Developers Are Finally Starting To Leave Last-Gen Behind

Developers Are Finally Starting To Leave Last-Gen Behind
Image: Warner Bros.

We’re now 18 months into the life of the PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S. The PS4 and the Xbox One are officially last-gen, a fact that’s become increasingly clear to anyone who’s tried to play Elden Ring on an old console whose fan sounds like a wind tunnel. Developers are also taking note, and recent cancellations of last-gen versions make it feel like the industry is finally reaching a tipping point where it feels comfortable leaving the PS4 and Xbox One behind.

One of the only remaining big blockbusters of the fall is Gotham Knights, but as Warner Bros. Montreal revealed last week, the Batman looter is now officially a current gen-exclusive. “To provide players with the best possible gameplay experience, the game will release on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC and will not be available for PlayStation 4 or Xbox One consoles,” the studio announced.

Last November, The Outsiders made a similar decision with its upcoming rhythm shooter, Metal: Hellsinger. The game was delayed to 2022, and last-gen versions were quietly canned, “in order to meet the high expectations for the game.” More recently, Brass Token followed suit. Its psychedelic horror game The Chant, previously planned for PS4 and Xbox One, will now arrive later this year only on new consoles. “At this stage we are focusing development on Gen 9 and PC to make sure they meet the highest quality standards,” a spokesperson told Kotaku. “News regarding Gen 8 versions will follow in the near future.”

There are a lot of factors that go into decisions like this as studios try to balance resources and hardware capabilities with getting their games in front of as many people as possible. There are an estimated 150 million PS4s and Xbox Ones out there, compared to many fewer PS5s and Xbox Series X/Ss (some estimates put the combined number of new / current-gen consoles at around 30 million). And in cases like Gotham Knights, which already missed one release date, cutting the last-gen version is one way to try and avoid further delays.

In some ways, a more definitive break with the past consoles is overdue, at least by recent industry standards. Batman: Arkham Knight was originally revealed and expected to release less than a year into the PS4 and Xbox One’s lifespan without last-gen versions. By the fall of 2015, Rainbow Six Siege, Just Cause 3, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and Fallout 4 had all left the PS3 and Xbox 360 behind. Compare that with 2022 in which Forspoken, Marvel’s Midnight Suns, and Hogwarts Legacy are all still expected to be cross-gen.

Image: SonyImage: Sony

The pandemic has clearly been one big driver for stalling the transition to the next console cycle longer than usual. In addition to console shortages shrinking the new install base, games that were originally supposed to arrive shortly after the powerful new consoles launched are now arriving years later. In fact, looking at how Sony and Microsoft have each treated the next-gen handover shows just how much the transition went off the rails.

You might remember a now-infamous quote PlayStation boss Jim Ryan gave shortly before the PS5 came out. “We have always said that we believe in generations,” he told GamesIndustry.biz in May 2020 when asked about making first-party games cross-gen. “We believe that when you go to all the trouble of creating a next-gen console, that it should include features and benefits that the previous generation does not include. And that, in our view, people should make games that can make the most of those features.”

These sentiments were in stark contrast to Microsoft’s, which had loosely committed to cross-gen compatibility for at least a few years. “As our content comes out over the next year, two years, all of our games, sort of like PC, will play up and down that family of devices,” head of Xbox Game Studios Matt Booty told MCVUK in January 2020.

But then the pandemic hit, and by June Microsoft had started sending mixed signals about what would and wouldn’t be cross-gen. With good reason it turned out: Games at the Xbox Series X/S showcase that summer like Avowed, Everwild, Forza Motorsport, Fable, and State of Decay 3 were all years away. It’s now unclear if any upcoming Microsoft games will still come to Xbox One. Sony, on the other hand, delivered a last-gen version of Horizon Forbidden West earlier this year, and God of War Ragnarök remains set to come to PS4 as well as PS5 if it still makes its 2022 release window. That’s a big if, but one that still completely flips Microsoft and Sony’s prior philosophies on their heads.

It’s not clear if that’s for the best either. Scaling down projects has its limits, and releasing on extra platforms adds more work. The PS4 and Xbox One versions of Cyberpunk 2077 were busted at launch back in 2020, and still aren’t great. In retrospect, those versions were a mistake. There are even rumblings that the lower-specced Xbox Series S has been a “painful” thorn in some developers’ sides. It’s a luxury to be able to buy new consoles, but with a few debatable exceptions, it doesn’t feel like any current-gen exclusives made it necessary yet, either. Gotham Knights probably won’t change that, but the flood of exclusive games to follow might.

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