Thursday, August 18, 2022
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Next Genpectations – Opinion Piece

Next Genpectations

After completing Rift Apart and seeing some comments, it has made me realize that some people seem to have some false expectations of next gen. I believe this is due to marketing, terms like 12 teraflops, which in the grand scheme of things mean nothing in measure of power. In addition to general misunderstandings of SSD speeds, and game engines and so forth, I am going to reference Rift Apart occasionally, but this is no means a defence of the game, if some people have issues with the gameplay that is fine, but I think Ratchet is a perfect example of what we can expect. I am by no means an expert on this field, but the nature of my previous jobs mean I have fundamentally had to understand how all components in consoles and PCs work together.

To backtrack a bit, I think it is fundamental that a discussion about the state of the industry and engines is required. In terms of game engines, even PC gamers that have SSDs have not had them properly utilized. The reason for this is simple, consoles are and will always be the bottom line and the focus for anything multiplatform. Most engines have been designed with slow RPM small HDDs, as that has always been the baseline.

Every engine has been designed with maximum throughput of those HDDs in console in mind, sure they may be able to utilize a bit more than that, but every game designed for consoles has been designed around that output, meaning everything in the game must adhere to that. Can it deliver all the assets, audio and so on within that incredibly tiny window?

All IO pipelines in engines have been designed around this standard, this is one of the reasons a The Flash game was cancelled for Xbox 360, the sheer speed of the flash made it impossible due to that bottleneck HDDs have. Another prime example is FF7R, there are boring corridors you must slowly walk through at a fixed speed, the reason for this> HDDs.

These parts of the game solely exist due to IO bottlenecks. We are still in the era of cross gen, even engines like UE4 do not fully utilize SSD SATA speeds which are much slower than the drives in the new consoles, almost everything released on next gen will not be using anywhere near the theoretical output for a while, due to the current IO pipelines. There are games like Rift Apart and even Avengers that have re-done this IO pipeline, which is why there are such dramatic differences in loading times compared to other next gen games and the last gen versions. Even games like Demon Souls, which were specifically made for PS5 only load slower than Rift Apart, with a lot less going on.

Now if I have already lost you on a technical front, the way to look at things is this. You have drive space on your console, the game installs onto that. That data contains all the games files, when you boot up that game and play it, the data that is relevant to your action and what is on your screen is pulled from that drive and put into RAM. There are many variables but generally the higher quality the assets (think houses, rocks, fences and so on) the larger the data to transfer is. The slower the drive the longer this takes. Given the nature of games, this is happening all the time, so everything in the game has to be made that it can fit within that window. Think turning the camera very fast behind you and in front of you, what you are seeing has to be delivered in time for your actions.

Insomniac have even stated there is more SSD headroom and more optimizations that can be made in the future. This is just the beginning of the utilization of SSDs, and there will be much more to come. There must be an understanding that the bottleneck that has existed for so many years, has changed. This means that entire engines will need re-working and developers will even improve the IO pipelines even after a rewrite, all of this is going to take time to be seen.

The slight problem is however, in terms of multiplatform titles, the Series X drive is slower than a PCI-e 3 NVME drive and features no custom features, which is already outdated. It will likely be the IO throughput focus of developers, which is less than half of what the custom PS5 SSD can do. I believe this is why we are seeing some games only load a second or 2 higher on PS5, the pipeline has not been designed to fully saturate the drive, unlike Unreal Engine 5.

There is also another benefit of SSDs, developers currently must place multiple copies of the same assets and data across a hard drive, due to the nature of how long it takes to find that data and process it (this is known as fetching), due to how data is stored on drives, you do not have to worry about that with SSDs. This gives developers a lot more freedom in terms of what can be delivered in that frame window. It also means that even without all the new modern compression techniques, games will be smaller.

Paired with compression techniques, you get games like Rift Apart, which is the highest quality game ever made totalling out at 33.48GB, only around 7.5GB larger than the PS4 title. That limited SSD space on the PS5 will go further than it would have on last gen, especially if you primarily play first party exclusives.

There is another big misunderstanding I see among a lot of people. That is simply that Next Gen means gameplay experiences that could not be delivered before. As mentioned in my Rift Apart review, dimension swapping was in Soul Reaver, it is not a new mechanic and is quite old. There is nothing that could not really have been done gameplay wise on last gen and over all these years, sure there was a limited amount of physics simulations you could have going on and so forth, but in terms of actual gameplay mechanics everything was on the table.

The fidelity of it would just have to be significantly lower than on PS5 and XSX. I use games like Half-life 2, which had revolutionary physics for the time and was an OG Xbox era title, or Red Faction Guerrilla as a reference, the destruction in that game has not been matched by anything, and that was a 360 and PS3 era game.  So why have we not seen another game have anywhere near that level of physics?

Creativity, the simple truth of the matter is anyone wanting brand new fresh gameplay experiences should not have been looking at next gen as the solution for games getting boring, that is misplaced. The truth plain and simple is Devs have been lacking creativity for some time, mainly due to money, but also due to the fact most things that can be done have been done. This is not an attack on individual members of teams, the fact of the matter is gaming has become huge, the money made from it is bigger than Hollywood.

There has been a focus on making games bigger and better with huge budgets, this means most of the management in developers do not want to take risks. The potential financial loss is too great for them to stomach.  If you do not believe this, look at the number of games trying to go after Battle Royale money, look at how many shooters are basically the same thing, with only rare exceptions like Titanfall that actively changed up the MP FPS formula. Big developers are simply going where the money is, and creativity and risks are not seen as where the money is. A game that can get a huge number of influencers is where it is at.

We used to be able to rely on Indie games for creativity, but even a lot of indie developers have become creatively bankrupt. They use pixel art because it requires much less effort than making 3d worlds, especially when you add in procedural generation which does their work for them and lacks a soul. It is not because they like the style most of the time, it is because it is much simpler. Games like Shovel Knight are great examples of retro done right, and sure an extremely high-quality pixel art game is significantly harder to do than in 3D, but most of these Indy pixel titles are not high quality pixel art, it is the bare minimum in allure that the retro style will give them a creative get out of jail card.  

It is not just that though, have you noticed how a lot of indie games are now roguelikes? Just like how a lot of bid titles are now BR, or have a BR mode. It is the same fundamental reasoning, roguelikes are popular now, so every indie wants a slice of that pie. Go back ten years and Indies were much riskier and more varied.  Occasionally you get genuinely great indie games in recent times like INSIDE, but the independent well has been drying up. Double fine have been hit and miss but they have been staying creative for the most part, but even they succumbed to making a roguelike.

If like me, you have been slowly falling out of love with the medium (Rift Apart has rectified that for me), creativity is gone, anything new that could be done, is already possible it just is not worth the financial risk. Games are a product designed to make money and, in an industry bigger than Hollywood, risks are very rarely taken. Just like with movies in Hollywood.

So where does this leave next gen in the picture I have painted, which is accurate. Well remember when next gen was announced and artists and devs were going crazy about the freedom it offers? That is where it leaves us, I have always seen games as an artform, and this generation is for the artist. It allows them to represent their visions much more accurately, Rift Apart is a prime example of this. The number of things on screen, the transition to set pieces the geometric detail will be realised like nothing before.

The big improvements coming to lighting will also be a big part of this. If you are a gamer who just breezes through games and does not look at how things are put together, I have bad news for you, you will be disappointed with this gen overall.  You will see some numbers of improvements visually and in the pursuit of 4K thanks to new lighting and rendering techniques and ray tracing and modern laser scanning techniques, but that is all you are going to see for the most part. What you had last gen just looking significantly better than it has done before, and much closer to movie/real life territory.

Things like the dualsense and its adaptive triggers will likely be the biggest change you will notice to your gameplay experience. It is highly unlikely you will witness anything revolutionary from a gameplay perspective, it is simply going to be what is done before just cranked up like never for the most part. There will be some exceptions, but most of them will be like Rift Apart. There will be some fundamental changes in gameplay transitions and so on parts of gameplay like the corridors in FF7R were made due to these difficulties in previous generations. So, worlds are going to feel much more organic and less gamey than in previous generations. Just do not expect a new type of game, that may happen but it wont really be due to this generation.

For the type of person who sees games as an art form however and likes to see how games are put together, what you can interact with, the details left around rooms and a general appreciation of art. This is the generation for you. Below are some pictures of Rift Apart, I particularly like the detail in the barricade because this is what I see next gen being about, and why Artists were so excited. This is the generation of the artists.  There were multiple compromises and difficulties making the top tier titles of the PS4 and X1 era, artistic impressions had to be dialled back, for your average gamer though there is going to be no real difference.

The cross-gen debate also seems really misunderstood, games like Horizon 2 have suffered due to it without a doubt, and you can see some incredibly old rendering techniques due to this, however games like God of War will not really suffer. I see people have problems with Ragnarok being cross gen, but think about the nature of a GoW game, there is nothing a GOW game is going to do that cannot be done on current gen. All that will be different is the graphics all round will be worse to achieve it, there will be some old renderign techniques for sure, but the actual game will not suffer. Now Horizon 2 is cross-gen simply because of when it started development, but open world games are fundementlaly being held back by last gen fron an IO perspective a lone, let alone CPU and GPU.

A prime example is a game like GTA. If you look at the asset loading in Rift Apart how quick, it can replace the contents of its RAM now put that into an open world scenario. In games like GTA you cannot enter most buildings, the reasons for the IO bottlenecks primarily, but also memory and CPU bottlenecks. Now you could potentially go up to a door, and during that 1 second or so animation of opening the door the entire interior of that building can be loaded in, along with all the AI scripting and so on.

I would argue this is a fundamental shift for the medium. Some will not be excited by this possibility but for games like GTA and developers for rockstar who want to make as much of a living breathing world as possible, this is a game changer. Sure, the open world formula will be the same, but the key systems behind it and the believability of the world are going to increase dramatically. However, for your average gamer nothing has really changed they are still fundamentally doing the same thing they have been doing for multiple generations now, there is no revolutionary shift in the actual gameplay, it will just be enhanced. The milage people get out of that will vary dramatically.

Sony here do have an advantage this generation however, Sony are prepared to take risks, games like returnal show that they are not afraid to get out of their comfort zone, and their games will be designed around that SSD and PlayStation is so big, that Sony can afford to take risks and some losses along the way. However, games that have a game pass budget which is based on a system that is not making a profit will likely not.  It would simply be financial loss on top of a financial loss.

There will be developers like Double Fine who will always strive to be creative, even if they are not always successful but the amount of time and resources it would take to utilize the potential of the new systems the chance of seeing that on a game pass budget are infinitesimally small. The ones that may be born that do strive to do something a bit new, are likely to look very budget and be quite short. As this generation goes on, I can only see the realities I mentioned coming into fruition, and Sony giving their size and profitability will be the ones to drive the medium forward.

They have already confirmed over 30 games in the work, with new Ips in the double digits. Sony focused on that SSD for a reason, they have plans and they needed the custom SSD to achieve that. The digital foundry video with Insomniac is a decent watch and explains some of this.

So, what am I trying to say here? If you were not impressed by Rift Apart, then it is highly likely you will be impressed this generation depending on the type of gamer you are. I may be wrong, but if you are expecting some fundamental shift in gaming, the chances of that happens is simply not incredibly thin. Everything is just going to be dialled up and built upon, worlds will be built upon further and there will be changes in game design due to HDDs being a relic of the past.  There however is nothing really that has not been done before because it could not be done but will be possible now.

There are a few exceptions to this rule but for the most part, this is a generation building upon the last and giving artists and developers much more freedom to focus on making worlds rather than having to find work arounds to get their vision to work. Anyone with a next gen console need to get their expectations in check, marketing and fundamental tech misunderstandings have, I am afraid, made some fundamental misunderstandings of what this generation is about.

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