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Edge Magazine #152 August 2005

Teraflops and trousers

Edge #152, August 2005

Hello, girls! I am six feet and one inch tall. I weigh approximately 14-and-a-half stone. I have a 36-inch waist, and wear size 11 shoes. My contact lens prescription is -4.50 in my left eye, and -4.00 in the right.

What do the above statistics tell you? I mean, other than the fact I'm nearly blind and you probably wouldn't want me to sit on you? Do they tell you whether I'm a natural raconteur and wit? Do they reveal whether I have any sort of musical aptitude, or if I can kill a parakeet with my knees? Do they confirm my reputation as south-east England's loudest lover?

Answer: they tell you none of these things. Not one of those statistics tells you what I am like in person, any more than knowing that the PlayStation 3 has as its CPU a Cell processor running at 3.2GHz, with seven special-purpose 3.2GHz processors, capable of 218 gigaflops of performance, tells you a single jot about that. Nevertheless, Sony - staying true to the games industry's traditional, inexplicable obsession with numbers and statistics - has seen fit to roll out this woefully dull information, along with the equally non-thrilling revelation that the PS3 has an RSX GPU running at 550MHz with 1.8 teraflops of floating-point performance, 256Mb of GDDR VRAM at 700MHz and 256Mb XDR main RAM at 3.2GHz. Are you excited yet, kids? I don't know about you, but my trousers can barely contain my erection. I jest, of course: as usual, I'm not wearing any trousers.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 unveiling was every inch as un-mindblowing, with media word-funnels competing with each to see who could reprint the most impenetrable PR guff. So, the 360 has 512Mb GDDR3 RAM, and a CPU with three IBM PowerPC 3.2GHz cores, does it? Well thrust a branch up my buttocks and call me a lollipop; I'm literally cock-a-hoop with apathy.

PS2's Emotion Engine may have been empty hype, but it was a far better sell than knowing the PS3 has a system floating point performance of two teraflops, a fact which seems designed to appeal solely to games industry number junkies, and other very, very, very dull people. It seems a strange way to unveil a piece of hardware that - we're told - is being targeted beyond games players, and aimed squarely at the mass market. When was the last time you read performance statistics for a washing machine?

Sony's Emotion Engine, and the ludicrous assertion that Al Qaeda was using PS2S to remotely control nuclear-tipped robot suicide bombers, may have been little more than ghastly, vacuous lies, but as a hype tool they at least tried to appeal to feelings rather than logic. Incredibly, since failing to deliver on its hype last time around, Sony is still waffling on about delivering new, emotional types of gameplay, now couching it in the kind of language that resembles the orgasmic exclamations of C-3PO: "Vram your floating point up my 3.2GHz core, R2 - before I go all tetrafloppy!"

Trying to get emotion into games is a noble endeavour, but Sony has offered no evidence of how it intends to deliver that emotion on the PS3. I'm not even sure what they mean anyway - previous attempts to get inside the head of a game character have either come across as irrelevant distractions, or flat-out embarrassing. The PS2 era may have delivered many a sublime gaming experience, but nothing I would describe as any more emotional than clearing a level in Asteroids, or the feeling I get when buying a new pair of shoes. In fact, attempts to inject emotional content into a game usually works against it - distracting from the adrenaline rush of the action, or the ardent gratification of solving a particularly obtuse puzzle. Perhaps games are already emotional enough without needing to go that extra inch. Exhibit A, your honour: Max Payne.

Overall, there was nothing in the Xbox 360 and PS3 unveilings to suggest games are about to take any manner of quantum leap, other than the graphics being a bit better. We got the usual nonsense about the new machines being 'twice as fast' as their rivals (a claim I've always wondered about, given that to date none of the consoles I've owned have displayed any sign of being self-ambulant). Then of course we got the woefully over-used affirmation that the games would all resemble interactive movies. Who knows? Maybe this time they will.

Naturally, Nintendo is the only one of the big three to have kept statistics at bay, and talk about the game experience. Unfortunately, being the gaming equivalent of the Lib Dems, Nintendo could've announced that every Revolution is powered by the Tree Cross and still wouldn't have got headlines. Frankly, the only thing to thus far excite me is the advent of the wireless controller as a standard feature.

Of course, it's still early days. Perfect Dark Zero may well prove to be a tear-jerking epic, and Killzone 2 might be stuffed with the sort of saccharine, punch-the-air, emotional manipulation that's usually the domain of Steven Spielberg. But if Sony and Microsoft can't get beyond dry, statistical abstracts and hollow promises, I'm not holding my breath.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me ( right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.

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