Microsoft and Sony's Next-Gen Consoles Stand to Change How Games Are Developed

The fact that the consoles, which are due this holiday season, only rely on SSDs for storage should enable gameplay advances.
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While supply chain issues and consumer spending pressures are potential headwinds for Microsoft MSFT and Sony’s  (SNE) - Get Report upcoming console launches, the cutting-edge gaming experiences that they can enable should be a strong selling point.

An head-turning PlayStation 5 game demo shared on Wednesday by developer Epic Games drives home the potential for games running on next-gen consoles to deliver significantly better visuals than current-gen consoles. The demo, which relies on a next-gen version of Epic’s popular Unreal game engine (UE5) that’s arriving in 2021, shows a woman navigating a fast-changing, Tomb Raider-like landscape that’s rendered in tremendous detail and with movie-like lighting effects.

Notably, though the PS5's AMD  (AMD) - Get Report processor supports real-time ray-tracing -- a GPU technology that can enable photorealistic lighting effects -- Epic says that its demo didn’t make use of the technology. In addition, though the PS5 will support game resolutions of up to 8K, Epic’s demo was rendered at a 1440p resolution. All of this leaves the door open for even more impressive game visuals arriving in time.

One technology advance that Epic’s demo did benefit from was the PS5’s SSD-based storage system, which allows game assets to be accessed much faster than the PS4’s hard drive-based system. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney went as far as to say that the PS5’s storage architecture “is far ahead of anything you can buy on anything on PC for any amount of money right now.” He also claimed that the PS5’s hardware resources, together with technologies such as UE5, will enable “nothing but seamless, continuous worlds….going on for as many kilometers and gigabytes as you wish.”

To date, there hasn’t been a gameplay demo for Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox Series X console that has impressed gamers to the extent that Epic’s PS5 demo did -- limited gameplay footage that was shared last week for 13 initial Series X titles received very mixed reviews. But with the Series X’s hardware specs very similar -- and in some ways, slightly superior -- to the PS5’s, it should be just as capable of supporting games with visuals comparable to what Epic showed off in its demo.

In addition, comments from Microsoft execs make it clear that the company thinks the Series X’s hardware is also capable of enabling major gameplay advances. In an interview with gaming enthusiast site Eurogamer, Xbox exec Jason Ronald asserted that the Series X’s technology for loading game assets from storage (referred to as the Xbox Velocity Architecture) was designed to be “the ultimate solution for game asset streaming.”

Ronald added that the speed of the Series X’s SSD-based storage system will allow “entire classes of [game] assets” to be kept in storage (rather than moved into main memory) until just before a gamer needs them. That, in turn, can enable major changes to how a game is designed and scenes are rendered.

While SSDs have been a common sight on gaming PCs for a long time, what’s critical here is the fact that PS5 and Series X game developers don’t need to support hard drives, and can thus create games with the assumption that they’ll have access to ultra-fast storage.

This, combined the fact that the custom AMD processors going inside of the PS5 and Series X contain fairly powerful CPUs and GPUs, could allow games running on next-gen consoles to deliver gameplay experiences that at least in some respects surpass what PC games are able to deliver, in spite of the tremendous horsepower that many gaming PCs possess.

Eventually, PC SSD penetration should reach a point where developers are comfortable making SSD storage a requirement for playing new PC games. But until then, the storage systems within Microsoft and Sony’s next-gen consoles could act as important differentiators.