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.
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.
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:
C:>systeminfo /u 184.108.40.206cyberpunk /p ******
Loading Processor Information…
Loading Memory Information…
Loading Video Card Information…
Saving data to: c:cp77hardware_requirements.info
Display now? y/n
— Cyberpunk 2077 (@CyberpunkGame) September 18, 2020
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?
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 Morales, Far 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.)
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.
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.
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.