Why is Gears of War unique to the Xbox360? Simple answer: 512MB GDDR3 Memory

There’s been a lot of hub bub over the past week about comments made by Epic Vice President Mark Rein saying that there’s basically no way that Sony’s Playstation 3 could handle Gears of War, primarily because the Playstation 3 only has 256MB of memory compared to Xbox360’s 512MB.  (http://www.gamepro.com/news.cfm?article_id=83050)

Y’know, leave it to Sony to tell a leading game designer & development house what their own software code & libraries could and could not accomplish.  Remember that Epic doesn’t just make Gears of War – it’s the creator of the #1 middleware product for this generation of video game development – Unreal Engine.  It powers among other games, the upcoming Stargate Worlds MMORPG, Too Human, Bioshock,  (THQ, Atari, Gearbox, HiRez, Vivendi, Buena Vista Entertainment, Midway, Namco, Silicon Knights, Sony Online … even Electronic Arts has purchased a license to use Epic’s technology which is unheard of considering they have their own engine in-house, having purchased Renderware)  And bear in mind that Epic has made Unreal Engine 3.0 available on both the Xbox360 & PS3 but specifcally declaring that their own engine doesn’t have the same power on Sony’s platform that it has on XBox360.

It’s pretty obvious that Epic’s basically hurting themselves by making this statement – but this dude’s not a marketing or PR guy.   He’s a developer by trade and facts are facts.  See, that’s what’s concerning Sony.  Game developers that have licensed the Unreal Engine, now have to seriously be concerned as to whether or not their game will perform adequately on the PS3 when they port their game code from Xbox360 to PS3.  Having multiple processor threads available for graphics computation is great and all – but just ask Nintendo:  Good game play is a lot more than multithreaded graphics.

So don’t let the FUD in the press cloud things.  In fact, if you want written proof about why Gears couldn’t be delivered on the PS3, it’s actually available.  The proof of the truthfulness of Mark Rein’s statements has to do with Epic’s active involvement & influence with the Xbox360’s original design & architecture.  They specifically made crucial recommendations around the amount of GDDR3 RAM/memory that a game developer would need.  This is documented in "Xbox Uncloaked" by Dean Takahashi, on page 280: 

[For those of you who haven’t picked this book up yet, shame on you!  I’ve put this section from Dean Takahashi’s eBook here to give you a glimpse of Epic’s role in the development of the Xbox360 – pick up the book at Amazon here for just $24.95.]

The Xbox team had convened to rethink another big decision: how much main memory to put into Xenon. The financial model and the current plan called for 256 megabytes of a special kind of fast graphics memory, dubbed graphics double data rate 3, or GDDR3. Over the years, that item alone was costing Microsoft an estimated $900 million based on its estimate of how many consoles it would sell over time.

At the time that Greg Williams and other engineers specified the amount in 2003, that seemed like a lot, Allard said. They maintained some flexibility, designing the box so that it could use anywhere from 128 megabytes to 1 gigabyte of memory. The 1-gigabyte number was clearly out of reach, but with prices coming down, 512 megabytes was reasonable.

“Competitive intelligence suggested that we needed to be flexible on the amount of memory,” said Greg Gibson.

The game developers wanted more. The average amount of main memory in a PC was rising. They argued that Microsoft had scrimped in other ways, making the hard disk drive optional and including a DVD drive instead of an HD DVD or Blu-ray drive. Tim Sweeney, the graphics wizard at Epic Games, lobbied hard. He created a series of screen shots for what Epic’s game, Gears of War, would look like with 256 megabytes of memory, and what it would look like with 512 megabytes. Clearly, the 512-megabyte solution looked far better. With it, Epic could implement “high dynamic range” images. These were images that improved the realistic feel of games because they could show both low-light and bright-light images in the same picture. The effect could create images such as the rays of the sun shining through some dark clouds.

Robbie Bach said that he wasn’t going to just make a decision based on the best guesses that the team punted upward to him. He wanted the team to provide its own answer. The team worked through its process and came back with the recommendation.

“There were enough zeroes on the cost of it that I ultimately had to decide,” Bach said. “We decided to go ahead.”

It was a $900 million decision. Microsoft would have to make arrangements with both Samsung and Infineon Technologies, two of the biggest memory-chip makers, to produce more GDDR3 chips. When the crew at Epic Games heard the decision, they hooted in celebration. But again, rather than spend more money over the life of the program, Microsoft decided to find cuts in other parts of the program. It scaled back some of its other plans in the spreadsheets, and then moved to make more decisions. Nobody knew it at the time, but by doubling the amount of memory, Microsoft had made one of the most fateful decisions on the entire Xbox 360 program.

…there’s a lot more about the other hardware decisions they made in the book so if you find this interesting, you should pick up a copy!

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