So! In about a hundred days from now, give or take, consumers will get their hands on the new PlayStation and Xbox. Their release marks the start of a new generation of home gaming systems and the fourth clash in this space between Sony and Microsoft. There have already been differences in the way the Blue Team and the Green Team positioned themselves in the past, but it’s the first time one of them tries to use their current generation system as an advantage for the next fight.
One would assume that it’s a move made by the winner of the previous fight – and that assumption would be wrong: it’s actually Microsoft that is promoting the much-discussed “cross-generation” concept and the notion that “games can scale between generations”.
This is an invalid concept and a misleading notion respectively. They have no place in a market as fast moving as that of video games. What’s worse, it’s a concept and a notion that’s being promoted as “pro-consumer” when in truth it’s practically the opposite. Here are the reasons why.
A vague half of a promise
Ever since the announcement of Xbox Series X Microsoft has insisted on promoting it as “a new member of a family of devices”, reassuring the Xbox user base that they will be releasing their own future games for all of those devices. At the same time, Xbox One owners would be allowed to “bring forward” to XSX their current games. Even back then it seemed like a promise of “two halves”. The second half, that of “enhanced backward compatibility”, appeared feasible given the common architecture of Xbox One and Xbox Series X. Older games could indeed run on newer but similar hardware without emulation. Expectations of their better performance also seemed — and, to Microsoft’s credit, proved to be — entirely justified.
But the first half of that promise always seemed far fetched. Common new games between the original Xbox One and the Xbox One X was one thing, but between the original Xbox One and Xbox Series X…? How could games designed for a system releasing in 2020 also run on a system released in 2013, even with their basic architecture being similar? Compromises would have to be made, obviously, but how could Microsoft guarantee that those would not degrade a game to the point where it wouldn’t offer the same entertainment experience anymore? More importantly: how could a game that would have to run acceptably on 8-year-old hardware also utilize properly hardware that’s almost six times as powerful?
It did take some time but eventually — through various interviews and statements of prominent Microsoft executives over several months — we got answers to those questions. One common answer to all for them in fact: Microsoft was making those promises based on what’s happening in the PC market. The head of Microsoft’s Xbox division himself, Phil Spencer, put it in these exact words as recently as this past July: “I just look at Windows. It’s almost certain if the developer is building a Windows version of their game, then the most powerful and highest fidelity version is the PC version. You can even see that with some of our first-party console games going to PC, even from our competitors, that the richest version is the PC version. Yet the PC ecosystem is the most diverse when it comes to hardware, when you think about the CPUs and GPUs from years ago that are there.”
One more sentence in that interview is worth noting. When asked about the elephant in the room — the notion that Xbox One will hold games common with XSX back — Spencer answered: “Frankly, held back is a meme that gets created by people who are too caught up in device competition”.
Oh, Phil. Now you leave those people no choice but to set the record straight.
Graphics can scale, everything else cannot
The key word in Microsoft’s position is “fidelity”. The company’s executives seem to imply that because a new Windows game can run on a $500 PC and a $5000 PC — the former running it at 720p, low detail and 25 fps, the latter running it at 4K, ultra detail and 100 fps — then this kind of “scaling” can be applied to home entertainment systems like the current and the future Xbox.
Anyone with even basic understanding of how games work will object to Microsoft’s line of thinking, though. When tech journalists talk about display resolutions, detail levels and frames per second, they refer to graphics quality and performance. Those vary wildly between different CPU/GPU/RAM/storage combinations and can indeed scale between different PC configurations. Since the current and the new Xbox use different components, their graphics performance will obviously be different. That much is true.
But video games are not (just) about how they look. They are more about how they play. What their core mechanics are, what their objectives are, what gameplay options they include, what control schemes they use, how they handle progression, how much freedom of movement they offer, to name a few of the features that define them. All of those things are directly related to game design, not to game graphics: how big and how complicated their virtual environments are, how the player moves in them, how many opponents are present at any one time, the behavior of those opponents (their “artificial intelligence”), the animation of characters, the way they interact with each other (based or physics or other ways)… the list goes on and on.
What is important to realize here is that none of those things actually depend on graphics. The visual representation of what’s happening on-screen is very important, yes, but there is a multitude of other systems at work in the background in order to get a video game “function” the way its creators intended. Those systems are either only marginally related to graphics subsystems or not at all.
One can think about types of modern, familiar games in order to understand why they were only possible to make when a generation of home entertainment systems that could handle all of their aspects came along. Not just the graphics: all of their aspects. The “sandbox” type. The “life simulation” type. The “open world” type. The “battle royale” type. They all became popular once home entertainment systems could accommodate the necessary environment sizes, the necessary AI, the necessary physics and other subsystems that made their mechanics possible. All of those are directly related to CPU power, RAM size, storage speed, bus speed between subsystems and other factors. Not just the GPU present in each system.
To offer a practical example: there is a reason why when Fortnite is released for PlayStation5 and Xbox Series X in 2021 it will look better but will not feel different. It will be the same game played by PS4/Xbox One owners, only faster-loading, sharper-looking and smoother-moving, closer to the best version attainable today (that of the PC). But it will be the same game. Same mechanics, same rules, same goals so current-gen and next-gen owners can play together. It will not be a next-generation game, but a last-generation game optimized for new hardware, still shaped by what the previous generation systems can achieve.
Epic chose this so as to not break up the user base of their huge hit, yes, but also because they understand what Microsoft obviously doesn’t: that Fortnite would not be Fortnite anymore if it truly utilized the advanced features of PS5/XSX. It would have to be redesigned. It would have to be a totally different game with a totally different feel. So Epic chose to promise the attainable (to focus on graphics quality and performance) rather than promise to “scale” Fortnite. “Scaling” would have meant a much larger map, probably a greater number of active players, creative use of SSDs, smarter bots, new weapons/vehicles, new mechanics… in other words: a different Fortnite.
So how can a game “scale” from Xbox One to Xbox Series X or vice versa? Well, unless one only talks about graphics quality and performance, it can’t. Hence the misleading nature of that “our games will scale between generations” promise Microsoft gave.
Comparisons between Xbox generations and PCs: misplaced… but useful
Phil Spencer and other Microsoft executives, moreover, seem to conveniently use the “scaling between PC configurations” argument without taking into account something important that real-life PC gamers have long accepted: the minimum hardware requirements of any given title. These do not exist for the heck of it. They draw a line regarding the hardware needs of the design of each game. Of its design. The way it feels and plays. Not just the graphics.
If, for instance, a PC rig is based on a processor not as powerful as the one listed in the minimum requirements, that game will not run even if there’s a $5000 graphics card in there. The game needs a certain amount of CPU power to calculate animation, physics and collision, AI, pathfinding, controls and other stuff not handled by the GPU. Same thing with RAM. If a game asks for an absolute minimum of 8GB, it won’t work with 4GB even if paired with a powerful CPU/GPU combination. There’s just no workaround: the game needs that amount of memory in order to function as designed.
When talking about games “scaling between generations”, then, it all comes back to those minimum requirements: the hardware needs that define not just how a game will look, but how a game will play. If those specs for a given game have to be kept to a level as low as possible in order to ensure compatibility with a system that’s not powerful by today’s standards, then the overall production of a game is governed by those minimum specs. It does not matter that more powerful or amazingly more powerful systems exist. If the game has to run acceptably on minimum requirements, then — for anything other than graphics quality and performance — those specs form a ceiling as far as gameplay and overall game mechanics are concerned.
So let us help Phil Spencer here – even if such a comparison is clearly misplaced – by trying to put this in Xbox terms. How can a 2013 system with half the usable RAM, a seriously under-powered CPU, a vastly inferior GPU, based on HDD rather than a fast SSD not hold back a cutting-edge 2020 system when they run the same game…? The 2013 Xbox is the “minimum specs” system. The 2020 Xbox will offer much better graphics and ray tracing, for instance, but it still has to use the same animation, AI, physics, controls and other important elements that fundamentally make said game what it is.
So does a better visual presentation mean that the game in question “scaled between generations”? No. It just means that its minimum specs are impressively low and that the new system can handle them with one hand tied behind its back while riding a monocycle and balancing a basket of fruit on its head. But the new system will not offer larger or more complicated maps, smarter enemies or more enemies on screen, more detailed animation or any new mechanics. It will just be underutilized, tied to the minimum specs of a system released in 2013 (which was based on tech created in 2011).
That’s not “scaling”, Phil, because there is no such thing as “scaling” when the tech gap between two generations of systems is practically a 10-year one.
A false promise inevitably broken, so… now what?
All of the above might be just one journalist’s opinion, but it does not seem that way anymore. Mere hours after the rather unimpressive streaming event Microsoft held on July 23rd for its first party games, the Redmond giant started deviating from its original course of “our games will run on Xbox One, Xbox One X and Xbox Series X for 2 years”. Executives started tweet-muttering stuff like “Our games will be designed for Xbox Series X first” (oh really?) or “Our creative teams can individually choose which Xbox systems they will target” (you don’t say!), statements obviously never made before.
At the same time Microsoft, in the space of the same 24 hours, had the official websites for several of its future titles — Forza MotorSport, Fable, Avowed and Everwild come to mind — changed: they do not mention compatibility with the Xbox One anymore, just Xbox Series X and Windows 10 PC. Microsoft was called out for this by several media outlets and offered the kind of boilerplate response that’s practically a non-answer.
Meanwhile over at Twitter and in popular forum threads more and more people (some with games programming background) started mentioning that “design does not scale”, outlining the message this story strives to get across: that the core element of every video game is the way it feels and plays, not its graphics, so just upgrading those is not “scaling”. The way a game plays cannot “scale” between two systems with such vast difference in overall power as the original Xbox One and Xbox Series X. The latter will offer an impressively better on-screen version of their common games, possibly better sound and in certain cases more responsive controls due to faster refresh rates, but… that’s it.
That’s the reason why the whole “our new games will run on last-gen Xbox systems” is not actually “pro-consumer” in the long run. It surely is nice for current Xbox One S/X owners to hear that they won’t have to buy an Xbox Series X for two years in order to play Microsoft’s best new games. But it is a disservice to those people that will buy it and it is also a disservice to video games as an entertainment form or a market in general: one of its more powerful companies appears to not help push the design of games forward for its own self-serving marketing reasons. It’s a choice and a strategy, but a disservice it is too.
The day this story was published Microsoft’s “official” position was still the original one: Xbox One, Xbox One S/X and Xbox Series X (and the all but confirmed Xbox Series S) belong in the same “family of devices” and that games coming from its own development studios will be released for all of those for 2 years. That may very well mean that we won’t see a new Fable, Forza MotorSport or any other of Microsoft’s big franchises (plus the most impressive other productions shown on July 23rd) for 2 years or it may mean something else entirely. The company would do well to let its intentions be known sooner rather than later.
In any case, the “games can scale between generations” concept is still a myth and one worth debunking once and for all. Here’s hoping that Microsoft also accepts it as such, however begrudgingly — if for no other reason, then so as to help consumers adjust their expectations regarding the current and future Xbox systems. There would be a lot of explaining for the Green Team to do in the next 12–18 months otherwise. Well?