Feature Article

Will Xbox Series X Normalize The Cross-Gen Library?

Consoles are becoming more like PCs. That may soon include keeping our libraries forever.

As the next generation approaches, both Microsoft and Sony have been outlining their respective visions for the coming years. And while upgraded hardware that pushes more triangles is always a priority in the games industry, both companies have increasingly turned their messaging toward the consumer-friendly features of the impending Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. One such highlight from Microsoft, the promise of a unified library that works across generations, could signal the way forward for the industry as a whole.

Backwards compatibility has been a talking point for platform holders for years, but in practice, the feature has been spotty. Some generations have eschewed it almost entirely, as hardware architecture became more complex and distinct from prior generations, and this marked a stark distinction from PC where most games remain playable forever. Microsoft refocused efforts on backwards compatibility in a big way on Xbox One. After first cutting ties with the Xbox 360 library almost completely, the company made inroads with fans by announcing a major initiative to retroactively import older games through firmware updates that would increase compatibility. Nowadays, it's difficult to find a popular 360 game that isn't playable on Xbox One, and those who amassed a large digital collection in the heady days of Xbox Live Arcade can see it all waiting to be downloaded in their game library. This effort has extended to a selection of the original Xbox's library as well, giving players access to almost 20 years of games.

Concept art for Halo Infinite
Concept art for Halo Infinite

A day might be coming when games are no longer thought of as tethered to a specific console.

With the Xbox Series X, the company appears primed to take the next logical step. It has made a point of hyping its "Smart Delivery" feature, which ostensibly allows you to transfer your ownership license of a game over to a new console when you upgrade, as long as a publisher enables the feature. But Microsoft has been clear that the transfer goes both ways--if you own a game and sign in to your account on a friend's Xbox One, you can still download cross-gen compatible games you purchased on Xbox Series X. Microsoft boasts that Smart Delivery will always provide the version optimized for your hardware, which may be increasingly important if the company adopts a multi-device approach to the new generation. Xbox Series X is expected to be the first of many hardware iterations to come, and the promise of Smart Delivery is that you won't have to think about which version to buy or fiddle with your graphics settings. The software will simply know what's best.

On a philosophical level, this could signal a sea change in how the platform holders approach game ownership. For decades, console game libraries have belonged to their respective platforms and been isolated there. Though this caused some consternation at the start--especially among parents not eager to shell out hundreds of dollars for a new console and games when the old ones won't even work--we've since learned to take it for granted. N64 games only work on the N64, for example. Many consoles have essentially been their own closed environments, and compatibility across generations has been inconsistent.

Now, though, platform holders are increasingly in the service industry, and a vital part of that strategy is keeping players inside their ecosystem. As long as you're buying digital games through their marketplaces and subscribing to services like Xbox Live, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and PlayStation Now, the hardware itself is almost an afterthought. The boxes themselves have become decentralized as the defining trait of the dueling platforms, so tying software to those boxes makes less sense than ever before.

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We can see this most clearly with Microsoft, which has emphasized ownership of first-party games across Xbox and PC. As the dominant PC operating system, it has a vested interest in both, and the company isn't terribly concerned if you play the next Forza on Xbox or your home rig. But while Microsoft is most clearly aligned with this strategy, Sony has signaled plans to imitate it. The competitor has reportedly made plans to use its live services to transition players from PS4 to PS5, and has even selectively started announcing plans to put some of its first-party games on PC.

In that light, digital ownership is becoming more holistic. You may simply own the next Halo or Horizon game through Xbox or PlayStation services, giving you access to them in perpetuity across any device that's compatible with those logins. (Microsoft's push into cloud gaming that can run on mobile devices adds yet another layer to this possible future).

Microsoft is leading the charge in this direction, but it's hard to see how Sony wouldn't follow suit. Already, publishers like CD Projekt Red have signaled a willingness to offer a scheme similar to Smart Delivery on PlayStation devices, if Sony offers it. Though we haven't heard of any such plans, Sony may very well already be intending to support this functionality and simply hasn't announced it yet.

A day might be coming when games are no longer thought of as tethered to a specific console. At that point, consoles will be more PC-like than ever, enjoying the ability to go back and play games from years gone by without futzing with plugging in old hardware, and to move forward into future generations without concern. Maybe then we'll take for granted that, of course, our library remains with us across console generations, or even across PC. Maybe our parents' grousing was right--we should be able to play all our old games. That day could be coming sooner than we realize.

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