A few weeks ago, Mark Cerny delivered the originally planned GDC presentation for PS5 digitally. In this he spoke at length about hardware developments for the upcoming PS5 home console. To start, this was the GDC presentation. GDC stands for Game Developers Conference. That’s where the presentation was originally intended to be given but because of the coronavirus this was changed to a digital presentation. So to be clear, this was originally intended to be a presentation given exclusively to developers about what the new PS5 architecture will look like and how it will help them better create the games of the next generation. Which means it was not and was never intended to be a presentation of new games. PlayStation was very transparent about the fact that this was the GDC presentation. Meaning if you were one of those mouth breathers that responded to the presentation with “this is boring where are the games?” you’re either an idiot, misinformed, or some combination of the two. The presentation was exactly what it was always intended to be, should have been for the venue it was originally created for, and was actually extremely interesting and informative if you actually care about the technology you’re going to invest hundreds to thousands of dollars in over the course of the next 4 – 7 or more years.
Cerny spoke at length about a number of things, but the two topics I found to be most interesting and informative were the SSD and the audio experience enhancement technology. I’ll start with the audio technology because it’s a bit more straight forward and less debatable. He showed that the PS5 is working towards fully immersive 3D sound from normal TV speakers or headphones. Now I’ve never been a huge sound guy but I do appreciate the fact that PlayStation is trying to build up the immersion factor by giving audio technology its just deserts. What I was extremely interested in was the idea of using HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) to mix sound in a more immersive way. HRTF can be summarized as the way ears receive sound. The idea being that if you can master the way the ear perceives sound then you can trick the listener into thinking they’re hearing sounds from different angles and locations regardless of where the sound is actually coming from. This is how PlayStation is attempting to make TV speakers sitting in front of the player simulate sound coming from behind, above, or anywhere else not immediately in front of them. This is also how and why headphones are better able to simulate sounds from multiple directions than just left and right.
What was fascinating about the HRTF was how it could be applied to make games seem more real without changing the sound in games all that much. Really it’s more about how sound is delivered than the sounds themselves. The problem is that HRTF is person specific. Meaning that your HRTF profile and mine can be very different. So for most games they use a general HRTF based on average testing. This isn’t optimum for any player but works generally well for most. Cerny showed this in the presentation next to his own specific HRTF and they were noticeably different. He went on to say that when his own personal HRTF was applied to games for testing the games sounded way more immersive to him. He then went on to say that the problem is that there’s currently no practical way to personally get every player’s specific HRTF profile and apply it to game audio, but he does see a future where that is the case.
I think the idea of being able to have games tailored to my own sound profile is amazing. It would completely change the way we as individuals experience games. They would be way more immersive, audio (not music) would be taken way more seriously in the discussion and judgement of video games, and everyone would have a more personal direct connection to the games they play. I do believe one day it will be easy to measure your own HRTF. There will surely be an app that you use with a VR headset or something like that. Since your HRTF generates an image, it would be easy to send to developers and they could tailor the game’s audio to your specific hearing profile. But that’s still a lot of work. If every person that purchased FIFA wanted their own sound profile applied that would be millions of profiles to implement for the developers. So there certainly needs to be an AI component added where the game can automatically apply your HRTF directly without human intervention. I imagine a world where you measure your HRTF directly on your console, have it tied to your username/profile, and AI applies it to all the games you play automatically. The only question is how does this work for couch co-op? Unless everyone has headphones, you’d still need to have the general HRTF in place or the audio experience might be severely reduced for other players if the profile owner has a really abnormal HRTF. But that’s the smaller hurdle in my opinion. In any case, I’m very interested in seeing how personalized audio experiences develop in gaming.
The SSD aspect of the presentation was very interesting but left me with a number of concerns about SONY’s approach to storage. To be clear, the use of an SSD is a great development for consoles. The things Cerny described made me really happy. The idea of no more wait times for fast travel, no more annoyingly long hallways and ladders just so games can render in the background, lightning fast respawn times, and many other examples given made the future of gaming sound great. And you could tell that Cerny was actually thinking about the problems the ways gamers think about things. His examples spoke directly to the problems we often face. My new favorite gaming quote is “What we euphemistically refer to as fast travel.” Currently I’m playing Dark Souls 3 on PS4. If you’ve ever played a Dark Souls game then you know the fast travel function comes with really long loading times. Cerny implied that with the new SSD architecture this would no longer be the case. Amen!
While I thoroughly support the move to SSDs, SONY’s cost cutting and proprietary measures are no bueno for me. The out of the box PS5 SSD will only have 825GB of storage. Now Cerny explained that with compression, this translates to considerably more, but at the end of the day it’s not nearly as many games as I want to store. Currently I have an internal 2TB HDD and an external 4TB HDD for my PS4. I’m using a total of just under 4TB of that 6TB total. Now I’m willing to admit that I have a lot of free shovelware in my hard drives. But I also have a large collection of meaningful games I actually paid for. Technically speaking I have just under 450 applications listed in the purchased section of my PSN profile. Again, not all of this is meaningful paid for software. But I’d say I’m storing at least 250 plus meaningful games between my two drives. Cerny stated that this is not the way PlayStation envisions the PS5 to be used. The 825GB number was stated to have been chosen based on the average weekend use of players. In other words, he’s saying that if you look at the data of player usage the average player only uses up to 825GB worth of software on their console in a single weekend. While that is probably true, or even inflated for wiggle room, it’s not the way most gamers handle storage management.
I’m happy to admit that at most I’m playing three console/PC AAA games at one time. Currently I’m playing Dark Souls 3 (PS4), Nier: Automata (PS4), and Animal Crossing: New Horizons (NS). I’m also casually playing a few other games irregularly such as Smash Bros: Ultimate (NS), Pokémon Sword (NS), and Strange Brigade (PS4). In a given weekend it’s possible but unlikely that I’ll actually play all six of these games. Even if we said each game was 100GB, which I don’t think any of them actually are, that would still be only 600GB if they were all PS5 games. And that’s without applying compression. Cerny is right in saying that 825GB is enough storage space for the average user’s singular weekend. But the implication here is that PlayStation believes that I want to download/manage my stored games for the weekend every week in advance or that I have lightning fast internet so I can quickly erase and install new games if I want to change any of my currently installed list on the fly. These are two grossly misinformed assumptions because personally I’m not doing the former and while my internet is pretty solid, it’s not good enough to quickly download a new 100GB game on the fly in a manageable amount of time relative to when I decide I actually want to play the game. Now for most players this will be a rarity. It’s accurate to say that if you’re in the middle of a game, such as an RPG or adventure title, then you’re probably going to be playing it for a while so you won’t need to uninstall/install games often. But that doesn’t change the fact that in practical terms if I did want to change games I’d most likely have to delete one of the ones I have installed. Personally I don’t like being asked to do that.
The other reason storage is important is because it retains “ownership” of the games you buy. We’ve all seen games disappear from PSN and other online stores. This can happen at any time. Servers are repurposed, games are discontinued for political reasons, and businesses are sold or sued. There are countless examples of games being made unavailable to download both temporarily and permanently that apply to countless games over the years. Not to mention that one day the PS5 server will inevitably shutdown. When that day comes, you don’t want to be limited to just 825GB worth of games to store forever. I’d be giving up more than half of my digital PS4 collection in that scenario. I buy a lot of games and I want to be able to play them at any time I choose, even long after the PS5 server goes down.
Of course SONY is aware that 825GB is low so they have provided players the ability to upgrade storage. The problem is they did it in the most expensive way possible. The PS5 uses an M.2 SSD. From a hardware standpoint, that’s awesome. From a consumer standpoint it’s an absolute nightmare. M.2 drives are really fast. But they’re unregulated for size and are extremely expensive. A normal 2.5 inch SSD looks like a bargain compared to a large M.2 drive. Large size M.2 drives aren’t common. 2TB is more widely available but 3TB+ drives are extremely rare. And again, there’s no regulated form. So even if you do manage to find one, it may not fit in the PS5. The pricing is atrocious. A 2TB M.2 SSD is gonna be a minimum of $200 and they can go over $500, still at only 2TB. Add the fact that prices will mostly inflate for “PS5 compatibility” being used as a selling point and you’re paying more for the storage than the console in some cases. For reference, you can get a 2TB 2.5 inch SSD for under $200 easy. And technically they go all the way up to 7.6 TB. Good luck paying for that size though.
This storage limitation and cost issue is a huge problem for many, myself included. As soon as it was announced, people got angry. And rightly so, in my opinion. 1TB default drives are the minimum standard for consoles, Nintendo notwithstanding, in 2020. What I actually would like to see is a multiple SSD board on the PS5 that works like a PC motherboard. Imagine if you had three or four M.2 SSD slots and you could install them as time goes on, thus increasing your storage without having to completely gut and reset your system every time you upgrade storage space. These could work more like interchangeable memory cards with the default one being the only one that has to be changed prior to initial startup in order to not have to gut your whole console and start over. While I will definitely buy a PS5, this storage issue means I won’t be buying one until way after initial launch. I’ll have to wait both for the price of the console to come down and the price of a large M.2 SSD that’s compatible to drop.
The future looks bright for actual gameplay. Mark Cerny’s presentation gave me high hopes for how games will play and sound on the PS5. But the way they want me to manage software is not acceptable. I will continue to store my entire digital library concurrently and if that means investing in large drives and having to wait longer to buy the console then so be it. I’m backlogged anyway so upgrading from PS4 later is a non-issue for me.
How do you feel about the PS5 based on current information?