Hey everyone! I see we're discussing console specs and how they compare to each other. Super! Thankfully, due to knowing the exact specs of each system, we no longer have to make judgments based purely on how trailers and screenshots "look" in comparison to each other. Because of this, I thought I'd go ahead and make a post I could use as a reference, and hopefully aid others in understanding our games on a more technical level. I'm not going to use this as an opinion piece, but just wanted to relay some information for those interested in that line of discussion.
I've made sure to discuss how this all relates to the next Sonic game in order to keep it relevant to the topic at hand.
So without further ado, let's begin!
PS4 - 8 GB GDD5
XB1 - 8 GB DDR3
Wii U - 2 GB DDR3
The parity in RAM between the systems is actually quite vast this generation, in large part due to the PS4's use of the relatively new GDDR5 format. GDDR5 was commercially introduced just this year, and is able to compute data at an exponentially faster rate than DDR3, which is the format used in both the Xbox One and Wii U. The Playstation 4 and Xbox One are somewhat comparable to each other due to having at least the same amount of RAM to work with, though the PS4's speed difference means it's capable of loading higher resolution textures and objects on screen in a shorter amount of time. The Wii U trails far behind them, with only 1/4 the amount of RAM, and only in DDR3. The RAM difference between the PS4 and Wii U is, surprisingly, even larger than that of the PS3 and Wii.
What this means for games
You know how Sonic Unleashed and Generations sometimes bug out if you find ways to skip the "checkpoint" areas in each level, where the game is programmed to load the next segment of the area? Or how the 1000 Heartless Battle in Kingdom Hearts II only actually had about twenty enemies on screen at a time? Those are some of the methods developers use to utilize the RAM they have to work with on consoles. With more RAM, game developers are able to load bigger levels, load higher resolution textures, and display more objects on screen at the same time. The reason why open world games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto look so poor in comparison to games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider is because, as open world games, they're required by default to load large segments of environment geometry and objects such as cars, people, and whatever else, while more linear games do not have to do this. While the CPU and GPU are responsible for the data calculations and rendering of the graphics on screen, all of this information has to come from the data stored in the RAM.
The parity between the PS4 and XB1 can be seen in Tomb Raider Definitive Edition, where the PS4 version of the game has markedly better textures than its XB1 counterpart, while also running at a much higher framerate. This is very likely due to the GPU being able to retrieve data from the RAM at a much faster rate.
One fact worth noting is that this makes it very difficult for developers to use their new tools on the other systems while still catering to the Wii U. In fact, for open world games like Final Fantasy XV it'd be impossible without having to rework the game's coding. Wii U ports of games will have to have all textures compressed, and be recoded to load a smaller amount of objects and areas at a time. While a true 1000 Heartless Battle might actually be possible now on PS4 and XB1, it'd likely have to be completely reprogrammed for Wii U.
What this means for Sonic
In this particular instance, not much. It's doubtful that any Sonic games in the near future will have much impressive texture-work to display in the first place, and it's not likely they'll need to be able to load level geometry any faster than they did in previous games. You'll probably see faster loading times on PS4 and much slower load times on Wii U, but that's about it.
PS4 - Single-chip x86 AMD "Jaguar" processor, 8 cores
XB1 - 8 Core Microsoft custom CPU
Wii U - Tri-Core PowerPC "Espresso" CPU
Remember how I mentioned the 1000 Heartless Battle earlier as an example of a game utilizing RAM? That’s only part of the process in rendering that part of the game. Using that particular example again, we can talk about what the CPU’s role is in gaming as well. Now, while RAM is certainly important in rendering large areas and objects on screen, this is only because that’s where the data for all of these assets lie. Without a proficient CPU, the RAM can’t actually do a thing with all of this data on its own. Think of it as a storage distribution center, with the number of bytes being akin to physical space (8GB vs 2GB), and the speed being the vehicles used to transport the data to the unit that will use it (GDDR5 vs DDR3).
The CPU is responsible for handling a game’s AI, physics, audio, and hit detection. It’s also pivotal in online play, as it processes and transfers the information on each system on the network, and is also responsible for judging exactly what the GPU should be rendering at any given time.
Ultimately, the CPU, while not as important a factor as the GPU, must still be powerful enough to be “sufficient”. If it isn’t, you get an effect called “bottlenecking”, where the CPU is not actually capable of keeping up with the more powerful GPU. In Layman’s terms, you could have the most powerful GPU in the world, but if you’re running it concurrently with a Pentium 4 it’s not going to reach even an inch of its potential.
The PS4 and XB1 are very close here, with the XB1 being a smidge faster. It’s not enough of a difference to mean anything, however.
Unfortunately, the Wii U suffers from bottlenecking. The CPU itself is simply a reworked update to the Broadway chip used in the Wii, which was a tweaked and overclocked update to the GameCube’s Gekko processor. This is why you may have seen people stating that the Wii U is “built with 90’s hardware” – while this statement isn’t entirely true, it does hold some basis in reality as the Gekko project was started in 1999, and it does still hold as the base for the Wii U’s CPU. The unit itself is not as powerful as those in the PS3 and Xbox 360.
What this means for Sonic
This really depends on what the developers want to do with the next game. If they decide to use the Wii U as the base for development and then up-port to the other two systems, we won’t see much of a difference at all. If they do decide to utilize more of the other systems’ power, however, it could mean that the Wii U will be treated to an entirely different game by a different developer, much like how Sonic Unleashed was handled.
PS4 - AMD Radeon Graphics Core Next engine w/ 1152 shaders
XB1 - 853 MHz AMD Radeon GPU w/ 768 shaders
Wii U - AMD "Latte" 550 MHz GPU w/ 320 shaders
You could say I saved the best for last. While no game can run in the complete absence of RAM and a CPU, the single most important player is the GPU. Everything you see on screen – objects, textures, enemies, and literally everything else is rendered by the GPU. Without a GPU, you don’t have anything to actually display the data on the disc. Sure, you can have the RAM store everything and the CPU calculate it all behind the scenes, but that doesn’t really mean much when you can’t see any of it.
The PS4 is on top in this aspect by a very clear margin. Its GPU is about 50% more powerful on paper than that of the Xbox One, and exponentially more powerful than that of the Wii U.
Out of all three, this is probably the most straightforward part to follow. Developers can do more ambitious things with their games, and games can be displayed at higher resolutions and framerates.
What this means for Sonic
Again, this depends entirely on how the game is built. It’s certainly possible (and I would say likely) for them to build the game on Wii U and use the extra processing power of the PS4 and Xbox One to render the game at 1080p and 60fps (plus a few added effects like particle physics, if they add that), assuming the Wii U version will be the 720p/30fps we’ve grown accustomed to last generation.
If they do decide to utilize the extra processing power of the XB1 and PS4, however, the Wii U version will likely be down-ported or developed standalone by a different team. This process is obviously a lot more expensive, but you can see this with games like Titan Fall, where the porting process is handled entirely on its own in order for the game to take advantage of more powerful hardware.
While the first scenario I mentioned will likely suffice for a game in 2015, doing it again a few years later will likely result in a game that can’t compete with the competition in the graphics department on other systems. It all depends on whether or not Sonic Team is ambitious enough to attempt pushing the envelope like they did with Unleashed, really.
I really hope that everyone enjoyed reading this post, and will take some of this into account when discussing specs in the future. I definitely enjoyed writing it, and I feel like I learned a lot about computing by doing so. I enjoy discussions about games and consoles very much, and I legitimately hope that I’ve made a half-decent resource for those who want to be factually correct with their discussions.
If anyone more knowledgeable than myself spots an inaccuracy, I’ll be happy to correct it and be better informed in the future.
Hopefully we can move away from blanket statements about specs and talk about the game itself soon. Maybe E3?