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Carmack talks next gen consoles... and beyond

What id software anticipates from the new hardware and how the next gen may be the last as we know it.

John Carmack has talked at length about what he expects from the next generation of consoles, planning to create brand new tech that allows his company to create cross-generational games that span Xbox 360/PS3 along with whatever their successors may be. The id software technical director also believes that console-makers are in danger of slamming into a power wall that may be impossible to engineer around, with the platform holders perhaps looking to cloud computing to continue the console arms race.

Carmack's comments are found within a collection of three videos posted a week ago by Polish site CD-Action, in which the idTech mastermind talks without respite about the engine behind new game Rage along with other hardcore topics, armed only with a comedically branded soft drink. Watch him go: it's absolutely remarkable. According to CD-Action, the interview was recorded around a month ago.

"I have a good sense of where technology is going but larger things about what businesses choose to do and big businesses like Microsoft and Sony... those are decisions above my pay grade and not really in my line of business, or what I think about a lot," Carmack says. "I think that Xbox Live... the advent of that and the App Store with the iPhone are wonderful signs of the future of digital distribution. I think there's a decent chance that one of the next gen consoles will be without optical media... the uptake rates of people who have broadband connects surprised everyone this generation. It's higher than what the core publishers and even the first party people expected."

Carmack goes on to talk about how he believes that one or the other of the major HD console-makers will jump the gun with the leap to the next generation (hinting that it will be Sony), but in common with many other developers believes that their best interests are served by prolonging the lifespan of the current consoles.

"The whole jockeying for who's going to release the first next gen console is very interesting and pretty divorced from the technical side of things," he says. "Whether Sony wants to jump the gun to prevent the same sort of 360 lag from happening to them again seems likely. As developers, we would really like to see this generation stretch as long as possible. We'd like to see it be quite a few more years before the next gen console comes out, but I suspect one will end up shipping something earlier rather than later."

The general roadmap for the next gen architectures has already been laid down though, and the future appears to be all about variations of Intel's Larrabee proposition, where many tiny, fully programmable cores combine to form one powerful chip that may well work as both CPU and GPU.

"We do have a very good sense of where the technology is going because we talk to NVIDIA, we talk to Intel, we talk to ATI/AMD and they're all pursuing variations on massive multi-core processor integration," Carmack says, "There's lots of interesting things about that, about how we need to think about things on the game development side to take advantage of that."

Real-time ray-tracing has often been seen as the holy grail of graphics rendering and simply unobtainable with the levels of technology we have available, but it may well find a place within the next gen consoles.

"The big question is, are we going to be able to do a ray-casting primitive for a lot of things?" he ponders. "Certainly we'll still be doing a lot of conventional stuff like animated characters and things like that very likely will be drawn not incredibly differently from how they're drawn now. Hopefully we'll be able to use some form of sparse voxel octree representation cast stuff for some of the things in the world that are gonna be rigid-bodied... maybe we'll have deformations on things like that. But that's a research project I'm excited to get back to in the relatively near future. We can prototype that stuff now on current hardware and if we're thinking that... this type of thing will be ten times faster on the hardware that ends up shipping, we'll be able to learn a lot from that."

However, while he predicts that the leaps in cutting edge console technology are set to continue (certainly there is no hint from him that Microsoft or Sony will follow a Wii-style strategy of simply adding minor or incremental upgrades to their existing hardware), we are swiftly reaching the point where platform holders will be unable to win their battles against the laws of physics.

"We talk about these absurd things like how many teraflops of processing and memory that are going into our game machines," Carmack says, speculating off-hand that the next gen consoles will have at least 2GB of internal RAM. "It's great and there's going to be at least another generation like that, although interestingly we are coasting towards some fundamental physical limits on things. We've already hit the megahertz wall and eventually there's going to be a power density wall from which you won't get more processing out there..."

That being the case, he speculates that the game-makers could move into different directions to provide new game experiences and at that point, the almost mythical cloud computing concept could make an impact.

"There'll be questions of whether we shift to a cloud computing infrastructure... lots of interesting questions about whether you have the computing power in your living room versus somewhere else," he says, noting that while latency is a fundamental issue, the sheer scope of storage available online opens up intriguing possibilities. "Certainly the easier aspect of that is 'net as storage' where it's all digital distribution and you could wind up doing an idTech 5-like thing... and blow it up to World of Warcraft size so you need a hundred petabytes of storage in your central game system. We can do that now! It's not an absurd thing to talk about. Games are already in the tens of millions of dollars in terms of budget size and that's probably going to continue to climb there. The idea of putting millions of dollars into higher-sized storage... it's not unreasonable to at least consider."

Returning to the concept of the next generation console, John Carmack is already planning to take advantage of the new hardware and is planning to have systems in place to ensure that a sneaky pre-emptive launch from one of the platform holders won't catch id software by surprise.

"What I'm planning to do is set up a new rendering engine that co-exists with the current one... and I intend to develop it like that, so you have an idTech 5 version and then have everything working the same [with] an alternate data set that you can render with a different version," he revealed. "So the hope would be that if we do get some flashy new graphics hardware on there that we would possibly have the option of releasing a game cross-generational like that. Same game, same design across everything but different media set, different rendering engine... That also allows me to work on something without having to involve the entire team. That's something where we can take a couple of people, go out, work on prototyping proof of concepts while the rest of the company is building the production titles."

Thanks to 'Rangers' from the Beyond3D Forum for the heads up on these videos.

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About the Author
Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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