I am forever bitter about Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I contend that Blacklist was an excellent stealth game that just happened to come out at the wrong time. It launched in August 2013, only a few months before the launches of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A good game, swallowed in the wave of next-generation hype.
There's always a muddled nature to the generation transition: some of you may recall buying the same game twice, or making the hard choice not to buy a game because its trapped on the older or newer generation. If Microsoft is any indication, perhaps that won't happen to another slate of transitional releases. Today, during an outline of major features coming to the Xbox Series X, Microsoft revealed something called Smart Delivery. When you buy an Xbox Game Studios' title, you get both the Xbox One and Xbox Series X versions of that title.
"This technology empowers you to buy a game once and know that—whether you are playing it on Xbox One or Xbox Series X—you are getting the right version of that game on whatever Xbox you’re playing on. We’re making the commitment to use Smart Delivery on all our exclusive Xbox Game Studios titles, including Halo Infinite, ensuring you only have to purchase a title once in order to play the best available version for whichever Xbox console they choose to play on," said Xbox boss Phil Spencer.
This is on top of the strong push for full backwards compatibility, allowing all your Xbox One games and accessories to work on Xbox Series X. The Series X will also improve many of those older games with better frame rates, improved resolution, and faster load times. Spencer further noted that Smart Delivery would be available to all developers and publishers. And a few hours later, one publisher confirmed they'd be onboard.
"Gamers should never be forced to purchase the same game twice or pay for upgrades. Owners of Cyberpunk2077 for Xbox One will receive the Xbox Series X upgrade for free when available," said CD Projekt Red on the official Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter account.
Gamers should never be forced to purchase the same game twice or pay for upgrades. Owners of #Cyberpunk2077 for Xbox One will receive the Xbox Series X upgrade for free when available. https://t.co/nfkfFLj85w— Cyberpunk 2077 (@CyberpunkGame) February 24, 2020
Combined with a commitment to cross-save, Microsoft could make all the problems of the weird generational transition just go away. If you buy Halo Infinite or Cyberpunk 2077 on Xbox One upon release, and then make the jump to Xbox Series X in 2021 or 2022, you get to simply move over to the new platform. No more begrudgingly buying the upgraded version of a game, leaving all your progress and many of your friends behind.
When I previously argued that cross-save should be the primary feature of the next generation, my mistake was thinking that platform holders and publishers wouldn't want to go further. The issue with cross-buy is that from a financial standpoint publishers are losing out on money they could otherwise make through per copy game sales. Games changed over this generation though, with things like engagement and microtransactions becoming more important than simply selling a second boxed or digital copy. Now it's about getting rid of as many roadblocks as possible between different versions of your game. One of the most popular games around, Fortnite, tries to make it as easy as possible to play wherever you want.
None of what Microsoft is doing is entirely new. Sony has played around with cross-buy before, when the PlayStation Vita was still a going concern. Hell, there's still a section on the PlayStation Store full of cross-buy titles. But Sony hasn't focused on that idea in a long time, given that it's only been supporting a single platform for years. With PlayStation 5, could we see Sony revisit this model again, paving the way for PS4-to-PS5 cross-buy and cross-save? Marquee games like The Last of Us Part 2 would potentially be even stronger coming out of the transition to next-gen.
If Sony declines to match Microsoft—and it's currently working from a position of strength, so it might not have to—I think that put Xbox in a position to take back some territory. Players don't want to be walled into a single ecosystem, no matter how beneficial that is for platform holders. Microsoft is changing what "Xbox" really means as a platform, because it's betting more on services like Xbox Live and Xbox Game Pass. It doesn't need to lock you into buying an Xbox Series X, if it can instead entice you into playing games on Xbox One, Xbox One X, Xbox Series X, PC, or any future Xbox platform. Microsoft's bet is lowering the boundaries allows more players to "jump in", instead of leaving for more walled gardens.
Assuming other major publishers join Microsoft's offering, this puts a ton of pressure on Sony. Ubisoft already delayed a whole host of titles from the first quarter until later in 2020. If it can avoid the issue that hurt Splinter Cell: Blacklist by being able to release a single version of Watch Dogs: Legion or Gods & Monsters that moves with players, why wouldn't they? I'd hazard Western publishers are more likely to join Microsoft's program, but assuming say Ubisoft and Electronic Arts say "yes", I'm not sure how long Sony could go without matching the feature in some fashion.
We're on the cusp of a very different console generation. The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 might be more powerful than their predecessors, but that's not what will set them apart. The infrastructure around gaming is changing, as it did in the last generation with the rise of streaming. And Microsoft is aiming in the right direction to capitalize on the shift. We'll see if that helps the Xbox Series X get ahead of the competition.