SIX MONTHS AFTER its November 12 debut, the PlayStation 5 is well on its way to being a success story for Sony. As of March 31, the company had sold 7.8 million of the new video game consoles worldwide—enough, in both units and dollars, to make it the biggest console launch in US history. Bigger than the Nintendo Wii. Bigger than the Xbox One. Bigger than even the PS4. And who knows what that number might be if everyone who wanted one was actually able to buy one.
In the world of gaming, PlayStation reigns supreme, but it isn’t Supreme. It’s not engineering scarcity to create marketing buzz like a streetwear company; it’s trying to get its $399 console into customers’ hands. Which is exactly why, in the same breath that he’s using to discuss how the PS5 is outpacing even its mega-selling predecessor, Sony Interactive Entertainment president and CEO Jim Ryan is apologizing.
“We’re working as hard as we can to ameliorate that situation,” Ryan says on a Zoom call, mere hours after receiving his second Covid-19 vaccination shot. “We see production ramping up over the summer and certainly into the second half of the year, and we would hope to see some sort of return to normality in terms of the balance between supply and demand during that period.”
If you’re among the unlucky not-quite-few still having trouble getting their hands on one, you already know the beats of this story too well. Back in November, the twin launches of the PS5 and the Xbox Series X came in the midst of a global lockdown—and what felt like perfect timing for stir-crazy gamers proved to be a perfect storm for sales snafus. The same production and logistical snarls that made it damn near impossible to get a home appliance last year curtailed distribution. In the absence of factory visits and in-person quality checks, vendor relations became far more challenging. When release day finally came, the necessity of online-only sales opened the door for bots and predatory resellers to scoop up big chunks of precious inventory and jack the prices higher than Usher’s falsetto. And then there’s the semiconductor shortage that has affected TV companies and carmakers alike.
So promises of amelioration may feel like cold comfort. But whether you’re among the 7.8 million who already have a PS5, or the millions who might have one if not for that whole unprecedented-global-disruption thing, the real question is whether the PS5 is delivering the experience. Are developers harnessing its feature set to create games that weren’t possible before? Have first-party and indie studios navigated the pandemic well enough to keep the pipeline of exclusive titles stocked? Is the PS5 proving to be, as PlayStation chief architect Mark Cerny promised two years ago, a revolution rather than an evolution?The short answer is yes. The slightly longer and more accurate answer is, it’s getting there.
THE DAY A new game console comes out is about far more than a shiny new piece of hardware. It’s also traditionally a chance for a company to make an argument for said hardware through software—including games that could only be played on that console. System-sellers can happen anytime, but launch system-sellers are a special breed. Think Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox. Resogun on the PS4. Super Mario 64. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Hell, think Wii Sports. (And yes, Nintendo has always leaned on its launch titles harder than anyone. It’s had to—it doesn’t compete on console horsepower, instead attracting customers with gotta-play-it first-party exclusives.)
But by 2020, when the Series X and PlayStation 5 arrived to signal the dawn of a new generation, those expectations had changed somewhat. The PS5 may have launched with a dozen titles, but nearly all the standouts, from Spider-Man: Miles Morales to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, could be played either on the PlayStation 4 or another platform. On paper, this might have been disappointing. Consider, though, that the best PS5 games weren’t there to be exclusives; they were there to be showcases.
People could web-swing through Manhattan as Miles Morales on their PS4, but they couldn’t fast-travel across the city in mere seconds unless they were on a PS5, with its load-time-killing solid-state hard drive. They could enjoy the scenery on the PS4, but they couldn’t see Miles’ reflection in buildings and puddles as they passed without the ray tracing effects that the PS5 enabled. ”When you can see true reflections in a video game, it’s a pretty spectacular moment for players,” says Ted Price, founder and CEO of Spider-Man developer Insomniac Games.
Beyond dialing up eye candy and intensity, those early titles also became a barometer by which Sony Interactive could gauge how developers were utilizing the new features the PS5 made possible—not just ray tracing or the SSD, but 3D audio capabilities, or the robust haptics of the DualSense controller and its “adaptive triggers” that can deliver variable pressure. Just because a machine can do something doesn’t mean developers will take advantage of it, either immediately or at all. But last summer, at a console reveal event, Sony showed off a double handful of titles that would be arriving for the PS5, six of which featured ray tracing. “That’s astonishing,” says Cerny. “I thought ray tracing was something that would be used in second- and third-generation titles. I thought that maybe an early title might show a little bit about the potential, and it would be one of those things where you’d be wondering, as somebody involved with the creation of the hardware, was this worthwhile to be put in, given the associated cost in silicon? And to have that question answered the very first time titles were shown in public was amazing.”
Amazing because some console tech never catches on, either because it’s simply not intuitive (Cerny cites the PlayStation Vita’s rear touchpad) or because it takes time to learn the intricacies of a new machine. Anytime a new console is on the horizon, and again when it’s released, Cerny travels around the world talking to studios about its capabilities, and he’s heard it all—including literal boos, as when he told one unnamed developer years ago that the forthcoming PS4 might use a bit of Flash memory to help cache data. (The boo worked; Sony moved away from that architecture choice.)
Cerny’s most recent developer tour happened virtually, of course, but he was surprised by what he found. “The conversations can be very contentious,” he says. “I actively seek out the people who will have strong opinions, who clearly lay out all the issues they’re having with the hardware, so that we can get busy thinking about how we can address those in the future.” The PS3’s architecture made it difficult to get a graphics pipeline going; the PS4’s CPU wasn’t as powerful as folks hoped. The PS5, Cerny says, has found miraculously little pushback.
NOW, SIX MONTHS after launch, a new phase of PS5 games has begun: titles that are leveraging the console’s capabilities to push forward. First was Returnal, a console exclusive from Housemarque, the same studio that created PS4 standout Resogun. The creepy roguelike shooter received raves for its inversive narrative techniques and atmospheric gameplay—gameplay that tapped into the PS5’s 3D audio and haptics like nothing before it. When players run through an overgrown biome on a hostile alien planet, the raindrops somehow feel like they’re coming through the controller itself. Aiming your weapon at an attacking creature is a two-part process: Your trigger stops halfway to use your usual sidearm, and depressing it more unlocks the weapon’s secondary function. (Astro’s Playroom, a cute platformer from first-party Japan Studios that came preinstalled on the PS5, shows off the DualSense’s haptics as well, but it functions as a tech demo as much as a game.)