Sony, Microsoft and the great cross-gen debate
Have the champions of next-gen gaming deceived us after all? At long last… answers.
So! Gran Turismo 7 is out, Horizon: Forbidden West is out, Halo Infinite has been available for a while, as has Forza Horizon 5. Two flagship PlayStation titles along with two flagship Xbox titles, all of impressively high quality overall, all commercially successful, all extremely important to their respective platform holders for a variety of different reasons. There is one thing all four have in common, though: they are all cross-gen titles, having been released for the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X, but also for their predecessors: the PS4/PS4 Pro and the Xbox One S/X respectively, systems that launched almost a decade ago. A lifetime in video gaming terms.
It used to be that the term “cross-gen” was not controversial in and of itself. The months leading up to the launch of the PS5 and the Xbox Series S/X made it so, though, because of the different marketing strategies Microsoft and Sony chose to implement. Microsoft, eager to present a consumer-friendly face to the public, insisted that “XSX and XSS belong to a family of devices” and that its own games will be released “for all these devices”, meaning that future big Xbox exclusives would be available to Xbox One S/X owners too. Sony, on the other hand, eager to please hardcore PlayStation fans and boost PS5 pre-orders, insisted that “the company believes in generations of hardware”, meaning that its own future games would focus on the new PlayStation’s capabilities just as they always have in the past.
Things played out quite differently, of course, in a way that’s indicative of a messy situation as a whole. Bluntly put, both companies backed on their initial promises. Sony released the new Horizon and Gran Turismo for the PS4 as well as the PS5 (God of War: Ragnarok will follow suit), while Microsoft has not spoken at all about its own future games — like Forza MotorSport, Fable, Avowed and Everwild — in the context of Xbox One S/X since late August 2020. It appears that only games deep in development when the Xbox Series S/X launched, such as Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5, were part of that cross-gen discussion after all.
Arguably Sony deviated from its original path in a much more controversial way, releasing Spider-Man: Miles Morales as a PS5/PS4 cross-gen title at launch, leading many to point out that it couldn’t have done so without planning for this at least 18 months prior. Microsoft also changed its initial cross-gen tune, later promising that “first-party games released within the first two years of XSX/XSS availability will run on the Xbox One S/X too” — which, excluding Flight Simulator, may turn out to be true in November 2022, funnily enough!
The opinion of yours truly about all this has always been clear, expressed comprehensively here on Medium: the “Games can scale between generations” notion is a myth, an invalid concept that’s ultimately misleading. So now that four such AAA first-party cross-generation titles are out, now that one can argue based on how these games “scaled” between vastly different PlayStation and Xbox models, there are questions to be answered. Did Microsoft and Sony actively deceive consumers with all that “next-gen” and “cross-gen” talk? If they did, was it intentional? Was it something that could be helped, something that circumstances dictated or something that was expected to play out that way from the very beginning? Could either company have handled this differently? How? Let’s break it all down.
Did Sony and Microsoft lie to gamers? Yes, they did.
If one refers to “next-generation games” in a literal sense — in the way most consumers think about “next-gen games”, as content that couldn’t exist in the previous generation of home entertainment systems because of their older hardware — then… yes. By that logic, both Sony and Microsoft did deceive consumers by designing their flagship titles, the ones that usually work as “system sellers” — Halo, Forza Horizon, Gran Turismo, Horizon — in a way that would allow them to work on older hardware too.
One can tell by playing all four titles — Gran Turismo 7, Horizon: Forbidden West, Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 — that they all lack one thing: ambition. They are all extremely well made, but they play exactly the same on the PS4/PS4 Pro — or the Xbox One S/X respectively — as they play on the PS5 and the Xbox Series S/X. Their graphics on the newer systems boast a higher level of detail and motion is smoother in higher resolutions, but that’s because graphics do scale, whereas the way games themselves work in gameplay terms does not. It is as simple as that.
It’s no coincidence that for all four titles several publications pointed out the same thing: that these games function like PC games, offering different graphics quality presets. By employing dynamic resolutions, adjusting the level of detail on the fly and keeping special effects active or not, developers essentially offered impressive eye candy “wrapped around” the same core experience for all systems. But it is the “minimum requirements” system the one that defines the entertainment experience as a whole in the PC world and, in the PlayStation/Xbox case, that system is the PS4 and the Xbox One.
Ironically enough, it’s Sony’s own recent “second-tier” games that drive that point home. Titles like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart or Returnal, offered exclusively on the PlayStation5, prove that if a game is designed to take advantage of specific modern hardware features, it can indeed offer the kind of entertainment experience that older hardware cannot deliver. The “hopping between dimensions” of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart or the true 3D, multidirectional, interactive audio of Returnal play an actual role in the delivery of enriched, enhanced gameplay. These titles would simply not be the same games on a PS4/PS4 Pro, as those systems do not sport super-fast SSD storage or sophisticated audio engines.
Long story short: by not making sure that their flagship titles — the ones consumers are interested in the most, the ones they would buy a PS5 or Xbox Series S/X for — are built around the actual capabilities of the newest hardware, one can argue that Microsoft and Sony did deceive consumers. They promised “next-gen” entertainment experiences but delivered “cross-gen” ones, which is not the same thing. Not the same at all.
Did Sony and Microsoft lie to gamers? No, they didn’t.
There’s a flip side to that coin, though, and it comes down to a different definition of the “next-gen games” term. Are cross-gen versions of those games for the new systems “next-gen enough”, if they are better than their “previous-gen” counterparts in several important ways? Some seem to think so… and they may also have a point. It’s one thing to play a game in 1080p at 30 frames per second, for instance, it’s another to play the same game in 4K at 60 frames per second with high-fidelity effects turned on. The “feel” of the game may be pretty much the same, yes, but the superior graphics offered by the more powerful systems make for a more enjoyable experience overall.
Then it’s the “quality of life” improvements and the new capabilities of the latest PlayStation and Xbox systems that make their versions of those exclusive flagship titles better overall. The PS5 versions of GT7 and Horizon: Forbidden West do not make creative, innovative use of the system’s SSD storage, for instance, but the much shorter loading times are very much appreciated (going back to the PS4 versions is admittedly hard after being used to almost not waiting at loading screens anymore). The same goes for the Xbox Series S/X titles, as they also take advantage of those systems’ SSD storage. Microsoft’s machines even offer the handy Quick Resume function, meaning that for most games there’s literally no waiting at all for jumping back in after rebooting those systems.
Sony does strive to make use of the unique advantages the PlayStation5 brings to the table, too, even when they do not make a night-and-day difference. The advanced features of the DualSense controller, for instance — the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers — do not fundamentally change the way gamers play PS5 titles such as GT7 or Horizon: Forbidden West, sure, but when going back to the PS4 versions of those games control suddenly feels “flat” and pedestrian in comparison. The PS5 versions of these cross-gen games also do not feature the same kind of 3D sound that affects gameplay — like the sound of Returnal does — but it’s still richer and more convincing than the plain old “pre-scripted” surround sound of the PS4 versions.
Long story short: technically speaking, Sony and Microsoft could argue that they do offer “next-gen” versions of these cross-gen titles because, admittedly, a lot of small things can make a big difference overall (especially over time). Both companies make a point to take advantage of the advanced capabilities of their new systems in cross-gen productions whenever and however they can. That counts for something, even if the promise of “next-generation entertainment experiences” does not accurately describe the most important aspect of these cross-gen titles, gameplay, which is largely unaffected.
Did they or did they not, then? They kind of did, but it’s… fine?
Having considered all of the above, then, answers. Did Sony and Microsoft deceive consumers by initially promising “next-gen” games and then delivering “cross-gen” ones? It might sound like a cop-out, but here it is: it all depends on one’s expectations. In the eyes of consumers who expected new games that take full advantage of the new PlayStation and Xbox systems’ feature sets right out of the gate, both companies lied. In the eyes of gamers who did not really expect that, but rather better versions of the entertainment experiences they are accustomed to, neither company lied.
Thing is, the promise of something new is part of the excitement companies like Sony and Microsoft try to create around their latest systems leading up to launch. So, in essence, there was intentional misleading involved at some level, since both companies knew that their respective titles — GT7 and Horizon: Forbidden West, Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite — would also be appearing on the older PlayStation/Xbox systems and that the core mechanics of those titles would be bound to those systems’ capabilities. They only made their future plans known after their new systems launched, which was anything but accidental.
Some fellow journalists like to bring up three factors that may have played a role in this: the COVID-19 pandemic, the global chip shortage and the lack of the necessary software tools for focused, 100% next-gen game development. The latter, they claim, did not exist when the development of those four titles started, so it was hard for Sony and Microsoft to focus on the new systems. That may be true for third-party games depending on third-party tools, but both platform holders are much better positioned and can easily develop for new systems exclusively if they mean to (Returnal and Ratchet & Clank are proof of that). The global chip shortage directly affected the user base of the new PlayStation and Xbox, yes, while the COVID-19 pandemic did make game development harder for everyone indeed — but decisions on a cross-generation strategy were taken by both companies way, way earlier. None of those three factors played an important role in all of this.
So could Sony and Microsoft have handled this whole “cross-gen” situation differently? Short of actually developing their flagship titles exclusively for their new systems — which, let’s be real, made little financial sense — yes, they absolutely could. They could simply have been honest from the start. They could have gone on the record when announcing the new PlayStation and Xbox to confirm right there and then that yes, the first and second wave of titles for these would also be appearing on their predecessors (as they did anyway later on). Early adopters would not have been fazed by that: the advantages of the “next-gen” versions of those games are clear and compelling (early adopters will purchase new systems anyhow because that is their mentality). Would we all be happy about it? No, probably not. Would it be preferable to how things turned out? Yes, it definitely would.
Funnily enough, one could argue that the way things played out actually benefits more gamers than the relatively few it may frustrate. The PS5 and Xbox Series S/X userbases stand at 19 million and 13 million respectively at the time of publication, far smaller than those of the PS4/PS4 Pro and Xbox One S/X, which stand at 117 and 51 million respectively — so way more consumers got to play these AAA titles than they otherwise would, had those games been exclusively next-gen. With the global chip shortage still in full swing — it’s still next to impossible to find readily available PS5 and XSX systems for purchase — this will continue to be the case for some time to come. All in all: some disappointment for a number of gamers, some relief for many more, higher sales and additional revenue for Sony and Microsoft in any case. So maybe it’s… fine, all things considered.
More than a month before the PlayStation5 and the Xbox Series S/X launched, yours truly published a story here on Medium claiming that “The next generation of gaming consumers are looking for does not start in November” (2020). For the hardcore gamers and/or early adopters the meaning was obvious: regardless of tech specs, neither system would offer a definitive “next-generation entertainment experience” at launch, which turned out to be true. In some respects it’s still true: it will be only when the next Gran Turismo, the next Halo, the next God of War, the next Forza Horizon or other titles of that magnitude launch exclusively for the current, powerful systems, that the actual “next-generation” of video games will have officially begun. Let us get back on the subject sometime in… 2024, then?