How Microsoft and Sony’s new consoles improve game technology

Xbox Series S and Series X, left, and PlayStation 5, right. Credit: Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp.

Just about every seven years, game console makers—namely, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as of the past two decades—hit the reset button on their audience and launch a new product to the market.

Typical of the occasion is the usual fanfare: long lines on launch night, a press tour with gaming media, and demo kiosks set up in retailers across the country for hungry fans to try out the latest technology.

In 2020, of course, there is very little, if any, of this.

Sony released its PlayStation 5 on Nov. 12, and Microsoft released its Xbox Series X and Series S consoles two days earlier on Nov. 10, largely through online orders, and without the crowds of excited fans or celebratory events that the pandemic has so commonly nixed this year.

But that isn’t to say the new consoles from Sony and Microsoft are not worth celebrating—quite the contrary, they mark yet another turning point in the games industry.

“Taking advantage of the new console capabilities, such as a 1 terabyte solid-state hard drive (SSD) and graphics capabilities that support real-time ray tracing, will enable developers in another year or two to create real-time game content that appears photo realistic,” says Stephen Lane, director of the Computer Graphics and Game Technology Master’s program in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Lane adds that the consoles’ ability to also output 8K screen resolutions—which is nearing 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’d say, ‘Someday, this stuff will be photo realistic and you’ll have things like real-time simulation of hair, cloth, and water!’ But we can do that today,” he says. “That’s today.”

The prospect makes him giddy. Frames that would take a Pixar movie minutes to render, he says, can now be computed and delivered in a sixtieth of a second with new computer technology.

For games, reaching a consistent 60 to 90 frames per second means snappier gameplay, more fluid animations, and, Lane adds, more potential for lifelike virtual reality experiences without “simulator sickness,” which occurs when visuals lag as a result of frame rates being too low.

These are all delivered in the new consoles’ innards, setting a new standard outside of the PC realm, where technology historically stays a step ahead.

Another boon to the next-gen consoles, explains Shehzan Mohammed, director of product management at the Penn-alum-led Cesium and a lecturer of GPU Programming programming and architecture in SEAS at Penn, is the ability to incorporate hardware-based ray tracing.

Ray tracing is a computer graphics technique that more closely reproduces the physical behavior of light in the real world, as opposed to the traditional rasterization technique used in games, which approximate the behavior of light.

Historically, ray tracing has been computationally too expensive to use in games, which require maintaining 60 frames per second, or approximately 16 milliseconds per frame. With the advent of hardware-based ray tracing, the performance gains now make it viable to use ray tracing in games, enabling much more realism.

“This more closely mimics the real world, and it gets you more real-world visual artifacts, like reflections, refractions, and shadows,” Mohammed explains.

“It’s now part of the algorithm that you have these features. But using rasterization, game developers invented various techniques and approximations over multiple decades to recreate the realism.”

He also emphasizes the significance of SSD 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 longer for hard disk drive storage devices.

This is particularly notable as games only get larger; taking up dozens of gigabytes is not unheard of for a big-budget game.

“But if you think a decade or so ago, a game was on a CD-ROM,” he says. “Today, a single AAA game can easily go over 50GB.”

Mohammed sees the game world moving in three directions simultaneously, “like a triangle.” One point is enthusiastic gamers, who want the latest and best hardware and play games on their PC.

Another, he says, is companies like Microsoft and Google, who do not expect consumers to invest that much money and try to move the technology to cloud servers while focusing on delivering games and interface—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 there is not much consumer choice for hardware, but because the hardware is the same for everyone buying a PlayStation or Xbox, the cost of development goes down and games are optimized more for these familiar hardware sets.

“If you’re developing a game for a single platform, you can focus your development effort optimizing the game for that hardware,” he says, explaining the benefit of console hardware for gaming.

From an ever-popular “console wars” standpoint, Ethan Mollick, an associate professor of management in the Wharton School, does not see the release of PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X as a major disruptor in the industry, even if it does set the install bases for both PlayStation and Xbox back to zero.

“The main console wars are down to these two; it’s a stable market now, and it’s expensive to compete at this stage,” he says, citing the enormous investment costs for both hardware and large-budget, “AAA” software development.

“Games are still super popular, and it feels like the products they’ve released are similar to each other. So, it’s hard to imagine what the slam dunk would be these days.”

That said, streaming may be the tipping point—the disruptor looming on the horizon.

“Streaming will not work until it does,” he says. “With tipping points, it’s slow and then it’s all at once. With digital cameras, they were terrible and then better and cheaper than other cameras, and then it switched in a matter of three years. Is streaming close to that? It seems like it.

“Stadia,” the streaming service by Google, he adds, “is not terrible.”

The real story of the console generation, he says, is the anticipation of when the streaming “lightning bolt” hits. Microsoft, he notes, has already set the foundation for this with its GamePass subscription service, providing gamers access to a library of games for a monthly fee.

It is the beginnings of a subscription model to games, and a pivot away from local ownership of media.

“That ship [of ownership] is sailing,” Mollick says. “Already, if you wanted a hackable, ownable experience, you’d own PC games on a disc, but that ship sailed. It’s similar to DVD sales in the [streaming era].”

However, he adds, don’t expect streaming to destroy the market for diversity of games—in fact, he expresses it may open the doors for smaller, “indie” games to get their games on the market.

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

Lane, too, acknowledges the potential for streaming to gain traction, and the new consoles’ computing power may give them a key role in delivering a smooth streaming experience, eventually.

Still, Lane also believes, adamantly, that gameplay will win out in the end, and is skeptical that gamers will actually care about the distinction between a machine with 10 versus 12 teraflops in its GPU, or how quickly a game loads.

Especially when, he clarifies, the full capabilities of these machines likely will not show up in games for several years, and critics have not pinpointed a “silver bullet” game that coincides with either console’s launch.

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

Written by Brandon Baker.