Is John Carmack’s claim that there’s plenty of mileage left in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 really true?

In a recent interview with Wired, id Software founder and CTO of Oculus, John Carmack, gave a rather startling opinion on the current state of the PS3 and Xbox 360. According to Carmack, he’s often struggled with leaving the low-end of gaming behind, even when he decided that Doom would require a VGA adapter and a 386.

“[T]here’s so much you can still do on the previous console generation. The 360 and PS3 are far from tapped out in terms of what a developer could do with them, but the whole world’s gonna move over towards next-gen and high-end PCs and all these other things,” Carmack told Wired. ”Part of me still frets a little bit about that, where just as you fully understand a previous generation, you have to put it away to kind of surf forward on the tidal wave of technology that’s always moving.”

That’s a little surprising to hear, given that Naughty Dog – creators of the hugely successful and gorgeous PS3 game, The Last of Us – said that they pushed the PS3 to 110 per cent to create the title. According to Lead Designer Jacob Minkoff: “With The Last of Us, we are as efficient as we can possibly be. It’s just squeezing every last drop of power out of the system. And it’s a system we know really, really well. We know its constraints, so we can push it to the edges and play it really fast and loose because we know what the system can handle.”

So who’s on the money, here? Two gaming titans enter, one gaming titan leaves! Or maybe not.

System power versus flexibility

Minkoff gives specific examples of how his team’s inside-out knowledge of the PS3 allowed it to implement things like real-time radiosity for flashlights. It’s clear that the PS3 developers took advantage of every scrap of capability they could squeeze out of the console in the name of telling the story they wanted to tell. But that’s the point Carmack is making – those same lessons could be applied in other ways, to create other great gaming experiences.

To this day, there are active homebrew scenes for the Atari 2600 and the NES. Small indie developers still find ways to create great games on platforms decades past their prime, treating the limitations as challenges and finding new ways to tease better performance out of hardware which has a tenth of the speed of your average smartphone. So Minkoff is right – there’s no way you could build The Last of Us on a PS2, much less an older system – but game developers have been building amazing moments since colour output was a thing. To The Moon is considered one of the most emotional PC games of the past few years, and it’s built on the SNES-style RPG Maker XP.

Carmack, meanwhile, is the quintessential hacker. Later in the interview, he remarks how GPUs brought enormous graphics capability but tossed out the flexibility and off-the-wall approaches that characterised the early 3D industry. Once upon a time, the question was whether voxels or polygons were going to drive 3D engines. A great deal of mud was flung at the wall in the late 1990s, before Direct3D and OpenGL emerged as the twin gods of game development.

Is there still potential in the Xbox 360 and the PS3? Undoubtedly. That’s one reason why most game developers are pushing out multiple versions of 2014’s AAA titles. But, as Carmack notes, every console generation departs leaving something on the table. Game developers build amazing titles every single generation, and then use the capabilities of the generation after to push certain elements a little farther.

The small next-gen jump

The reason this topic has come up with more frequency now is simple. The leap between the console generations is smaller now than it was seven years ago. Both Sony and Microsoft aggressively pushed the envelope in 2005-2006, and both took enormous losses. Check out the lifetime results for the Microsoft and Sony entertainment divisions to see just how bad it was. As of 2012, Microsoft’s lifetime losses since 2000 topped $7 billion (£4.3 billion). Sony has lost $3 billion (£1.85 billion) over the same time period – the PS2’s huge gains erased by the enormous cost of the PS3 and its abysmal early performance.

Granted, both companies count things besides the console business in these figures, but the damage is clear – neither Microsoft nor Sony has made back the development costs of the Xbox 360 and PS3. They never will. That’s partly why Sony and Microsoft both launched next-gen consoles that could earn money out of the gate. The other reason pertains to the expected benefits of next-gen foundry technology.

Sony and Microsoft could theoretically have waited another two years for mature 20nm planar CMOS technology, but the benefits of 20nm are expected to be small – 20-25 per cent over current tech. 16nm and 14nm FinFETs are supposed to deliver further improvements, but those will ramp in late 2015, which means high-end volume production won’t arrive until 2016 or 2017. (Again: Both Sony and Microsoft adopted 90nm fairly early in the cycle, and both ended up with hot-running, extremely expensive hardware).

Waiting another four years for a 40-45 per cent performance increase over the current-day PlayStation 4 or Xbox One was untenable – so here we are. That decision has created some doubt over the proper inflection point, but from a foundry technology perspective, there’s no reason to think waiting would have done much good. Console sales began to drop by 2012 – waiting that much longer could have risked the collapse of the entire business model.

In the long run, the PS4 and Xbox One will distance themselves from current models, but the hardware design is similar enough that peak-efficiency PS3 titles can nearly match the capabilities of early-generation PS4 and Xbox One games. There is life left in the old systems, but the fact that some developers had hit the wall is also proof that we’ll soon see better games in years ahead.

While you're here, you might also want to check out our piece on why the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One's homogeneity bodes ill for the future of the game console. We've also got an Xbox One versus PlayStation 4 speed showdown that asks the question: Which is the fastest console?