Cross-generation development has become a hot-button topic among Sony fans as of late.
While the industry leader will skip next week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, it already made waves late last week with a Q&A session with Hermen Hulst, the head of PlayStation Studios, in which he announced a slate of highly anticipated titles in development will still appear on the PlayStation 4, despite initial reports to the contrary. Many are not happy that titles like the as-of-yet untitled sequel to 2018’s “God of War” and “Gran Turismo 7” will be cross-generation, thus limiting how much they can take advantage of the much more advanced PlayStation 5 hardware.
Cross-generation development is not something new. Usually, for the first year of a console’s lifetime, many of its games are also released on the previous, older hardware. Game development literally takes multiple years — sometimes as many as four or five — and it’s hard to develop a game for a new console that far in advance that really does anything to take advantage of the prospective technology improvements.
A game like “Horizon: Forbidden Wests,” announced last year as cross-gen (much to the chagrin of many), would have started development in mid-2017 — three years before the PS5 was announced. Obviously, first-party developers like “Horizon’s” Guerilla Games would be much more knowledgeable about Sony’s hardware plans than anyone else, but console development is as arduous and complicated as video game software development, and hardware specifications change regularly, right up until the big unveiling. So to expect a developer to solely target that type of hardware with a major AAA production is a hard proposal.
Obviously, fans want games that take advantage of the new hardware they just dropped $400-500 on, right? Why buy a PS5 or an Xbox Series S/X when the previous consoles could play those games just fine, right? Everyone saw the fiasco with the PS4 and Xbox One S versions of “Cyberpunk 2077,” right? Just because a game is not designed to take advantage of every aspect of the new consoles does not mean the older versions will be just as good. Next-gen versions of cross-gen games always look and perform much better than their previous-gen versions — even if they don’t look as good as some games natively developed for the new hardware. “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” looked and ran night-and-day better on the PS4 than it did on the PS3. But it still didn’t look as good — or feel as ambitious — as “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” developed exclusively for the PS4 and Xbox One” the next year.
This new generation of console hardware has advantages that make this generational leap larger than most in recent years, thanks to advances in CPU power and the implementation of SSD storage. Those two combined will open the door to amazing new game designs and structures that simply could not be done before. But it’s going to take time for developers to get a handle on that hardware and figure out how to use it best. And as games get more and more detailed and more and more complicated, development time increases. Naughty Dog released three “Uncharted” games and “The Last of Us” during the PS3 generation. This past generation, they released only “Uncharted 4” and “The Last of Us Part II,” essentially cutting their output in half. That’s the cost of increased fidelity and gameplay mechanics. So it’s understandable that some might feel they will see less “next-gen” games this generation if the cross-gen development period lasts longer. But there’s also not much choice for developers.
Developers and publishers are stuck between a rock and a hard place at the moment. Extended development times means projects will take much longer, so developers have to target a certain specification at some point to design their game around. Cross-gen will be extended. That’s going to anger the most ardent of individuals who were the first to rush out to buy consoles. But there is still a significant worldwide chip shortage that’s affecting every aspect of our lives. Intel’s CEO stated earlier this week the shortage won’t begin to ease until mid-2022, at the earliest. That chip shortage continues to impact PS5 and Xbox Series S/X supplies, leading to additional shortages. Many people who want a new system to play these shiny new games simply can’t get their hands on them. So, as a developer, do you isolate that large console base and target only the smaller, more niche base that’s supply constrained? It’s a tough sell. During previous cross-gen periods, the more advanced titles sold amazingly better than the previous console versions, as everyone made the jump to new hardware. But supplies weren’t as constrained then.
Admittedly, the announcement of “God of War” and “Gran Turismo 7” being cross-gen is disappointing — at least to someone who owns both next-gen consoles. It’s even more disappointing since Sony CEO Jim Ryan proudly boasted last year that Sony “believes in console generations” as a shot across the bow of Microsoft, which openly embraced cross-gen development. The latter took a lot of heat from the public about that, while Sony looked great as the publisher that wholly embraced its new hardware. But after seeing the State of Play presentation of “Horizon: Forbidden Wests” gameplay last week, it’s hard not to be impressed. Sure, the most cynical of us can look at the structure and design of the game and think about how a wholly native version would have played better, but that won’t matter in the minute-to-minute gameplay.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton and writes a weekly gaming column for The Lawton Constitution.