Opinion: Microsoft and Sony have shared details on how backwards compatibility will work for next-gen, and one company is putting a much stronger foot forward.
The next-generation of consoles continues to come into focus. Both Microsoft and Sony have shared a lot of details on their new consoles in recent weeks, and one element that is resonating particularly strongly with consumers is their different approaches to backwards compatibility--or, at least, the messaging of how this much-loved feature will be implemented. Right now, based on what we know today, Microsoft's Xbox Series X has a huge advantage over Sony's PlayStation 5 in terms of overall list of supported backwards compatible games and messaging about the feature, thanks to Xbox's support of generations prior to the current one.
What We Know
Sony's "deep dive" on the PlayStation 5 this week saw PlayStation system architect Mark Cerny giving an extremely developer-focused talk about the technical specifics of the next-gen system. On the subject of backwards compatibility, Cerny mentioned that Sony expected nearly 100 of the most popular PS4 games to be playable on PS5 at launch this holiday.
A subsequent post on the PlayStation Blog offered some additional insight. It reported that "almost" all of the top 100 PS4 titles ranked by play time will be playable at launch for PS5.
In both the livestream and blog post, Sony's comments were somewhat ambiguous about whether only those top 100 games would be playable at launch, but that has since been clarified. Sony says "that the overwhelming majority of the 4,000+ PS4 titles will be playable on PS5," and that it has "already tested hundreds of titles and are preparing to test thousands more as we move toward launch."
"We're expecting backward compatible titles will run at a boosted frequency on PS5 so that they can benefit from higher or more stable frame rates and potentially higher resolutions," Sony explained. "We're currently evaluating games on a title-by-title basis to spot any issues that need adjustment from the original software developers."
That last note is key, as Xbox's solution doesn't involve any actions needing to be taken by developers.
Looking at the competition, it's clear Microsoft is currently at a huge advantage for backwards compatibility with the Xbox Series X. For its part, Microsoft has said since E3 2019 that the Xbox Series X will support four generations of Xbox games, covering thousands of games in all. The console will play titles from Xbox One, Xbox 360, and the original Xbox, in addition to next-gen titles.
The Xbox Series X will play every Xbox One game (of which there are more than 3000), as well as more than 600 Xbox 360 and original Xbox games that currently play on Xbox One through backwards compatibility. Some titles, of course, may not join the backwards compatibility catalog due to licensing issues or if they use unsupported tech like Kinect.
Microsoft told IGN in 2019 that the intent is for all 3000 Xbox One games to be playable on Xbox Series X at launch. However, the company acknowledged that this will be a big challenge given the size of the back catalog of games that it wants to bring forward.
No matter the specifics of its backwards compatibility plans, Microsoft's ambition is grander and, in presenting that, it has been clearer than Sony in its messaging. It remains to be seen if either company will follow through on their specific promises, but Microsoft is seemingly pushing harder as it relates to supporting older generations through backwards compatibility.
Beyond The Numbers
And beyond numbers, Microsoft is speaking more openly about its desire to offer a seamless transition for players looking to buy into the Xbox Series X, whenever they choose to do so. Knowing that all existing Xbox One games will be playable on Xbox Series X is a very big deal because people can have the confidence to buy into the next-gen console knowing that their games (as well as progression and game saves) will move forward with them, without question.
Microsoft also has a new feature for the Xbox Series X called "Smart Delivery," which ensures that players who buy a game on Xbox One will get the upgraded and improved version for Xbox Series X at no extra cost. It remains to be seen how this works, exactly, and not every title is supported, but it sounds like yet another consumer-friendly move from Microsoft. If Sony is planning a similar feature for PlayStation 5, it has not yet been announced.
Xbox Strengthens Its Position As A Backwards Compatibility Leader
The backwards compatibility program for Xbox One remains one of the system's most beloved and celebrated features, and it's been one of the key differentiating factors when comparing against the PS4. For comparison, the PS4 does offer backward compatibility thanks to PlayStation Now, which streams PS2 and PS3 games to the PS4, but this incurs a subscription fee, in addition to the bandwidth-heavy streaming requirement (some games do allow for downloading, but not all). For comparison, the Xbox One's backward compatibility program is free for those who have already bought the older titles.
Sony's stance on backward compatibility is not completely surprising, given that high-ranking PlayStation executive Jim Ryan doesn't believe in the feature's importance.
"When we've dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much," Ryan said in a 2017 interview with Time Magazine, before he became president and CEO of PlayStation.
Ryan's stance might have changed by this point, as PS5's backwards compatibility offering goes beyond what PS4 offered.
Xbox Charges Back
Microsoft lost the current-generation console race to Sony, with projections putting the PS4 at around double the sales of the Xbox One. Xbox boss Phil Spencer, who did not rise to his current position until after Don Mattrick left Microsoft following the Xbox One's disastrous debut, said the Xbox One dug itself too deep a hole to climb out of as it relates to competing directly with PS4 on a console sales basis.
This must have stung Microsoft, but being in the second position behind PlayStation spurred the company to make a number of bold choices to help lay the groundwork for future success. This included acquiring numerous studios (including Ninja Theory and Playground Games) to beef up its games portfolio, launching new services like Xbox Game Pass to help people try new games they might not have otherwise, and using xCloud to help expand the reach of Xbox beyond the console alone.
The backwards compatibility reveal at E3 2015 was a career highlight for those working at Xbox, and the feature was quickly embraced and supported by fans. It represented yet another move from Microsoft to give players a reason to buy into Xbox, and the investments Microsoft made in its backwards compatibility tech and infrastructure back then are now paying even more dividends to help the Xbox Series X start strong. Microsoft has also said that first-party games released within the first two years of the Series X will also still come to Xbox One, and their ecosystem means that later adopters will immediately have access to updated and improved versions of the games they've bought.
The future of gaming is not about one platform in particular, it's about an ecosystem, and Microsoft is leading the way by breaking down the traditional walls and unlocking your games to work wherever you are. Or, at least, that's the ambition.
Sony Will Be Just Fine
No matter what backwards compatibility program the PS5 ends up offering, all signs are pointing to the console being an extremely powerful, developer-friendly system that will once again prove itself to be a must-have console to play the latest and best games. In particular, the PS5's SSD could prove to be a literal game-changer. After riding high with more than 100 million units sold for the PS4, the system has a massive installed base and a long list of excellent games that could get sequels on PS5 to help drive sales even further. That's all well and good and expected, and people don't buy new consoles first and foremost to play old games. It's just too bad that Sony isn't following in Microsoft's footsteps in giving players the option to enjoy more of their older games with backward compatibility. And if they plan to, it's a shame they haven't said so.
This story has been adjusted to reflect Sony's updated statement regarding backwards compatibility.