While Coronavirus has led to the cancellation of gaming’s major event of the year, GDC in San Francisco, Sony has not let momentum slow for its upcoming release of the PS5. Last week Mark Cerny, gaming industry heavyweight and chief PS5 architect, took the opportunity to give PlayStation fans a deep look into the internal tech and the design process for the upcoming console. Despite the recent and well-publicised unveiling of the Xbox Series X, Cerny did not give industry speculators a look at the finished product, focusing only on the internal specifications and the company’s vision for adding to its now 26-year-old hardware legacy.
While the market is still waiting for both Microsoft and Sony to announce launch prices and release dates for the consoles, Cerny’s comments suggest that Sony remain confident of a Q4 2020 launch, despite the disruption to production inevitably caused by the virus’ outbreak. Whilst the announcement did not provide a glimpse of the new PlayStation, there are some details which will no doubt be important factors in the next chapter of the struggle for console supremacy.
The worldwide console hardware market in 2020 is expected to be worth in excess of $8.5 billion, growing at a 22% 20-24 value CAGR, with both main vendors competing intensely to expand market share. Sony has dominated the console market for the past generation, and therefore is keen to protect its position, particularly as the dawn of next generation provides Xbox with a substantial opportunity to hit back with a new strategy for user acquisition.
As expected, Sony has opted to keep its console more streamlined on power and capacity relative to its competitor, with a less powerful CPU (3.5GHz clock speed compared with 3.8GHz for the Series X), GPU (10.28TFLOPs vs 12TFLOPs) and storage capacity (825GB SSD vs 1TB SSD). This comes as no surprise. Microsoft has historically outdone Sony in terms of internal specs, with this aspect of the Xbox design serving as one of its key selling points.
A key announcement made during the event was the inclusion of ray tracing functionality built into the new hardware. This means that PS5 owners will be able to run newly developed content with great clarity and depth of image and achieve a significantly improved experience whilst playing backwards compatible PS4 content on the new hardware. While internal specifications are an important consideration for consumers purchasing next generation consoles, there are a wealth of other features and factors which may serve to attract consumers.
Graphics is of course at the forefront of quality in gaming; however, audio is just as important in providing an immersive and realistic experience, and a key area both PlayStation and Xbox are building on for next generation consoles. Cerny announced the much-anticipated inclusion of 3D Audio processing in the PS5. Utilising both hardware and software, the PS5 will include Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF) sound analysis. Gamers will be able to calibrate the system to one of five pre-set HRTF profiles, enabling a deeper and more personal gaming experience. While ultimately the inclusion of additional sound processing is unlikely to result in a killer feature for either Xbox or Sony, the attention to detail and additional technologies deployed to improve on gaming experience will certainly benefit consumers and make for tough decision making when both consoles are ultimately released.
A key takeaway from Cerny’s announcement was the inclusion of an internal SSD within the console’s hardware. The result of this decision will be ultra-fast loading times in game, high speed streaming and minimising game update patch installs. Whilst this hardware has been commonplace within PCs for years now, the generational transition has provided both Sony and Microsoft an opportunity to work this component into their architectures. This feature was amongst the most widely requested by publishers, according to Cerny, with dramatically reduced constraints on content processing potentially enabling developers to push the boundaries of content creation. This inclusion will also benefit consumers massively, with substantial reductions in time spent waiting for games to install, load and process.
Whilst last week’s announcement focused first and foremost on internal hardware, it is important to consider that powerful hardware alone will not win this battle, as evidenced by Sony’s historic dominance despite its typically less powerful devices relative to Microsoft. Part of Sony’s massive appeal is its capacity for churning out quality exclusive content, with fan favourites such as God of War, Gran Turismo and Spiderman all expected to receive PS5 exclusive sequels. Whilst Microsoft has been endeavouring to build its exclusives portfolio, it has so far fallen short. Where the company is expected to make gains is through subscriptions to its Game Pass service, so far received well by fans who praise its value for money and download to PC functionality. Sony’s equivalent, PS Now, has by contrast received a more stifled reception despite its diverse and well stocked back catalogue of PS3 and PS4 content, since gamers need to stream content if they want to play on PC which can prove unreliable. Social legacy remains an important consideration in the build up to the next generation releases, with consumers already embedded into a console ecosystem both by digitally purchased content linked to a Sony or Microsoft account and social networks of friends likewise embedded into the ecosystem. This is likely to encourage brand loyalty when transitioning to the next generation and will likely downgrade the importance of the differences in hardware capability from a purchasing decision deal-breaker to a bragging right for Microsoft fans.
From a console architecture and technology enthusiast standpoint, Cerny’s presentation was a much-appreciated comprehensive tour of the inner workings of the upcoming PS5, enabling fans and industry speculators to see the reasoning behind production decisions and highlighting the thought that has gone into improving the gaming experience. It showed the strong intent to make a technological step-change with a clear emphasis on gameplay immersion through graphics, processing and audio. Overall, however, the myriad of factors which will influence uptake of the PS5 versus the Xbox Series X go far beyond the differences in internal specifications and perhaps more important will be the launch price and date announcements for both consoles, expected in the coming months.
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