According to our sources, the beta kits, which were originally supposed to ship to developers in April-May, were shipped in late June. This delay helped cause the major "perception" problem at E3. If developers had had the Beta Kits earlier, their games would have been running on the actual consoles, not substitutes -- which could have meant much prettier games at E3. Instead, teams are just now wrapping their heads around the system's architecture.
We asked several developers what they thought of the Beta Kits. Epic Games' Mark Rein was frank with us but slim on details. When asked about the power of the system, he said the best example of that was Gears of War. "You've seen the answer to (all of your) questions. It's called Gears of War. What you've seen is just a tiny sample of what we'll be able to achieve in our first generation Xbox 360 title and clearly we're pretty darn excited about it. More will be revealed over time."
"The major difference is in the video chipset, which is pretty different from anything you can find on the PC (or alpha hardware). It does some slick bits of load balancing between pixel performance and vertex performance, which helps us make sure that we're maxing out the video hardware no matter what we're doing. HDTV looks spectacular on this thing.
Clean Logic, Clean Code
The next generation of systems will all use multi-chip processors instead of single-chip processors. This means that in the case of the Xbox 360, where there are three CPUs, coders must program instructions for each independently. It means there is much more power, but many more instructions being delivered at incredibly high speeds. Thus, programmers will need to create "cleaner code." To get the maximum effect of the Xbox 360's power, programmers need to write more efficient, less redundant, "ordered" code than on previous consoles to really optimize the running speeds of their games.
"It's accurate to say that the Xbox 360 CPU architecture is less fault-tolerant of lazy code than the Intel PC architecture," one developer told IGN. "The rules to get good running code on a console are pretty straightforward, but you have to follow them religiously -- the second you don't, you'll see a performance hit."
Having switched from the Alpha to the Beta Kits in the last month, developers are doing everything they can to reduce cycles, to optimize their code, and to diminish wasted or redundant routines. "The true potential of the system should start to materialize as we move forward and Microsoft continues to roll out the new XDKs. July was just released."
We spoke with a few retailers, who said the potential $59.99 price tag for games is still hanging in the air. "We're having a hard time selling good games at $49.99 right now, so an increase of $10 is not set by any means."
From one developer's standpoint, however, the additional power of this system, requiring more people on a team, logically extends to a higher priced game. "As far as we are concerned, these next gen systems just mean more artists, because now you can do so much more with the visuals. So yes, it will be more expensive because you will need a lot of artists."
Microsoft is trying to cure the cost issue, though we're still unsure of exactly how well this solution is working. The company has religiously touted the internally created XNA pipeline tool in this regard, but sadly, only half of the developers we spoke with are using it.
One developer whose team uses XNA was happy to tout its wares. "The tools for the Xenon development, such as XUI and XACT, are all XNA-based tools. The nice thing about the tools is they allow us to focus on production and not the pipelines to get the production done. Makes my life easier..."
But while Microsoft was late with its Beta Kits, screwing things up for E3 and thus worrying many hopeful gamers (and those guys in the investment community a little too), dev teams are still generally on target for their fall launch. Teams are making the transition from the Alpha to the Beta Kits right now -- experimenting with code, endlessly fiddling with new iterations, and working on making their games look great.
The old cliché still holds true: The proof is in the pudding. The late Beta Kits are forwarding the process, and as soon as this Sunday (July 24), we'll see a slew of new images from Microsoft's Japan Summit. And, in the next few weeks, you'll see that proof as Microsoft reveals even more images, movies, and inside looks to gamers like us.