Here's how backwards compatibility will work on next-gen consoles

The future of PlayStation and Xbox's pasts.

Going into the new console generation, gamers will have an option that wasn’t available at the start of the last: full backwards compatibility with their current library.

This wasn’t possible with the Xbox One and PS4, since their predecessors, the Xbox 360 and PS3, used a completely different chip architecture. After switching from PowerPC and sticking to the more modern x86 instruction set, it is much simpler to enable backwards compatibility from this current-gen into the next-gen.

The good news is if you upgrade within the same ecosystem, you won’t lose your library representing hundreds of hours and dollars, but there are still differences between the two console makers’ next-gen systems worth exploring.

Now sync.Microsoft

Input reached out to both Sony and Microsoft for this article. Sony did not respond to request for comment.

Backwards compatibility is especially helpful for early adopters whose choices of true next-gen titles will be limited at launch. Sony is promising 99 percent of PS4 games will be playable on PS5. Microsoft has not yet committed to a final tally as it is still validating titles, but tells Input its goal is to get as close to 100 percent as possible. Both companies are also claiming that last-gen games running on new consoles may be able to run at higher frequencies and frame rates as well as benefit from the fast load times brought by the SSDs on the new systems. All of these claims need to be verified, of course, but it is promising to see both companies committing to backwards compatibility for the last generation.

As close to 100% as possible

Xbox takes backwards compatibility a step further which, for game collectors, makes the Xbox Series X a very compelling console. Starting with Xbox One, Microsoft developed emulators for the console that enabled any Xbox 360 or even original Xbox game to be playable — provided the game’s developer allowed it. These emulators will also run on Xbox Series X, which is why Microsoft claims you’ll be able to play “four generations of games” on the system. Microsoft tells Input that Xbox 360 and original Xbox emulation is also being upgraded for their new consoles. Some games will run at double their original frame rate — and they are even able to apply Auto HDR tone mapping to older games as well — and not just the handful of Xbox One titles they’ve shown off. Microsoft hasn’t yet announced exactly which games will get these impressive improvements, so expect details on that closer to November.

Currently more than 500 Xbox 360 games are backwards compatible, though that number could continue to go up. But because of the rights issues involved, it is up to individual developers to enable the feature for legacy titles. Series S will also be able to play original Xbox and Xbox 360 games, provided they’re available to download on the Microsoft Store, but disc collectors looking to get a Series X are likely the ones who will most benefit from Microsoft’s backwards compatibility strategy.

That's quite a back catalog.Sony

Sony has opted not to create emulators for any of their older systems. The PS5 can run in “legacy mode” for PS4 games, but that’s it. This is a somewhat disappointing showing from a company that once went through the effort of shrinking the Playstation 2’s processor down so that the PS3 could play PS2 (and even original Playstation) games. I wouldn’t go as far as to call this a huge disadvantage for the PS5, given just how impressive the PS4’s library of exclusives was, but it's definitely notable.

This generation also introduces the idea of “forward compatibility,” where games from the previous generation don’t just work on new consoles, but are upgraded and optimized to take advantage of the new hardware features of next-gen. This idea is not entirely new, as remasters have been around for years in gaming. For example, there are dozens of ports of Skyrim that exist — but those remasters have always had a new price tag attached. For this generation, that’s changing. Many games releasing both on current and next-gen consoles, like Watchdogs: Legion and Cyberpunk: 2077, are committing to giving customers a free upgrade to the next-gen optimized version of the game if they buy on current gen.

Remasters have always had a new price tag attached.

Microsoft became the biggest advocate of forwards compatibility when it announced a feature it's calling Smart Delivery. The program treats the different versions of a game file as the same product, so that when you buy Cyberpunk on your Xbox One S, you also get the Series X/S optimized version of the game whenever you upgrade. Smart Delivery isn’t available for every game — notable holdouts from the program are EA, Activision, and 2K — but you can find a list of every Smart Delivery game with only a quick Google Search.

Sony has been less clear with its forwards compatibility strategy. To date, it hasn't announced anything like free upgrades to the best PS4 games, despite at least one game, 2018's Marvel's Spider-Man being confirmed to be receiving a remaster for PS5 as part of the Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales Ultimate Edition package. As of writing, it also appears buying Marvels' Spider-Man: Miles Morales will be the only way to get Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered.

While it would certainly be great for landmark PS4 games like Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, and God of War to receive free upgrades as well, it’s understandable why they won’t. Those games are a bit older now — and/or their respective studios are already working on sequels. To be fair, Microsoft hasn’t confirmed if any of the older Xbox One exclusive games are getting upgrades via Smart Delivery either, just Xbox exclusives with launch dates close to next-gen like Gears 5. However, with developer CD Projekt Red confirming that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be available as a free update to existing buyers, it seems that at least some older titles from this generation could follow this trend.

It does sting that The Last of Us: Part II and Ghost of Tsushima, two games released right at the end of the PS4’s life, aren’t currently announced to get any free optimization for PS5. Yes, both of these games will still be playable on the PS5, but if Sony is going to do the work to remaster them, it’s so far looking like players will have to pay. With the expectations Microsoft has set, I certainly hope this turns out not to be the case.

We're ready to web-sling in true 4K.Sony

What Sony has announced is that Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Horizon: Forbidden West will each receive releases on Playstation 4, and that PS4 buyers will have their games upgraded if they buy a PS5. This isn’t quite as broad or sweeping as Smart Delivery, but at least Sony won’t be forcing customers to buy these two games twice.

The rest of the PS4’s iconic lineup is completely left in the cold. An announcement of free upgrades to PS4 exclusives seems like a silver bullet that Sony apparently won’t fire. The closest Sony has come is the announcement of a bundle of games you’ve likely already played if you're a Playstation Plus user.

Sony’s stance isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. The PS4’s library of exclusives is arguably the best in gaming history and for many buyers; they’ll be happy just to have those old games come with them. Until we see how well PS4 and Xbox One games run on next-gen hardware, we don’t really know which games would even need a true upgrade. Whether this will decide whichever company “wins” the generation is something we’ll all have to wait and see.