Digital Foundry's 2010: Part 1 • Page 2

If I could turn back tech.

March

The month didn't start off particularly well for owners of the original, "fat" PlayStation 3, nor for Sony. Millions of PlayStation 3 consoles stopped working properly for no apparent reason at all - an astonishing bug quickly dubbed ApocalyPS3 by the Twitterati.

Erroneously referred to as a "network connectivity" problem by Sony when the problems hit, the bug manifested courtesy of a tiny ARM chip notorious for its inability to process leap years correctly. Other device vendors working with the chip managed to upgrade the firmware, avoiding the problem, but alas Sony did not. March 1 was being read as February 29 - a de-sync issue that stopped Trophy-enabled games from loading and PSN from working, and disabled internal certificates that proved you owned the downloadable games you'd purchased. Even debug and development consoles were affected.

It's an interesting story in that it demonstrates how lightning fast the demand for news and information is in the connected age. Sony had no information for most of the day on what was actually going on, eventually suggesting that you shouldn't power on your console at all. By this time, the connected community had already found a solution - removing a specific battery from inside the console - but luckily for Sony, next day the internal clock moved back to a valid date and as suddenly as the PS3s had stopped working properly, everything was resolved. The ApocalyPS3 was over and mostly forgotten about within days.

While this was going on, rumours continued to spread that Xbox 360 Final Fantasy XIII wasn't living up to expectations. We had code in-house a week or so before release and it's fair to say that the game was something of a disappointment from a technical perspective: decent enough in its own right, but lacking much of the polish of the PS3 original. We were used to seeing compromises and cutbacks, but the range and scope of the 360 game's disadvantages was disappointing indeed.

Nine months on, and still the best music ever heard in a Digital Foundry comparison movie!

At its core, Final Fantasy XIII on PS3 isn't really a technically ambitious game - nowhere near as demanding nor as targeted to the PS3 hardware as Uncharted 2 or God of War III - but it is cleverly constructed from an artistic point of view, space-efficient where it needs to be in terms of disc space, and luxuriates in the mammoth storage potential of the Blu-ray for its cinematics. So the resulting Final Fantasy XIII Face-Off was as much about the missed opportunity as it was about the comparison.

The embargo on the game lifted while I was en route to GDC in San Francisco, so I wasn't able to address the reaction to the piece until the following month, but the developer-focused event proved to be a massive source of inspiration for Digital Foundry coverage for the next couple of months.

It was the first time I'd been to the show and I was overwhelmed by the info-rush from being so close to so many top-class developers divulging so many of their secrets. The topics covered and the detail level in which they were discussed were way beyond the DF remit, but were fascinating nonetheless, and there were still some highlight events I was able to report back on.

Epic talked freely and frankly about the process of working with the iOS version of Unreal Engine 3 - a project which would culminate in Chair's excellent Infinity Blade, while SCEA unveiled final hardware and games for PlayStation Move in a special invite-only event.

First impressions of Move were muted - there was little in the initial line-up to demonstrate the advantages of the device and at the preview event, the buzz around the room was that the games were little more than HD renditions of Wii-style experiences, with added camera fun. Including a Wii bowling game at the event probably wasn't the wisest move, and the really cool Move titles like Sports Champions weren't really shown at their best.

It took a brilliant developer presentation by Anton Mikhailov a couple of days later to really showcase the potential of Sony's motion controller. Post GDC, Sony put the Move R&D team of Mikhailov and Richard Marks front and centre in promoting the unique properties of the device to the specialist press - a very smart move.

Sony Santa Monica's improvements between the demo and retail versions of God of War III were extremely impressive and made for a very popular Digital Foundry blog post.

After the disastrous ApocalyPS3, Sony's fortunes continued to rise dramatically in March with the release of God of War III. Kratos' return more than delivered from a gameplay perspective, but from a technological perspective Sony Santa Monica's work was simply astonishing, for reasons I'll go into in more depth for my contribution to Eurogamer's "Games of 2010" series. The last story I wrote before leaving for GDC compared the retail game with the PSN/E3 GOWIII demo - a piece I enjoyed putting together because it really demonstrated just how much work Sony Santa Monica put into improving and optimising the game. Graphically transformed, significantly improved, running with state-of-the-art MLAA, it still managed to noticeably outperform the already excellent demo code. The more-than-justified gushing continued in the Making of God of War III piece posted towards the end of the month.

One of my highlights of the year from an editorial perspective was our Among Friends: How Naughty Dog Built Uncharted 2 piece [also my favourite! -Ed]. I'd seen Richard Lemarchand's presentation at GDC and instantly saw the potential for recreating it as a Digital Foundry feature. Fortunately for me, SCEE and Naughty Dog agreed, giving us access to all the raw materials and Lemarchand himself in making sure that the article was everything that it could possibly be.

Other Digital Foundry articles: Leaked photos of a brand new, slimmed down motherboard did indeed prove to be our first look at the innards of the then-secret Xbox 360 S, we managed to woefully underestimate Nintendo's ambitions for its next handheld as the platform holder announced the new 3DS, and Sony finally responded to Geohot's PlayStation 3 hack, by killing off Linux support for PS3 with a new firmware 3.21. Hotz promised to bring it back, but never released his own firmware 3.21O, disappearing from public view as the abuse on his various blogs escalated to new levels.

Face-Offs: While there was bad news for 360 owners in the Final Fantasy XIII Face-Off, DICE more than delivered the goods for owners of either HD console with the brilliant Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

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April

Embargoes are a necessity in the online age, but there's little doubt that they can be somewhat inconvenient at times. Even if key information about a hot game becomes publicly available, we can't really comment about our direct experiences with the software until the agreed date. We had access to Alan Wake review code, and we knew that it was rendered in a sub-HD resolution, but we were bound by the terms of the embargo not to write about it.

However, interpretations of that embargo seemed to differ across territories and when the first in-game shots were published via a German website (captured using Digital Foundry equipment, no less) it was only a matter of time before the pixel-counters would do their thing. Alan Wake was running at 960x540 - subsequently revised up a touch to 960x544 - a significant downgrade compared to the native 720p resolution footage we'd seen pre-E3 the year before.

Remedy never commented on why the switcheroo happened, but it's safe to say that the resolution drop aided performance and the visual make-up of the game benefited significantly from the upgrade in anti-aliasing to full-on 4x multi-sampling. In truth, the resolution of Alan Wake is way, way down the list of issues we had with the game. Still under embargo, we did our best to address the furore in our Alan Wake sub-HD blog post by showing examples of how resolution is only one element in a game's visual make-up.

During April, I also had the opportunity to revisit my GDC material and put together a couple more pieces I was proud to publish. Ubisoft's Patrick Plourde presented a fascinating insight into the frankly terrifying logistics of designing, playtesting and polishing Assassin's Creed 2, which again seemed ripe for adaptation into a Saturday Digital Foundy feature, and once again the developer was only too happy to assist.

Another video favourite is our Assassin's Creed II time-lapse, showing off the time of day tech in Ubisoft's killer sequel - looking and sounding quite beautiful in the process.

The run-up to E3 also saw Microsoft begin to open up a bit more about its Project Natal motion controller, with the news that Israeli developer PrimeSense were behind the 3D imaging tech. The brains behind what was to become Kinect talked exclusively to Digital Foundry, revealing their ambitions for their work beyond gaming. Weeks later, just minutes away from PrimeSense's office, the Israeli arm of Microsoft gave the world its first look at how Natal's eye sees the world.

We posted a couple of our customary Saturday features that month. Firstly, we revisited the still hot topic of Final Fantasy XIII, revealed more problems with the Xbox 360 version of the game and conducted a complete breakdown of the game's video sequences from start to finish, along with a video codec face-off that demonstrated conclusively that Square Enix's use of the Bink compressor really was a fundamentally poor decision.

This month, Microsoft updated the Xbox 360 dashboard to support USB flash drives, loosening its vice-like grip on the external storage market by allowing up to 16GB of additional drive space to be added to the console using whatever USB devices you desired. Something of a massive shift from the platform holder then, and we went for broke in testing various flash drives, mechanical hard disks and even an ultra-expensive SSD with the new dash. Xbox 360 Storage: The Flash Factor was a very popular feature, and it highlighted an apparent limitation in the throughput of the hardware's USB controller - something that would go on to have a real impact for Project Natal/Kinect.

Other Digital Foundry articles: TriOviz reckoned they could do 3D gaming on a 2D display, and incorporated its tech into a Game of the Year Edition of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Digital Foundry asked if TriOviz was too good to be true, and indeed it was. We saw some potential but reckon that the system's future is in supplying fast performance 3D for games running on a proper HDMI 1.4 3DTV. Around the same time, we reported on Sony's stereoscopic progress in our Making of PlayStation 3D feature. Meanwhile, Crytek revealed some bona fide Crysis 2 on console footage, which we put through performance analysis with some variable results. The sequel looks intriguing, but we're still yet to be convinced that consoles can run Crysis. This is definitely a situation where we'd love to be proved wrong.

Face-Offs: Avalanche Studios' superb Just Cause 2 was the basis for the one and only Face-Off of the month. As platform comparison go, there wasn't much in it at all - both were, and are, great games - but the PS3 game narrowly got "the nod".

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