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Three for three: How AMD won the war for the heart of next-gen consoles

The era of speculation is over. We now know the details of all new next-gen consoles. Post-E3 2013, all of the major players have revealed the platforms, the games and the hardware that will power console gaming for the next several years.

Sitting at the heart of the consoles are three related cores built with AMD technology. The company went three for three.

This was no accident. According to representatives from AMD that Polygon spoke with during E3 2013, this was the result of a multi-year, companywide effort. In our conversations, we learned how AMD did it, how the company wants to help developers make better games and how it's trying to define the future of gaming.

It all began with a plan, Matt Skynner, AMD's corporate vice president and general manager, told Polygon.

"When the next generation was coming out, we targeted," Skynner said. "Internally, we were saying we want to do a sweep. We want to get all the consoles. We believe it really plays to our technology that we have — both x86 and GPU technology."

The strategy, he explained, began with defining AMD's strengths and figuring out how to combine and leverage them. Its Semi-Custom Business Unit, the product of which powers the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and which the company officially announced in May 2013, grew from a desire to combine its strengths, work with and sell that tech to potential customers.

"The main thing is that we wanted to work with them," Skynner said. "The whole point of our semi-custom business is to work with customers and create semi-custom parts and to work with what they want and create what they want. So, that's worked out for us."

Representatives from AMD believe that the company went three for three for at least three reasons.

First is AMD's ability to combine its expertise in designing central processing units (CPU) and graphics processing units (GPU) into single-chip units that house both in an accelerated processing unit (APU).

"We wanted to work with them."

Second, the company's semi-custom business exists to collaborate with other companies to produce a product that tailored to the customer's needs. Sony's PlayStation 4, for example, includes an eight-core APU based on AMD's Jaguar APU line, which uses a combination of x86 and Radeon graphics technology. Likewise, AMD and Microsoft co-developed a similar semi-custom x86-powered APU to power the Xbox One.

A third reason has to do with focus. AMD's several divisions, which deal with products like graphics cards, consoles, cloud server components, software content designed for AMD processors and semi-custom APUs, each has a commitment to gaming. It's a comparatively recent initiative that stems from its leadership, AMD product marketing manager Robert Hallock told Polygon.

"Every business now at AMD is firmly in the gaming camp," Hallock said. "I would say maybe even two years ago that probably wasn't true, but we have an executive team that's really committed to gaming. They get it."

AMD sees another opportunity here to help game developers use AMD hardware to its potential. That's why the company employs game developers on its staff to assist those who make the games that run on its hardware. As an example, AMD partnered with Crystal Dynamics to incorporate a realistic hair technology called TressFX that AMD developed and helped insert into the PC version of Tomb Raider.

AMD hopes the collaborative possibilities with developers will continue, and has reason to believe that it will because Sony and Microsoft's next-gen consoles run x86 processors, just like PCs. At least conceptually, that will make multiplatform development easier, and AMD plans to be there to help.

"It's a really weird transition period, but now it's one code."

"The whole console experience before was weird because development environments are PC development environments or Mac development environments — x86, right?" Hallock said. "And then, for the old gen, they have to translate that into something completely different, and if they want to bring it back to the PC, translate it it back.

"It's a really weird transition period, but now it's one code, boom, boom, boom, boom across the board. And that's a 'boom, boom, boom, boom' that's Radeon-powered, that's AMD powered. Obviously, we're quite excited about the potential it presents for us and for games in general."

While Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo evangelize their consoles, AMD will be in the background with the resources and expertise to help developers get the most out of its products, just as Crystal Dynamics approached AMD to do something new with Lara Croft's hair.

Matt Davis, of AMD product marketing, told Polygon that the APU strategy applies beyond the traditional console and PC markets and into smaller form factors like laptops and tablets.

"It's bringing that whole gaming DNA into every single solution we bring to market, whether that's consoles, desktops, notebooks and now in tablets," Davis said.

This, again, is AMD's leverage strategy at work: Those APUs that AMD is developing for notebooks and tablets are built on the same technology that will power PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It's an all-in-one solution as much for console manufactures and developers as it is for AMD.

"Cross-pollination makes us happy," Hallock said with a smile.

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