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Lots of Hoopla for Video Game Consoles, but what about the CPUs?

June 21, 2010

There was a lot of excitement last week at the E3 Show in Los Angeles.  There were numerous announcements, demos and news on new game titles.  On the hardware side what grabbed a good deal of attention were Sony and Microsoft products for motion control to compete with Nintendo Wii.

The console makers were also touting sleek new console designs.  These are slimmer and operate with less noise and lower power consumption, thus generating less heat.  Prices for consoles have come down over the years.  Ironically, the snazzy new peripherals will help make up the difference in price.

However, all of these appear to be about further enhancements and peripheral developments that improve the gaming experience of the current platforms.  3D games will be achieved through SW.  The console makers have taken advantage of improved semiconductor manufacturing technology to reduce the size and power consumption of the CPUs and GPUs.  This has enabled designs that are less expensive, lower power consumption and sleeker designs.

However, the basic design of the CPUs, GPUs and support chips have not changed since their introduction in late 2005 and 2006.  There is no discussion about next generation platform designs, similar to those that preceded the introduction of the current generation.

In 2005 I attended the E3 Show. A panel featured representatives from each of the console makers, IBM and Electronic Arts. The three different CPUs for the consoles are all different versions based on the PowerPC core designed by IBM. The speaker from EA, an executive VP,  made a very important point. The game developers are always under the gun to complete games, usually in time to launch for the holiday season. Consequently, he admitted, the first versions of a game title are not written very efficiently. The game developers need ever improving design tools. This was most notable at the time since new CPUs and GPUs were being released for the game consoles.

The executive VP of EA went on to say that over time the tools improve and the developers become more familiar with the CPUs and GPUs and learn how to squeeze more performance out of the platform.  This is why a popular title such as “Madden Football” offers more performance each year even though it runs on the exact same hardware.  However, eventually there is only so much performance that improved SW design can achieve.  This is about a five year cycle, hence the need for the next generation platforms that were being demoed in 2005.

We are now approaching the end of this five year cycle.  Yet there have been no discussion, rumors or whispers about new CPUs and/or GPUs.  Could these designs be in the works, but it is all hush-hush still?  Possibly, but if it takes 12 to 18 months or longer to develop a game title, there would be developers with simulators and technical specs for the new platforms.  How likely is it that not one of these developers would leak some news by now?  We know how ravenous gaming geeks can be for information in the blogo-sphere.

Keep in mind, when there is news of new CPUs and GPUs for video game consoles, it is actually the same designs being manufactured at a smaller process node.  The current designs were launched at the 90nm process node in 2005.  The progression to 65nm and now 45nm has followed the technology roadmap at the pace Semico had been expecting.  The video game console makers utilize this manufacturing evolution to reduce the die size, thus improving yields and lowering the cost.  The smaller design geometries enable lower voltages and thus lower power consumption.  Smaller heat sinks and smaller power supplies can be used.  Packaging costs can be reduced.  The soon to be released new Xbox 360 design has a multi-chip package for both the CPU and GPU which have moved to the 45nm node.

In the PC market, Intel and AMD take advantage of this manufacturing evolution by adding more transistors to increase performance and maintain, more or less, the same die size and stay within an acceptable power consumption envelope.  The PC industry will ship 350 million units this year, an order of magnitude higher than video game consoles.  If video game consoles were to follow the PC on this performance road map, there would be a large installed base of video game customers who would not be able use the most current game titles.  The long term profit for video games is to sell new titles to a growing customer base.

It seems to me that further game development, adding peripherals with more capabilities and increasing connectivity will put a strain on the current platform design.  Will these designs eventually hit the wall?  How long before we hear about next generation designs?  Will the industry stay with the Power Architecture?
Tony Massimini
Chief of Technology

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