Sony says the PlayStation 5’s SSD will completely change next-gen level design

Sony’s “Road to PS5” live stream featuring system architect Mark Cerny kicked off today, and we’re learning a great deal about the technical jump the upcoming PlayStation 5 will allow for game developers.

The beginning of the talk was focused solely on the new console’s solid-state drive (SSD), specifically, the commercial 825GB M.2 SSDs that Sony says will hit speeds of 5.5GB of input data per second, and much more of compressed data. What does all that mean for players and game developers? Well, Cerny is saying it means the PS5’s input-output speed will get 100 times faster, and that will change everything from load times to level design.

In particular, Cerny said that the new SSD in the PS5 won’t just make it so you never have to wait at a blank screen again; that’s a given because of the architecture of SSD compared to hard disk drives that allow an SSD to seek and pull data on the drive almost instantaneously. Going further, Cerny added, the SSD will completely change how developers think about a game is created.

“The primary reason for an ultra-fast SSD is that it gives the game designer freedom. Or to put that differently, with a hard drive, the 20 seconds it takes to load a gigabyte can sabotage the game the developer is trying to create,” Cerny said. “Say we’re making an adventure game, and we have two rich environments where we each want enough textures and models to fill memory, which you can do as long as you have a long staircase or elevator ride or a windy corridor where you can ditch the old assets and then take 30 seconds or so to load the new assets.”

Cerny says most modern game developers more realistically “chop the world into a number of smaller pieces” to avoid those extra-long elevator rides. But the end result is that you have levels designed with twisty passages and long, repetitive environments that are there solely to account for load times and to avoid kicking the player to a black screen. Cerny cites Haven City in the classic adventure game Jak 2.

“The game is 20 years old, but not much has changed since then. All those twisty passages are there for a reason. There’s a whole subset of level design dedicated to this world, but still, it’s a giant distraction for a team that just wants to make their game,” Cerny explained. “What if the SSD is so fast that, as the player is turning around, it’s possible to load textures for everything behind the player in that split second? If you figure that it takes half a second to turn, that’s four gigabytes of compressed data you can load.”

Everyone who’s played a video game over the last two decades has experienced the situation Cerny is talking about — the long elevator rides or the windy passages. And it’s interesting to think that all of that has likely been deliberate to account for large files loading and being kicked off memory to make room for new ones. And for files that are simply too large, like in the case of fast traveling, well… we’ve seen what that means: the blank screen or, as Cerny put it, the “Spider-Man riding the subway” segments of PS4 exclusive Marvel’s Spider-Man.

So the idea that an SSD will be enabling this much of a jump is rather exciting. It means game developers can totally rethink level design and all of the corner-cutting and compromises they have to make just to ensure the player isn’t sitting doing nothing for many seconds or even minutes at a time. The concept of loading entirely new levels in less than a second means that the next consoles due out this fall — Microsoft’s Xbox Series X will also have an SSD — will truly feel like the ushering in of a new generation.

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