The PS4 has dominated the eighth generation of consoles. With more than 90 million units sold, the PS4 already sits at sixth on the best-selling consoles of all time, slightly higher than its predecessor the PS3.
According to an analysis by VGchartz in January, the PS4 holds a 58 per cent market share, compared to the Xbox One’s 27 per cent and the later released Nintendo Switch’s 15. Its sales so dwarf the Xbox One’s that, in a somewhat petulant move, Microsoft continues to refuse to release exact sales figures for its console.
The recent reveal of the next PS console, then, begs the question: how will Sony sustain its dominance?
At the moment, details of the new console are patchy: we don’t even know what it will be called. (Though some might bet their house on the fact Sony will opt for PS5). Mark Cerny, PlayStation architect at Sony, revealed only what you’d expect as basic for a next-gen console: improved specs. But it’s the details of these specs, and just how powerful they are, that holds the key to understanding Sony’s plans for the next generation.
The PS5 is shaping up to be a powerhouse. The 7nm Zen 2 eight-core CPU will be based on AMD Ryzen’s series. The GPU will be a variant on Radeon’s Navi line, and will also support ray tracing, an advanced rendering technique available on current gen gaming laptops running Nvidia’s RTX graphics cards. A technique relied on for years by Hollywood visual effects teams, it tries to simulate the way light bounces off objects, producing impressively realistic graphics.
Cerny was also keen to emphasise that the PS5 will include an SSD, the speed of which will upend long-held gaming tropes: loading screens will become a thing of the past. VR is also, according to Cerny, central to the console: the current, tethered PSVR will be compatible with PS5, though Sony’s second VR headset is also likely to be wireless. It’s possible, though not confirmed, that the release of the latter may coincide with the PS5.
The specs of the CPU, says Pelham Smithers, MD of market research firm Pelham Smithers Associates that specialises in Japanese manufacturing, give us enough to guess at which exact CPU the PS5 will use. From what Cerny has detailed, it will need to be a 7nm 8-core Ryzen CPU that supports ray-tracing, is 8K compatible and works with the AMD Navi 20 GPU. This suggests that Sony is using the AMD Ryzen 3600G, unveiled at CES 2019. By the second half of 2019, says Smithers, this CPU should be retailing between $180 and $220 per unit – just the right amount for a US$399 console.
How well this CPU supports 8K and ray tracing, which PC gamers often turn off because it’s so graphics intensive, may well be Sony software dependent. “This is important because the more Sony can use its own IP to drive hardware performance, the more clear water there is between the ‘PS5’ and ‘Xbox Two’” says Smithers.
We can also infer some of Sony’s future position on server-side streaming. Sony announced that its next console will have physical media: it won’t be download only, unlike, for instance, the discless Xbox One S All-Digital Edition Microsoft just announced. Server-streaming, in the form of Google Stadia, represents a significant threat for Sony. “Public game publishers have to pay Sony 30 per cent royalties”, says Smithers. “And this, of course, also applies to Microsoft and Steam – you essentially can’t get away from it. Unless Google comes along and they say, well, how about only paying ten per cent.”
A second issue for Sony is that Microsoft has considerably more experience creating networks: i.e. running the cloud. This gives it a massive advantage in creating games where latency might be a problem. “I calculate that Microsoft will have a cloud gaming only console right next to a more traditional console”, says Serkan Toto, CEO and founder of Kantan Games.
Sony is therefore likely to focus on its 8K capability, which requires far too much data for the average consumer to stream. (Currently, this is about 10-12GB for an hour of 8K footage). Microsoft, which has already fired back with the claim that E3 2019 will contain the announcement of “new things that nobody has seen before”, is likely to focus on multiplayer gaming, and emphasise that it can run multiplayer games with potential latency issues that Sony could not.
Though it’s important to remember that hype around the console’s power has surrounded all PlayStation releases, the bottom line here is that the PS5 is likely to be a graphical monster. “We are convinced that Sony is keen to distance itself from the rest of the video game world and become the industry’s IMAX”, says Smithers. “While Microsoft can match Sony on hardware – the PS5 will use only commercially available components – Sony has a lead on graphics processing.”
At least off the back of this news, Sony doesn’t seem to be trying to appeal to a new demographic of gamers. Its demographic looks likely to remain much the same as the current generation’s: console gamers, not “hardcore enough” for PCs, but still interested in heavier, more involved games than people who play casual games primarily on their phones.
For Sony, says Smithers, even focusing on this ultra high-end market should still translate to great sales. “The software market for video games is currently about $140 billion, and maybe in the next five years, it will grow to $180 billion. Frankly, if Sony can get four to five per cent of that market, they’re doing as well as they are now.”
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