With the topic back in the news again with a PS4 version of God of War Ragnarok confirmed (and with it a pivot to fairly much releasing most PS5 games on PS4, as Microsoft are with Xbox One), I wanted to start a thread which can hopefully at last cover the cross-gen release debate from several different angles. Angles both which explain why both competitors are releasing first party cross-gen, and also fuel a more comprehensive debate about whether they should be doing it or not. They are namely;
- Sales revenue from the games
- Quality/ambition of the game (on the latest platform)
- Effect on console sales.
The first effect is quite straightforward. More platforms means more sales by giving you access to more consumers. Dynamically you get more money which may or may not lead to more money invested in future games. There is something to be said about the fact that cross-gen games don’t tend to sell quite so well on last gen. This may have something to do with the fact that the consumers most likely to spend on new games are also most likely to have bought a next-gen machine.
The second effect reduces to the “limited by” argument. While I’m absolutely not a software engineer of any sort, there is a limit to the scope of the world you can create with old hardware. CPU limitations are the most constraining, especially with lots of AI and in open-world games. The argument goes that, especially if the game is targeting 60fps on last gen, the next-gen versions will invariably leave unused CPU headroom which could have been used to power more immersive worlds. GPU limitations are less constraining since differentials can be overcome by lowering resolutions and graphical options, while memory limitations can normally be overcome by squashing loading distances and cutting texture details. However, GPU differences can nonetheless relevant since developers of cross-gen games are less likely to choose a heavier engine which may compromise the last-gen version, but would deliver better graphics on the next-gen version. Yet in reality, it seems to me that historically we have seen early-gen titles use previous-gen technology regardless of whether they were gross-gen or not.
The third effect is also straightforward but is affected by the first two. If the game is available on your last-gen hardware, the urgency to go off and buy the latest machine is reduced since you now have an outside option to play it. Extra money earned by selling the game to PS4 users (1) is partially counteracted by fewer PS5 sales, and getting consumers aboard early is vital to give a system a strong start in the sales where momentum plays a huge part. Yet in a world where semiconductor shortages mean you’re already selling every PS5 you manufacture, this effect is completely academic. I think this has everything to do with the U-turn we've all witnessed.
So is it a good or a bad thing?