It’s beginning to happen. Sony’s Playstation 5 has been whispered about for years, essentially ever since the Playstation 4 came out back in 2013. That’s what a straightforward sequential numbering system gets you: we already know what this console will be called and so we can hold it in our heads better than the Xbox Ω or whatever Microsoft goes with this time. The whispers, however, are intensifying: there are rumors of development kits already out it in the wild, of big games being made with the new hardware in mind, of business strategies that would seem to require new hardware. Recently, we got a rare on the record acknowledgment of the future, at least in vague terms: that Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO John Kodera said the PS4 was entering the final phase of its lifecycle.
That doesn’t mean that the PS5 is around the corner, but it does mean that it’s coming at some point.
This is inevitable: hardware manufacturers gotta manufacture hardware, and nothing drums up business like a new machine. And yet it’s hard to look at these rumors knowing that we just only got God of War last month, or that we’ll be getting Red Dead Redemption 2 in the fall, or that Sony’s exclusive Spiderman game still looks amazing. And not only that, but the market for smaller games on the platform is flourishing as well. The PS4 has an established install base, a big library and a great future. It reminds me a little bit of the waning days of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation when developers were really hitting their strides with games like GTA 5 and The Last of Us. Call them the golden years if you must.
A console transition is a big, unwieldy event for the video game industry, and when we do make the transition to PS5 we probably can’t expect to see something on the level of God of War for a few years. That’s the nature of the beast, or has been for a few generations now: it takes developers a few years to learn the ins and outs of a new system, and it takes the install base a little while to justify big-budget production. The early days of every console are awkward, with the notable recent exception of the Switch–and that’s been entirely on the back of first-party development. I wouldn’t expect something similar with a PS5.
Consider the fact that Guerilla Games made the nice-looking but ultimately unremarkable Killzone: Shadow Fall for the PS4 launch. Last year, it followed things up with the epic Horizon: Zero Dawn. If we make another console transition, we’ll probably find ourselves closer to Shadow Fall days than Zero Dawn days.
And so while I know that we’ll be getting the PS5 sometime soon and that I will inevitably become excited about the prospect, I don’t really want it. I like this time late in a console generation, when we spend less and less time talking about hardware and more time talking about games. I like it when games have the potential to sell to a much larger install base, and when I’m not the only one of my friends with a shiny new system. It’s just so hard for a new console to not be a disappointment on some level, which is why we spend so much time at launch talking about potential rather than actual games in those early days, and why we obsess over numbers– it’s because we don’t have anything else to talk about. Right now we’re out of the “potential” phase of the PS4 and squarely in the games phase. I’d like to stay here for a little while longer, please.
There will hopefully be some technical advances that will ease the transition. Last generation’s transition to X86 architecture should make things a bit easier for backwards compatibility when the time comes, and the mid-generation upgrades raise the possibility of a forward compatibility that reduces the risk of developing for new hardware. A smooth line rather than a broken generational leap is better for the entire gaming industry, and both Sony and Microsoft are clearly working to make that happen. But this new conception of console generations is itself new, and comes with risks and unknowns.
We talk about the PS5 for two reasons. The first is that video games are a business and that the release of a new console is one of the biggest things that happens in that business, both for the manufacturer that releases it and for the wider ecosystem of console developers and publishers. The second is that we thought that the PS4 would make us happy, that we believed the sizzle reels when they told us that this was the machine that could finally realize the dreams we had about the power of graphics technology since we were little children, that the games it would be able to play would stretch the bounds of our imaginations. When the PS4 did not bring quiet to the unquiet mind, we began talking about the PS5.