One of the great traditions in video games has been The Cycle. No medium moves alongside the advancement of technology the way games do, which is very convenient for companies who sell gaming hardware, because it means they can sell you a new box again. And shucks, it turns out that the new box can’t play your old games. Hey, would you like to buy them again? We’d be happy to bring them over, they say, so long as you'll pay again.
Which, on the brink of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, bring us to today’s news:
Alongside revealing the hardware that will power its new high-end machine—12 teraflops is a lot, it turns out?—Microsoft also announced a handful of other features that’ll form the foundation of its next-generation push. One of them, which Microsoft is calling “Smart Delivery,” promises players will have access to the best version of any game they purchase.
If you buy Halo Infinite on an Xbox One, you don’t have to purchase a new copy of Halo Infinite for your Xbox Series X—it’s a free upgrade. Microsoft has committed to “Smart Delivery” for all of its internally developed games, and called it a technology available to “all developers and publishers.” The key word that comes later is that companies can “choose.”
It’s not a mandate, it’s not a requirement. No one has to give consumers this option, and I think it’s a pretty open question about how many will decide to ultimately go this route when it’s been reliably proven that people will happily rebuy games. It would’ve been something if Microsoft made participation with Smart Delivery contingent on releasing a game on Xbox, which wouldn’t prevent companies from releasing a “special edition” or “game of the year” edition, but would prevent players from having to pay for the same code a second time.
(So far unanswered question: What happens with used games? Can companies charge for upgrades?)
The first company to make that choice, it seems, is CD Projekt RED with Cyberpunk 2077. It’s a game that was recently delayed from April to September, and presuming it doesn’t slip again, is likely to be coming out not long before the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 drop. Though currently unconfirmed, it’s long been assumed both machines are coming this fall.
Maybe it’s the case that CD Projekt RED realizes its release date is really just too close to the new consoles, and they truly felt guilty asking people to double dip! That plays into “gamers should never be forced to purchase the same game twice or pay for upgrades” messaging in their tweet. But that argument is on its face is goofy because CD Projekt RED will absolutely take your money for a second copy of The Witcher 3 on Switch and has zero interest in selling you a universal copy of Cyberpunk 2077 that’d work across every platform around.
The darkly funny part is how such an offering can even be pitched as radical, because we have become so conditioned to expect—nay, demand—a chance to rebuy games we’ve already paid for. I, the person wishing Nintendo would put Super Mario 3D World and Super Mario Galaxy on Switch, am as guilty of it as anybody else. I bought those games already...and I want to buy them again because the discs that I own are now useless.
I get it, hardware changes and it’s not as simple as just dumping one game onto a new console. But let’s not pretend companies haven’t cynically exploited this loophole for ages, which lets CD Projekt RED’s announcement seem like a benevolent god showing grace. Instead, the response should be “uh, finally?” There is a profound difference between, for example, the billionth re-release of Resident Evil 4 and the huge amount of work Capcom put into its reimagining of Resident Evil 2.
What I’m most curious about is whether Cyberpunk 2077 will have the same forward compatible feature on PlayStation 5. For the record, I think it’s likely, simply due to the sheer proximity of Cyberpunk 2077’s release to both machines. But I do think it’s possible Microsoft pushes hard on this idea and tries to make the idea of Smart Delivery an explicit reason to buy an Xbox over a PlayStation. It would fit with its commitment to services, far and away the best idea Microsoft’s had during a generation where it forgot how to make video games.
Game Pass has made PlayStation Plus look silly. Smart Delivery could build upon that.
In the past, hardware companies have made exclusivity deals with game companies that included exclusive maps and weapons. What if this generation includes exclusivity details that not only promise you won’t have to pay for a game twice when you buy new hardware, but that game will actually play even better on that box? It’s a promise that might not mean anything in a few years, once most people have transitioned over, but in the meantime?
At the very least, features like Smart Delivery make plain the farce we’ve been living with. Games companies could have better considered their legacies and shown respect for money consumers had spent, but we got conned into thinking that, no, it’s we who need to show thanks. If we’re lucky, as consoles make their final transition into fancy PCs, this is the last time we’ll deal with this. The inevitable PlayStation 6 and Xbox Series XYZ will also support everything before it. When you buy a game, you’ve bought the game. Uh, finally.