While it’s exciting to think about all of the brand-new games like Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales and Halo Infinite that will be on PS5 and Xbox Series X, backward compatibility will also be a major player in the early days of the next-generation discussion. That said, Sony and Microsoft are approaching the matter in different ways that even put them at odds. Backward compatibility will be very important for next-gen for a key reason, and one console does come out on top.
3. The last generation of consoles didn't have it
When the PS4 and Xbox One first launched, neither had backward compatibility. This was different than the PS3 and Xbox 360, which did let people play games from previous consoles. As a result, the first years of each systems lifespan were filled with full-priced remasters. It was pretty frustrating to have to fully repay for games you already owned just to experience the uptick in resolution and frame rate on a new console.
Eventually, both console manufacturers learned their lesson and implemented some form of backward compatibility. For Sony, this came in the form of PlayStation Now, a rental and subscription cloud-based gaming service where players could stream PS3 games, and an initiative PS2 on PS4 re-releases that would allow players to buy retro games. Still, these services did not allow players to use the discs they already owned.
Meanwhile, Microsoft added backward compatibility for Xbox 360 in 2015 and the original Xbox in 2017. While not every game was compatible, supported games worked on their original discs and even sometimes had technical enhancements like a higher resolution and frame rate.
This is the model Microsoft and Sony intended on following with the next generation of titles, curating a large number of enhanced last generation games that play better on Xbox Series X and PS5. In the early days of the each console's life, this will be pivotal in showing what the systems could do with improved loading, resolutions, and frame rates.
2. A bigger library of games
In the past, only a portion of the gaming audience really cared about backward compatibility. This is no longer the case, thanks to subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Now, and EA Access. These services let players access hundreds of games at once on current-gen consoles.
Gaming fans spend hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars on hardware and games each generation. As the medium has matured, the audience has too. That means people are still discovering and enjoying fantastic games several years, or even decades, after they initially released. Some of the most popular games around, like GTA 5 and Minecraft, were made at the beginning of this console generation. Ensuring that next-generation consoles are compatible ongoing games and subscription services is hugely important.
This is something Microsoft has already promised to do and might be one of the reasons this console transition feels less drastic for them. As of early August, Sony has not commented on how PlayStation Now will work on PS5, but we'd be surprised the service doesn't carry over.
1. New consoles are pricey
While neither Microsoft nor Sony has shared the price of their next-generation consoles yet, they are widely expected to be priced near or above $500. While cheaper, digital-only variants of PS5 and Xbox Series X will probably be available, we're also entering a recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Analysts argue this could impact next-gen console sales, but it also makes backward compatibility more important than ever. If the next-gen console supports more legacy titles and accessories, purchasing a new console won't require as much cash straight away.
With Xbox Series X, Microsoft plans to make almost every Xbox One game and many Xbox and Xbox 360 titles compatible. In fact, some Xbox One games like Gears 5 will be enhanced with higher frame rates and resolutions on Xbox Series X. Most accessories are also supported by Xbox Series X, including the Elite Controller Series 2 and Xbox Adaptive Controller for accessibility.
The story with PS5 is much different. Sony says it "believes" in console generations, so game and device compatibility isn’t as impressive. Hundreds of PS4 games are expected to be compatible, but Sony has been secretive over which titles are actually supported right now. PS1, PS2, and PS3 backward compatibility doesn't seem likely at all. This means if you want to play an older game, you need to buy a digital copy or track down past-gen hardware and physical copies.
With accessories, Sony is also somewhat limited. "Officially licensed racing wheels, arcade sticks, and flight sticks" should be supported by the games that need them, and the Platinum and Gold Headsets will also work with PS5 according to the official PlayStation blog. The PlayStation VR and Move controllers will also carry over from PS4. The DualShock 4 isn't as lucky though, as it can only be used with backward-compatible games.
This means you might end up with a situation where a game like Resident Evil 8 will be playable with a DualShock 4 on PC, but only with a DualSense on PS5 in order to "take advantage of the new capabilities and features we’re bringing to the platform." Depending on how expensive the DualSense is, this could end up being an expensive caveat.
The Inverse Analysis — At this point, Microsoft appears to have the upper hand over Sony. When it comes to both and accessories, Microsoft has been much more clear about what's compatible and offers more freedom and value to consumers. Sony is being surprisingly restrictive, as no PS5 games can use the DualShock 4 unless they are backward compatible.
Until we know more, it seems like the additional costs of PS5's lack of backward compatibility will stack up over time. It's definitely something worth bearing in mind for cost-conscious gamers.
PS5 and Xbox Series X will be be released in late 2020.