Last year PlayStation architect Mark Cerny held a lengthy PS5 tech talk, in which he explained why accommodating last-gen hard drives “can sabotage the game that the developer is trying to create.” And that’s exactly why many users are disappointed by the news that Sony‘s upcoming blockbusters will target cross-gen releases.
Tucked away in the middle of a new interview with PlayStation Studios boss Herman Hulst published on Wednesday was the bombshell that two of Sony’s flagship next-gen games, Gran Turismo 7 and the next God of War, are also in development for PS4.
Along with Horizon Forbidden West, that means that virtually all of PlayStation’s biggest upcoming games (beyond this month’s Ratchet & Clank) are now confirmed to be cross-gen titles.
To be clear, this isn’t a new strategy for Sony: PS5 launch games Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure were also released across console generations. What’s surprising is the drastic U-turn this represents for a company that 12 months ago was singing the virtues of ‘believing in generations’ and deriding HDDs as holding back game creation.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that the pandemic has made it incredibly difficult for those who want a PS5 to purchase one, and of course, it’s a huge positive that Sony will continue to support the PS4 platform, which is now owned by an incredible 116 million consumers – many of whom will be stuck with it for the foreseeable future, as chip supplies struggle to catch up.
But it’s also understandable that others are accusing the PlayStation firm of pulling a sleight of hand by presenting God of War et al as a reason to purchase a PS5 last year, when they were planned for release on PS4 all along. Some consumers will have shelled out for a next-gen console on the understanding that it was the only place they’d be able to experience these games, and you can’t blame them for being a bit miffed to find out seven months later via a throwaway interview line that this isn’t the case.
Gran Turismo 7, after all, was outright advertised as a PS5 exclusive in December, although to be fair to Sony, I understand the decision to release a PS4 version was made only fairly recently. For Horizon Forbidden West and God of War, however, these games were always intended to release as cross-gen titles, I was told, but Sony did not mention the last-gen console during the announcement of either title.
It’s easy to say Sony could have avoided the current backlash by being more transparent from the start, but with the strong launch narrative it created around PS5 being the ‘true’ next-gen console versus Xbox’s pledge to continue supporting Xbox One, I’m not sure it would have many regrets.
However, the debate over whether or not Sony has pulled a 180 with its sales pitch for PlayStation 5 is not the reason to be disappointed about this week’s news: it’s the knock on effect it has on how long we’re going to have to wait before PlayStation’s biggest games make full use of the PS5’s hardware potential, and fulfil Mark Cerny’s “SSD dream”.
As much as the marketing talk would have us think otherwise, most cross-gen games will always need to be compromised in some way to accommodate for the weakest hardware they’re planning to release for, unless developers are prepared to create two fundamentally different games.
To be clear, this has very little to do with graphics: last week’s Horizon Forbidden West footage shows it’s absolutely possible for developers to make their cross-gen games look stunning on the best platform, with increased detail and fancy hair physics.
“As much as the marketing talk would have us think otherwise, most cross-gen games will always need to be compromised in some way to accommodate for the weakest hardware they’re planning to release for.”
The compromise comes from what you don’t see in screenshots; AI, physics, the number of enemies on screen and the size and complexity of the environments. While I don’t claim to be a programming wizard, when I worked on Yooka-Laylee at Playtonic Games, there were frequent conversations about whether certain design ideas would scale to Wii U – our least powerful platform at the time – and thus the scope of the game was always tailored with that constraint in mind.
PlayStation 5 makes this platform juggling even more punishing for developers, because of that aforementioned ultra-fast SSD. In last year’s 50-minute video presentation, Mark Cerny spoke about how he believed this vital component would fundamentally change how games could be designed on PlayStation 5, thanks to the transformative effect it had on loading game world data.
And while we weren’t expecting to see this dream realised on-mass at launch, the likes of God of War and Gran Turismo 7 likely won’t release much before the PS5’s second birthday.
“The primary reason for an ultra-fast SSD is that it gives the game designer freedom,” Cerny said last year. “Or to put that differently, with a hard drive, the 20 seconds that it takes to load a gigabyte can sabotage the game that the developer is trying to create.”
He explained: “Say we’re making an adventure game and we have two rich environments where we want enough textures and models to fill memory. What you can do is have a long staircase, elevator ride or windy corridor where you can ditch the old assets and then take 30 seconds or so to load the new assets.
“Having a 30 second elevator ride is a little extreme. More realistically, we’d probably chop the world into a number of smaller pieces and then do some calculations with sightlines and run speeds, like we did for Haven City when we were making Jak 2.
“The game is 20-years-old but not much has changed since then. All those twisty passages are there for a reason… there’s a whole subset of level design dedicated to this sort of work, but still it’s a giant distraction for a team that just wants to make their game.”
What Cerny is trying to say is, game designers have long been constrained in terms of the size and complexity of the worlds they can create due to restrictions around how much data can be loaded into the game at one time. In the talk, the engineer demonstrated how PS5’s ultra-fast SSD could eliminate these distractions and allow designers to create seemingly limitless worlds in scope and design, thanks to its ability to load in data faster than the user can even move the game camera.
And because SSDs have no seek times, it also means PS5 games can be larger without worrying about storage constraints, whereas most open-world PS4 games need to have their game assets – such as a mailbox in Spider-Man – duplicated hundreds of times in order for the console to load them fast enough, swelling the game’s size.
These are exactly the techniques Insomniac Games employs in this month’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, which few will disagree is one of the most visually stunning video games to date. The SSD tech also fuels its core mechanic: the ability for players to jump through portals and be transported almost instantly to a new environment. This is a perfect example of a PS5 game that, no matter how far the graphics dials are lowered, simply could not be scaled back to an uncompromised PS4 experience.
“The pandemic has made it incredibly difficult for those who want a PS5 to purchase one, and of course it’s a huge positive that Sony will continue to support the PS4 platform.”
Of course, Sony’s studios could well decide to compromise the PS4 experience and focus on making the PS5 version as amazing as possible, but in a post-Cyberpunk world – when Sony itself has still not relisted CD Projekt’s game following its disastrous launch on last-gen consoles – I would imagine this is incredibly unlikely.
I have little doubt that Horizon, God of War and Gran Turismo will be fantastic games that will look incredible when played on PS5, and the latter might not even have to make many compromises at all due to the nature of the racing genre. But I will personally be disappointed if the scale of God of War’s environments are limited, or if I have to squeeze Alloy through tight gaps and run around twisty environments, as Mark Cerny described last year.
Cross-gen releases make total sense for Sony’s games business; PlayStation has just reported its best ever year driven by game sales and PS Plus subscriptions, and the company literally can’t make enough PlayStation 5s to satisfy demand right now.
But for those of us who don’t care about what makes the spreadsheets move when we’re playing our video games, it’s a shame that we’re going to have to wait even longer until we get a Horizon or God of War that takes full advantage of PS5’s promise.