Developers comment on X360 BETA KITS


V

videogamedude

xbox360.ign.com
__________________
Enter The Beta Kits
We speak with a handful of developers on how they like Microsoft's
advanced kits and what new tools mean for the future of the console.
by IGN Staff

July 22, 2005 - After Microsoft's mixed display of goods at E3 2005
last May, the most pressing questions on everyone's minds were simple.
Will the new beta kits improve the state of Microsoft's games? And will
the games look better than that?

The importance of the questions is equally simple. Ninety percent of
Microsoft's games at E3 were unimpressive, particularly on the subject
of graphics. We quickly learned the Xbox 360 games at the show were
almost all running on alpha kits, i.e. off-the-shelf PCs with specs
equivalent to the 360. Which meant that these machines were also only
running at 25%-35% of the console's capacity. In other words, these
were not the games we were looking for, these games can pass; move
along, move along.

Not surprisingly, people were more impressed with Sony's sly CG
showing, even if they knew full well the videos weren't displaying
actual gameplay. Are we all so gullible? So impressionable? Such
graphic tarts? The real answer is this: Sony showed us what we imagined
the next generation to be, what we wanted it to look like, and
Microsoft showed us what amounted to high resolution Xbox games.

So what's happened since E3? Why has all the hype, all the 360 noise
disappeared? Will Xbox 360 games look any better? And are Xbox fans
doomed to have PS3 fanboys laugh at their underwhelming new system? IGN
has spoken with more than five developers on the subject of the newly
released Xbox 360 Beta Kits to get a better idea the progress
developers have made sine E3, and whether the beta kits have helped,
hindered, confused, or improved game development.

The Look
Microsoft's beta kits are actual Xbox 360 consoles, not just
fast-moving PCs or Macs. They look like Xbox 360s, with the curved
lines and changeable faceplates, only they're charcoal gray in color.
They're fatter, too. They have an additional two inches above the DVD
tray, making them wider.

The other visual difference is the enormous size of the power supply,
which are literally five to six times larger than the Nintendo 64 power
supply. One developer said you could club and kill someone with the
power supply. Nice. They're essentially the equivalent of three surge
protectors taped together. We suspect these will diminish in size when
the retail units arrive. (We hope that's the case, anyways.) Depending
on the unit, an additional set of wires protrude from the top of the
system (the side with the hard drive on it) for debugging purposes.

In the age of Ashley Simpson scooping all game sites with Xbox 360 news
and big-haired teenagers showing their brilliance by posting screens of
their Dad's Beta Kits online, it's ironic to us that no developers
would send us a single shot of the Xbox 360 Beta Kit. They all
declined.

"You'll have to ask Microsoft for those -- if we took any pictures, the
lawyers would tear us apart and eat our insides," said one developer
only half jokingly. "We haven't even seen the dev kits ourselves;
they're kept in a special box that is made out of military Stealth
Bomber surplus material so we don't give too many secrets away. All we
know is where the TV and controllers plug in...

"Seriously -- if you've seen the Xbox 360 pictures Microsoft has
released already, imagine that with a different faceplate, a different
skin, and a bit of kit stuck to the top for debugging."

Early Days
Believe it or not, it's early days for most 360 developers. This might
sound worrisome to most, given that it's July -- nearly four months
from launch. But for Xbox 360 developers, they're still new to the Xbox
Beta Kits. To put that in perspective, most developers who are shipping
their games at launch (November 2005) have more than just a fully
running demo. They have levels nearly complete, graphics in place, and
they're working on AI, level flow, balance, and the harder things that
take time, iteration, and the many, many parts to be compiled into a
massive whole.

All of the five developers we spoke with asked to remain anonymous, due
to an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with Microsoft, but under the
condition of anonymity, we learned many things. According to our
sources, the beta kits, which were originally supposed to ship to
developers in April-May, were shipped in late June. This delay helped
cause the major "perception" problem at E3. If developers had had the
Beta Kits earlier, their games would have been running on the actual
consoles, not substitutes -- which would have meant much prettier games
at E3. Instead, teams are just now wrapping their heads around the
system's architecture.

We asked several developers what they thought of the Beta Kits. Epic
Games' Mark Rein was frank with us but slim on details. When asked
about the power of the system, he said the best example of that was
Gears of War. "You've seen the answer to (all of your) questions. It's
called Gears of War. What you've seen is just a tiny sample of what
we'll be able to achieve in our first generation Xbox 360 title and
clearly we're pretty darn excited about it. More will be revealed over
time."

Other developers were more forthcoming.

"They're better than the Alpha Kits," said one local developer.
"They're still not quite as powerful as final hardware, but they're
much more representative of what we expect final hardware to look
like."

Of the five developers that we spoke to, only one was disappointed with
their power.

"Right now, we're still wrapping our heads around them, but I have to
be honest, I'm a bit disappointed with the Beta Kits. Microsoft still
has a lot of work to do in terms of optimization. Also, the Beta Kits
are loud to a point of distraction."


With the exception of the audio chips (this chipset isn't complete),
the Beta Kits contain about 90% of the console's chip set. They
comprise the specialized three-CPU core processors and the graphics
GPU. There are still some speed issues with the GPU we're told, but
functionality wise, the Beta Kits are about a 90% representation of the
final consoles.

Inquiring about the state of the Beta Kits in July is a little early,
to be honest. The teams simply haven't had that much time with them
yet. But dev teams are making progress as they transition from a single
processor machine to a multi-processor machine.

360's System Power
What gamers want to know, however, is will the games look better than
the early versions at E3? Will they run with fast framerates and look
spectacular? All of the developers' indirect answers leaned to "Yes."
How will that happen? The Beta Kits are simply more powerful than the
Alpha Kits. They're a better, closer representation to the final
console's power.

We asked the teams how much more powerful the Beta Kits are then the
P5s they're been working on, and what the significance of that
additional power is. We learned that they're still exploring the Beta
Kits' power and limitations, and that while there is nearly twice as
much graphic power, the way in which coding passes from the triple core
processors through the systems, it's got to be cleaner than on single
processing machines. One North American developer had this outlook.

"On our side, we've been working very hard to tap into the full power
of the Betas. On a technical side, while the GPU is nearly twice as
powerful as the Alpha kits, the CPU architecture requires very clean
logic coding in order to take advantage of its full potential." (We'll
get to the clean logic bit later on in the story.)

Another developer explained the differences this way:

"The major difference is in the video chipset, which is pretty
different from anything you can find on the PC (or alpha hardware). It
does some slick bits of load balancing between pixel performance and
vertex performance, which helps us make sure that we're maxing out the
video hardware no matter what we're doing. HDTV looks spectacular on
this thing.

"In terms of power, well, we've got almost eight times the memory,
which is significant all by itself because it allows us to use more
normal maps, more bump maps, more specular, more fancy screen overlays,
blur shader buffers, depth-of-field, bleach bypass, real-time
desaturation/supersaturation, etc. You'll see tons of visual effects in
our game that just aren't practical (or possible) on Xbox 1.

"Additionally, all the work that Microsoft has done on the System Guide
massively reduces our certification requirements -- to about a third of
what they are on Xbox 1. To the end user, this means that we can spend
much more time working on great gameplay, instead of having to worry
about what happens when the player unplugs the game controller and the
network cable at the same time he's plugging in a memory card and
dancing in a circle. There are still some certification requirements,
but now they're mostly geared toward the high-definition experience,
making sure our games run great; we don't have to worry as much about
the odd edge cases."

What's that add up to? Better pixel and vertex performance helping to
maximize the video hardware, creating excellent HD performance. That
means better, higher resolution textures, polygons, and smoother
animated characters. Microsoft's minimization of the System Guide
Certification Requirements does something else. It helps developers
spend less time on basic, 'busy work issues'; and more time on
gameplay, design, and creative issues.

So, perhaps the Beta Kits are coming closer to Vice President J
Allard's vision of Xbox 360 than the early code we saw at E3. It all
depends on who you talk to. This developer wasn't as impressed.

"In some respects, the Beta Kits are a bit slower," explained one local
coder. "But we're still working on partial hardware, and I'm quite sure
Microsoft will get us dev kits that will be running perfectly in the
next stage."

Clean Logic, Clean Code
The next generation of systems will all use multi-chip processors
instead of single-chip processors. This means that in the case of the
Xbox 360, where there are three CPU processors, coders must program
instructions for each independently. It means there is much more power,
but many more instructions being delivered at incredibly high speeds.
Thus, programmers will need to create "cleaner code." To get the
maximum effect of the Xbox 360's power, programmers need to write more
efficient, less redundant, "ordered" code than on previous consoles to
really optimize the running speeds of their games.

"It's accurate to say that the Xbox 360 CPU architecture is less
fault-tolerant of lazy code than the Intel PC architecture," one
developer told IGN. "The rules to get good running code on a console
are pretty straightforward, but you have to follow them religiously --
the second you don't, you'll see a performance hit."

Having switched from the Alpha to the Beta Kits in the last month,
developers are doing everything they can to reduce cycles, to optimize
their code, and to diminish wasted or redundant routines. "The true
potential of the system should start to materialize as we move forward
and Microsoft continues to roll out the new XDKs (July was just
released)."

While the Alpha Kits were the best possible simulation of the Xbox 360
with off-the-shelf parts, the Beta Kits will render a product much
closer to Microsoft's vision of beautiful HD games.

"The Beta hardware really is a console, much more so than Alpha
hardware or even really more than Xbox 1," explained a third developer.
"So there are parts of code that deal with CPUs... On the PC, you have
(typically) one very powerful, very smart, and very expensive CPU. On
most consoles, you have a number of less powerful, more focused, and
cheaper CPUs. It takes some engineering effort for any technology to
make the transition from PCs to consoles. It's harder this generation
with Xbox 360 than it was last generation with Xbox, but there is a lot
more performance that can be exposed with this generation, so the
tradeoff is worth it."

Gamers who heard about the slow framerates of E3 games such as Perfect
Dark Zero, now have a better idea of what Rare was waiting for. Though
Microsoft wouldn't comment on it, you can be certain the developers are
Rare are ecstatic about getting the Beta Kits in their hands. And you
can be certain they're cleaning up their code for the more powerful
multi-chip processors to speed up their framerates.

The Final Straw
Game development is, and is likely to remain, an art built on the
shoulders of creative, multi-disciplined teams. Xbox 360 development,
like any the early development for any new system, is slow going. There
is no one easy or right way to do it.

Adding to the Xbox 360's ramping up is the size of development teams.
They're getting bigger. And the games, which are more complex and
sophisticated, do require more teamwork, more sophisticated tools, and
better time management. On a subject generally associated with game
development, is the issue of cost, brought up by Activision no less
than a year ago. Will next generation creativity cost more to the
end-user?

We spoke with a few retailers, who said the potential $59.99 price tag
for games is still hanging in the air. "We're having a hard time
selling good games at $49.99 right now, so an increase of $10 is not
set by any means."
From one developer's standpoint, however, the additional power of this
system, requiring more people on a team, logically extends to a higher
priced game. "As far as we are concerned, these next gen systems just
mean more artists, because now you can do so much more with the
visuals. So, yes it will be more expensive because you will need a lot
of artists."

Microsoft is trying to cure the cost issue, though we're still unsure
of exactly how well this solution is working. The company has
religiously touted the internally created XNA pipeline tool in this
regard, but sadly, only half of the developers we spoke with are using
it.

One developer, whose team uses XNA, was happy to tout its wares. "The
tools for the Xenon development, such as XUI and XACT, are all
XNA-based tools. The nice thing about the tools is they allow us to
focus on production and not the pipelines to get the production done.
Makes my life easier..."

But while Microsoft was late with its Beta Kits, screwing things up for
E3 and thus worrying many hopeful gamers (and those guys in the
investment community a little too), dev teams are still generally on
target for their fall launch. Teams are making the transition from the
Alpha to the Beta Kits right now -- experimenting with code, endlessly
fiddling with new iterations, and working on making their games look
great.

The old cliché still holds true: The proof is in the pudding. The late
Beta Kits are forwarding the process, and as soon as this Sunday (July
24), we'll see a slew of new images from Microsoft's Japan Summit. And,
in the next few weeks, you'll see that proof as Microsoft reveals even
more images, movies, and inside looks to gamers like us.
___________
 
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P

Paul Heslop

xbox360.ign.com
__________________
Enter The Beta Kits
We speak with a handful of developers on how they like Microsoft's
advanced kits and what new tools mean for the future of the console.
by IGN Staff
 
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G

GMAN

xbox360.ign.com
__________________
Enter The Beta Kits
We speak with a handful of developers on how they like Microsoft's
advanced kits and what new tools mean for the future of the console.
by IGN Staff

July 22, 2005 - After Microsoft's mixed display of goods at E3 2005
last May, the most pressing questions on everyone's minds were simple.
Will the new beta kits improve the state of Microsoft's games? And will
the games look better than that?

The importance of the questions is equally simple. Ninety percent of
Microsoft's games at E3 were unimpressive, particularly on the subject
of graphics. We quickly learned the Xbox 360 games at the show were
almost all running on alpha kits, i.e. off-the-shelf PCs with specs
equivalent to the 360. Which meant that these machines were also only
running at 25%-35% of the console's capacity. In other words, these
were not the games we were looking for, these games can pass; move
along, move along.

Not surprisingly, people were more impressed with Sony's sly CG
showing, even if they knew full well the videos weren't displaying
actual gameplay. Are we all so gullible? So impressionable? Such
graphic tarts? The real answer is this: Sony showed us what we imagined
the next generation to be, what we wanted it to look like, and
Microsoft showed us what amounted to high resolution Xbox games.

So what's happened since E3? Why has all the hype, all the 360 noise
disappeared? Will Xbox 360 games look any better? And are Xbox fans
doomed to have PS3 fanboys laugh at their underwhelming new system? IGN
has spoken with more than five developers on the subject of the newly
released Xbox 360 Beta Kits to get a better idea the progress
developers have made sine E3, and whether the beta kits have helped,
hindered, confused, or improved game development.

The Look
Microsoft's beta kits are actual Xbox 360 consoles, not just
fast-moving PCs or Macs. They look like Xbox 360s, with the curved
lines and changeable faceplates, only they're charcoal gray in color.
They're fatter, too. They have an additional two inches above the DVD
tray, making them wider.

The other visual difference is the enormous size of the power supply,
which are literally five to six times larger than the Nintendo 64 power
supply. One developer said you could club and kill someone with the
power supply. Nice. They're essentially the equivalent of three surge
protectors taped together. We suspect these will diminish in size when
the retail units arrive. (We hope that's the case, anyways.) Depending
on the unit, an additional set of wires protrude from the top of the
system (the side with the hard drive on it) for debugging purposes.

In the age of Ashley Simpson scooping all game sites with Xbox 360 news
and big-haired teenagers showing their brilliance by posting screens of
their Dad's Beta Kits online, it's ironic to us that no developers
would send us a single shot of the Xbox 360 Beta Kit. They all
declined.

"You'll have to ask Microsoft for those -- if we took any pictures, the
lawyers would tear us apart and eat our insides," said one developer
only half jokingly. "We haven't even seen the dev kits ourselves;
they're kept in a special box that is made out of military Stealth
Bomber surplus material so we don't give too many secrets away. All we
know is where the TV and controllers plug in...

"Seriously -- if you've seen the Xbox 360 pictures Microsoft has
released already, imagine that with a different faceplate, a different
skin, and a bit of kit stuck to the top for debugging."

Early Days
Believe it or not, it's early days for most 360 developers. This might
sound worrisome to most, given that it's July -- nearly four months
from launch. But for Xbox 360 developers, they're still new to the Xbox
Beta Kits. To put that in perspective, most developers who are shipping
their games at launch (November 2005) have more than just a fully
running demo. They have levels nearly complete, graphics in place, and
they're working on AI, level flow, balance, and the harder things that
take time, iteration, and the many, many parts to be compiled into a
massive whole.

All of the five developers we spoke with asked to remain anonymous, due
to an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with Microsoft, but under the
condition of anonymity, we learned many things. According to our
sources, the beta kits, which were originally supposed to ship to
developers in April-May, were shipped in late June. This delay helped
cause the major "perception" problem at E3. If developers had had the
Beta Kits earlier, their games would have been running on the actual
consoles, not substitutes -- which would have meant much prettier games
at E3. Instead, teams are just now wrapping their heads around the
system's architecture.

We asked several developers what they thought of the Beta Kits. Epic
Games' Mark Rein was frank with us but slim on details. When asked
about the power of the system, he said the best example of that was
Gears of War. "You've seen the answer to (all of your) questions. It's
called Gears of War. What you've seen is just a tiny sample of what
we'll be able to achieve in our first generation Xbox 360 title and
clearly we're pretty darn excited about it. More will be revealed over
time."

Other developers were more forthcoming.

"They're better than the Alpha Kits," said one local developer.
"They're still not quite as powerful as final hardware, but they're
much more representative of what we expect final hardware to look
like."

Of the five developers that we spoke to, only one was disappointed with
their power.

"Right now, we're still wrapping our heads around them, but I have to
be honest, I'm a bit disappointed with the Beta Kits. Microsoft still
has a lot of work to do in terms of optimization. Also, the Beta Kits
are loud to a point of distraction."


With the exception of the audio chips (this chipset isn't complete),
the Beta Kits contain about 90% of the console's chip set. They
comprise the specialized three-CPU core processors and the graphics
GPU. There are still some speed issues with the GPU we're told, but
functionality wise, the Beta Kits are about a 90% representation of the
final consoles.

Inquiring about the state of the Beta Kits in July is a little early,
to be honest. The teams simply haven't had that much time with them
yet. But dev teams are making progress as they transition from a single
processor machine to a multi-processor machine.

360's System Power
What gamers want to know, however, is will the games look better than
the early versions at E3? Will they run with fast framerates and look
spectacular? All of the developers' indirect answers leaned to "Yes."
How will that happen? The Beta Kits are simply more powerful than the
Alpha Kits. They're a better, closer representation to the final
console's power.

We asked the teams how much more powerful the Beta Kits are then the
P5s they're been working on, and what the significance of that
additional power is. We learned that they're still exploring the Beta
Kits' power and limitations, and that while there is nearly twice as
much graphic power, the way in which coding passes from the triple core
processors through the systems, it's got to be cleaner than on single
processing machines. One North American developer had this outlook.

"On our side, we've been working very hard to tap into the full power
of the Betas. On a technical side, while the GPU is nearly twice as
powerful as the Alpha kits, the CPU architecture requires very clean
logic coding in order to take advantage of its full potential." (We'll
get to the clean logic bit later on in the story.)

Another developer explained the differences this way:

"The major difference is in the video chipset, which is pretty
different from anything you can find on the PC (or alpha hardware). It
does some slick bits of load balancing between pixel performance and
vertex performance, which helps us make sure that we're maxing out the
video hardware no matter what we're doing. HDTV looks spectacular on
this thing.

"In terms of power, well, we've got almost eight times the memory,
which is significant all by itself because it allows us to use more
normal maps, more bump maps, more specular, more fancy screen overlays,
blur shader buffers, depth-of-field, bleach bypass, real-time
desaturation/supersaturation, etc. You'll see tons of visual effects in
our game that just aren't practical (or possible) on Xbox 1.

"Additionally, all the work that Microsoft has done on the System Guide
massively reduces our certification requirements -- to about a third of
what they are on Xbox 1. To the end user, this means that we can spend
much more time working on great gameplay, instead of having to worry
about what happens when the player unplugs the game controller and the
network cable at the same time he's plugging in a memory card and
dancing in a circle. There are still some certification requirements,
but now they're mostly geared toward the high-definition experience,
making sure our games run great; we don't have to worry as much about
the odd edge cases."

What's that add up to? Better pixel and vertex performance helping to
maximize the video hardware, creating excellent HD performance. That
means better, higher resolution textures, polygons, and smoother
animated characters. Microsoft's minimization of the System Guide
Certification Requirements does something else. It helps developers
spend less time on basic, 'busy work issues'; and more time on
gameplay, design, and creative issues.

So, perhaps the Beta Kits are coming closer to Vice President J
Allard's vision of Xbox 360 than the early code we saw at E3. It all
depends on who you talk to. This developer wasn't as impressed.

"In some respects, the Beta Kits are a bit slower," explained one local
coder. "But we're still working on partial hardware, and I'm quite sure
Microsoft will get us dev kits that will be running perfectly in the
next stage."

Clean Logic, Clean Code
The next generation of systems will all use multi-chip processors
instead of single-chip processors. This means that in the case of the
Xbox 360, where there are three CPU processors, coders must program
instructions for each independently. It means there is much more power,
but many more instructions being delivered at incredibly high speeds.
Thus, programmers will need to create "cleaner code." To get the
maximum effect of the Xbox 360's power, programmers need to write more
efficient, less redundant, "ordered" code than on previous consoles to
really optimize the running speeds of their games.

"It's accurate to say that the Xbox 360 CPU architecture is less
fault-tolerant of lazy code than the Intel PC architecture," one
developer told IGN. "The rules to get good running code on a console
are pretty straightforward, but you have to follow them religiously --
the second you don't, you'll see a performance hit."

Having switched from the Alpha to the Beta Kits in the last month,
developers are doing everything they can to reduce cycles, to optimize
their code, and to diminish wasted or redundant routines. "The true
potential of the system should start to materialize as we move forward
and Microsoft continues to roll out the new XDKs (July was just
released)."

While the Alpha Kits were the best possible simulation of the Xbox 360
with off-the-shelf parts, the Beta Kits will render a product much
closer to Microsoft's vision of beautiful HD games.

"The Beta hardware really is a console, much more so than Alpha
hardware or even really more than Xbox 1," explained a third developer.
"So there are parts of code that deal with CPUs... On the PC, you have
(typically) one very powerful, very smart, and very expensive CPU. On
most consoles, you have a number of less powerful, more focused, and
cheaper CPUs. It takes some engineering effort for any technology to
make the transition from PCs to consoles. It's harder this generation
with Xbox 360 than it was last generation with Xbox, but there is a lot
more performance that can be exposed with this generation, so the
tradeoff is worth it."

Gamers who heard about the slow framerates of E3 games such as Perfect
Dark Zero, now have a better idea of what Rare was waiting for. Though
Microsoft wouldn't comment on it, you can be certain the developers are
Rare are ecstatic about getting the Beta Kits in their hands. And you
can be certain they're cleaning up their code for the more powerful
multi-chip processors to speed up their framerates.

The Final Straw
Game development is, and is likely to remain, an art built on the
shoulders of creative, multi-disciplined teams. Xbox 360 development,
like any the early development for any new system, is slow going. There
is no one easy or right way to do it.

Adding to the Xbox 360's ramping up is the size of development teams.
They're getting bigger. And the games, which are more complex and
sophisticated, do require more teamwork, more sophisticated tools, and
better time management. On a subject generally associated with game
development, is the issue of cost, brought up by Activision no less
than a year ago. Will next generation creativity cost more to the
end-user?

We spoke with a few retailers, who said the potential $59.99 price tag
for games is still hanging in the air. "We're having a hard time
selling good games at $49.99 right now, so an increase of $10 is not
set by any means."

system, requiring more people on a team, logically extends to a higher
priced game. "As far as we are concerned, these next gen systems just
mean more artists, because now you can do so much more with the
visuals. So, yes it will be more expensive because you will need a lot
of artists."

Microsoft is trying to cure the cost issue, though we're still unsure
of exactly how well this solution is working. The company has
religiously touted the internally created XNA pipeline tool in this
regard, but sadly, only half of the developers we spoke with are using
it.

One developer, whose team uses XNA, was happy to tout its wares. "The
tools for the Xenon development, such as XUI and XACT, are all
XNA-based tools. The nice thing about the tools is they allow us to
focus on production and not the pipelines to get the production done.
Makes my life easier..."

But while Microsoft was late with its Beta Kits, screwing things up for
E3 and thus worrying many hopeful gamers (and those guys in the
investment community a little too), dev teams are still generally on
target for their fall launch. Teams are making the transition from the
Alpha to the Beta Kits right now -- experimenting with code, endlessly
fiddling with new iterations, and working on making their games look
great.

The old clich=E9 still holds true: The proof is in the pudding. The late
Beta Kits are forwarding the process, and as soon as this Sunday (July
24), we'll see a slew of new images from Microsoft's Japan Summit. And,
in the next few weeks, you'll see that proof as Microsoft reveals even
more images, movies, and inside looks to gamers like us.


Jesus, the Xbox360 is supposed to ship retail in November and they are still
making the hardware up as they go along?
 

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