Rare graphics supremo Nick Burton is back. Just how powerful is the Xbox 360?
Yesterday we brought you part one of our week-long interview with Nick Burton, a senior software engineer at Rare, where he talked about working on Star Fox Adventures right up to Kameo: Elements of Power and Jetpac Refuelled. In part two he talks at length about the power of the Xbox 360, the future of Rare and why he thinks Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is a hardcore gamer's game.
VideoGamer.com: The games you're doing now for the 360 that are coming out soon, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, are they pushing the 360 as far as it can go?
Nick Burton: You never can push them as far as they can go. The reality of the peak performance of the console is yes, you could look to a generation beyond where we are now and think, yeah, I could use that power. But the reality is in 360 and the PS3 and the latest generation PC graphics, the amount of power in the GPUs is such that you're more bound by your creativity and the aesthetic you're going for than you're really bound by polygon pushing power. You're probably actually more bound maybe by art authoring and the amount of data throughput that, just the amount of memory you'd need, but I don't think 360 has reached its limit.
If you see some of the stuff we've done, in fact some of the stuff our guys have done, the GPU particle systems and things like, some of our guys have been working on the geometric style real time radiosity. Even at the start of this generation, if you'd said to me, without actually me just looking at it and you were asking me off the cuff as a graphics programmer, could that happen, I'd have said no. And then you think, well, what's going to come next? You can still keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it.
VideoGamer.com: I guess the feeling is that Microsoft launched the 360 when there was still some life in the Xbox left, for whatever reason, and given that there's still so much potential left in the 360, if they decide to do something similar this time it might be a disappointment?
NB: I think this generation, this isn't insider information or anything, this is just my feeling technically, that this generation is going to be longer. Yeah, the last one was perhaps artificially shortened so Microsoft could burst out of the gate, but the thing was they had the technology in J and Chris' groups to do it at that time. And so that made sense from a business point of view. It makes me laugh every time I see the, oh this is slightly better on the PS3, or this is slightly better on the Xbox. In reality they're both really powerful machines. Stupidly powerful. This is something that still amazes me.
When I first joined Rare the most powerful computer on the planet was, this is geeky, was the Cray T3E 1200, which was the first machine to break a teraflop. Now, less than 10 years, so 2005, and the 360 comes out, that, if you put the GPU performance in with the CPU and you add all the floating point performance up, is about a teraflop. You could argue with the PS3 it's got more on the CPU but its GPU's not as good, but on average you look at them, you get real world situations for them rather than some weird benchmark and they're both about comparable. So you've effectively got a supercomputer under your TV for a couple of hundred quid. They are the most powerful computing devices in most people's homes. Most people don't have Alienware PCs. Even now the funny this is with a console, because it's a closed system, and because there are some things that have changed in there, like the way memory architecture works and the kind of memory they have. It means you get much more bang for buck per computer cycle than you do from a PC. A PC's doing a lot of stuff. There's a lot of data going around and hard disc management going on, email services and things. Even if you turn a lot of those off, they're still doing a ton of stuff that you don't want them to do. The games console, 99.9% of the power in there, yeah we can have it. So it means you can do things in smarter ways sometimes and tune things much more. You're going to see a good few more years yet out of this generation. I'm convinced of it.
VideoGamer.com: That's quite reassuring from a gamer's point of view. You invest in a console and you want it to last.
NB: Looking at the Microsoft release schedule and internal projects that are going on now, there's a lot of exciting stuff coming out, as far ahead as I'm able to see. There's a lot of stuff coming down the pipe. I bet you're still going to be playing on your 360, you know, three years time, maybe could be a bit more. Ask me again in three years how much more it'll extend. I never like to look further than that, but I don't see that changing that much unless somebody else in the market decides to take that next step. Maybe Nintendo are going to come out with a massively powerful machine. Who knows. Sony have gone on record to say they're not going to do that. And I know the feeling at Microsoft is we want this generation to continue on for a long period of time. Then it's more about extending what 360 can do, not just in terms of the kind of games we're all used to, but doing new kinds of stuff that maybe we've not see before by having interoperability with mobile devices, that's quite a big thing at the moment, or maybe those alternate reality games and the whole networking thing gets bigger. There's a ton of stuff you can do. They're such powerful computing devices, why not, you know, use them in slightly different ways. With Xbox LIVE, I can't remember what the subscription figures are now, but it's phenomenally high. If you look at that, maybe on a global scale it's not that many, but that's 12 million people that can all play together. And then you start looking at the things that Google has been doing, like Google Maps and Street View. The ideas that fly around in the dev community are just crazy. I was having a chat with Tony Barns, the MD of Pixel Lab who is the guy who runs Games EDU, because he loves all this kind of stuff. He's really into alternate reality games. When I'm at the gym and I'm on the cross trainer, it's got a screen on it and it's playing TV. Why is it playing TV? Put a PC inside it, put me onto Google Street View and I can do and run round a course in Las Vegas or LA.
VideoGamer.com: Simple but effective.
NB: Yeah, and it's using technology in different ways. You think, well, would hardcore gamers want that? I don't know, but I could see my mum playing on that, and I'd still play on it. It's not going to be long before we stop seeing this kind of cyclic run of consoles and it's going to start, well I just play games. I hate this hardcore gamer, casual gamer thing. If you go to the cinema are you a film buff or are you just somebody who goes to the cinema? And then there's the film buff. So I think there's hardcore gamers and then the rest of the world that have started to become gamers. Or maybe it's because I don't have time to be a hardcore gamer as much now.
VideoGamer.com: I guess it's just that people like to feel that they know more about certain things that they like.
NB: It seems that the hardcore get threatened when something is encroaching on our territory. It's like "what do you mean you play games? You're not a gamer! That's my thing". In reality it's good for all of us. You think how far games have come. There's a lot of talk of that here this week, but some of it sounds like hot air, but in reality it has. I'm old enough to still remember coming to the seaside and my parents going "come on, I want to go on the beach" but I wanted to go in the arcades. Think of all the lost summers. Now I could just sit out here and play it on the PSP.