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I should be upfront and honest with you. I’m writing this story to say that I called it. What did I call? That Xbox One has forward compatibility with the next-gen Xbox. I said that on some random GamesBeat Decides podcast months ago, and I’ve definitely mentioned it on social media. And now, Microsoft is confirming that is the case.
In an interview with games-business publication MCV, Microsoft internal dev boss Matt Booty said the company doesn’t plan to have any next-gen exclusives any time soon. Xbox Series X is launching this fall. Games like Halo Infinite and Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 are launching alongside it. But those first-party Microsoft releases are still going to work on your original 2013 Xbox One. If that’s where you want to play them, you’ll have that option.
“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,” Booty told MCV. “We want to make sure that if someone invests in Xbox between now and [the next-gen Xbox] that they feel that they made a good investment and that we’re committed to them with content.”
The idea of “cross-gen releases” isn’t new. That was a common strategy during the transition from PS3/Xbox 360 to PS4/Xbox One. But Microsoft is going beyond the select cross-gen game and making it a policy.
This is a consumer-friendly move by giving Xbox One owners more time before having to purchase new hardware. But Microsoft is doing it because it fits so well with its current strategy.
Why Xbox One getting forward compatibility with Xbox Series X makes sense
Microsoft’s focus is on getting people to sign up for its Xbox Game Pass service. Fans view that subscription platform as a great value specifically because it gets all first-party Xbox games on their release days. If suddenly, that stops working because you need to buy a new box — well, maybe it’s easier to just cancel Game Pass until that new box is a bit cheaper.
And that’s the main reasons why Microsoft is committing itself to forward compatibility.
Of course, this is just for Microsoft games. Third-party developers and publishers can and may choose to make next-gen exclusive releases. But that seems unlikely. Tens of millions of people own the Xbox One (and PlayStation 4). And it’s going to take a year or so for next-gen devices to reach the required critical mass to produce a blockbuster, profitable hit. The current rumors surrounding Ubisoft’s next Assassin’s Creed game suggest it is cross-gen, for example.
But Microsoft has other reasons why it needs forward compatibility.
Isn’t forward compatibility going to hold back Xbox Series X games?
The concern with forward compatibility is that it’s going to have a detrimental effect on the potential technical performance of the next-gen versions. Xbox Series X has a powerful GPU and CPU. More important, it has hyperfast SSD storage that is going to make the Xbox One and PS4 seem positively ancient.
But if Microsoft’s developers have to make Halo Infinite run on Xbox Series X as well as a 2013 Xbox One (or even the very slightly updated Xbox One S), won’t that drag down the potential of the Series X version?
Yes. Absolutely. Developers can’t assume you have eight superfast CPU cores or an SSD that can stream in content as fast as you need it. Xbox Series X first-party games are going to suffer under an artificial ceiling.
But Microsoft is going to have that problem whether the Xbox One is forward compatible or not. Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Play Anywhere means that all Microsoft games work on both console and PC. And developers cannot assume that PC players have an SSD (although, if you’re a PC gamer and not using an SSD I’m gonna get mad at you).
And a lot of publishers release their games for console and PC. So the industry is going to have a couple years of transition as developers slowly begin leaving HDDs behind. And if you have to support low-spec PCs anyway, why not support the low-spec Xbox One (and PS4) as well?
One last big reason why Microsoft wants forward compatibility is because of Project xCloud. As of now, its streaming technology works by putting thousands of Xbox One S systems in server racks. Sure, Microsoft can afford to upgrade that infrastructure, but if Xbox Series X games work on the current servers, it has some extra time before it has to do that work.
What about PS4 forward compatibility?
Forward compatibility makes a lot of sense for Xbox One. But I think it also makes sense for PlayStation 4 to PlayStation 5. Sony, however, doesn’t have all of the same pressures as Microsoft. It isn’t promising that its first-party games will all come to PS Now or PC. So it doesn’t have as many reasons to support this concept. But I still think it would work because Sony’s first-party games are expensive to make. They are such massive productions that they almost aren’t viable unless they have a potential audience of 50 million people.
It’s going to take PlayStation 5 two-to-three years to reach that kind of install base. And Sony’s options to recoup investment on something like God of War 2 aren’t great. It can release it exclusively for PS5 in the first or second holiday to sell hardware as a loss leader. Or it can hold it off a few years until more people own the system.
But if we look back on that first year or so of the PlayStation 4, it’s obvious that PS5 is going to sell fine based on the strength of its brand in the 24 months after its launch. Sony doesn’t need a killer app to sell PlayStations. At least, it didn’t need one for the PlayStation 4 to turn into an unexpected breakout hit.
That doesn’t mean PlayStation 5 won’t have an exclusive at launch or in its first six months. But don’t expect the biggest stuff — the games that have budgets of $100 million or more — to hit as PS5 exclusives before the end of 2020.
And if a PS5 heavy-hitter comes along in the first year or so, Sony may even seriously consider putting it on PS4 as well. But the publisher will likely make that decision on a case-by-case basis instead of Microsoft’s across-the-board policy.
So when does Microsoft cutoff forward compatibility for Xbox One?
The Xbox One lives on, but is it ever going to die? This is about transitioning technology forward and serving the best platform to Xbox Game Pass subscribers. So Microsoft probably has a timetable in mind for phasing out the Xbox One. Booty has already alluded to a “year or two.”
I would expect the Xbox One to reach end-of-life around holiday 2022. That’s enough time for a price drop on a Series X. It’s also enough time for SSD prices to drop to the point where it should be illegal to use a spinning platter on PC. Those two years are also long enough for developers to ship games that take full advantage of next-gen hardware.
Maybe most important, however, is that Microsoft can spend the next two years communicating with fans. It can explain that, sure, these games work on any Xbox, but here’s what you get if you upgrade.
Finally, I expect the phasing-out process to work similarly to how it does with smartphones. By holiday 2022, Microsoft may have an Xbox Series X2 and an Xbox Series S2. And, as part of launching those hardware iterations, it may officially end support for Xbox One.
Regardless of how Microsoft decides to approach it, you can safely assume it’s going to do whatever it takes to make it as painless as possible to maintain a subscription to Xbox Game Pass. That’s what it’s all about for the company, and that’s what will drive its future strategy decisions .
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