Why AMD's next-gen console victories are a big win for PC gamers

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Let the light shine on the next generation of consoles. Let Microsoft and Sony slug it out in an epic battle for the eyeballs of living-room gamers everywhere. Let the headlines sing about slightly tweaked gamepads and bundled Kinect sensors. Why? Because these consoles harbor a portentous secret: Beneath all the drama about online DRM and executive shuffling, AMD hardware sits at the heart of every single next-gen game console. Every. Single. One. (Yes, even the Wii U.)

And because of this, the future has never looked brighter for PC gaming.

Let me explain.

Jaguar roars

Microsoft’s Xbox One console, like Sony’s PlayStation 4, carries a semicustom x86-based AMD APU.

Before we talk benefits, we have to talk hardware, briefly.

When you get down to brass tacks and silicon, the underlying hardware for both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 amounts to that of a midrange gaming PC: Each console rocks a semicustom AMD APU consisting of eight “Jaguar” x86 CPU cores sharing the same die as a next-gen Radeon graphics processor.

But enough tech talk! For details, check out our more in-depth comparison of PS4 vs. PC graphics. This article is about the benefits we PC types might gain from the x86 architecture that PCs and the next-gen consoles share.

And benefits we shall see. In fact, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 aren’t even out yet, and PC gamers are already starting to reap tangible benefits from those consoles’ computerized cores.

Ports aplenty

Among the flood of top-tier games shown at E3, many titles, such as Battlefield 4, are coming to PCs and consoles alike.

PC gamers are used to being second-class citizens. Sure, we get our share of MMOs (such as World of Warplanes and Star Wars: The Old Republic) and complex real-time strategy games (like Company of Heroes 2) and the occasional gloriously detailed first-person shooter (hello, Crysis 3!). But in general, most big-name games have bypassed the PC to land on consoles and consoles alone.

“In the past, consoles have had very unique architectures compared to the PC,” says David Nalasco, a technical marketing manager with Radeon’s GPU business. This situation has made cross-platform development more difficult, and making a game for a single platform already takes a ton of time, effort, and moolah. And with all that said, Nalasco notes that the very nature of consoles makes them appealing to developers.

“If you’re a game developer trying to get the most out of your platform, you’re going to work on the one that’s most straightforward—the one you’ve worked on for years and hasn’t changed, and has a huge install base,” he says.

Hence, the PC’s aura of neglect. But with x86 blood now coursing through every platform’s virtual veins, those days may be ending.

As I said, it costs a lot of money to make a top-notch video game, so developers have a strong incentive to get those games in front of as many potential buyers as possible. The shared x86 architecture makes it easier to port games from consoles to PCs.

And at this June’s E3 conference—the annual blockbuster gaming-industry convention where the best and brightest games are trotted out—most of the triple-A titles announced for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were announced for PCs, too. We saw The Crew and Titanfall, as well as PC bastions like The Witcher 3. Thanks, x86!

“I think we’ll see much easier leveraging of work between consoles and PCs,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.

That work isn’t limited to hardware, either.

“One very important statement that Microsoft made last week [at Build] was when indie developers asked, ‘What do I have to do to develop Xbox One games?’” Moorhead says. “Microsoft’s response was, ‘Learn how to code for Windows 8.’ That says everything right there.”

Ports aplenty, part deux

Thanks to the x86 APU in consoles, Moorhead says, the future of PC games is more Crysis 3 than *shudder* Crysis 2.

Okay, the future of PC gaming looks bright—but don’t console ports suck? They’re always buggy, and they never look as good as good as native PC games, right? So is a flood of ports really worth getting excited about?

In this case, yes. We’re starting to get theoretical here, but the presence of a Radeon CPU and GPU in each and every console promises to make it easier for developers to optimize their games for the PC. Better optimization means better graphics and performance.

Nalasco points to the performance of the latest console games as testament to what extreme optimization can provide. The current console designs are seven years old and have a fraction of the power of modern-day gaming PCs, yet still pump out fairly impressive graphics.

“The opportunity that we see is to get that fit and level of optimization, or something close to it, in PC games,” Nalasco says. “If you’re developing a game or a game engine and want to port it over to the PC, you don’t have to start over from scratch with your optimization. You’re starting from a base that has CPU cores that are much more similar, GPU cores that are much more similar, and other feature sets that are much more comparable.”

AMD representatives stress that the company will continue pushing the envelope on PC hardware, but say that games created for the x86-based consoles will hold up well years down the line thanks to their optimizations.

Of course, you’d expect an AMD representative to say that—but Nvidia SVP Tony Tamasi said something very similar at his company’s E3 press conference.

“The PC will keep growing, but the consoles will give us that next bump,” Tamasi said. “Developers can now build really awesome content that can then scale to the PC.”

If it’s weird hearing Nvidia saying somewhat positive things about consoles powered by its rival, consider that AMD’s inclusion in consoles can benefit the general PC-gaming industry, not just AMD. Both Microsoft and Sony have announced that their consoles will support the industry-standard DirectX 11 programming language.

“If you’re truly writing Xbox One games to DirectX, I don’t know why AMD would necessarily gain an advantage over Nvidia, and I don’t know why developers would write anything [AMD] proprietary to their console games,” Moorhead says.

In other words: Yay for everybody. And Moorhead, who was a longtime PC-industry executive before founding his analytical firm, agrees with the optimistic optimization assessment that both AMD and Nvidia tossed out.

“You’ll see a lot more games that have been optimized better,” he says. “You’ll be less likely to see a console port with crummy graphics,” even though the next-gen consoles already lag behind truly top-end gaming rigs in graphics performance.

I can dig it.

Multiple threads

But with all that said about DirectX and Nvidia, AMD’s newfound home among the consoles has the potential to give AMD some big advantages when it comes to PC hardware.

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