How concerned should we be about Sony’s cross-gen approach?
Despite Sony’s many hints of drawing a stark line between the PS4 and PS5 libraries leading up to its launch, it appears that line isn’t going to be quite as clear or significant as many thought, at least at first. As a result, many who bought the PlayStation 5 thinking that they would have Horizon Forbidden West and Sackboy all to themselves are now realizing that’s not exactly the case, and many who decided to wait on getting a PS5 are now feeling emboldened by that decision, opting to wait even longer, perhaps even long enough for a price drop or special edition bundle, as they can now expect to get PS4 versions of many of the PS5’s most anticipated games. While PS5 owners can of course expect to get superior versions of those games, it goes without saying that their lack of exclusivity to that particular console has been underwhelming to see for some, and even inspiring some buyer’s remorse here and there. Are those feelings justified though? Is the cross-generation nature of many of Sony’s upcoming exclusives a problem to worry about, an advantage to celebrate, or something in between?
As with most issues like this, particularly in the gaming space, there are valid points to be made on both sides as well as overblown ones. Let’s start with what’s reasonable. On one hand, If you task a developer with making two versions of a game, one of which is limited by the constraints of a previous generation’s seven year old console, It’s fair to suspect that the more modern version might suffer certain setbacks due to time and resources being spent on making sure the inferior version works as well as it can on the aging hardware it’s being developed for.
Will Horizon Forbidden West look as good as it would have on the PS5 had Guerilla taken all of that extra time and effort that they are spending on a PS4 version and instead put it all into that one PS5 version? Will it take advantage of all the bells and whistles that the PS5 offers? Will it run just as well and be tested as thoroughly as it would have had they opted to not spend time on a PS4 version? It’s worth asking. After all, we have seen some evidence of this working against the game’s favor in the past with other developers of other games that were caught between generations and often ended up having four or five different versions made. Watch Dogs and The Evil Within immediately come to mind as games that, while certainly not terrible-looking games, felt somewhat held back on the PS4, PC, and Xbox One versions, whereas their sequels, which did not have last-gen versions, didn’t feel that way nearly as much.
Of course I would never expect a developer to come out and say that their game was held back by having to make too many versions, as that would be a PR nightmare, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that to be the case in at least some situations, especially the ones with so many versions. However, we also have evidence of the opposite. Resogun eventually launched on all three of Sony’s main platforms and all three versions turned out great, despite the PS4 version’s particle effects initially seeming like something the PS3 or Vita wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of handling. The difference? The Evil Within and Watch Dogs were third party games and had a lot more versions to make. So the fact that multiple versions are being made is certainly not the only factor worth considering.
That said, if we’re talking about cross-gen first party games that are just being developed for two consoles that basically share the same architecture, it’s also reasonable to assume that the amount of time and resources needed to competently develop those two versions is not nearly as herculean a task as making 4 or 5, with more variation of platform types between them. 2 is a lot less than 5 when you’re talking game versions, especially when those two versions are in the same ecosystem and one if just scaled back. Even still, it’s worth asking which system is the target for the game, i.e., is Horizon Forbidden West being made primarily for the PS5 and a scaled-back version for the PS4, or is it being made primarily for the PS4 and having some bells and whistles thrown in for the PS5? Does that even matter to a great enough extent for us to notice it on the final product? These are questions that Guerrilla has yet to be asked, much less have a chance to answer, but it’s definitely a project to keep an eye on to see how well this transition is going to work out for cross-gen multiplatform games.
We do have some examples we can already look at though, like Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Both games were developed for PS4 and PS5 and both games launched on those platforms simultaneously. Where does that bring us? Well, so far, it seems to be working out fine. Spider-Man Remastered and Miles Morales on the PS5 both have some very fancy ray-tracing and 60-frame modes that feel right at home on new gaming consoles. While I think we will be expecting a little more from natively PS5-focused software in the future, so far, it’s looking like Sony is handling the transition with the TLC that each and every game requires. Only time will tell what third-party developers do with their games as they decide whether or not to go with multiple versions or fewer versions with more polish, but at least on Sony’s end it looks like it’s going well and we probably don’t have a whole lot to worry about on that front.
Just like with last-gen and frankly most generations before, the vast majority of games that are developed for current and past hardware do a pretty decent job of taking advantage of both. That’s not to say you won’t notice a difference between a game that was only developed for the PS5 and the game that was developed for the PS5 and PS4, but for most, there doesn’t seem to be very much reason to suspect the difference will be big enough to make you regret getting either version. That’s not to say that save file transfers and upgrading from PS4 to PS5 versions of certain games won’t be confusing though, as different games have different ways of handling these situations and there is no blanket solution, but that is perhaps a different conversation for a different time.
Moving on to the slightly less reasonable argument against cross-gen first-party exclusives, is the sense of buyer’s remorse that certain people are having after buying PS5 and realizing that many of the launch titles are also getting last-gen versions. This is something I struggle to be sympathetic to. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t buy a new console just so you can celebrate having games that other people don’t. You should buy a console because you want that console, and you want the games for that console. If other people are getting to enjoy some of the same games on a previous generation console, that shouldn’t really affect you one way or another, other than perhaps being happy for them being able to play those games. Especially considering that you know your newer version of that game is going to be nicer and that your version of that game is likely not going to be impacted much at all as we discussed earlier. Console generations do not exist to exclude people out of games, but rather, they exist to open the door to new things that were not possible before.
It’s true that after a couple of years go by we will see last-gen versions of games dropping off as Sony focuses solely on current-gen, and some folks will be left out in the cold until they buy a PS5, but that is just an unfortunate side-effect of new generations existing. It’s not the intended feature. The line has to be drawn somewhere at the end of the day. But the most important thing to take away is that not all multi-generational games are held back in problematic ways, especially when we’re talking about 1st party titles. How many platforms it’s being made for, who is making them, and what sort of approach they are taking to development are all things that impact how it’s ultimately handled, not just whether or not it’s cross-generational. And so far, at least in Sony’s corner, it’s being handled reasonably well.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.