Allow me to throw a little factoid your way: We are now closer to the year 2045 than to the year 1990. If the talking heads are even halfway accurate, we’re set to see a lot of transformative change in the next 27-odd years: quantum computing, strong AI, always-on AR overlays…the list goes on. It seems almost facile to wonder what the next, or next-to-next PlayStation and Xbox are going to look like. Will it even exist? And if so, what would it look like? There’s no telling what entertainment will look like when the average millennial’s pushing fifty. But if we narrow the timeframe down to the next 10 years or so—enough time for another two console generations—things become a little clearer.
Tech giants and the media have been harping about a cloud-enabled future for years now. But let’s be honest here, due to the current infrastructure limitations we’re still some ways off from utilizing the full potential of cloud services: reliable, low-latency thin client PC and console streaming over the interwebs. Just think about it: essentially unlimited power available at any time, on any device. First generation attempts like OnLive failed miserably but services like Nvidia GRID, PS Now, and, recently, Blade’s Shadow show us the likely direction consoles will take in the coming years. Like they all say, the future is connected. The only thing holding us back from on-demand 4K/60 gaming is the underlying telecom infrastructure, and the rate of change there will determine exactly how quickly a cloud-enabled gaming future will become reality.
Keeping this in mind, it’s likely that any upcoming PS5 or Xbox…Two(?) set to release in the next 2-3 years will be a full-fledged physical device. AMD’s Ryzen/Vega double whammy has done much to rehabilitate everyone favourite underdog, but more importantly, Ryzen and Vega-based APUs—seen most recently in the laptop space with the 2500 and 2700U—show us a likely path for next-gen consoles to take: an 8-core Ryzen processor paired with something akin to a Vega 56. Considering the iterative strategy both Sony and Microsoft have followed so far, such a configuration seems reasonable: a roughly 2x uptick in graphics power along with a genuine, generational leap in processing capability.
This will likely be enough to deliver meaningfully new gaming experiences—new as in next-gen, not “PS5-enhanced.” It would be interesting to see how games like Cyberpunk 2077, built with today’s hardware in mind but likely to release close to the hypothetical 2020 PS5 launch, will scale on this new hardware. We’ll likely see a scenario akin to the cross-gen era in 2013-2014. Given Sony and Microsoft’s commitment to backwards compatibility with the current crop of consoles—what works on PS4 Pro has to work on the PS4 and vice versa—it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which—and for how long—games will be cross-compatible, at least between the newcomers and the Pro/One X.
The likely inclusion of a Ryzen-based CPU in the 9th gen consoles is what makes this a pressing question because it’ll allow the new consoles to do things—in terms of world-building and depth—that the old consoles will categorically not be able to do, even at lower resolutions. The degree to which cross-compatibility is prioritized will play a huge role in terms of the kind of games we’ll see out on ninth-gen platforms. The reason much of The Witcher 3’s assets come off as (arguably pretty) stage props, is simply because the current crop of consoles isn’t capable of handling much more. It’s also the reason why ambitious titles like Assassin’s Creed Unity only ever ran well on a PC with a hefty i5 or i7.
A Ryzen-based console is capable of a lot more than what we’re used to seeing, in terms of physics, AI, and other areas: imagine immersive-sim levels of interaction within an open world. However, if ninth-gen games are required to maintain backward compatibility with the PS4 Pro/Xbox One X/PS4/Xbox One, we might end up with another crop of marginally prettier games that play the same as just about everything from 2007 onwards.
While the immediate future is likely to be depressing, things get considerably more interesting if you look past the ninth gen. There are approximately 50 million households in the US with broadband connections at 25 Mbps or faster—In other words, only one in four Americans has internet fast enough to stream Netflix in 4K. Shadow, slated to release soon, requires a minimum 15 Mbps for 1080p. While 4K/60 streaming is supported, you’ll need a proportionately fast connection. And while it—and Nvidia GRID —nominally work on handheld devices, just who exactly has a mobile data plan that’s generous enough to allow regular game streaming while, say, commuting? Well, no one right now. But that’s about to change. Much has been made about the possibility of unlimited plans on 5G networks. Unlimited 4G isn’t a thing because there just isn’t enough bandwidth to allow concurrent usage by large numbers of people.
5G represents an upto 10x increase in bandwidth. In all honesty, there isn’t a massive difference between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps in nearly any use case—including streaming content in 4K. What this means is that, rather than pointlessly increasing data speeds, telecom providers may end up providing consistent 100 Mbps connectivity with very generous—think unlimited without the fine print—data plans. Around the time the PS5 and the next Xbox…whatever are getting long in the tooth, unlimited 100 Mbps-plus connectivity is likely to be ubiquitous, and it’s at that point that cloud-based gaming-as-a-service and computing-as-a-service offerings will really start to catch on. It’s the infrastructure that creates demand. Think about it: cab-sharing services and the gig economy on the whole are successful today because of ubiquitous access to mobile internet. Over the 10 years, when that turns into ubiquitous, anywhere access to high-speed connectivity, streaming services will move from being interesting tech demos to being the new normal.
At that point, services like PS Now will become Playstation. Consoles as we know them today—expensive machines that run games locally—will cease to exist. What’s the point in having a PS6 if your smartphone/AR headset/in-car entertainment system can run Assassin’s Creed 18 without every dipping below 144 FPS?