It’s surprisingly hard to keep up with the oncoming generation of video games. You’ve probably heard some buzz about game streaming, 8K support, and “ray tracing,” but what’s really going on? What’s the big picture of next-gen gaming?
Game Streaming Will Be King…Eventually
Streaming may be the most revolutionary aspect of next-gen gaming. You’ve probably heard all about Stadia by now, so we’ll keep things short and sweet. With a game streaming service like Stadia, you can theoretically play any game in 4K at any time. And since the games are streamed to your screen, you can technically play resource-heavy AAA games on any device—including your Chromebook, your phone, and your crappy off-brand tablet.
Even if you don’t care about game streaming, you have to acknowledge that it opens a world of possibilities for gamers. Game streaming doesn’t require an expensive console or gaming PC; you just need a decent internet connection. Plus, Microsoft’s xCloud and Sony’s PlayStation Now are a good sign that traditional gaming may cripple under the convenience of game streaming.
That said, game streaming won’t dominate the gaming market out of nowhere. It’s going to be a slow-moving process. For one, the technology is relatively new, and it’s already off to a rocky start. But the real hurdle is internet data caps.
Most Americans have the 35Mbps internet speeds that are required by services like Stadia, and the incoming advent of 5G is sure to increase home internet speeds globally. But most internet plans have data caps. And as it stands right now, game streaming services can blow through 1 TB of data in less than 24 hours.
This isn’t an issue for everyone (services like Google Fiber and Verizon FiOS don’t have caps), but it’s a serious restriction for gamers that are stuck with Comcast or those who can’t afford an unlimited data plan. As time goes on, some of these ISPs are sure to drop their data caps (or risk losing customers). But until then, services like Stadia will be hidden behind an ISP garden wall.
Better Hardware, Better Everything
Game streaming will bring resource-heavy games to low spec machines, like cheap desktop computers and Chromebooks. But console gaming still exists, and the next generation of game consoles will sport some crazy specs.
The new Xbox (Project Scarlett) is rumored to run on a custom AMD Zen 2 processor with an AMD Navi GPU for high-resolution graphics and ray tracing (more on that in a bit). Microsoft claims that the next Xbox will also utilize a super-fast SSD as virtual RAM (alongside GDDR6 RAM), which should increase load times dramatically.
As for the next PlayStation, you can expect some sort of AMD Ryzen 8-core CPU, a GPU that supports high-res graphics and ray tracing, and a super-fast SSD. Sony hasn’t released the console’s spec sheet just yet, but you can watch a load-time comparison between the PS4 Pro and the next-gen PlayStation posted by Takashi Mochizuki on Twitter.
You’ll Have 4K HDR Games at 120 FPS (And Maybe 8K?)
Current gen consoles (namely the Xbox One X and the PS4 Pro) are capable of outputting 4K video. But the majority of these consoles’ games aren’t available 4K. And of course, when the games actually support 4K, it comes at the expense of frame rate.
Microsoft and Sony have made a few bold (albeit vague and possibly baseless) claims about 8K gaming support. The thing is, these consoles would need some very expensive GPUs to keep up with the demand of an 8K 120 FPS game. So it’s possible that they only support 8K for multimedia purposes (watching movies).
As for game streaming, Stadia has already set the bar with its claims of 4K 60 FPS gaming, and other game streaming platforms are sure to follow suit. But it’s unlikely that we’ll see 8K game streaming anytime soon due to internet speed limitations.
Get Ready for Ray Tracing
As always, gamers will spend the next console generation arguing about frame rates, video resolution, lag time, and a handful of other familiar talking points. But you can expect a new buzzword to come into the mix: ray tracing.
Ray tracing is an automated simulation of the physics of light. In other words, a computer simulates each tiny ray of light that’s emitted by a light source. It tracks how each ray reflects off of objects, and even how it enters a virtual camera (your POV).
The thing is, ray tracing is a resource-heavy process, especially when it’s done in real-time (in a game). For this reason, ray tracing is traditionally reserved for pre-rendered graphics, like animated movies or 3D art (a great example being Toy Story 4, where the lighting looks amazing).
Current gen video games use very basic light sources. They rely heavily on game models that are “painted” for different lighting conditions. They look great, but they don’t look real. (Some PC games have an option for rudimentary ray tracing, like Battlefield V and Shadow of the Tomb Raider).
But, over the next few years, you can expect to see ray tracing in some AAA console games. NVIDIA predicts that the first ray tracing-only game will land in 2023, and the next-gen consoles will include GPUs that can handle some ray tracing. Of course, game streaming services may be the best platform for ray tracing, as the games can be run on supercomputers that are much more powerful than any home console.
Expect Disc Drives and Backward Compatibility
Remember when the Xbox One was revealed in 2013? Kotaku called the announcement a disaster, but in retrospect, some of Microsoft’s early ideas about the Xbox One were pretty forward-thinking.
We’re not talking about forced Kinect use or bizarre DRM policies— those ideas are genuinely ridiculous. We’re talking about Microsoft’s emphasis on digital downloads, a sort of precursor to the game streaming revolution that’s right around the corner.
But forward-thinking doesn’t necessarily mean good, as Microsoft and Sony have come to find out. Most gamers still prefer physical discs over digital downloads. The lack of day-one backward compatibility support on the Xbox One and PS4 has been a common complaint among gamers for nearly a decade.
So, most gamers will be happy to know that the next-gen Xbox and PlayStation consoles should feature disc drives and backward compatibility. Just keep in mind that this may be the last generation of consoles that feature disc drives—Microsoft’s already shown its interest in disc-less consoles with the Xbox One S.
VR and AR Will Continue to Grow
VR and AR still have a long way to go, but the technology is getting better every day. This is mostly thanks to new hardware, like super powerful GPUs, ToF cameras, and high-res OLED displays (which are already shaking up the world of VR).
Hardware will always get better, so the real hurdle for VR and AR is software development. To take advantage of the “immersion” of VR and AR, game developers need to figure out how to make giant “real” environments in a short amount of time. Automated ray tracing and 3D environment mapping should help (you can scan a real room and stick it in a virtual environment), but VR and AR developers still have a lot to figure out.
The Stakes Are High, So Keep Your Expectations in Check
Looking forward, the next generation of gaming feels very bold and unpredictable. It’s hard to shake the feeling that a big change is coming, whether it’s the death of console gaming or the true realization of VR.
And at the same time, it’s hard to avoid a feeling of skepticism. Will game streaming services actually work, or is it all just an empty promise? Will the new Xbox and PlayStation consoles support 8K gaming, or are Sony and Microsoft just trying to turn attention away from Stadia?
Game companies feel that the stakes are high, and they might say anything to grab your attention (to be fair, empty promises are nothing new). So, keep your expectations in check, or you’re bound to be disappointed at least once.