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Xbox Series X is beating PS5 in a key way that has nothing to do with specs

Updated Mar 20th, 2020 2:27PM EDT
Xbox Series X vs. PS5
Image: Xbox

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  • Both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will feature backwards compatibility in some form or fashion.
  • Microsoft has already promised that thousands of Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox titles will run on the Xbox Series X, but Sony has only mentioned most of the 100 most-played PS4 games for the PS5.
  • If the PS5 can’t match the Xbox Series X’s Smart Delivery feature, Sony might be in trouble.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

I walked away from the PlayStation 5 deep dive on Wednesday with more questions than answers. Why is Sony still not ready to show us what the console actually looks like? Why did Sony repurpose its Game Developers Conference talk rather than prepare something new for an audience made up of hundreds of thousands of consumers? Why have we not seen any games running on the PS5 yet, or even a technical demo of the console in action?

The simple answer to virtually all of these questions is as follows: Sony isn’t ready yet. That’s not to say that the final design of the console is still in flux, or that the PS5 is incapable of playing games in its current state, but Sony’s not ready to pull back the curtain yet. Not entirely, anyway. That might sound obvious, but it’s important context for the point of this piece, that point being that Sony is giving up on making backwards compatibility a priority.

For all the things that PS5 lead system architect Mark Cerny didn’t share during his deep dive on Wednesday, he did discuss the PS5’s ability to play PlayStation 4 games. Here’s what he said during the talk:

The PlayStation 5 GPU is backwards compatible with PlayStation 4. What does that mean? One way you can achieve backwards compatibility is to put the previous console’s chipset in the new console like we did with some PlayStation 3s, but that’s of course extremely expensive.

A better way is to incorporate any differences in the previous console’s logic into the new console’s custom chips, meaning that even as the technology evolves, the logic and feature set that PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro titles rely on is still available in backwards compatibility modes. One advantage of this strategy is that once backwards compatibility is in the console, it’s in, and it’s not as if a cost-down will remove backwards compatibility like it did on PlayStation 3.

Cerny then went on to explain that “testing has to be done on a title-by-title basis.” Of the top 100 most-played PS4 games, Cerny says that “almost all of them” will be playable on the PS5 at launch. There are more than 4,000 games currently available for the PS4. So, to summarize, what we have from Sony right now is a guarantee that around 2-3% of the PS4’s massive library will be playable on the PS5 this holiday season.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is at the other end of the spectrum. While backwards compatibility feels like an afterthought on the PS5 (at least from what we’ve heard to this point from Sony), it is a key pillar of Microsoft’s strategy with the Xbox Series X. Jason Ronald, Director of Product Management on Xbox Series X, called the community’s response to the announcement of Xbox 360 backwards compatibility at E3 2015 “one of the biggest career highlights for me in my time as part of Team Xbox.” He wanted to double down in the next generation.

In the specs breakdown that Microsoft shared on Monday, the team reiterated that “the thousands of games on Xbox One, including Xbox 360 and original Xbox games, will play even better on Xbox Series X.” So — not only is Microsoft promising compatibility with “thousands” of games from every previous Xbox generation, but a bunch of those games will also run better on the Xbox Series X. We even got to see proof of that with Gears 5:

But the most staggering difference between the two next-gen consoles based on what we know about them so far has to be Smart Delivery on the Xbox Series X. As Microsoft describes the feature, “if you purchase the Xbox One version of a supported title, we will identify and deliver the best version of it to your Xbox One, as usual. If you decide to jump into the next generation with Xbox Series X, we will automatically provide the Xbox Series X optimized version of the game at no additional cost if and when it becomes available.”

To recap: Xbox Series X will play thousands of Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Xbox games, many of those games will look and play better than they ever have before, and if you buy an Xbox One game that is eventually optimized for Xbox Series X, you’ll get the next-gen version of that game completely free of charge.

On the other hand, Sony “might” let you play close to 100 PS4 games on the PS5 at launch. Maybe.

Sony is still several steps behind Microsoft when it comes to revealing its next-gen console. There’s still a chance that Sony will match many of Microsoft’s most exciting backwards compatibility feature and promises, but the early returns aren’t especially promising. As it stands, the Xbox Series X has taken a huge lead over the PS5.

UPDATE | 3/20 at 2:23 PM: A few hours after we published this piece, Sony provided an update on its blog:

A quick update on backward compatibility – With all of the amazing games in PS4’s catalog, we’ve devoted significant efforts to enable our fans to play their favorites on PS5. We believe that the overwhelming majority of the 4,000+ PS4 titles will be playable on PS5.

We’re expecting backward compatible titles will run at a boosted frequency on PS5 so that they can benefit from higher or more stable frame rates and potentially higher resolutions. We’re currently evaluating games on a title-by-title basis to spot any issues that need adjustment from the original software developers.

In his presentation, Mark Cerny provided a snapshot into the Top 100 most-played PS4 titles, demonstrating how well our backward compatibility efforts are going. We have already tested hundreds of titles and are preparing to test thousands more as we move toward launch. We will provide updates on backward compatibility, along with much more PS5 news, in the months ahead. Stay tuned!

The good news is that Sony expects an “overwhelming majority” of the 4,000+ PS4 titles to be playable on PS5. After all, with at least five or six months until the PS5’s release, there is plenty of time to test hundreds or even thousands of additional PS4 games between now and then to make sure they run well on the new console. And it’s nice to know that those games will benefit from the upgraded hardware. But we still haven’t heard a peep about support for PS3, PS2, or PS1 games, nor has Sony announced a Smart Delivery equivalent. Here’s hoping that those are some of the “updates on backward compatibility” coming in the months ahead.

Jacob Siegal
Jacob Siegal Associate Editor

Jacob Siegal is Associate Editor at BGR, having joined the news team in 2013. He has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience, and helps to lead our technology and entertainment product launch and movie release coverage.