DF Retro: What was actually real in PS3’s E3 2005 reveal?

The stakes were high. 2005 would kick-start a console generation that would offer a stratospheric leap in processing power and gaming capabilities compared to the ruling PlayStation 2 and its Xbox and GameCube competitors. Just prior to E3 2005, Microsoft had already announced Xbox 360 – bizarrely via an MTV special – but gamers weren’t exactly amazed by the preproduction wares revealed therein. All eyes were on Sony for its E3 2005 reveal for PlayStation 3 and when it did eventually kick off, gamers were presented with an unbelievable array of cutting-edge tech showcases. Unbelievable, as in literally unbelievable.

One phrase became synonymous with that conference – “target render” – and to this day, it’s the blatantly unrealistic CG work Sony used to illustrate Killzone 2 and Motorstorm that this conference was remembered for (though its F1 rendering is also remarkable in other ways). Quite possibly, there was little else to show – PlayStation 3 was clearly behind schedule.

The truth is that behind the scenes, Sony’s plans for its next-generation console were perhaps simply too ambitious. Development of the Cell processor was dogged by issues, not helped by system architect Ken Kutaragi’s often strange requests (The Race for a New Game Machine is essential reading) . Meanwhile, plans for Toshiba to provide a unique, cutting-edge GPU came to naught. At the eleventh hour, Sony turned to Nvidia to provide the RSX – the Reality Synthesizer – and the best that could be delivered was a repurposed PC part, similar to Nvidia’s 7900GT (and unfortunately for Sony, just a little too soon to leverage Nvidia’s stunning G80 architecture).

By E3 2005 though, the project did seem to be coming together, but we were still some way short of a final product. In a very technical presentation, Ken Kutaragi proudly revealed the Cell architecture – complete with processor die-shot, showing the layout of the chip. Nvidia’s Jen-Hsun Huang arrived on-stage with a complete technical readout of the RSX spec. We saw the ID of the machine itself – close to the final console but possessing two HDMI ports and three LAN ports (!) and not a lot of cooling vents. But with a planned Spring 2006 release and production silicon seemingly in the bag, there was still time to hammer out the final details.

But then there are the demos of the machine in action. In the video above, John Linneman, myself and DF’s new PC specialist Alex Battaglia commentate on the original media briefing and assess each of the demos in turn – and it’s fascinating to revisit that event. The target renders and some of the demos would cast the entire briefing into disrepute, but there is some genuinely exciting and fascinating stuff here. Epic’s Tim Sweeney would appear with an Unreal Engine 3 demo that we suspect is indeed running in real-time on development PlayStation 3 hardware.

There’s little reason to doubt the authenticity of Phil Harrison’s rubber duck demo or the voxelised terrain showcase, which shows the processing power of the Cell to great effect. In terms of graphics, Sony scanned in Spider-Man 2 actor Alfred Molina and demonstrated impressive real-time lighting and animation. Was it running on actual PlayStation 3 hardware? There’s no way to tell of course, but it certainly looks authentic and was easily surpassed in production software through the upcoming console generation. But at the time? It would have looked amazing.

There’s more good stuff in here, too. In a vision of the kind of technology that would come to define the generation (for Nintendo at least), Sony’s R&D genius Dr Richard Marks arrived on stage to showcase 3D controllers scanned by an EyeToy. The controllers represented on-screen glasses, able to scoop up water and manipulate it. Sony would be accused of mimicking Nintendo’s motion controllers with its admittedly sub-optimal SixAxis, but this demo shows Sony experimenting with Kinect-style motion controller technology several months before the Wiimote was revealed at TGS 2005, and four years before the Project Natal showcase at E3 2009.

Kudo Tsunoda – then working at Electronic Arts – had what looks like a real-time demo of Fight Night. Yes, the frame-rate is poor, and ending the presentation with canned footage that bears a strong likeness to the final showing of the Xbox 360 version doesn’t help, but Tsunoda’s presentation still looks authentic and poor performance aside, it’s remarkable work. For those sitting in the auditorium that day, used to the visual fidelity of the PS2 generation, this would have been a revelation. The final hardware delivered an improved presentation to that real-time demo – but of course, the Xbox 360 version was more refined, a state of affairs in cross-platform development that would define much of the years that followed.

There’s genuine, pioneering genius on show at this conference – a need to push console technology further than it had ever gone before, along with high hopes for the remarkable processing technology of the Cell processor. Those ambitions were clearly pushed too far – the concept of RSX powering two HD outputs and the idea of PS3 possessing three LAN ports is kind of crazy. But it all tied into Sony’s need to push gaming technology into new areas, to use the Cell as a networked super-computer (a situation that, alas, only came to be in the fictional world of CBS network show, Person of Interest). And lest we forget, although it may have been nerfed somewhat with no hardware graphics acceleration, PS3 was – for a time, at least – able to run Linux.

But in its vision of defining the future of gaming technology, there’s no doubt that Sony went too far at E3 2005. Phil Harrison showcases a physics demo with explosions rendering that looks nothing like anything produced by the last-gen consoles. The physics demonstration itself isn’t far-fetched at all, but there’s a clear sense of ’embellishment’ here. A Getaway demo set around London’s Piccadilly Circus looked astonishing and does seem to be rendering in real-time on something, but the extreme quality of the visuals holds up in some ways for today’s technology – and it’s a struggle to believe that this was running on PlayStation 3. Then there was the 60Hz Final Fantasy 7 tech demo – it’s real-time, but it’s unclear what it was running on.

There are questionable moments, then – and outright insane ones too, like the weird Spider-Man 2/Gran Turismo CG mash-up – but it’s only towards the end of the conference where Sony’s presentation goes completely off the rails. A barrage of game trailer content concludes the show, and that’s where the infamous Killzone 2 and Motorstorm target renders appear. Certainly in the case of Evolution Studios, the developers weren’t happy as this remarkable circa-2008 account from the studio’s Nigel Kershaw and Paul Hollywood reveals. In a sense, the videos set the team an impossible target – one that even today’s hardware could not match. Guerrilla Games’ Angie Smets outlines its target render as an internal ‘vision video’ that was never meant to be shown publicly and that PS3 dev kits had only just arrived at the Amsterdam studio. It’s clear that the developer wasn’t happy, and it’s no mistake that most subsequent Guerrilla titles were showcased via real-time demonstrations – including the Killzone Shadowfall reveal at the PS4’s debut in February 2013.

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And perhaps that’s what rankles most about the PS3 reveal – the fact that Sony staff must have surely known what their hardware was capable of and that the target renders in particular weren’t couched in the reality of the console’s spec, and yet they were still shown to millions. It’s not clear what the thought processes were that led to this conference showcasing both fact and fantasy. Was Sony concerned about how little it had to offer? Was it that worried about the earlier arrival of Xbox 360? The difference against the PS4 reveal is night and day in nature – lessons were clearly learned and there’s little doubt that Sony’s latest console fully delivered.

What is clear is how things played out in the years that followed this more controversial reveal. Further production issues pushed back the PS3’s launch from spring 2006 to the following winter, with a European release in March 2007. Compromises in PS3’s design – its older GPU and its split memory pool – not to mention its exotic CPU, put Sony one step behind in a world that was increasingly built on cross-platform game development. But while those target renders may have been woefully misleading, it was still the first party output that delivered some of the greatest gaming moments of the generation. Uncharted, God of War, Killzone, Motorstorm – when those games rolled out, we saw technological accomplishment ahead of anything else in the console space. And in retrospect, perhaps it was the software that saved the generation for Sony, as opposed to an ambitious but flawed hardware spec.