Jun 3, 2021 - Technology

Blurring the gaming industry's generational divide

Illustration of PS4 and PS5 consoles dissolving into each other.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Sony's surprise commitment to make its most-hyped PlayStation 5 games also run on the PS4 is more proof that the start of this console generation is unlike any other.

Why it matters: The gaming industry has long driven its customers to crave the latest technology, but that’s changing.

  • A de-emphasis on exclusive games for the new PlayStation and Xbox makes it easier — perhaps tempting — for gamers to put off purchasing the latest hardware at the highest price as soon as possible.

PlayStation's head of game development Hermen Hulst revealed in an in-house interview on Wednesday that the next "God of War," a 2021 flagship game only announced for the PS5, would instead come out in 2022 on PS5 and PS4.

  • PlayStation 5 launched last November with a mix of PS5 exclusives (“Demon’s Souls,” “Astro’s Playroom,”) and games that ran on PS4, too (“Sackboy: A Big Adventure,” “Miles Morales: Spider-Man.”)
  • That’s standard, but it has not given way to more PS5-only games.
  • Next week's "Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart" may be PS5-only, but Sony's other announced mega-games, including 2021/2022's "Horizon Forbidden West" and "Gran Turismo 7," are coming to PS4 and PS5.

This has confused some fans, in part because Sony PlayStation boss Jim Ryan said last year that "we believe in generations."

  • Ryan's comment appeared to signal a wave of upcoming next-gen-only games, a contrast with a new approach pursued by Microsoft's Xbox.
  • Xbox executives had pledged last year that their big games for their new Xbox Series X/S consoles would also run on the previous generation's Xbox One, for the new machines' first year or two.

Flashback: PS4 launched in late 2013 with games that didn't run on PS3, and, by 2014, Sony's in-house development for PS3 all but stopped.

The big picture: Games made for a 2020 console that also have to run on 2013 tech simply can’t be as advanced as next-gen exclusive games.

  • It's true that history's best-selling and most widely-loved games, from "Tetris" to "Wii Sports" to "Minecraft" to "Fortnite" thrived despite — or perhaps because — they ran on more easily affordable tech.
  • But the business of selling consoles had always involved the proposition that you needed a new console because it would enable games that weren't previously possible, and Sony's PS5 architect, Mark Cerny, had said as much about PS5 last year.

Between the lines: Hulst said Sony's cross-gen commitment was good business, as it makes these new games available to the more than 100 million people who own the PS4.

  • Selling games cross-gen can help, but it doesn’t guarantee bigger sales or, more crucially, bigger revenues, NPD analyst Mat Piscatella told Axios. 
  • He said first- and third-party game publishers need to factor in, among other things, the cost of making a game on multiple generations of technology, the impact of competing games and, new to the PS5 at least, the fact that games made only for the prior console can run on the new one via backwards compatibility.
  • “[We] have the widest variety of market approaches from the big console manufacturers on offer than we ever have seen before,” he said.”Each major manufacturer (and most publishers) seem to be building their assumptions, and doing that math, a bit differently.”

The bottom line: It's going to be hard to find the new consoles for a long time, so Sony and Microsoft releasing games in a way that lets more people play them will probably be good for most people, even if it frustrates others.

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