Although the design language of gaming hasn’t changed much over the past couple decades (compare a PlayStation 2 to a PlayStation 4), the hardware powering these devices has seen a massive upheaval. The architectures of legacy hardware are vastly different from the ones in use today, and the trends precipitating those differences reveal a great deal about where the industry is headed.
The hardware of two decades ago–namely the N64 and PlayStation–were MIPS-based (a simple reduced instruction set) with primitive graphics processors. Their GPUs were actually a distinguishing feature from the previous generation which mostly had only one on-board processor. Besides the extremely limited parity of the MIPS foundation, these machines had little in common with each other or traditional computers.
The long convergence
The following generation was the first time that consoles and computers started to have real parity. The GameCube featured an IBM-designed PowerPC processor (the same architecture that powered many a classic Macintosh), while the Xbox had an even more radical x86-based custom Pentium III. (My first computer had a Pentium 4.) These represented the first steps down a long merging of the roads of gaming consoles and computers. The Xbox/GameCube in your living room and the computer at your desk were both powered by the same architecture of instructions, buses, memory, and so forth.
Look down the road at the Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 (the PlayStation 3 was a very unique piece of hardware that doesn’t really fit any traditional moulds) and you see this convergence continue. In fact, the architecture powering the most recent generation is identical in nearly every way to your average laptop or desktop!
Looking towards the future
The news from this year’s CES continues this trend, but also introduces some new paths. The introduction of the ARM architecture & the Android platform (via Razer, Ouya, and the massive array of smartphones available) represents a great new opportunity for even more commoditized, accessible gaming. Rather than being limited to an expensive console or computer, engaging and beautiful games (just look at Monument Valley) can now be built for somewhat-cheaper mobile & low-power platforms. This means that the audience for gaming can and does continue to grow at a massive rate, and the convergence of architectures makes the art of game development far more accessible. Conservatives/misogynists/racists may bemoan these new audiences and developers, but I think they represent a great new opportuntiy for gaming to do what it does best for even more people: bring joy.