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How devs are making next-gen games on consoles you already own

The studios creating the next-generation today...

The life of the Xbox 360 has seen the birth, rise and funeral of the 26-title Guitar Hero franchise.

It's seen four generations of iPhone help shift over ten billion apps. It's seen three Doctors and five Saw movies. If the crazy thing about Xbox 360 is that it's still going strong after almost six years, then what's really crazy is that it won't be slowing down any time soon.

The epochal history of videogame consoles tells us this is wrong. After all, it took just three years for the Master System to give way to the Mega Drive, and four between Saturn and Dreamcast. Xbox, seen rather longingly as a kind of 'Dreamcast 2', came along three years later, and four years after that came 360. That was 2005.

Technologically, the world's most popular console is a geriatric. A top-ofthe- line PC can outperform it several times over with a fully anti-aliased 1080p picture running at a fixed 60 frames per second. Yet reports of 360's demise (requests for it, even) are exaggerated, and not just because it still sells the most copies of CoD.

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So says Pete Ridgway, technical art director at Codemasters: "We're actually still getting a lot of innovations within this generation," he says. "If you look at the first games that came out, then the ones that came out later with deferred rendering - that was quite a big, sizeable change in the way you do things. Suddenly you could have loads of lights in a scene.

"Other games have come out with multi-surface anti-aliasing. A lot of techniques have come out of Siggraph (the world's biggest computer graphics conference) and the film industry that we've been able to bring across. There's a lot to be had without going to new hardware."

Deferred rendering is the magic behind moody, naturally lit games like Dead Space, Crysis 2 and Red Dead Redemption. Many deemed it too demanding for consoles which, with their outdated DirectX support among other things, suffered horrendous aliasing (jaggies) when using it.

But then, recently, 'post-processed' anti-aliasing methods like MLAA smoothed the jaggies out. Inventions like these are traditionally expected of hardware, yet they continue to improve on 360 thanks to software.

"One of the key things with having the same hardware for a sizable amount of time is that people stop fighting with it and start understanding," says Ridgway. "And once they understand they start innovating, working around the deficiencies in quite clever ways. To look at these things individually, as a general consumer, they might just make things look a little better, play a little better. But the accumulation of them makes for far superior games."

Developers have stopped fighting 360 and started understanding it instead

NOW IS THE WINTER...

So the next gen is now. It happened right under our noses while we were looking on forums for news of Xbox 720, and traditional console history tells us nothing. There is no roadmap for where 360 is heading, or how long it should take to get there. Part of that is because of the real revolution of shader-based graphics, which didn't exist on previous consoles.

Ridgway recalls how "when developers got 360s they went: 'Right. We'll have normal maps (bumping) under light on everything, specular maps (shine) on everything.' They put everything on everything. You have to do that to a certain extent: it's easier to hit a visual quality bar by putting everything on. But the nice way to work is to strip that back and analyse it, see what works and what doesn't. We did that on Race Driver: Grid.

"A lot of the buildings had normal maps all over them and we were struggling with performance and memory, so we took some of those off. What we found was that having better diffuse basic textures and specular maps was a far better aesthetic than normal maps. We stripped things back to the fundamentals of what makes graphics good."

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Developers with new consoles are like kids in candy stores. And what do kids in candy stores make? Vomit. The urge to gorge on new technology, not to mention the expectation of newness, is why launch titles tend to look rancid. Fight Night Round 2 was a rock-solid boxing sim; Round 3 looked gorgeous, but it became clear it didn't play so well and the fighters had wibbly legs.

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