Sony revealed the user experience for the PlayStation 5 on Thursday, and the 11-minute demo positively flies by as Sony employee Sid Shuman rattles off new features and functions. Much in the demo impresses — some of the features have never appeared in a game console before — but some of it leaves important questions unanswered.
By far the most exciting new feature in the PS5 UX is anchored to the redesigned Control Center. This screen can be accessed at any time during gameplay by pressing the PS button, bringing the menu up from the bottom of the screen while the game continues to run in the background. There, players can perform standard control center actions — check controller battery, use console power options, play music, and so on. But they can also access a new feature called cards.
These cards sit above the system options, where they show the various tasks, missions, quests and so on the player has active in whatever game they're playing. Called Activity Cards, they provide a huge leap forward in the console user experience. Activities represent in-game tasks, and detail the objectives players need to fulfill to complete the quest in question. They can also see a personalized estimate of how long that Activity will take to finish based on their play habits, and jump directly to the place in-game where the Activity can be completed.
This wealth of information, available to players at the press of a button, is a major quality of life improvement. That you can go from a console menu to the exact location of your next in-game objective is a huge convenience, and knowing how long it will take to finish is a feature I've always loved in my Kindle. I'm skeptical about how accurate it will be — there are so many variables in how games are played — but if it's at all reliable the PS5 will offer a significant boon time-strapped gamers.
But Activities do even more than that. With a PlayStation Plus membership, players can also access spoiler-free hints and guides for certain games and objectives. Those guides can take the form of videos that can be streamed independently or in a picture-in-picture mode while you continue playing your game. No more whipping back and forth between a computer and the game, trying to mirror the movement and getting increasingly frustrated — players can follow the steps in real-time as they show up on-screen. It's hard to imagine a better solution to getting lost, or for finding in-game secrets.
Of course, these systems all come with caveats. Developers themselves have to set up the access points for Activities, and for the Activity cards themselves. It's impossible to know how long they'll make the effort to support Activities, particularly the guide feature. It's not impossible we'll find ourselves a year or two down the line with only a few titles supporting the system.
There's also the question of games without obvious objectives or directions. As Vice Games reporter Patrick Klepek pointed out on Twitter, it's hard to imagine how Activities might work in the upcoming Demon Souls remake, or in other Souls games for that matter. Those games provide no direct explanation of where to go or what to do, relying on the player to figure it out for themselves. Beyond the difficulty of implementation, giving explicit objectives to players in those games would rob them of some of their essential mystique. It's hard to see how developers will balance the twin necessities of convenience and mystery.
There's plenty more to the PS5's user experience — an integrated PlayStation Store, picture-in-picture screen sharing, a seamless screenshot experience — but Activity cards are the most important innovation by far. Sony's got a strong hand, and it's pushed a lot of chips forward. Only time will tell how the game will play out.