What Is “Next-Gen”? How SSDs are Shaping Gaming’s Evolution

In November, Sony and Microsoft released their newest home video game consoles. Along with a bevy of new games and features, the releases also mark the return of the ever-elusive “next-gen” descriptor. “Next-gen” has historically attempted to quantify the unquantifiable; there’s no number of polygons that qualifies a game as “next-gen.” It seeks to describe a feeling, an experience, something that wasn’t possible until this very moment when business, art, and engineering meet in a virtual experience unlike any other.

In the past, processing power has dominated the “next-gen” conversation. In the ’90s it was Blast Processing and bit quantity, but through the 21st century, the conversation shifted to CPUs and GPUs. How fast is the console’s clock speed? How many cores does it have? How much memory can it access? The formula was clear: faster processing meant better games, and the race to the fastest, beefiest, most powerful consoles began throughout the video game industry.

This race might be nearing its end, though, with the release of Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X/S. The component that’s caught the most attention isn’t a processing unit of any kind — it’s the solid-state drive (SSD). While processing power is important for rendering and simulating game worlds, these are less important now given that games have ballooned in size. Modern games require an incredible amount of data to be moved at lightning-fast speeds, which is where the SSD comes in. Now developers fashion these high-quality assets to be delivered with speed and consistency. In a recent study, video game publication Eurogamer found that SSDs could slash load times by up to 62%.

The sudden ubiquity of these drives is empowering a major shift across the industry. SSDs will not only change how games are made but will also remediate how people play their games.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jun Liu, Director of Field Engineering at Western Digital, in an interview about SSDs in the new consoles, “it’s unprecedented.”

How SSDs Are Changing Game Development

First, it’s important to understand how flash storage is changing the machines themselves across the industry. The Nintendo Switch, released in March 2017, was the first home console to adopt flash memory. The Switch’s flash storage allows users to transport the machine anywhere or dock it to a TV for a traditional home console experience. The SSD’s size and portability unlocked this new, flexible way to experience games, powering sales of more than 70 million units over the console’s life so far.

Sony and Microsoft included solid-state drives in their newest console offerings, a decision that actually had multiple benefits for the machine as a whole. Liu pointed out that because of the smaller size of the SSDs, the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S had more room for cooling and needed less power to run. That space and power-saving from the SSD helped the two companies fit better processing components while maintaining lower operating temperatures, which in turn helps performance.

And that’s to say nothing of the changes SSDs are bringing to the development of games themselves. Justin Miller, a software engineer and co-founder of Echtra Games, explained how impactful the switch to SSDs is for him and his team, highlighting that it helps everyone from the network engineers to the artists. “The amount of thinking that used to go into how to package things such that it was efficient on a [hard-disk drive],” Miller said in an interview, “that freeing up is huge.” Getting all that time back means developers will spend less time trying to get things to just work, reasoned Miller, and more time focusing on “what’s interesting for the player.”

Miller also discussed at how SSDs are making games look better as well, hinting at “better textures and larger scenes,” in higher fidelity. Higher quality assets already exist, whether they’re built for cinematic blockbusters or they’re scanned from real-life artifacts, the problem has always been how to get those into video games. SSDs are making that possible. “It’s huge to just have an SSD and it just… loads what you want,” said Miller.

The possibilities of what can be made now are almost staggering. The next step for games is to develop beautifully detailed assets and a deep pool of diverse character animations, with load times so quick the player hardly notices the load at all. The more games can mirror and simulate the real world, the more compelling developers can make narratives and experiences.

How SSDs Are Changing Player Experience

Bigger, better, faster, stronger, that all sounds great, but how does this impact players?

First, both of the major consoles released this holiday season have their own features that take advantage of the new SSDs. Microsoft is offering what it calls “Quick Resume,” a feature that allows players to suspend a game in the middle of a play session, hop into another game, and resume play in the newly booted game exactly where they left off within a matter of seconds. No-load screens, no pressing start, gameplay resumes within seconds. GameSpot called Quick Resume “a literal game-changer,” marveling at its sub-10-second load times.

Quick Resume can also change the way a play session is structured. Imagine sitting down to play video games for the evening and loading up your single-player game of choice. Forty-five minutes later, your friend hops on and asks if you want to play a match or two of your favorite first-person shooter. You can suspend your single-player game, hop instantly into the multiplayer menu of the game, and be queued for a match with your friend in seconds. You can then hop right back into your single-player game, looking at the exact screen you had left it on earlier.

Sony’s offering, dubbed “Activities,” takes a different approach to restructuring play and saving time. In the system’s UI there are a series of cards associated with the game. These cards house the Activities, delineated tasks that have clear goals and objectives, a percentage to indicate how much of the task has been completed, and the estimated time to complete the given task. Once the player selects an Activity, the system loads the game to the exact moment where that task begins, skipping load screens and title screens much like Quick Resume. Players spend less time figuring out what they were doing last time and more time on making progress and, simply, having fun.

Patrick Klepek, a writer for Vice, highlights how the Activities changed how he played Spiderman: Miles Moralesone of Sony’s flagship offerings for their new console. “You could scan the map to find an enemy base to invade,” wrote Klepek, “or you could just pull up the card for one, and immediately be dropped into the activity.” Games like Miles Morales are open worlds, offering game worlds that are sprawling and flooded with tasks that fill up the in-game map. With open-world games, it’s sometimes difficult to just hop in and do something worthwhile. Activities can fix that. “Find an activity, go-to activity, finish activity. Check!” explained Klepek, “the PS5 says this one activity will take 15 minutes, and I’ve only got 10? OK, I’ll do something else.”

And the efficiency doesn’t end there. Liu highlighted the intelligence of the drives in the new consoles, enabling “housekeeping tasks to be done in the background,” meaning game updates and installs could happen while users use the console to stream their favorite show.

So What?

The average player spends six hours and 20 minutes playing every day, or roughly 2,305 hours a year. SSDs may only save seconds at a time, but that amount of time saved year-over-year means players are spending less time waiting and more time doing. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that kind of the point? Let players do more of what they love.

It turns out what is “next-gen” isn’t power or specs; it’s an evolution that completely and comprehensively reframes the way video games fit into our lives. Squeezing more time out of each gameplay session is crucial, especially as gamers get older and busier. Spending less time troubleshooting party invites and game queues increases the amount of time sharing a cherished hobby with friends. Background updates cut out hours-long download and installations, meaning when you do feel the desire to pick up a controller you can just play.

When data is the script of that evolution it means that SSDs are the star player. As Miller put it, “Everything we ship to the player is a whole bunch of data. The less you are bound by that, the more experiences you can create.”

So, no, it’s not a wicked fast CPU that enables virtual reality. And, no, it’s not a hulking GPU that renders more polygons than you can count. It is a tool that empowers and enables every aspect of the games industry to thrive and grow into itself. From developers to players, SSDs are changing the way we fit games into our lives.

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