How new consoles from Microsoft and Sony improve gaming technology

Xbox Series S and Series X, left, and PlayStation 5, right. (Image by: Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp.)

Just about every seven years, the game console makers Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo for the past two decades have hit their audience’s reset button and released a new product to the market. The usual fanfare is typical of the occasion: long lines on launch night, a press tour with in-game media, and demo kiosks set up at retailers across the country for hungry fans to try out. latest technology.

In 2020, of course, there are very few, if any at all. Sony released its PlayStation 5 on November 12, and Microsoft released its Xbox Series X and Series S consoles two days earlier on November 10, largely via online orders, and without the crowds of excited fans or festive events. that the pandemic has so often nixed this year.

But that doesn’t mean that the new consoles from Sony and Microsoft aren’t worth celebrating, on the contrary, they mark another turning point in the games industry.

“Taking advantage of the console’s new capabilities, such as a 1 terabyte solid-state hard drive (SSD) and graphics capabilities that support real-time ray tracing, will allow developers in a year or two to create real-time game content that appears photo realistic, ”says Stephen lane, director of the Gaming infographics and technology master’s program in School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Lane adds that the ability of consoles to also produce 8K screen resolutions – which are approaching the ceiling in terms of what the human retina can even perceive – also adds immense potential for the future. It is, he says, surreal to witness these developments as someone who has worked in computer graphics for decades.

“I got involved in computer graphics in the early ’90s, and the things we are looking at now were just pipe dreams then. We would say, “Someday this stuff will be photorealistic and you will have things like a real time simulation of hair, clothes and water!” But we can do it today, ”he said. “It’s today.”

The prospect makes him dizzy. Images that would take a Pixar movie a few minutes to render, he says, can now be calculated and delivered in one-sixtieth of a second with new computer technology. For games, achieving a consistent 60-90 frames per second rate means more vivid gameplay, smoother animations and, Lane adds, more potential for lifelike virtual reality experiences without the “simulator sickness” that occurs. when visuals are lagged due to frame rate. too low. These are all delivered to the guts of the new consoles, setting a new standard outside the PC realm, where technology historically keeps one step ahead.

Another boon for next-gen consoles, explains Shehzan Mohammed, director of product management at Cesium led by Penn-alum and professor of programming and GPU architecture in SEAS at Penn, is the opportunity to integrate hardware-based ray tracing. Ray tracing is a computer graphics technique that more closely mimics the physical behavior of light in the real world, as opposed to the traditional rasterization technique used in games, which approximates the behavior of light. Historically, ray tracing has been too computationally expensive to use in games, which require maintaining 60 frames per second, or roughly 16 milliseconds per frame. With the advent of hardware-based ray tracing, performance gains now make the use of ray tracing in games viable, allowing much more realism.

“It more faithfully mimics the real world and allows you to get more real-world visual artifacts, such as highlights, refractions, and shadows,” says Mohammed. “Now it’s part of the algorithm that you have these features. But using rasterization, game developers have invented various techniques and approximations over decades to recreate realism.

It also underlines the importance of the SSD which is now emerging in consoles, which can load massive amounts of data in seconds – a quarter or a tenth of the time compared to previous generations – as opposed to a minute or more for peripherals. hard drive storage. This is particularly noticeable because the games only get bigger; occupying tens of gigabytes is not uncommon for a big budget game.

“But if you think about ten years ago a game was on a CD-ROM,” he says. “Today, a single AAA game can easily exceed 50 GB.”

Mohammed sees the game world moving in three directions simultaneously, “like a triangle”. One point is that of enthusiastic gamers, who want the latest and best hardware and play games on their PC. Others, he says, are companies like Microsoft and Google who don’t expect consumers to invest so much money and try to move technology to cloud servers while focusing on delivering games and interfaces – an ongoing challenge as broadband access is not universal and bandwidth issues pose problems for games that require high frame rates.

The third point, he says, is a confluence where the consumer doesn’t have much of a choice for hardware, but since the hardware is the same for everyone who buys a PlayStation or Xbox, the cost of development goes down and the costs of development go down. games are further optimized for this familiar material. sets.

“If you are developing a game for a single platform, you can concentrate your development efforts by optimizing the game for that hardware,” he says, explaining the benefits of console hardware for games.

From the ever-popular point of view of “console wars”, Ethan Mollick, associate professor of management at Wharton School, does not consider the release of PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X to be a major disruptor in the industry, even if it resets the basics of installing PlayStation and Xbox.

“The main console war boils down to these two; it’s a stable market now, and it’s expensive to compete at this point, ”he says, citing the huge capital costs for big-budget“ AAA ”hardware and software development. “The games are always very popular, and it feels like the products they’ve released are similar to each other. So it’s hard to imagine what slam dunk would be like these days.

That said, streaming can be the tipping point – the disruptor looming on the horizon.

“Streaming won’t work until it works,” he says. “With tipping points, it’s slow and then it’s all at the same time. With digital cameras they were terrible and then better and cheaper than other cameras and then that changed in three years. Is streaming close to that? It looks like it.

“Stadia”, Google’s streaming service, he adds, “is not that great.”

The real story of the console generation, he says, is the anticipation of when the streaming “lightning” will strike. Microsoft, he notes, has already laid the groundwork with its GamePass subscription service, offering gamers access to a library of games for a monthly subscription. It was the start of a games subscription model, and a turning point away from local media ownership.

“This ship [of ownership] sail, ”says Mollick. “Already, if you wanted a hackable, owned experience, you had PC games on disc, but this ship sailed. It is similar to DVD sales in the [streaming era]. “

However, he adds, don’t expect streaming to destroy the game diversity market – in fact, he expresses that this could open the door for smaller “indie” games to put their games on. the market.

“Indie games have exploded,” he says. “What is the cultural game of the moment? It’s not “Halo” or “Fortnite”; these are games like “Among Us”, and before “Fall Guys”. I think when AAA games are streamed it won’t destroy the market for other games – the gaming world is more diverse than it has ever been.

Lane also recognizes the potential of streaming to gain traction, and the computing power of the new consoles may give them a key role in delivering a smooth streaming experience, eventually.

Yet Lane also believes, adamantly, that the gameplay will win out in the end, and is skeptical that gamers will actually care about the distinction between a machine with 10 vs. 12 teraflops in its GPU, or how fast a game is. charging. Especially when, he specifies, all of the capabilities of these machines are unlikely to show up in games for several years, and critics have not identified a “silver ball” game that coincides with the launch of the game. ‘either console.

“It’s all about the gameplay,” he says. “The graphics are great, but if a game doesn’t perform better, will people want to spend $ 500? That’s the question.

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