The Case For and Against Cross-Gen Video Games

What both sides are missing about the entire argument.

Earlier this week, PlayStation Worldwide Studios head Hermen Hulst casually revealed that the upcoming PlayStation 5 sequel to the PlayStation 4 God of War would not only be delayed out of its 2021 target date but would also come to PS4, hardware that originally released in 2013. In the same breath, Hulst confirmed that Gran Turismo 7, once Sony’s graphical centerpiece, would be joining it on the predecessor console, in addition to the already-announced Horizon: Forbidden West.

Predictably, many people were not happy about this.

Which is not, you know, completely shocking. Cross-gen games have always been just over the edge of controversial, exponentially more so the deeper into the new generation you get. While there’s a grudging acceptance, maybe even encouragement, of third-party cross-gen titles at launch, the hardcore sect of the gaming industry tends to treat the very idea with disdain. The thing is, they’re not wrong. And really, neither is Sony. Cross-gen games have advantages and disadvantages that typically get ignored in these conversations.

From a gameplay perspective, people who scoff at a cross-gen God of War or Horizon are probably a little justified to do so, and a decent bit of the blame here lies with Sony. In the run up to this current generation, Sony could not stop talking about the new experiences that the PlayStation 5 would make possible, which created the inevitable assumption that games would do things that the PlayStation 4 simply could not. God of War and Horizon, games that clearly pushed the PS4 to its limits, are fundamentally not going to be able to take advantage of the PlayStation 5 the way a game built solely, and exclusively, for it might. While it’s likely the PS4 version will be worse and the PS5 version will be better, it’s equally doubtful the newer console will be able to excise the cruft of the previous generation’s hard drive and processor in the ways they affect game design.

On the other hand, who cares? Games are limited all the time. The main reason this matters to people now is that they can visualize exactly how the compromises are made, but developers around the industry would be happy to explain the tricks they used to make things work around hardware limitations before. These are still likely going to be very good games regardless if they came out on the PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5 or PlayStation 6. The dirty little secret is that game design was never going to fundamentally change so much that made cross-gen on these things impossible — different, sure, but not impossible.

The business argument also has a few sides to it. By making a game PS5-exclusive, Sony is excluding the 100 million PlayStation 4 owners out there from possibly buying their game. As games get more expensive to make, and the PS5 only hitting profitability this month, it’s almost irresponsible to put out games for such a small potential audience. It’s currently hard to get a PS5 and unlikely to get easier any time soon, which makes opening these games up to PS4 owners fairly important if you do eventually want to get a PS5-only God of War game down the line.

But I also think the money argument is part of what makes hardcore gamers mad about the entire cross-gen situation. It makes it clear that, despite the slogans about being for the players and the emphatic belief in generations, these are all ultimately products that they want you to buy. It lays bare the churning gears of game development are oiled by money first and foremost and that the artistic endeavor of great game making is done at best parallel to those concerns. It makes people face an uncomfortable truth and they would rather reality be more about producing the best video games than prioritizing the best way to make an industry run.

There’s also data, limited as it may be, that given two versions of a cross-gen game, generally the newer generation sells better. So while there is a bigger potential audience on the PlayStation 4, the key word there is potential. In much the same way that people always hold out hope they might become rich, PS4 owners just assume they’ll get a PS5 eventually and don’t want to bother with a last-gen version of the game.

My own read is that ultimately this never really matters. The games will come out and they’ll either be fantastic or disappointing and very few people are going to pin the reasons for either on an older console. No one today remembers or cares that Persona 5 had a PlayStation 3 release, nor are Metal Gear Solid V’s virtues or flaws attributed to compatibility with the previous generation. It will just be a historical footnote, a little bit of trivia before the next one rolls around, just in time for everyone to get mad about PlayStation 6 games having PlayStation 5 DNA.