With the PS4 probably coming out next year, and certainly no later than 2014, we’ve been digging around looking for the inside scoop on what exactly you should expect. All of the following is based on publicly available information, rather than shady secret anonymous sources where you have to trust us because we’re games journalists (ha!).
Due to the size of this post, it has been split up into sections, feel free to scroll to the ones that interest you, or read the whole article to get the full picture.
First off, PSLS has uncovered a job listing for a ‘Lead Systems Engineer’ that “will act as an industry expert and a leader in systems level development on PlayStation platforms”, which includes “hands-on low-level research on cutting-edge hardware”. Basically, the job listing heavily hints that the Lead Systems Engineer will be working on future PlayStation hardware – that is, the PlayStation 4 or Orbis.
So that’s why the fact that the advert lists “experience on GPGPU programming” as required is rather interesting. A previous job listing for a Staff Compiler Engineer at SCE’s US R&D team for “current and future platforms” also talks about GPGPUs, as does this Technical Account Manager job. So does a Sony London job, but we’ll get to that later.
GPGPU – What it is:
General-purpose computing on graphics processing units (GPGPU) isn’t an entirely new concept – it’s been used in super computers for a while and Nvidia has been pushing the tech heavily with its Tesla Personal Supercomputers that use their CUDA parallel computing architecture. The trend of using a GPU for more general purpose stuff came into being in 2006 – right when this generation of consoles began, meaning they missed out on it – and has become increasingly popular. Most importantly, the Wii U also uses one (although with arguably weak chips).
In its most basic terms, what a GPGPU is is a GPU that also handles stuff that a CPU would do. Nvidia’s Sanford Russell explains the traditional GPU and CPU arrangement as thus (paraphrased by Gizmodo) – ‘If you were looking for a word in a book, and handed the task to a CPU, it would start at page one and read it all the way to the end, because it’s a “serial” processor. It would be fast, but would take time because it has to go in order. A GPU, which is a “parallel” processor, “would tear [the book] into a thousand pieces” and read it all at the same time. Even if each individual word is read more slowly, the book may be read in its entirety quicker, because words are read simultaneously.’
GPGPU – In Gaming:
The true impact this will have on games will depend on the chips themselves, but GPU consultants and researchers Nullpointer explained the benefits of a GPGPU in a slideshow.
“High processing power of the GPUs, the GPUs are very powerful and games, as real time applications, need its power to add performance.” It could also avoid a bottleneck of CPU to GPU transfer time, as well as leading to better AI and game physics.
AMD explained the current usage of GPGPUs in a presentation at their Fusion 12 Developer Summit this summer – the GPGPUs all focus on visual aspects like particles, fluid simulation and destruction. But it has limitations for non-graphics processing with buffers, delays and constrained programming models. The future, however, is bright. Heterogeneous Systems Architecture is the latest take on GPGPUs , which AMD thinks will drastically decrease latency.
- “With HSA you can simulate physics on the GPU and get the results back in the same frame.
- More objects, higher fidelity.”
Load times could also be minimized significantly as decompression would be far faster. Equally, simulating thousands of troops’ motion across terrain was highlighted as something that would be far easier. AMD ended by saying:
HSA will finally make GPUs available to developers as full-featured co-processors.
Essentially, it means that developers will be able to make the full use of a system’s power, and not have problems like with the PS3′s Cell chip, where there’s a ton of power under the hood, but it’s hard to access.
AMD has long been rumored to be working with Sony on the PlayStation 4.
DirectX 11, Tessellation:
The Lead Systems Engineer job also mentions “experience with DirectX11 and compute shaders”, hinting at either DX11 support or aims to offer something equivalent. It’s far from conclusive, so we searched further. The now-closed Sony studio Zipper Interactive were working on a next gen title, something that has been reported and confirmed numerous times before. We’ve uncovered that developer Casey McDonnell worked at Zipper on “next-gen research”. Specifically, he “Researched and documented “next-gen” character art pipeline and tools, including shading, DX11 tessellation, target renders and look development.”
Tessellation is one of the big features of DirectX 11 (nb: DirectX is a set APIs created by Microsoft that massively affects game development and the quality of games). Nvidia sums up what tessellation is:
In its most basic form, tessellation is a method of breaking down polygons into finer pieces. For example, if you take a square and cut it across its diagonal, you’ve “tessellated” this square into two triangles. By itself, tessellation does little to improve realism. For example, in a game, it doesn’t really matter if a square is rendered as two triangles or two thousand triangles—tessellation only improves realism if the new triangles are put to use in depicting new information.
Buzzword benefits of tessellation include – perfect bump mapping, smoother characters, seamless level of detail, scalable artwork. In essence, it makes stuff look much better, with less jagged edges and more depth.
Unity’s CEO claimed that it was “potentially possible” for the Wii U to allow for DX11 equivalent functionality, but that is highly debatable. However, considering Microsoft used the X from DirectX to title the Xbox (the project name was DirectXbox), and both previous Xboxes have used DX, it’s almost guaranteed the 720 will use DX11. That’s why it’s important to hear that Sony are working on an equivalent API if they plan on competing graphically with whatever Microsoft brings out.
Previous Bethesda job ads also suggested that the next generation of consoles will feature architecture built around the latest DirectX 11 APIs.
SCE London Creating a PS4 Graphics Library:
Sony’s London studio is a key studio for PlayStation – their largest in Europe. Having led the development of PS Home and the PS Eye, SCE London is best known for games with ‘broader’ appeals like SingStar,EyePet and, recently, Wonderbook. But core gamers still love them for The Getaway series, and shed manly tears at the cancellation of The Getaway 3 and Eight Days. There’s hope that they could be developing a core game, however, as we previously uncovered that they’re working on an AAA character action game.
One thing is for sure – they’re developing a graphics library for the PlayStation 4. In a job listing (mirror 1, 2) for a Graphics Programmer, they offer “an opportunity to work on the shaping of a newly developed set of graphics libraries which will become the core graphics technology for the prestigious London studio for many years to come“. Continuing: “there is the opportunity to work on cutting edge effects for our new concepts, building on the very latest graphics research“.
Join us in applying cutting edge graphics research in numerous areas to differentiate the visual presentation of our games, and set the bar for the industry:
- Real-time Global Illumination of fully dynamic scenes using Instant Radiosity
- High fidelity materials and physically based shaders
- Fluid simulation and rendering
- Volumetric lighting and shadows
- Procedural geometry: fur, hair, grass
- Advanced post-processing techniques
- Next generation particles and volumetric effects
- Maintain an up-to-date knowledge of emerging graphical techniques within Sony Worldwide Studios and the wider graphics community
- Opportunity to drive forward the direction and quality of the visual effects based on this knowledge
- Create viable technical solutions to effects requirements
The job listing also says that “GPGPU experience [is] an advantage”.
It’s clear that they are developing the tools for the next generation of PlayStation consoles, so let’s take a closer look at some of the jargon and what it can tell us anything about the PS4.
Global Illumination, Instant Radiosity
Lighting is vitally important to realism in games, and something that has taken great strides this gen. Having the lighting being dynamic – that is, changing with what you do and what happens, rather than being fixed – is all the more important. Currently, most games handle light and shadows like this – here’s a light source, and here’s the shadow it makes. What they don’t take into account is the reflections and shadows of everything else in the world – think how mirrors in games rarely affect the light levels in the room.
Martin Kinkelin and Christian Liensberger show the outcome of Global Illumination in their overview of Instant Radiosity:
To do this realtime in a “fully dynamic scene” will require a powerful console to be able to pull it off, and will lead to incredible realism with lighting.
None of this is of course confirmed and so should be treated as a rumor, however the sheer number of job listings across two continents and an ex-Sony employee’s LinkedIn account adds credence to the findings.
Feel free to discuss your thoughts on what you’ve read, as well as your general hopes for the PS4.