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Sony’s PlayStation 5 repeats the PS3’s mistakes, with one key difference

Mark Cerny’s PlayStation 5 presentation detailed many key elements of Sony’s new console. It was also, frankly, a snoozefest for most of the people watching it. That’s not a huge surprise. Cerny is the project’s lead, not a personality or presenter, and the talk was originally scheduled for the now-postponed Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2020. It was a deep dive, not a flashy marketing presentation (though Sony could’ve done more to make that clear).

Still, the presentation’s focus was a surprise. You might have expected it to linger on the CPU and GPU, two key components most gamers associate with performance. Instead, Cerny went deepest on the console’s custom storage solution and audio engine, which only Sony’s PlayStation 5 will have.

They’re exciting features if, like me, you’re a serious hardware nerd. Yet I can’t help but think Sony is treading a hazardous path.

The PlayStation 3 all over again?

First, a quick history lesson.

Sony’s PlayStation 3 was a truly momentous effort from the company. Encouraged by its successful PlayStation and PlayStation 2, the company went all-in to make the PS3 a cutting-edge device. A key element was its Cell microprocessors, a customized piece of silicon that paired a familiar PowerPC core with seven “Synergistic Processing Elements.”

This gave the PS3 far more “cores” than the Xbox 360, which had just three PowerPC-based cores. At the time, major game studios were starting to abandon platform exclusives in favor of cross-platform launches. Though technically the quicker system, the PS3 often failed to deliver a performance or visual boost because developers had trouble optimizing for Sony’s unique hardware.

PlayStation 5 presentation
Cerny detailed “Time to Triangle” for past consoles

Cerny briefly referenced this problem during his GDC 2020 presentation when he spoke of “Time to Triangle,” or the time a developer needs to understand new PlayStation hardware. According to Cerny, developers needed at least six months to familiarize themselves with the PS3, and it could take up to a year.

It was odd, then, for Cerny to go deep into two of the PlayStation 5’s unique hardware features during the same presentation. The PS5 includes two specific features that will set it apart from other consoles. One is an SSD storage solution that features a highly customized storage controller that will deliver superior I/O throughput. The other is Tempest 3D AudioTech, a custom audio engine that can improve audio quality while reducing CPU load for audio tasks.

Not quite. But here’s the problem.

These custom elements aren’t a misstep on the level of the PS3’s Cell architecture. Still, I find them worrying. I don’t see how these features will be relevant in a gaming industry embracing cross-platform play.

Most developers aren’t making games only for the PS5.

Cerny used a frequent level design problem to illustrate why fast SSD storage solution matters. He reminded players that games so often include twisted corridors to hide loading times as assets are delivered from the hard disk to RAM. A significantly quicker storage solution means level design that hides loading assets is less of a concern, increasing both the size and detail of levels.

This example is true, but here’s the problem. Most developers aren’t making games only for the PS5. They’re designing games for at least the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and PC; many studios also want to release on Switch and mobile. (This is why cross-platform games are becoming so popular.) That limits the superior solid-state drive’s relevance. It’s an amazing advancement, but not every developer will make the most of it.

An example of twisted level design hiding load times

The same is true for Tempest 3D AudioTech. It’s a nice feature that also sits on an island. Many developers will find themselves forced to choose between optimizing for this unique audio engine or building for every device. They’ll inevitably choose the latter. Audio may be better on the PS5, but most developers will choose not to make the most of it.

It’s important to note the accessibility of these features differs from a faster CPU or GPU, hardware the Xbox Series X has prioritized. Better GPU performance is simple to tap into. Increased polygon counts and better textures are easy for a developer to implement, and developers are familiar with optimizing for a wide range of GPU performance. CPU performance also scales easily, allowing more on-screen characters and more A.I. routines.

I don’t think developers will find the PlayStation 5 difficult to design for, but I think it will be difficult to optimize for. Developers may look at the PlayStation 5’s unique hardware features and decide designing for them isn’t worth the effort.

At least it won’t be expensive

This means the PS5’s key features will have more bark than bite. They might look good on a box, but they’re unlikely to make gaming more enjoyable for most people.

The key improvements are the GPU, CPU, and the fact an SSD is included at all, not the specifics of the storage solution. Cerny’s presentation revealed that, as expected, the PlayStation 5 won’t keep pace with the absurdly fast Xbox Series X. The PS5’s GPU has fewer compute units than the Xbox Series X, though they do make up for that a bit with higher clock speed. The PS5’s CPU also runs at lower clock speeds than its rival from Microsoft.

The PS5’s key features will have more bark than bite.

It’s inevitable this will lead to a performance hit for Sony’s console relative to the Xbox Series X. Yet it also leaves room to hope the price could hit the lower end of the spectrum. The PlayStation 5’s more reserved silicon should mean lower costs for Sony, and a better price at retail.

Don’t get too excited. I still think the PlayStation 5 will be $500 at launch. However, I’m thinking the Xbox Series X will end up at $600, so Sony’s console is going to look like a bargain.

Sony’s PlayStation 3 struggled not only because of its custom architecture, but because the architecture was expensive (the PS3 also had a pricey Blu-Ray drive). It drove the price of the PS3 up to $600 at launch, while the Xbox 360 was just $400 at launch. That mistake left an impression on Sony. The company is now conservative about hardware performance and price.

That’s important. While I think Sony’s focus is misguided, it’s no disaster. Sony and Microsoft will release new consoles later this year, and Sony’s is almost certain to be more affordable. For many gamers, that’s all that will matter.

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