The Road to PS5
Sony finally gave their own presentation regarding the PlayStation 5. After the two Wired articles last year, details surrounding Sony’s next-gen system have been scarce. In what was supposed to be a GDC 2020 talk with developers, Mark Cerny shared his guiding vision that helped shape the PS5.
By now, you may have seen the headlines comparing teraflops between the PS5 and Xbox Series X. All the hot takes have been spewed out onto the Internet. I wanted to take my time (mostly since I was working during the presentation) and share my thoughts on the tech power ing the PS5. If you want the hard, cold numbers, Digital Foundry whipped up the essential table over on Eurogamer. For a technical discussion of the specs revealed, their video does a bang up job too.
Custom and Approachable
The through line for the whole talk was how customized the PS5 actually is. The SSD is custom. The CPU and GPU are custom. The I/O board is custom. Beyond parts you’d need to build a gaming device, Sony has developed and incorporated their own custom silicon to aid those cornerstone components. There is a custom flash controller for the SSD, which helps prioritize and free up lanes for information to go through. There is a custom “Kraken” decompressor. Kraken is a compression tool that is supposed to be popular amongst many game developers. This custom decompressor unpacks that format with the power of nine Zen 2 cores. These are not chips you can buy off the shelf and slap into a PC.
All of these custom components surround the cornerstone chips that make game consoles possible. Instead of forcing developers to conform to a custom standard, this hardware seems to alleviate hardware work loads and assist developers. It strikes me as the inverse of the PS3 and its Cell architecture. It took developers quite a bit of time to adapt to the Cell processor: It was notoriously tricky to work with. The PS5 is using a custom AMD Zen 2 processor, which seems to be an industry standard.
Even with storage and expanding it, Sony seems to be taking the same custom, but approachable design. The SSD sounds blazing fast with a 5.5GB/s RAW data throughput (which is more than double the Series X, for the number crunchers out there). Apparently, commercial NVMe drives on the market right now can’t match that speed. So where Microsoft went the proprietary memory stick route, Sony is going the consumer choice route. The catch there is that the NVMe cards need to meet the requirements/specs of the PS5. So it won’t be locked to some Sony exclusive card, but it is locked to the standards. Not quite a catch-22, but we will have to see how the options unfold.
I thought the most custom element was the 3D audio tech that Mark detailed. Sony wanted to offer great audio for all players, not just those with fancy sound systems or headphones. So they went ahead and built custom hardware to help create 3D audio from any set of speakers (eventually). Headphones are the gold standard due to one speaker per ear, but Mark even talked about generating 3D audio from TV speakers. With it included in every single PS5, that gives all players and all devs the opportunity to experience/use 3D audio. It reminds me of the leap from standard definition to HD, but for our ears. Pardon the pun, but it sounds bonkers.
Future Proofing the Baseline
The big, immediate comparison is the calculated teraflops. Bo Moore wrote a great piece for IGN one what teraflops actually translate to for the end user by interviewing multiple game developers. What I understand to be the other side of that coin is the managing the power consumption and cooling of the CPU and GPU. For the PS4, Sony opted for a constant frequency with a variable power supply; power increases or decreases based off the needs of the system. This fluctuation in power generates different levels of heat, which is why your PS4 Pro sounds like a jet engine when you play God of War: The fans are trying to cool the hardware. For PS5, it seems that Sony has gone for a constant level of power and a variable frequency. They know what level they have to cool and optimize noise for, while having a slightly varying frequency on the processors. Mark talked about how the frequency will adjust as needed, but not by much and it won’t impact performance in a significant way, as far as I could tell. I like the way Ryan McCaffrey put it on Twitter.
My “Xbox is a V8, PS5 is a turbocharged V6 – both get to a similar overall performance place” analogy from an earlier tweet seems like it’s probably gonna hold up pretty well…
What Developers are Saying
When it comes down to it, these decisions have to empower developers to make great games. The response I’ve noticed on Twitter seems to be overwhelmingly positive from first to third parties. I wanted to round some of those tweets up here.
PS5 details will finally be made public tomorrow. My TLDR version – It’s awesome.
Billy Khan, Lead Engine Programmer @ id Software via Twitter
This is just days before DOOM Eternal released.
Dollar bet: within a year from its launch gamers will fully appreciate that the PlayStation 5 is one of the most revolutionary, inspired home consoles ever designed, and will feel silly for having spent energy arguing about “teraflops” and other similarly misunderstood specs. 😘
Andrea Pessino, Founder and CTO of Ready at Dawn Studios via Twitter
Ready at Dawn has made some great PlayStation second-party exclusives on both console and handheld. While a dollar is not a lot of money, the language is significant. “Most revolutionary” catches the eye, but I am certainly willing to join the “misunderstood specs” club. I’m not trying to decide which box is better before we even see what they can do, but others certainly are.
As I’ve been saying, this is the sentiment I keep hearing from people who make games:
Jason Schreier, News Editor at Kotaku via Twitter
While not a game developer, Jason does have sources to talk to. His tweet I quoted is in regard to Andrea’s dollar bet. I like this because Jason calls out that first, second, and third party developers are sharing similar sentiments. Plus, its from actual people who make games, not brand loyalist.
Just saw the new @PlayStation #PS5 presentation. Great job @cerny! Since I routinely have to explain to people why I’m excited for an SSD for rendering I thought I’d write a little thread to explain. Case in point: Uncharted 1 to Last of Us transition:
Andrew Maximov, Founder and CEO of Promethean AI, Former Technical Artist at Naughty Dog via Twitter
Andrew whipped up a chart that showcases what Naughty Dog was able to do on one generation of hardware then goes on to explain the potential with being able to load highest resolution assets in immediately.
Thinking about that PS5 SSD. #gamedev
Michael Barclay, Game Designer at Naughty Dog via Twitter
There’s a pretty good GIF attached to this tweet.
100x loading speeds? Bruh.
Kurt Margenau, Game Director at Naughty Dog via Twitter
A few dogs from the Kennel got in on the PS5 praise train.
Still tripping about this #PS5 SSD spec. Like, people don’t even know how big of a leap in terms of game design can be made, especially for 1st party that doesn’t have to design to lowest common denominator. By far the biggest leap in my career. Can’t wait.
Kurt Margenau, Game Director at Naughty Dog via Twitter
Kurt elaborated a bit later. The fact first party won’t have to design for a lowest common denominator is incredibly exciting, just like it always has been. First parties, at any platform holder, always find a way to squeeze all the power and performance out of the hardware. Look at Nintendo and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe; a six-year-old Wii U game looks and runs beautifully on a tablet, better than plenty of games on PS4 and Xbox One.
Most crucial part of the @cerny presentation imo. The SSD in the PS5 (and all the associated IO hardware) is going to fundamentally change how we design videogames by removing limitations we’ve been working around the last two gens.
Anthony Newman, Game Director at Naughty Dog via Twitter
“Fundamentally change how we design videogames” sure is an exciting idea!
This is just a small sample from tweets I caught over the passed two days. The sentiment revolving around how revolutionary the PS5 will be is drumming up immense hype. When I think about the PS5, it’s not the numbers on a sheet of paper, but the games it will let me play. Naughty Dog will eventually harness every ounce of power out of this box. Second parties will make fantastic exclusives. Third parties will be able to make games across both boxes that have never been done before. It’s all about the games and the people making them seem pretty excited.