Let’s think about this. Disappointing as it might be, we’re not getting a new PlayStation or Xbox in 2019. There are a lot of reasons why. But I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, and I think I have figured out at least one very good reason. AMD, Sony, and Microsoft all declined to speak about future products when I asked them about this theory, but just because they won’t talk to me about my theory, doesn’t mean it’s pointless. So what’s my theory? I think the graphics architecture Microsoft and Sony need to build their consoles just isn’t ready yet.
Now hear me out. Look at what we know so far:
1. Sony and Microsoft are using the same base GPU architecture
We know both consoles are based on the RDNA architecture produced by AMD (RDNA is frequently used interchangeably with its internal codename, Navi, however, AMD has asked that we use RDNA to refer to the architecture and Navi to actual GPUs).
2. Both consoles will use ray tracing
We know that both consoles will include for support ray tracing, a fancy form of lighting 3D modelling that traces each point of light from a source to the model and creating much more realistic images. Sony announced the support for ray tracing back in April (while also detailing that the PS5 will have an 8-core CPU based on AMD’s Zen 2 architecture).
Microsoft announced Project Scarlett’s support for ray tracing on Sunday. The company has supported ray tracing even longer. It first released the DirectX Ray API in 2018. That API allows developers to introduce ray tracing into applications for the Xbox, Windows 10, or both.
3. Ray tracing is really hard to do
We know that ray tracing looks very cool but generally requires hardware acceleration because it is extremely demanding on the GPU. When Nvidia rolled out the Turing architecture last year, it insisted ray tracing could only be done on consumer devices via hardware acceleration. This March, it finally announced software-based acceleration for its last-gen GPUs, but that form of ray tracing is extremely limited compared to what hardware accelerated GPUs can do. In one instance an Nvidia GTZ 1080Ti, which can typically do nearly 100fps on Metro Exodus, dropped to below 20fps with ray tracing turned on.
It is unlikely that a new console would include ray tracing that’s software accelerated.
4. 8K playback is hard too
We know that the Scarlett and the PS5 will support 8K resolution, which is extremely demanding on the GPU. That is a pretty difficult task for a modern GPU to accomplish. The current AMD Radeon VII and Nvidia RTX 2080Ti both do between 60 and 70 fps on Far Cry 5 in 4K with max quality. Double the resolution would knock the framerate down significantly.
Now consider ray tracing. We know that the RTX 2080Ti can do 80 to 90 frames per second in Battlefield 5 at 4K resolution. Turning ray tracing on drops that number to 64 frames per second. And that’s one of the best cards with ray tracing available right now! AMD isn’t even doing ray tracing yet so we can’t judge how much the framerate will drop on a RDNA based GPU with ray tracing turned on. We can assume it will be a similar 20 to 30fps drop.
5. A version of RDNA that can do it all won’t be available until 2020
We know that the current generation of RDNA probably can’t do all of that. Earlier this week I attended a series of briefings for the press by AMD. It showed off the capabilities of RDNA and boasted that it will be just as fast as Nvidia’s Turing while using less energy and taking up less space on a board. Notably, the version of RDNA showed off doesn’t include hardware-based acceleration for ray tracing, which I think it needs to handle ray tracing and the other demands Sony and Microsoft have made of the GPU.
And we know that the version of RDNA that can theoretically handle it all, won’t be available until 2020. When the company outlined its vision for ray tracing, AMD’s David Wang, Senior VP of Engineering, made it very clear that the current generation of RDNA isn’t capable of hardware acceleration. According to Wang, that generation of RDNA won’t even be available until 2020.
This matters! Hardware acceleration is vital if a GPU wants to be able to maintain the other taxing features, like 8K or 120fps support. These consoles are supposed to last for years to come, and if they’re choking on content out of the gate, they’ll be a miserable set of gaming choices for any of us to play.
I could be wrong about all of this. Presumably the PS5 and Project Scarlett have been in development for some time now, as the companies have to build the custom chips based on AMD architecture first, then test them to make sure they work practically perfectly, and then create developer kits so game developers can actually get their hands on the architecture and develop for the damn things. That needs to be happening right now if these companies want to have a bunch of gorgeous games ready by launch in late 2020.
But, as one game developer familiar with developing for multiple platforms told me (the sources in this story were given anonymity as they are not authorised to speak without PR present), “It’s true that games can’t rely on the hardware being available, so non-ray traced fallbacks have to be created and maintained.” What they mean is that some stuff will have to be developed now with the hopes of hardware eventually being available. “[I]t’s just a part of doing business at the moment that you have to write graphics to both ray traced and non-ray traced APIs,” they added.
Which means that ray tracing version of RDNA could be the thing Sony and Microsoft are waiting for, and one of the things holding their consoles back.
Less of a working theory is another AMD claim.: The company says that using the same architecture on the PS5, Project Scarlett, and future PC gaming machines benefits not just developers but also gamers that play their games. The claim was a significant part of the story the company pushed when briefing me on Zen 2 and RDNA.
AMD hopes that even when its parts don’t beat rivals from Intel and Nvidia in basic benchmarks, that we will invest in them because future games are being built on its architecture.
Two different game developers familiar programming for multiple platforms told me that AMD was essentially right. “Yes and no,” said one. “It’s a spectrum for sure.” The problem is while the architectures are the same, there will be little quirks to each system. It’s not, for developers, all one system. They still have to code for the PS5, and Project Scarlett, and the myriad of cards and CPUs based on RDNA and Zen 2.
Ray tracing will further complicate that. If companies want to implement it, they’ll have to do a version for the Nvidia cards already supported, and for each next-gen console, and for the cards AMD eventually produces. One developer told me this means that even when ray tracing comes, it won’t necessarily be as spectacular as the hype claims. “[S]ince not all vendors agree about how many recursive rays you can depend on being supported etc, there will still be some development towards a “lowest offered support.”
There are likely quite a few reasons these consoles aren’t coming until 2020, but the need for ray tracing support, which is clearly lacking in the architecture we’ve seen so far, seems like at least one very good reason while we’ll have to wait.