A new video-game console is only as good as the titles it runs. The newly launched PlayStation 3 may be a technological marvel (see our recent column "Tearing Into the PlayStation 3"), but it needs sophisticated software geared to its remarkable graphics rendering capacity to make gamers feel the thrills. In this month's cover story, "The Insomniacs", regular contributor David Kushner profiles a band of software developers who have been scaling their games up to new heights to match the PS3's power—and pulling long days and nights to make deadline.
Kushner spent time with the team at Insomniac Games, in Burbank, Calif., to see what life is like for harried game makers trying to meet brutal specs these days. During his visit, Insomniac's 40 developers were hard at work on Resistance: Fall of Man, a multiplayer first-person shooter set in an alternate history, expected to be a best-seller for the PS3. At the time, they had been cranking code for the console's supercharged Cell processor for roughly six months, trying to produce an addictive, eye-popping experience.
Their task was complicated by the fact that the Cell uses an architecture unlike anything the developers had ever seen. As Kushner notes, each chip contains a single processor that coordinates the work of eight others, and each of those differs greatly from the kind of processor in any other game console today. The Cell lets developers ask many things of it at once, but it requires those tasks be molded to the particular abilities of the specialized processors. So they were working in a fascinating new environment.
"It raises issues of complexity management," Alex Hastings, Insomniac's chief technology officer told Kushner. "Wrangling a system as large as a modern game is a huge challenge.... You have to customize code for the Cell processor. If you want to take advantage of these Synergistic Processor Elements, you have to write code specifically targeted to them."
Now, the proof of their efforts is in the hands of the game enthusiasts who snapped up the hundreds of thousands of limited-release PS3s last month in record time. They will be the judges of whether Insomniac's developers met the challenge of working with such a unique and demanding architecture by voting with their credit cards.