Now that the name is official, we’ve got more details about Sony’s next-gen console—from the haptics-packed controller to UI improvements.
Ever since the original PlayStation hit the market in 1994, Sony’s series of videogame consoles has stuck to the numbers. No “Super,” no “Max,” no “Code Red Xtreme”; just PlayStations 2, 3, and 4. With such unwavering consistency, the name of the next iteration has been a question only in the most technical sense—but Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan is still ready to answer it. The console, he tells me, will be called PlayStation 5. “It’s nice to be able to say it,” he says. “Like a giant burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”
So. There you go. PlayStation 5, holidays 2020.
Sony hasn’t said too much about the console since April, when WIRED broke the story about development efforts on what was then known only as the “next-gen console.” In fact, the company hasn’t said anything. Sony skipped games show E3 this year, a void during which Microsoft unveiled details about its own next-gen console, a successor to the Xbox One referred to only as Project Scarlett. Like the PS5, Scarlett will boast a CPU based on AMD’s Ryzen line and a GPU based on its Navi family; like the PS5, it will ditch the spinning hard drive for a solid-state drive. Now, though, in a conference room at Sony’s US headquarters, Ryan and system architect Mark Cerny are eager to share specifics.
Before they do, Cerny wants to clarify something. When we last discussed the forthcoming console, he spoke about its ability to support ray-tracing, a technique that can enable complex lighting and sound effects in 3D environments. Given the many questions he’s received since, he fears he may have been ambiguous about how the PS5 would accomplish this—and confirms that it’s not a software-level fix, which some had feared. “There is ray-tracing acceleration in the GPU hardware,” he says, “which I believe is the statement that people were looking for.” (A belief born out by my own Twitter mentions, which for a couple of weeks in April made a graphics-rendering technique seem like the only thing the internet had ever cared about.)
With that in hand, back to the PS5’s solid-state drive, which Cerny first extolled for the way it can turn loading time from a hassle to a blink. It’s not just the speed that makes the SSD formidable, he says, but the efficiency it offers. Think about the hard drive in a game console, spinning like a 5,400-rpm vinyl record. For the console to read a piece of information off the drive, it first has to send out the disk head—like a turntable needle—to find it. Each “seek,” as it’s known, may entail only a scant handful of milliseconds, but seeks add up. To minimize them, developers will often duplicate certain game assets in order to form contiguous data blocks, which the drive can read faster. We’re talking common stuff here: lampposts, anonymous passersby.
But data adds up too. “If you look at a game like Marvel’s Spider-Man,” Cerny says, “there are some pieces of data duplicated 400 times on the hard drive.” The SSD sweeps away the need for all that duping—so not only is its raw read speed dramatically faster than a hard drive, but it saves crucial space. How developers will take advantage of that space will likely differ; some may opt to build a larger or more detailed game world, others may be content to shrink the size of the games or patches. Either way, physical games for the PS5 will use 100-GB optical disks, inserted into an optical drive that doubles as a 4K Blu-ray player.
However, game installation (which is mandatory, given the speed difference between the SSD and the optical drive) will be a bit different than in the PS4. This time around, aided in part by the simplified game data possible with the SSD, Sony is changing its approach to storage, making for a more configurable installation—and removal—process. “Rather than treating games like a big block of data,” Cerny says, “we’re allowing finer-grained access to the data.” That could mean the ability to install just a game’s multiplayer campaign, leaving the single-player campaign for another time, or just installing the whole thing and then deleting the single-player campaign once you’ve finished it.
Regardless of what parts of a game you choose to install and play, you’ll be able to stay abreast of it via a completely revamped user interface. The PS4’s bare-bones home screen at times feels frozen in amber; you can see what your friends have recently done or even what game title they might be playing at the moment, but without launching an individual title there’s no way to tell what single-player missions you could do or what multiplayer matches you can join. The PS5 will change that. “Even though it will be fairly fast to boot games, we don’t want the player to have to boot the game, see what’s up, boot the game, see what’s up,” Cerny says. “Multiplayer game servers will provide the console with the set of joinable activities in real time. Single-player games will provide information like what missions you could do and what rewards you might receive for completing them—and all of those choices will be visible in the UI. As a player you just jump right into whatever you like.”
He says this like he says many other things: knowing he’ll fend off any follow-up question that ventures beyond what he wants to talk about. Like, What does the UI actually look like? Or, How big will the SSD be? Or even, Is that a microphone? Which is exactly what I ask when Cerny hands me a prototype of the next-generation controller, an unlabeled matte-black doohickey that looks an awful lot like the PS4’s DualShock 4. After all, there’s a little hole on it, and a recently published patent points to Sony developing a voice-driven AI assistant for the PlayStation. But all I get from Cerny is, “We’ll talk more about it another time.” (“We file patents on a regular basis,” a spokesperson tells me later, “and like many companies, some of those patents end up in our products, and some don’t.”)
The controller (which history suggests will one day be called the DualShock 5, though Cerny just says “it doesn’t have a name yet”) does have some features Cerny’s more interested in acknowledging. One is “adaptive triggers” that can offer varying levels of resistance to make shooting a bow and arrow feel like the real thing—the tension increasing as you pull the arrow back—or make a machine gun feel far different from a shotgun. It also boasts haptic feedback far more capable than the rumble motor console gamers are used to, with highly programmable voice-coil actuators located in the left and right grips of the controller.
Combined with an improved speaker on the controller, the haptics can enable some astonishing effects. First, I play through a series of short demos, courtesy of the same Japan Studio team that designed PlayStation VR’s Astro Bot Rescue Mission. In the most impressive, I ran a character through a platform level featuring a number of different surfaces, all of which gave distinct—and surprisingly immersive—tactile experiences. Sand felt slow and sloggy; mud felt slow and soggy. On ice, a high-frequency response made the thumbsticks really feel like my character was gliding. Jumping into a pool, I got a sense of the resistance of the water; on a wooden bridge, a bouncy sensation.
Next, a version of Gran Turismo Sport that Sony had ported over to a PS5 devkit—a devkit that on quick glance looks a lot like the one Gizmodo reported on last week. (The company refused to comment on questions about how the devkit’s form factor might compare to what’s being considered for the consumer product.) Driving on the border between the track and the dirt, I could feel both surfaces. Doing the same thing on the same track using a DualShock 4 on a PS4, that sensation disappeared entirely. It wasn’t that the old style rumble feedback paled in comparison, it was that there was no feedback at all. User tests found that rumble feedback was too tiring to use continuously, so the released version of GT Sport simply didn’t use it.
That difference has been a long time coming. Product manager Toshi Aoki says the controller team has been working on haptic feedback since the DualShock 4 was in development. They even could have included it in PS4 Pro, the mid-cycle refresh—though doing so would have created a “split experience” for gamers, so the feature suite was held for the next generation. There are some other small improvements over the DualShock 4. The next-gen controller uses a USB Type-C connector for charging (and you can play through the cable as well). Its larger-capacity battery and haptics motors make the new controller a bit heavier than the DualShock 4, but Aoki says it will still come in a bit lighter than the current Xbox controller “with batteries in it.”
How game studios will use all these new features—from previously known ones like the SSD and ray-tracing acceleration to newer ones like the controller and real-time UI—is still a matter of some speculation. While a number of studios already had their PS5 devkits, the controller prototypes began rolling out much more recently, and no one is ready to name specific titles they’re developing for the PS5. “We’re working on a big one right now,” says Marco Thrush, president of Bluepoint Games, which most recently worked on last year’s PS4 remake of Shadow of the Colossus. “I’ll let you figure out the rest.”
That doesn’t mean they’re not exploring. “The SSD has me really excited,” Thrush says. “You don’t need to do gameplay hacks anymore to artificially slow players down—lock them behind doors, anything like that. Back in the cartridge days, games used to load instantly; we’re kind of going back to what consoles used to be.”
“I could be really specific and talk about experimenting with ambient occlusion techniques, or the examination of ray-traced shadows,” says Laura Miele, chief studio officer for EA. “More generally, we’re seeing the GPU be able to power machine learning for all sorts of really interesting advancements in the gameplay and other tools.” Above all, Miele adds, it’s the speed of everything that will define the next crop of consoles. “We’re stepping into the generation of immediacy. In mobile games, we expect a game to download in moments and to be just a few taps from jumping right in. Now we’re able to tackle that in a big way.”
That sort of tackle gets a lot easier, Jim Ryan knows, when a burden has been lifted from your shoulders. So say hello to the PlayStation 5, officially. Maybe one of these days we’ll all learn what the thing actually looks like.