There are rumours Sony is about to make a big hardware announcement – but it hasn’t wrung the last drops out of PlayStation 4 yet
It has begun. Rumours regarding a possible successor to the PlayStation 4 have been swirling around tech sites and forums for several days, prompting a few bites from larger news outlets. According to some sources, we could see the PlayStation 5 as soon as this winter.
It all started last month, when games writer Marcus Sellars posted a tweet suggesting that PS5 development kits were already being sent out to studios around the world. This was followed last week by subscription-only site Semiaccurate.com claiming to have seen technical details of the machine. According to its report, the PS5 will be based around an AMD accelerated processing unit featuring the manufacturer’s next generation Navi-series GPU and its Zen 2 CPU.
These specifications align with a speculative news piece on the Japanese news site PC Watch, posted last June, but while that story predicted a PS5 launch date of 2019 or 2020, the Semiaccurate story states that a 2018 release is technically feasible.
Historically, five years has been a sweet spot for developers on Sony’s machines – it’s enough time to have produced a couple of titles, learned the hardware inside out, and developed tricks and techniques to squeeze every pixel out of the graphics processor. It was five years after the launch of the original PlayStation that we got Gran Turismo 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Driver and Spider-Man: titles that really pushed the 3D graphics architecture. It was five years after the arrival of PlayStation 2 that we got God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy XII, Bully and Black; for the PS3 it was Uncharted 3, Skyrim, Dark Souls and Batman: Arkham City. The consoles were still being pushed at that point, still throwing up new possibilities. (129) add
True, things are a little different this time. After the hugely complex PS3 Cell processor, which confounded developers for many months, Sony specifically designed PlayStation 4 to let studios get up and running relatively quickly, using a PC-based architecture and involving developers in the design process.
However, system architect Mark Cerny also added flexibility into the design to ensure that, from mid-lifespan, developers would have some wiggle room, including the use of the graphics processor to perform other game calculations. Speaking to Gamasutra in 2013, he said: “Our belief is that by the middle of the PlayStation 4 console lifetime, asynchronous compute is a very large and important part of games technology.” He talked about a dozen programs running simultaneously on the GPU and using it to perform physics and collision computations, adding extra depth to the simulation. So even now, we may not be seeing the absolute limits of the hardware. (106) add
Look at the PS4 this year, and it is clearly not a console in creative or technical decline. God of War and Monster Hunter: World are astonishing, and later we’ll see Spider-Man, Detroit: Become Human, Days Gone, The Last of Us Part II and (eventually) Death Stranding. All of these are pushing forward in the areas you’d expect – environmental fidelity, lighting complexity, character modelling – and, more important, they’re doing fresh, interesting things with the hardware, whether that’s exploring new forms of narrative realism or developing AI mass flocking behaviours.
Another facet of the current rumours is that virtual reality technology will be an intrinsic part of the PlayStation 5 offering – perhaps via a new dedicated AMD VR chipset. But we’re really not in a place where consumer virtual reality is living up to the hype and excitement generated when Oculus Rift first emerged. The headsets remain bulky, the experiences are limited. Sony may have sold over a million PS VR units, but how many people are regularly using them? Yet maybe, with a couple of years of extra development – both in terms of hardware and game design philosophy – we might be somewhere much more interesting; we might be in a place where designers can show us what this uniquely immersive technology can achieve. (127) add
Sony is winning the console war against Xbox in terms of sales and first-party development; it doesn’t need to rush to the end of this cycle. There is an irresistible forward momentum in the games industry, and of course, everyone loves the drama and excitement when some shiny new box is looming on the horizon. But winter 2018 is too soon. Heck, 2019 is too soon. But the year after, with a new generation of processors in place and a couple more years more to get the hang of VR? Well, 2020 does have a nice ring to it.
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