Ray-tracing, subscriptions and cross-platform play: Why developers are eager for the next PlayStation and Xbox

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We speak to studios about the opportunities the arrival of new consoles will open up, and how development might change over the coming years.

Amid a year of global uncertainty, both Sony and Microsoft have confidently announced the release dates of their new consoles, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X/S. 

The new machines are due out later this month, so we asked several developers what these new hardware baselines will mean for game development over the coming years.

New hardware will save a lot of groundwork

Developers are looking forward to taking advantage of benefits like stock SSDs and support for faster framerates and high resolution rendering, both to impress players and to save themselves some mucky engine work. 

Dean Walshe, 3D art lead on Void Bastards and environment artist for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, is excited about the new hardware: “Core hardware improvements are great for developers because they tend to deliver the advantages without requiring a lot of custom work. Faster hard drives and pre-loading make a huge difference to the user's experience but also reduce a lot of complex streaming and loading work developers had to worry about prior.

Splash Damage’s VP of technology Marc Fascia concurs, adding: “Faster SSDs also bring the ability to advance in areas that have been “overlooked” in the past, largely around faster loading times and the ability to stream a lot of data. Epic’s Nanite demo showcasing UE5 is a good example of the latter.

Alasdair Hibberd is product manager for Elite Dangerous, and one of MCV Develop’s 30 Under 30 this year. He spoke to us independently about his optimism for the coming machines.

In the longer term I think we'll see developers utilising more and more of the console and developing games which specifically exploit the hardware. A good example could be a reduction in pre-prepared or scripted assets and using the increased processing power and GDDR6 memory to deliver worlds which ultimately feel more spontaneous and alive.

Ray tracing won’t fully kick in for a few years

Ray tracing has captured many headlines, although few current games fully utilise it. The new lighting technology – which realistically mimics the way light travels and interacts with objects – has real potential but its biggest advantages are indirect, and it will be a while before studios fully exploit them.

Much of its power comes from streamlining technical processes, says Fascia, pointing to developments like programmable shaders and physically-based rendering: “One of the less visible technical innovations is the Machine Learning-driven denoising techniques that come alongside ray tracing. To achieve decent performance, developers have to limit the number of rays per pixel and the number of bounces, which tends to introduce noise. To counter that, some post processing filters can denoise the image via machine learning.

Gordon Van Dyke, co-founder of indie publisher Raw Fury, believes the new consoles will need time to settle in: “It will be several years before a lot of devs can take advantage of these hardware charges in a meaningful way. In AAA, [ray tracing] can make an impact soon but it feels we are at a stage where things look too real and we’ve shifted towards games that look interesting instead. My guess is once more out-of-the-box thinking devs get more tools to bend the rules, we’ll see creativity shape the experience and not tech.

Dean Walshe is similarly positive: “We will see the real benefit a few years into this generation as developers learn all the clever things they can do with it as a core element of the rendering pipeline, as opposed to a nice high-level feature only a small portion of your audience gets to see on their expensive PCs.

Once designers are really at home, we’ll see it used for more than just lighting effects, he continues: “Some developers may use the dedicated raytracing hardware to assist with raycasts and other game logic. This has potential to be used for more detailed audio calculations or other complex systems.

It’s more about ‘how?’ than ‘how pretty?’

The biggest questions facing the industry aren’t about raw specs, but how games are distributed and played. Both corporations are selling digital-only models, the Xbox Series S and PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, for a substantially lower price. Physical media sales declined steadily over the last decade, with the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the trend. 

None of our respondents expect discs to disappear, but they’re definitely on the way out. Walshe approves: “Less landfill is good,” he says. “This year has seen people seek out multiplayer games more than they had in the past, with some lesser known studios now boasting hits like Among Us or Fall Guys.

Games-as-a-service titles will continue to grow as developers try to replicate the success of some of the biggest titles right now. However, like the MMO boom, there is a limited audience and each title requires a level of success to continue, which is never guaranteed.

Subscriptions will define the decade

Several respondents referenced the popularity of Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout as an example of how modern games and their patterns of play and distribution are changing. We recently spoke to Mediatonic about how the team is building on that success with Season Two and beyond.

Van Dyke observes: “Subscription services already are challenging value. That is the future and these platforms are better poised for that than ever.

Subscriptions also provide advantages for customers and studios, says Hibberd, adding: “Imagine buying your kid a console for Christmas and knowing that they're going to have perfect game collection parity with their friends, and knowing exactly what it's going to cost you. I can see a shift away from casual purchasing behaviour from this audience but I would be surprised if it really took away from the hardcore gaming audience – and there will always be those must-have titles.

For independent developers, these services are highly curated and represent a great opportunity to get visibility – if deals are done right, they can also give you great security against your development costs.

We also spoke to Marc Pick, senior producer at Bossa Studios, who agrees that subscriptions offer major upsides for smaller studios, and those working on multiplayer games.

One huge benefit of the subscription services, especially for indie studios, is the improved liquidity of players needed for multiplayer titles. We've already seen the benefits of this with Rocket League and of course Fall Guys on PS+, and games like Grounded on Xbox Game Pass.

Live multiplayer titles are inherently a riskier proposition for indies because we rely on player numbers to drive a great game experience, and the technical demands of multiplayer through development – not least on the QA side – carry a higher investment. I can see the subscription approach massively opening the doors for smaller studios to dip their toe into multiplayer games over the next five years.

Cross-platform play is on the rise

The relationship between console and PC has shifted in recent years, with consoles serving increasingly as media centres, while historically console-centric series like Monster Hunter and Yakuza, and even big PlayStation 4 exclusives Death Stranding and Horizon: Zero Dawn, coming to PC. With cross-platform subscriptions also taking off, publishers are beginning to think differently about old habits.

I think timed releases and understanding that they are different audiences has meant publishers are happier to take more titles to PC than they used to be,” says Walshe, “The large PC streamer community doesn't hurt either.

Marc Pick concurs: “The ‘PC-first’ development approach is definitely starting to pave the way to a 'PC and a console-first' approach, in particular with the move to subscription services. Fall Guys' visibility on PS+ undoubtedly helped to signal boost its huge success on Steam, and I can see studios using cross-platform launches to their advantage in this way to maximise their reach, especially for games that benefit from cross-play.

The PS4 already supports a few cross-play titles, including behemoths like Minecraft and Fortnite. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, meanwhile, helped launch games including Gears 5 and Grounded on the Xbox One and PC simultaneously. 

Pick continues: “From a technical standpoint, the advances in technology are making it much easier to develop for next-gen consoles, even if we just consider RAM. I can also see savvy studios that move more into cross-platform games figuring out ways to standardise the live components of their games, i.e. making sure content rollouts can take place across PC and console in as close to parity as they can get.

Van Dyke observes that multiplatform works are easier to build than ever, but can require compromises: “Exclusives likely take more effort since they often used proprietary features or engine designed heavily around that hardware architecture.

Cloud gaming will grow, but demands improved infrastructure

Even as physical media lingers on, cloud gaming looms on the horizon. As for what effect it will have on this console generation, it seems that the world isn’t quite ready yet.

As Van Dyke puts it: “When connectivity is the backbone, I see it hard for it to wipe out having your own hardware which will always have a lower latency. Maybe 5G will be the silver bullet cloud gaming has been waiting for.

Walshe is in agreement: “Cloud gaming is the dream, reducing the financial barrier for entry would open up higher-end games to far more people. Sadly, the technical barrier of 'good internet' is probably the biggest factor that will limit the regions it is viable in along with whatever financial monetisation model it adopts.

Progress is being made though, as Alasdair Hibberd notes: “There are massive industry-shaking acquisitions taking place, looking to make its potential a reality. We still have an incredibly long way to go in terms of infrastructure – and that has to be global.”

Fascia is even more confident, and rightly points out that big changes in the industry often attract excessively gloomy predictions: “Cloud platforms are definitely on the rise. At Splash Damage we firmly believe in this model, and have partnered with Google for our upcoming Stadia-exclusive title Outcasters. Over the years, headlines like ‘PC gaming is dead’ or ‘The end of consoles’ have flared up on a regular basis and have been invariably proven wrong.


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