn’t want to alienate PS3 and Xbox 360 Borderlands fans by putting the game on the newer consoles.
“There’s so much exposure to that generation of consoles that you already know a lot of the ins-and-outs,” said Gearbox producer James Lopez. “You already have — there are some people who even have their own custom tricks for how to make something look better or less expensive in memory, things like that. So having that [knowledge] available is really helpful, especially when you’re trying to get something done within a certain timeline. We knew that we wanted [the Pre-Sequel] to be out this year. Having that background is incredibly helpful.”
One of those tricks is a tool in the Borderlands engine that enables game designers to quickly make something without needing any help from programmers. 2K Australia producer Joel Eschler told me that if they don’t keep a close eye on them, designers will “create five new enemies in a day and just try to sneak them in there.”
“That really is a cool thing about the development environment in both of our teams,” said Lopez. “There’s a lot of passion there. There’s a lot of creativity. … And so rapid prototyping is a thing that we both do. When I say rapid, I mean sometimes someone just comes up with an idea and makes it in a day or two. ‘Hey, here’s this idea I have.’ I go, ‘I’m not really sure if that fits with the schedule.’ ‘Oh, that’s cool, I actually have a prototype right here if you just want to check this out real quick.’ And then we go, ‘Alright, that’s a feature!'”
With hardware not being much of an issue this late into the generation, developers like EA Sports spend their time on improving specific gameplay mechanics, including any technical trade-offs it has to make to get those features to work.
“It certainly gets easier as the years go by, because in year one, a lot of times you’re building your pipeline from scratch,” said Graddy. “Maybe you’re building a new rendering engine that’s going to take advantage of the hardware. Back in the [Madden NFL] 06 transition, we had a pretty significant upgrade to our art assets that was different from this transition. So in that base, foundational year, you have a really heavy cost to get the game up and running.
“And then as you progress through the life cycle of that console or that platform, your foundational tech is all in place, your foundational features are in place, and you can start the focus on the deeper feature sets that are specific to your game. Or in our case, our sport.”
It took Square Enix five years to make Final Fantasy XIII, a long development cycle that faced some daunting challenges. But all that work made the turnaround for the game’s sequels (Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII) much faster.
“We already had the original story, characters, and world, so we didn’t have to work on those aspects of the games from scratch,” said Kitase. “Those are something our artists had to work on. But when we started working on Lightning Returns, there was already [that foundation], so it was in a way easier for us to set the final target — to what we wanted to have as a finished product. We were able to work off of the first title’s engine, so all we had to do was polish and improve [it].”
The PS3 and Xbox 360 also changed over the years: Sony and Microsoft continue to update their machines with software patches, and both added optional peripherals that developers could use for their games. Sometimes, these changes brought new hurdles, like when Microsoft released the Kinect motion-tracking camera in 2010.
“That didn’t exist when the 360 first launched. … And then you kind of have to deal with Kinect as a part of getting approved [by Microsoft], even if you weren’t really using Kinect that much,” said Urquhart. “You now have to reserve some memory just because the Kinect uses some memory, even if you’re not using it. … During the console generation, as you’re getting more comfortable and know how everything works, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and whoever are still kind of evolving and moving forward and changing how things work. You have to make your game work that way.”
Moving on to new hardware
Gamers have snapped up PS4s and Xbox Ones in droves since their arrival last year: As of this article, Sony has sold 7 million consoles, while Microsoft’s count stands at 5 million. The devs I talked to sounded like they were just as hungry as consumers are to get their hands on the new boxes.
“A lot of the engineers all love—everybody loves new hardware,” said Jobling. “And new stuff like 4K [televisions] and Oculus Rift [VR headsets]. That’s definitely what keeps you young. The company’s going on 27 years, and I’ll be [in the industry] 24 years, and the new hardware and the new technology [reminds me of] when I first joined the company back in 2000. It’s still that level of excitement for the new stuff.”
Obsidian’s just glad that it has a lot more memory to work with this time around (Sony and Microsoft stuffed 8GB RAM into PS4 and Xbox One).
“We’re comfortable with the consoles, with the way they are now,” said Urquhart. “They have a lot more memory. Graphics card-wise, obviously they’re better than the predecessors, but for us, it’s just the [increased] memory. The memory just lets us make bigger worlds and have a lot more stuff going on. We get to model so much more: We can model weather more complicatedly, we can have [more] characters, have more animations, and do lots of different things that were a lot harder in the previous gen.”
But not everyone is ready to leave the PS3 and Xbox 360 behind just yet. Due to their massive owner base, it’s likely that the big video game franchises—like Madden, Call of Duty, and Battlefield—will continue in some shape or form on last-gen consoles for years to come. Smaller indie studios will probably keep embracing them as well.
“It’s important that we as individuals continue to grow, right?” said Lopez. “Reading books is good for you. Doing physical activities is good for you. You always want to try to challenge yourself in some way so you don’t stagnate. Same thing goes with development. Even in production, the tools that you use as a producer change regularly, and that’s great because it challenges your way of understanding schedules and leadership and all these other things, all these other important variables.
“I look forward to being a part of [PS4 and Xbox One development] at some point. But all of my experience in the game industry has been on the 360 and the PS3, so there are certain things that I will not be able to bring to the table for a while until I understand the newest generation of consoles. So right now, I’m really happy that I still have things that are relevant. But then I’ll have to evolve some, and I look forward to that. But I’m really glad that doesn’t have to happen right this second. [Laughs]”