Don’t Expect The PS5, Xbox Series X To Transform Your Life

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Don’t Expect The PS5, Xbox Series X To Transform Your Life
Image: Kotaku

The hype around the PS5 and Xbox Series X has been way over the top, even by new console generation standards. 2020 being a shit year certainly hasn’t helped, but before the next gen consoles officially launch next week, I’m here to remind everyone: don’t expect too much too soon.

This isn’t saying not to be excited for new hardware. It’s not a swipe against the launch lineups either, because those are looking just fine (especially when Xbox Game Pass is concerned).

But there’s definitely been a strong degree of overhype in the past four weeks. There’s good reason for it. It’s been a long year, and the prospect of new gaming hardware has been the biggest light on the horizon for many people.

New generations also offer new possibilities, and the prospect of hitting the fabled 60 frames per second in every game imaginable — something PC gamers have lauded over consoles for aeons — is genuinely worth being excited about. Zero loading times sounds incredible. Playing back old titles with things like auto HDR and boosted frame rates is definitely a plus. And the prospect of cool new tech like raytracing, 3D audio or adaptive triggers definitely gets the imagination going.

But first, reality calls.

Image: Sony

On the PS5 front, that reality is the previous generation — and it’s not going away for at least a couple of years. The sheer weight of numbers would force Sony’s hand in any case; nearly 113 million PS4’s have been sold worldwide.

There’s also the COVID effect — unlike previous generations, which generally tail off towards the end, forced isolation saw a lot of people turn to return to video games in 2020, or turn to video games for the first time. That’s meant higher than expected hardware sales throughout all of 2020. (This isn’t a trend unique to Sony, as many PC vendors and component manufacturers — Nvidia and AMD in particular — have talked about surges in shipments in their shareholder updates throughout the year.)

Sony, reasonably so, isn’t going to abandon a user base in the low hundreds of millions. That’s part of the reason why the PS4 will still get PS5 exclusives for a couple of years.

Put another way, it means some of the biggest games will still have to be designed to be playable with older restrictions: slow-arse platter drives, CPUs with an inefficient architecture, much stricter memory (and memory bandwidth) limitations, and a vast different in CPU frequency between the generations.

cyberpunk 2077 hours
Image: CD Projekt Red

The biggest problem here is that some of those restrictions can’t be scaled down to current-gen hardware. When the PS5’s architecture was being discussed for the first time, lead architect Mark Cerny spoke about how important SSDs would be — and how it affects games in ways that people don’t even notice:

Say we’re making an adventure game, and we have two rich environments where we each want enough textures and models to fill memory, which you can do as long as you have a long staircase or elevator ride or a windy corridor where you can ditch the old assets and then take 30 seconds or so to load the new assets. Having a 30 second elevator ride is a little extreme; more realistically we’d probably chop the world into a number of smaller pieces, and then do some calculations with sight lines and run speeds, like we did for Haven City when we were making Jak 2.

A more recent example that most people will be familiar with is Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Ever remember running through the Mako reactor, going from one control room to one corridor to another control room to another corridor and having to wait painfully for all those doors to open? Developers don’t like making you (or themselves) wait for doors to open, but it’s a necessary evil to keep everything running smoothly.

The delay for Cyberpunk 2077 is another great example of how current-gen consoles are proving a real pain. When I previewed the game earlier this year, it was Night City’s density that immediately stood out. CD Projekt Red has spoken about the city’s verticality and how packed each district is. But that’s a serious problem for the current gen consoles, especially the original Xbox One and PS4, because they have very hard restrictions on how much data can be streamed in.

The limits around streaming are almost certainly why Cyberpunk 2077 had this note on its PC minimum requirements:

Having the SSD is the key recommendation there. It’s not a question of CPU or GPU — textures, models, draw distance and the like can all be dialled down to PS1-pixel sized blocks if necessary. But it’s much harder for a platter drive to constantly unload and then reload everything you see whenever you turn around, especially if there’s more in your frame of view than what you’d get in a typical open-world game.

So that next-gen level design Cerny was talking about? Don’t expect to see it for a couple of years at least. Imagine you’re a developer building for two generations of consoles, and you know the amount of QA and optimisation that’s going to be needed for the aging Xbox One/PS4. Do you adopt that degree of freedom Cerny mentioned — or do you stick to more established level design tenets, because you know that’s been tried and tested at scale?

Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

Raytracing’s another great example where people could take a chill pill or three. If anything, this is probably the element of the consoles that has the greatest question mark right now.

The real key note here came from AMD’s recent Radeon RX 6000 series briefing — and the lack of time AMD spent talking about raytracing. They did mention a handful of games that the Radeon RX 6000 series cards would support, but said nothing about what the performance hit would be. Crucially, none of those games were titles that already support raytracing today — which is going to be a whole other can of worms for PC gamers when it comes to RTX/DirectX Ultimate support.

On the console front, the bigger takeaway is that raytracing is still really, really nascent. And crucially, if AMD isn’t hyping up the raytracing potential of their GPUs today, then expectations should be very limited around what they can do going forward.

We’ll see some potential in games like Spider-Man: Miles MoralesFar Cry 6 and other blockbuster titles that dabble with the tech. But I’d also happily bet that every single one of those games will also give gamers a “performance option” that favours frame rate over proper reflections and more technically accurate lighting.

And if the hardware can only do a little bit of raytracing with some of the bells and whistles? Odds are an awful lot of people won’t even notice. (And even if they do, I’d wager they’d take frame rate any day of the week.)

ps5 showcase event playstation 5
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The adaptive triggers are a neat point of difference between Sony and Microsoft. We don’t have a Gran Turismo for launch or something like a F1 2021 or a DiRT Rally 3.0 that might be really suited to just what they can do. But Astro’s Playroom is a great technical showcase, and it’s not hard to imagine other scenarios where adaptive triggers could be really neat.

However, the line between “this is really cool” and “my fingers are getting tired from doing this over and over” can be real thin. Not everybody wants to deal with extra resistance in their triggers over and over for basic actions. Extra force feedback is cool and makes a ton of sense in plenty of games; finger fatigue does not.

Wisely, and in line with Sony’s growing approach to accessibility options, users can tune or disable the strength of the adaptive triggers to their liking. But that also highlights an awkward reality for developers — how much do you design around a feature that’s only available on one console, and how much work do you put into a feature that users might have automatically disabled due to their experience in other games?

Similar to raytracing, it’s going to take a year or so before developers start getting data — and sharing it around — on the best use cases.

Image: Kotaku

I mentioned this on Twitter, but it’s worth repeating. Consoles are, and always have been, an early access program. Their performance, quality of software, and UX all change and morph over time.

And it’s the UX where both consoles have a huge amount of ground to make up. Indie developers have been favouring the Switch for years now, because the attach rates and storefront designs of the new consoles make it so difficult to find anything but the latest AAA game. Some indies have outright complained about the PS4 being unprofitable, which is staggering when you consider the size of the PS4 install base.

Part of the problem stems from Sony and Microsoft not having a more advanced algorithm for game recommendations, the same way Steam does. Having that third-party support is going to be essential, because with the cost of game development expected to rise again with the new generation, first-party platforms will need to lean on indies even more to fill the gaps between the major AAA releases. (It’s worth adding that Sony and Microsoft don’t bear all the responsibility here either — engine makers like Unity and Unreal have just as huge a role to play.)

The one caveat here is that Microsoft at least has Xbox Game Pass. It doesn’t solve any UX problems or change the post-launch life for titles on a Xbox Series X/S, or through the Microsoft Store. But it does at least allow some games to be greenlit that would otherwise be rejected, according to Phil Spencer.

xbox series x drive
The Xbox Series X (Image: Microsoft)

So whenever you see commentary about how the next gen consoles are “game changers”, or that, finally, hardware is now capable of powering developers’ dreams — just take a step back.

The new consoles definitely have a ton of power, and there’s a huge amount of potential in a lot of features that haven’t even gotten massive airtime yet. We haven’t heard much about how the consoles support machine learning, but some developers are playing around with it. That could be massive in 3, 4 or 5 years time in all sorts of ways. Microsoft specifically called out the prospect for more advanced AI algorithms for NPCs or bosses, and better visual reconstruction techniques from lower resolutions, similar to how Nvidia’s DLSS works.

But this isn’t an Xbox thing. It’s part of the RDNA2 architecture from AMD, and so it’s naturally something that both consoles should be able to leverage at some part in the future. It’ll take more development time from AMD though — because it’s not ready yet — and Microsoft and Sony will have to ensure their implementations are as hassle-free as possible for developers.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Level design unhindered by bullshit elevator rides. Worlds populated by numbers that simply wouldn’t be possible on the ancient PS4 or Xbox One’s CPU. Cloud streaming shouldn’t be forgotten either. Not streaming to your phone, but the type of streaming in games like Microsoft Flight Simulator.

There’ll be a transformational experience with the next-gen consoles soon enough. Just don’t expect it over the next couple of months when firing up your PS4 or Xbox One’s back catalogue. New hardware can only take older designs so far — the rest requires developer time, effort and creativity, and they’ll need a lot more than a year or two before we start seeing the full fruits of their labour.

Comments

  • The hype is definitely real but thankfully this isn’t my first console rodeo.
    For me it’s all about that initial unboxing, setup and playing around with the UI and settings for the first time.
    As for playing those first games, it’s always exciting but it’s true that you can often count those next gen moments only once per game, be it a feature, background, skybox or whatever and as fleeting as those moments are in the early day’s it always puts a smile on my face.

  • People like the switch store? I hate it, having to scroll down in its laggy menu takes forever and Australia wont let you look through a website store, its the worst

    • It really is awful. Especially if you pop into a tile out of curiosity to check it out, then try go back only to discover you have to start from the top of the browse/search list again instead of howevermany pages down you were.

      I suspect the only people who like it are indie devs who actually get seen on it, and not because it’s usable but because they get paid.

  • Wow – talk about cold shower… of course there’s hype – and a whole heap of hyperbole – surrounding the next gen consoles. As there is about everything tech. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it, or won’t get better. The fact that Sony was up-selling the next-gen-ness of it’s exclusives I think reflects the PS3 > PS4 transition legacy (tech limitation), rather than the reality of having a 113 million install base. I do think that Sony in particular are going to suffer from that reality – because of that spin, and the continued lack of transparency (giving out review consoles and locking them down as much as they have at this point is silly). To be honest though, it’s not the next 3-4 months that I worry about, but rather the following 12 months. A lot of games released now had already progressed significantly before COVID started. It’s the follow-up games that are going to suffer the most from either delays or quality concerns. The other thing that worries me is the constant barrage of “no loadtimes” that I think will eventually be shown to be mostly hype (especially for BC games). Still – for a lot of us that have older base last gen consoles, I don’t think we will care.

    • It’s faster loading times and it’s pretty much fact at this stage since all we’re talking about is how fast information can be processed.
      Both consoles are utilising the jump in that area and older games will, and have been shown to benefit from this immensely.

      The thing to be concerned about with faster loading times is developers just increasing what needs to be loaded, which is unfortunately going to happen given how some operate.
      On the upside though, we’ve recently seen some promising changes to development techniques of late that were born from the limitations of this generation and resulted in faster loading times.
      The two biggest I can think of right now is Ghost of Tsushima’s brilliantly conservative programming and Naughty Dogs improvements in TLoU2 that were able to be rolled back to older games like the first games remaster.

      • Of course use of an SSD will significantly improve load times – but my point is that it might not make the difference people were expecting. The reality is, there’s only 16GB of ram to fill – so initial loads should be fast. The more difficult question is, which I think you’re alluding to – how much asset/texture switching is going to be going on… that will determine how hard the SSD is working… and more importantly, how much data needs to be stored on it. I still think that a fundamental challenge with this development path is that (especially for Sony) – the extended storage is now no longer cheap nor simple to install (for the layperson). At just over 600 GB of usable game storage – I can see a lot of people getting annoyed at the lack of convenience of managing storage… or having to pay 50% of their console investment just to increase to a decent (fast) storage option. My guess is we’ll see an upgraded PS5 (storage-wise) reasonably soon… and early adopters will once again be punished for their support.

  • Being primarily a PC gamer I gave my PS4 to my nephews at the beginning of this damned Covid thing. Before that I had only really brushed up against all the games I have bought over the years. Literally only an hour in God of War and have never even started Horizons: Zero Dawn, for example. Having just bought a nice big 4K TV I’m very much looking forward to taking some of those classic PS4 games for a spin on the PS5. I don’t know if they’ll all work but figuring that out will be half the fun.

  • you know what is hype? super fast loading times and quick resume so i can sneak in more gaming between all the moments my kids need/want me.

  • Back in The Day, we had a couple of Krome programmers in our WoW guild. They were working on Hellboy at the time (or had recently finished it) and one of their biggest complaints about it was the PS3 itself.

    Normally they’d have a decent starting point when making a new game, namely the shortcuts developers use to build games. Pre-loading offscreen, coding to get certain graphics effects, things like that. Anyhow, the PS3 had none of those libraries available to them so in effect they had to do everything the long way. Which meant the safe way as the games didnt look near as good as they eventually would.

    Which was a fair part of why the game turned out so generic – they didnt know enough about the PS3 yet to pull off fancy programming tricks. Other part was them getting little to no info about the movie, even though it was meant to be a movie tie-in.

    Point being, when a new console comes out, there is often a learning phase that can take a while. Until the developers learn the tricks of the new hardware games they develop arent going to be massive improvements over the previous generation. Its why you often see a consoles best games nearer the end of their lifecycle than the beginning.

    There has been a lot of improvements in hardware since the PS4 and Xbone launched, and even with experience on other platforms its going to take time for developers to learn how to get the best out of the new consoles. They need to build up a library first. Changes like SSD’s being default are going to mean so much to them, but they dont know all the tricks to get the best out of them. Not yet anyway.

    That doesnt mean they’re starting from scratch, just that the ceiling has gone up and it takes time to reach that new ceiling.

      • Yeah, I dont think the jump is near what the PS3 gave, but its still there, which was the main point. The PS3’s dedicated architecture really was like nothing seen before, and plays a big role in why its games arent able to be made backwards compatible. And was a pain to developers at the time as they didnt have shortcuts to make things easier.

        Today a lot of development is on cross platform tools like Unity and Unreal so the learning curve isnt as steep, but nobody’s had a platform based around SSD before. Which means learning.

        Instant loading changes how they pre-load assets (if they even need to), how they optimise code (will they bother?), even how they supply lore and game tips. But it takes time to get to that point and until they do there wont be massive differences in the coding, only the graphics.

        Which isnt a bad thing. It should mean a lot of games will still be able to be released on current gen consoles for a while yet. But as they learn how to use the SSD more effectively, what can and cant go backwards will become more obvious.

        And thats just one difference between the generations.

  • I dont know, this article seems to be pitched to people who have never changed a console generation or even ever got a new graphics card or those who simply have no experience controlling their expectations.
    When i added an SSD to my PSPRO it greatly enhanced my gaming life, simple change, constant reward and satisfaction, every day. likewise those times when i changed to my first SSD on PC or the dozen times i changed just my graphics card. They enhanced my gaming life and bought joy in their own context. I dont think my PS5 is going to change my meaning of life, but it will add a new flavour to it. and given how dire the year is, you have to take a win where you can.

  • Kind of feels like you are trying to take a dump on my excitement. I deal with reality enough just let me have this one.

    • When I read this – my immediate thought was, “crap… they’re just softening us up for some further crap news”. I get that there’s too much hype (created especially by Sony’s information-boycott), but I don’t get why – if they have the console in their hot little hands – would you put out an article that was so “foreboding” as this unless there was something wrong. Unless you just want clicks… oh silly me… it’s the internet.

  • This is an excellent perspective to point to in six months track when people are complaining that the ‘next-gen’ games aren’t anything especially radical, but for anyone who is most hyped about getting to run current-gen-level titles on a much faster and quieter machine? Release day can’t come soon enough! 😀

    • People are already complaint the next gen games (that are usually cross gen) “have PS3/360 graphics”.

      I wish those people would shut up

  • I would absolutely sacrifice 60fps for raytracing.

    I’m used to 30fps anyway. 60fps is just a bonus. But if I can get much better lighting/reflections, I’ll choose that over bonus Fps

    • Not wanting to rain on your RT parade… but RT gives you only a marginal quality improvement over screen-space-reflections, and other “work-arounds”…. but at a huge computational hit. If you have plenty of power in the bank, then it’s worth it. But if you are asking that games force “reflective surfaces” into their game designs just so we can see those sweet (downsampled) reflections… I think I prefer less ambition and more realism. Don’t get me wrong – RT done well is great… but it’s not for all things.

    • Or perhaps not enough “free” review consoles. Seriously… I’m actually starting to get a little peeved at the number of consoles that are being sent out to “social media” people who then can’t even talk about the console. I’m actually at the point where I’d happily not hear anything more… if it meant I could actually buy one. Call me salty… but given the year, and given that all the pre-order consoles are sold (and there will be no more in Australia until 2021… apparently)… I’m thinking, “why is this good marketting?”. All it does is highlight to me how disappointing this next gen feel is (unless you got a pre-order… in which case, a pox-on-your-house). I am joking. Of course?

      • I think what I’m really saying is… please stop with the unboxing videos. I don’t need to see you unbox a console. I want to see the console in action. Everything else is just annoying.

  • I might just be the target audience for new consoles (Xbox in particular, but I have a PS5 to pick up next week as well).

    And thats I frequently don’t play a game for years, even a decade or two after it has come out. And MS’s BC, and more importantly, all the enhancement work MS is doing in BC suits me just fine. Really couldn’t give a rats about a lack of the latest game, if I’m going to play Destiny 2, Splinter Cell & Fable in the meantime, but I will care about now I get better FPS, better resolution + graphic effects, etc.

  • Here I was expecting to become a tech billionaire and movie star, with private islands and supermodel wives for days.

    Oh well I guess I’ll just have to play games when my PS5 & Xbox arrive.

    Seriously since I started gaming on the 2600, this shit happens every new console gen. Marketing does not equal reality (for anything) and clearly since the SNES the best games (performance/fidelity wise) are always at a consoles twilight.

    Are you ok Alex?

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