A feel for the game

Sony’s big PS5 bet is that what’s good for developers will be great for players.

If you are a PlayStation fan, on March 18 of 2020 you were likely confused, frustrated, bored, or some combination of the three. On that day, Mark Cerny, the lead system architect on the PlayStation 5, stood behind a lectern and, for an hour, delivered a live-streamed presentation titled “The Road to PS5.” He rhapsodized about the ins-and-outs of computational power, and, at one point, solicited users for pictures of their ears. At that stage, the console itself hadn’t been shown yet, and if the live chat accompanying the feed was any indication, the talk was not landing. Games were not being discussed, let alone shown.

Most viewers likely zoned out around the sentence “36 CUs at 2.23 GHz is 10.3 teraflops.” But that gobbledygook — manifest through the marriage of hardware, firmware and software, with a pinch of authorial intent and creative vision — meant a lot to developers. After all, the stream was a version of a presentation originally planned for this year’s canceled Games Developers Conference, which in its original format would reach an audience of primarily developers and publishers. And that audience, the intended audience, appeared to have loved the talk.

“The people I’ve been talking to over the past few months and the past couple of years who are actually working on the PlayStation have pretty much unanimously all said, like, ‘This thing is a beast,’” Jason Schreier, a well-sourced Bloomberg reporter best known for his reporting on labor practices in the video game industry, said on a podcast recorded shortly after Cerny’s talk. Schreier provided another quote as well: “‘This thing is one of the coolest pieces of hardware that we’ve ever seen before.’”

The PS5 features a solid-state drive that significantly reduces load times.(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

3-D audio is intended to envelop players in the sound of the games they’re playing.(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Haptic feedback tenses the controller’s triggers and lets players better feel the games.(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

To Sony the PS5 is the next step in an evolutionary process. The last console generation took tentative, nervous steps toward speculative tech: motion controls, facial recognition, augmented and virtual reality. It was interesting, but additive — not core to the fundamental play experience.

Now, the ambition is clearer: The PS5 will make you feel. Playing on the console is a sensory experience. And all of the above-the-average-player’s-paygrade tech mentioned in Cerny’s talk — the solid-state drive, 3-D audio, haptic feedback — delivers on that message. The tech is laser-focused on cranking up the fidelity, and immersing players ever deeper through the visuals, the audio and the controller. In conversations with developers working on PlayStation 5 titles, these features have been described as gifts to game makers. And Sony’s big bet is that what’s good for developers will be great for players.

Mark Cerny, the lead system architect on the PlayStation 5.
Mark Cerny, the lead system architect on the PlayStation 5. (Jessica Pons For The Washington Post)

The Tinkerer

At first glance, Cerny is perfectly unassuming. He has a pleasant lilt to his voice, and sort of resembles Stephen Malkmus, or really any 90s indie rocker still active in 2020. But his modest nonappearance belies the fact that he is arguably the architect of PlayStation’s last decade of success. This year alone, you’ll find Cerny’s name in the credits for two launch titles on the PS5, “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” and “Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart,” not to mention the console itself.

Cerny began his career in 1982 as an arcade game programmer. Since then, he’s held roles ranging from programmer and designer to executive and hardware architect (aside from the PS5, he’s led the design of the PlayStation Vita handheld, as well as the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro). In 1998, he became a contractor, working directly with game teams and eventually on hardware as well.

It’s not hard to draw the line between that pedigree and the “grass-roots” design of the PS5. I grab the key ideators and influencers in an area. We brainstorm what we might be able to create and how it would affect the play experience. And then we execute,” says Cerny. “The breakthroughs tend to come from an individual, some brilliant programmer or systems creator in one of the various PlayStation teams across the world.”

Cerny does studio tours every two years, talking to developers about their needs, and how they feel about the PlayStation hardware with which they’re working. This approach — and Cerny’s close familiarity with the game development process — feeds back into the console design.

“So much of design today has to do with data management. Situations where literally — I’m not making these kinds of stories up — literally, the creative director will say, let’s put the entrance to the secret lair here. And the lead programmer will say, ‘It won’t fit in memory,’ or ‘okay, we’ll need a 30 second load screen that’ll kill the momentum of the gameplay,’ or ‘How do you feel about a long elevator ride down to the lair?’” says Cerny.

You’ll find Cerny’s name in the credits for PlayStation 5 launch title “Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales."
You’ll find Cerny’s name in the credits for PlayStation 5 launch title “Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales." (Sony Interactive Entertainment)

If you’ve played a modern video game, you’ve likely been bamboozled by a game developer, if for your own good. In “Destiny,” for example, long corridors and winding canyons across nominally open worlds are functionally loading screens, separating distinct arenas which load in based on which direction you’re traveling. If you’ve taken an interminable elevator ride in a game, you’ve experienced a game trying to cleverly hide what it’s doing under the hood: loading you into a new stage. Cerny himself has called out “euphemistically named ’fast travel.’” These are often clever and technically impressive tricks. But they also take time to implement, and require developers to puzzle over how to bend restrictive hardware into a shape that approximates the game maker’s ambition. That’s time and brainpower not spent thinking about the game itself.

This is where the solid-state drive, or SSD, comes in. The PS4 had a hard disk drive, which, as the name implies, involves reading and writing information to and from a disk. But that design has drawbacks. If the necessary data is on the edge of the disk, it’ll take longer for it to be read than if it’s toward the center. If the data isn’t all in one place, that’ll add more time. The slowness can be measured in seconds, even fractions of seconds, but still, fetching data on an HDD takes time. The trade-off, of course, is that HDDs are cheaper than SSDs.

Here’s another way to think about it. How many trash cans are there in New York City? This isn’t a consulting firm interview question — it’s a question about data storage. If you break up “Spider-Man’s” virtual New York City into city blocks and store all the data of each block together, as a chunk on the hard disk, you will have copied the same trash can (and mailbox, streetlamp, halal food cart and so on) hundreds of times across the disk. Cerny and his team did this on the PS4 to speed up load times, but the result was a lot of wasted space. One trash can might be a negligible file size, but 400 will add up.

The SSD smooths over these kinds of questions. Cerny estimates that with an HDD, loading 1 GB of data takes 20 seconds. By contrast, the SSD can load 2 GB of data in roughly a quarter of a second. For players, that means more time in-game. For developers, it also means less time stressing over data management. “With an SSD you’re able to talk about what you’re going to create rather than how you’re going to create it,” says Cerny.

“I think we can’t undersell the dev investment that we would put into the technical, laying out of these things and working it all out,” said Brian Horton, creative director on “Spider-Man: Miles Morales.” “It was a heavy overhead that no one ever saw, and our job was to make sure no one understood all this. Now we just get to make content.”

Senior Director of Content Communications Sid Shuman demonstrates the process of how 3-D audio is being tracked and tested using a rotating audio rig setup.
Senior Director of Content Communications Sid Shuman demonstrates the process of how 3-D audio is being tracked and tested using a rotating audio rig setup. (Sony Interactive Entertainment)

‘I wanted it to be amazing’

It wouldn’t be entirely right to say that the PS5′s technological advancements have been made solely with existing developer behavior in mind. Here’s where the creator’s intent comes in. The PS5 is not merely sanding off rough edges, nor is it agnostic to how game development works, and the orthodoxies and hierarchies that have, over time, hardened into plain fact. It is, in some ways, a corrective, meant to nudge how studios work.

“There’s a pecking order within the game teams. The graphics folks get the lion’s share of the hardware resources and the audio team has to struggle to get much anything at all,” says Cerny. Once, while briefing a developer on the PS5′s high performance audio processor, he says he was told, “Great, we’ll use that unit for AI.” During one of his studio tours, Cerny recalled meeting 120 workers — none of whom worked in audio.

“It isn’t as if the developers didn’t know I wanted to talk audio. In fact, I’d made it fairly explicit. It’s that audio is somehow viewed as being auxiliary to the rest of the game, when it’s absolutely at the center,” says Cerny. “During game development it’s pretty typical to make a first playable demo that over-indexes on the graphics — the graphics might be at near-publishable quality — but have audio that’s just placeholder.”

3-D audio, which, as the name implies, positions audio in space around the player, is a passion of Cerny’s. “Game audio is certainly functional,” he says. “I wanted it to be amazing.” To develop it, he enlisted the work of international experts across Tokyo, San Mateo and London. (Trust me when I tell you that makes it rather hard to schedule a teleconference,” said Cerny). Now, because audio is so crucial to immersion (and is thereby important to Cerny) the PS5 boasts impressive new audio capabilities. And in the meantime, the old way of doing things — in this case, sidelining audio engineers — is quietly being nudged.

“Returnal” is a third person shooter about a space pilot stuck in a time loop.
“Returnal” is a third person shooter about a space pilot stuck in a time loop. (Sony Interactive Entertainment)

“The audio side is now more of a full team blending a wide range of expertise, including level and enemy design,” said Harry Krueger, game director on “Returnal,” a third person shooter about a space pilot stuck in a time loop. It’s also a horror game, where audio really matters in creating the proper tension for players. “Each sound source is recorded in relation to how a real person would hear the sound actually coming from each direction. … It’s similar to the way we have always done things, but now we simply record things many times from many directions, apply more nuanced layers, and then of course spend even more time tweaking things in the final product.”

The same holds for developers implementing haptic feedback in the controller, which replaces rumble to offer a more tactile play experience.

“Rumble always used to be something we would put in at the end. It was like, ‘Oh we need to put the rumble in because there’s camera shake.’ Haptics is completely different,” said Gavin Moore, creative director of the “Demon’s Souls” PS5 remake. “It’s something that you have to think about from the start because it works with the visual and the audio.”

If Cerny’s approach can be described — maybe too laudably — as in service to the forgotten worker, that was hardly always the spirit of console design. In fact, the seemingly obvious idea of involving developers in the hardware development process is actually relatively new in the life span of game creation.

“When I started to do that in 2009 for the run up to what became PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4, it was actually a radical break from the past,” says Cerny. “Up until that point in the history of video games, hardware had been a closely guarded secret. Discussing it with the folks that would develop on the hardware was simply taboo, and I’d experienced that myself for a couple of decades. Even as a sort-of inner circle PlayStation developer, the briefing I got for PlayStation 2 was after the hardware was completely finished.”

Was there resistance to that change? Cerny pauses. “It was controversial at the time,” he says, diplomatically. Another pause. “But I think in retrospect, everyone is glad that we made the change of approach.”

State of play

On Oct. 28, Sony released its launch ad for the PlayStation 5. Like some final-week campaign message by a presidential campaign, all aspiration, it came bearing a message. In the ad, pupils dilate. Torrential rain pelts the windshield of a plane making its lonely sojourn through an all-encompassing storm. There’s sweat. Snow. Sand. Hot wind. Color, reflecting off a lens. Dust caught in a ray of sunlight. Bubbles stream past a diver’s face as he descends into a chthonic darkness. The extremes — they’re all here. Travis Scott, a maximalist in his own work, narrates. In a split second of footage, bright orange numbers tick up on a display. At one point, the camera zooms in on a fighter pilot’s dashboard, closing in on a label that simply reads “x100.”

Back in 2013, at a Game Developers Conference talk titled “Overview of PS4 for Developers,” a presenter walked the audience through some of the more fanciful features available on the PS4. The console could detect where players were sitting. It had facial recognition capabilities. One demo shown at the event had AR robots entering the player’s living room, as well as a horde of little guys — PlayStation’s Astro Bot character — living in the controller. Shaking the controller would send the robots screaming through an interior modeled after the inside of the Dualshock. A lot of these ideas didn’t really catch on.

The PS5 feels different. Immersion is the watchword, and every advertised feature of the PS5 is meant to bring players a step closer to that ideal. Forget the zany, out-there stuff (for now at least). Just give the players what they want, but better and more of it.

Take “Marvel’s Spider-Man.” The first game was Sony’s best-selling PS4 exclusive. Why not double down? “The web-swing is key to Spider-Man,” says Horton. “And because the triggers [of the PS5 controller] have that resistance, you actually feel when the web shoots out, you feel it connect to the wall and you feel resistance on the trigger as you go through the arc of the swing. So all of these haptic feedbacks and the resistance on the triggers has added another level immersion.”

Picture a late-generation PS4 game. It probably looks pretty good! How much juice is there left to squeeze, really? Knowing this, Sony has opted to bring players deeper into the world with the PS5. “You can feel arrows rush past your head in this game. It’s quite disturbing,” says Moore about “Demon’s Souls.” “I play the game and I instantly move my head sometimes.”

That doesn’t just mean moments of action. “I think the [moment] that really stands out to me is a very simple one, the drops of rain falling on your head,” said Krueger, regarding “Returnal’s” implementation of 3-D audio. “It sounds weird and maybe too simplistic, but just standing still in the beginning sequence you can focus in on the very nuanced sounds of flames dancing by the wreckage of your ship while a slight drizzle falls from the tree canopy above.”

Now all that’s left is for these features to be adopted, and preferably by studios that aren’t just working for or in close partnership with Sony. They won’t mean much to players until they are. “When we tell the world we put an SSD in the hardware, that’s interesting, but that’s interesting for about a month. What makes it work is that the games are picking up the SSD and using it in various ways,” said Cerny. “Ultimately, it isn’t the hardware that you put in the console. It’s what the games are doing.”

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(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Games are mainstream. That much isn’t arguable. But the innovations heralded by the PS5 also appear aimed at squelching the quality of life issues that some players have taken for granted, thereby bringing more players into the fold.

“The solid state drive is a game changer, particularly for ‘Demon’s Souls.’ … With the original I think that the frustration that the game had didn’t come from the dying or the challenges. It came from the long load times waiting to get back into the game to take revenge and get your souls back and carry on with your adventure,” says Moore. Now? Your character dies and you’re right back in. There will still be “elevator rides” in “Demon’s Souls,” says Moore. But now, they are a creative choice, not a restriction. They’re there to build tension.

Even the haptics play their part. “You can feel metal strike metal,” says Moore. And for players coming to the game anew, that added layer of feedback makes the experience much clearer. “You can feel it in your hands when you make a perfect parry to give you the counterattack. You can feel the block was correct. I hit home. I felt it hit home. I know I gave that boss damage, and I can get out there, move back and wait for their attack to come in. So it actually makes the gameplay better and it makes the game feel a little bit easier.”

The punishing “Demon’s Souls,” will make use of the PS5′s activities UI, which offers helpful tips.
The punishing “Demon’s Souls,” will make use of the PS5′s activities UI, which offers helpful tips. (Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Immersion doesn’t end with sensory feedback. “Demon’s Souls,” a famously punishing game, will make use of the PS5′s activities UI, which offers helpful tips regarding certain tasks. Moore says there are over 180 videos, each with increasing levels of visibility into what’s needed to complete portions of the game, available via the interface. Stumped? Now you don’t even have to leave the screen.

The PS5 might just change the composition of game development studios. It’ll likely change how often you feel empowered to leave the couch to grab a snack while a level loads. But more fundamentally, it may seek to change — or rather broaden — the category of people who play console games.

If you’ll indulge some cynicism, a $500 console launching in the midst of a pandemic, with economic relief in the U.S. likely only coming next year, if at all, is a tough sell. The hope, then, is that developers pick up the tool kit provided by the console and run with it, creating something new and exciting. A shiny new toy that doesn’t quite look like anything else in your entertainment center is one thing. A shiny new toy that is billed as the definitive means of sensory escapism — in 2020, no less — might be an easier pill to swallow.

“We’re just learning. This is our first jump,” says Cameron Christian, game director on “Miles Morales.” “And as we learn and get better, we’re going to be able to think of crazier things we can do with this technology, which is the most exciting part about it.”

“Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales”
“Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales” (Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Mikhail Klimentov is an assignment editor for Launcher, The Washington Post's video game and esports vertical. He joined The Post in 2019.