News of the next generation of consoles has slowly trickled out over the last couple of weeks. None of the news gives us a clear view of either Sony or Microsoft’s consoles—instead we’ve only gotten teases of each. And those teases have had wildly different focuses. On one hand, you have rumors of what Sony’s hardware will look like, and on the other hand, you have rumors of Microsoft distribution tactics.
All told, they paint a picture of a future that will be a natural step up from the current generation, with no grand leaps in technology if you’ve spied a game playing on a high-end PC in the last year or two. In fact, the most interesting picture painted is with regards to how we’ll play a lot of these games. Specifically, it looks like streaming games from some central server farm could be a major component of the next generation of games—and if that’s the case, we’re really screwed.
Let’s go over the rumors as they stand first, just so we’re all on the same page. On the Xbox side, Brian Crecente reported at Variety that Microsoft, and major game developer and distributor Ubisoft, both seemed to see the future of gaming in streaming.
Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot was very blunt, telling Variety that, “With time, I think streaming will become more accessible to many players and make it not necessary to have big hardware at home.” He went on to posit that “there will be one more console generation and then after that, we will be streaming, all of us.”
Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, the company’s executive president of gaming, was far more coy—never outright saying that the console’s days were numbered. Instead, he pushed the recent company line that games should be hardware agnostic. “I care less that people play Minecraft on an Xbox One, but that people can play Minecraft no matter what console or device they have in front of them,” he told Variety.
Gaming, he went on to say, is “less about having specific devices to play a certain game on, but having your favorite games accessible on any device you have.”
There are certainly a variety of ways Microsoft can make gaming less dependent on the gamer’s hardware, but the most obvious way is via streaming the games from a central server—which is something Spencer actually admitted Microsoft was looking into. During Microsoft’s E3 press conference, he said the company was developing a streaming service to deliver “console quality gaming on any device.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the only route of game delivery for Microsoft, but it definitely indicates that streaming is where Microsoft sees a big part of its future.
Less clear is where Sony sees streaming. But unlike Microsoft, it already has a powerful streaming infrastructure in place. The PS Now gaming service streams games directly to players’ consoles, and PS Vue lets customers stream TV.
So, could the PS5 take things further and be a streaming-first device? That’s very much unclear! The strongest rumor we have heard about the PS5 is that it will feature AMD hardware. That in and of itself isn’t a surprise. The PS4 and Xbox One are both based on AMD CPUs and GPUs.
According to Forbes, the AMD hardware developed specifically for the PS5 nearly derailed the company’s PC GPU development cycle. The new PS5-focused GPU architecture, known as Navi, will be based on the 7nm process. Forbes reports that it will work in conjunction with a CPU based on the current Zen microarchitecture. Whether these two processors will be a semi-custom system-on-chip or structured more like a traditional PC remains to be seen. The former seems more likely simply because that’s what AMD has been doing for gaming consoles for years now, and it is very good at it.
So, how does this hardware relate to streaming? Well because of what we know about Navi. PCGamesN has done some pretty significant reporting on the new GPU architecture. First, PCGamesN reported that Navi, while powerful, wouldn’t be a super-powerful GPU like the current Vega or the 10-series from rival Nvidia. Instead, it’d be a mid-range GPU.
Then PCGamesN reported that the GPU wouldn’t only be less powerful, it wouldn’t have the ability to scale quite like Zen. See, Zen CPUs use AMD tech known as Infinity Fabric, which lets AMD pair a whole lot of CPUs together and enables the software running on those CPUs to see the system as a single, extremely powerful processor.
Many assumed Navi would do the same thing for GPUs. But David Wang, the senior vice president of engineering for AMD’s Radeon Technologies Group, told PCGamesN that wasn’t the case. The conversation is laden with tech talk, but Wang essentially places the blame on game makers, who would have to code their games to see the package of GPUs as a single GPU.
What this means is that a potential PS5 released in 2020 wouldn’t even necessarily be as powerful as a gaming PC built now in 2018. That’s a problem, because next-generation games are already, according to Arthur Gies for Variety, choking on top-tier PC systems. Consoles can squeeze a lot more performance out of hardware thanks to the fact that they don’t have to multitask as much and that game developers can code to specific hardware instead of designing games to work on a wide range of hardware, but it’s still a tall order to ask them to develop for something not even as powerful as a gaming PC built today.
But if streaming is a part of Sony’s next console, then the hardware isn’t as important. It could direct play some games, while more powerful games could be streamed.
And here’s where we get to the big problem. If streaming is a big part of the next generation of consoles then a whole lot of gamers are going to be pissed. Nvidia is already streaming resource-intensive games to its Shield console now, but the experience is… just adequate. That’s because streaming a game—especially one with 4K resolution, or HDR, or at 60 frames per second or higher—requires a lot of bandwidth, and many American gamers simply don’t have access to internet service that can handle it.
Nvidia’s service requires requires at least 15 Mbps for 720p at 60fps and 25 Mbps for 1080p at 60fps. If it could handle higher resolutions, the bandwidth requirement would increase accordingly. Which means getting a game to look as sharp as it does on your PS4 Pro or Xbox One X could easily mean needing 30 to 40Mbps.
According to Akamai, the average internet speed in the United States is just 18.7Mbps, which would deliver just 720p at 60fps. Worse, a quarter of homes in the U.S. are unable to get broadband-level speeds, which is defined as 25Mbps or higher. In fact, only one in five houses can get 25Mbps. Which means only one in five houses could effectively stream games—and even then, not at the quality they might be accustomed to when playing directly off a console.
Things are even more dire when you consider the cost of good internet. If you think paying for Xbox Live Gold or PS Plus is bad, consider that, according to one study, the U.S. is one of the more expensive places in the world to get internet. Right now the average price for 25Mbps is $66.17. That price fluctuates wildly depending on where you live. I pay around that for over 200Mbps here in New York City. My dad in North Texas pays more than that for… less than 10Mbps, and I know others, in rural areas, who will be lucky to pay that for just 3Mbps.
If those speeds and prices improve, streaming could become viable. But it’s not like that’s going to happen anytime soon. The current Federal Communications Commission has spent the last year gutting programs that make broadband more affordable, and the $2 billion plan to connect rural America still hasn’t begun. ISP can bid for areas to build out starting next month, but there are no guarantees that the winning bids will be required to provide 25Mbps or more, and the timeline for deployment gives them over six years to finish the job.
That means six years of mediocre gaming for at least a quarter of the U.S. The whole point of a new generation of gaming consoles is better graphics and a better gaming experience. If any part of it relies on robust internet speeds, it’s doomed for the foreseeable future.