PS5 Lead System Architect Mark Cerny Says We’re In “Third Era” of Gaming History

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In a video from Wired released on Friday, Mark Cerny, the Lead System Architect behind the PS5 hardware, breaks down the process of creating the incredibly popular (and powerful) console. Cerny touts the widespread adoption of ray tracing as just as significant a shift as the move from 2D pixelated graphics to 3D polygonal graphics in the 1990s.

“If you look at the 50 year history of games, it splits pretty neatly into two eras. The first era — Pac Man, Sonic the Hedgehog — is games that are built entirely out of flat components. The second era — Crash Bandicoot, Uncharted — these are games built out of 3D triangles with effects on them,” Cerny says.

“Thanks to ray tracing, we’re now entering a third era, and the visuals have the capacity to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Ray tracing is radically different technology; it’s pure computation. There’s a database in RAM that contains a description of the video game world, mostly triangles and boxes. And then there’s support in the GPU hardware for seeing if a line intersects that geometry. If the hardware is fast enough, that unlocks new approaches to lighting, shadows and reflections.”

In addition to discussing ray tracing, Cerny talks through the PS5’s other important inclusions: the SSD, GPU, CPU, Integrated IO, DualSense Wireless Controller, and more. Cerny states that the design process for each new console begins with brainstorming. At the beginning, there’s a list of the ideas that hardware architects wanted to include with the previous console, but couldn’t. Then, there’s a second list, which includes “all of the things that the game development community would like to see.” Cerny says that Epic’s Tim Sweeney was among the most vocal advocates for the inclusion of an SSD in the PS5 — a decision that has resulted in many games boasting loads that take mere seconds.

“Bringing the game development community into the hardware development process is something that’s pretty recent, historically speaking,” Cerny says.

“Over the years, that was a dialogue that, personally, as a developer, I’ve really been wanting to have. I’m looking for developers that give me the hardest time and the ones who really have strong opinions about what it is that they need to make the game that they’ve been dreaming of. Those are just brutal meetings to be in. But they’re good to have because at the end of the day you’re making a stronger console.”

Additionally, Cerny notes that the console’s Integrated IO has resulted in smaller file sizes for PS5 games than for their PS4 counterparts. Subnautica, which weighed in at 14 GB on PS4, is a lightweight 4 GB on PS5. Control: Ultimate Edition, which took up a hefty 50 GB on PS4, is “about half that size” on PS5. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, too, is smaller on the PS5.

“That growth in size from the assets had been offset by the improved technology for compression,” Cerny says of Miles Morales.

At this point, the PS5 is too young to conclusively say how significant a shift its technological improvements will represent for the future of gaming. It’s difficult to see a future where the addition of ray tracing marks as big a shift as the addition of an entire dimension back in the ‘90s. But, it seems significant that Cerny, who has worked on games as diverse as Marble Madness (1984), Crash Bandicoot (1996), and Death Stranding (2019), and on Sony’s hardware since the PS2, views the technology as being that important.

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