Xbox Series X’s backward compatibility is good for live-service games

Gamers are preparing for a leap into the next generation in November with the Xbox X and the PlayStation 5, but many of the people who upgrade are going to find themselves returning to that came out years ago. Live-service hits like Apex Legends, Warframe, and Rocket League aren't going to vanish. They're going to have a major role in the early months of the new systems. But the thing about Apex Legends, Warframe, and Rocket League in particular is that their developers have not committed to launching native versions for next-gen consoles yet. Instead, they will likely run in backward-compatibility mode. Is that a problem, though? In most cases, not really. But it's a reminder that legacy support is about more than just replaying old games.

The PS5 and Xbox X/S have robust support for the current generation of video games. Almost everything should work. I've spent weeks testing the Xbox Series X, and the actual game-playing experience is excellent. Its more powerful hardware and faster storage improve almost everything I've played. And any game that I've tried with dynamic resolution or an unlocked framerate runs sharper and faster on Series X.

I'm less certain about the PS5, in part because I haven't gone hands-on with that console yet. Sony has said that almost every game will work. And I expect that loading times should improve thanks to the SSD.

But PS5's backward-compatible system does seem to have some limitations that might diminish the experience slightly. And that could have implications for the early days of live-service games. Or it might cause some extra work for developers who wouldn't otherwise see an urgent need to upgrade their game to a native next-gen release.

Xbox is ready for how developers want to use backward compatibility

Let's talk more specifically about how Xbox Series X works. Most of this should apply to Series S as well, but I haven't used that system yet. So let's focus on Series X.

When you open an Xbox One game on Xbox Series X, the game doesn't need to boot into any backward-compatible profile or anything like that. Instead, the game still runs “natively” on the Series X. Now, that doesn't mean it is “optimized” for the new hardware. And that's an important difference.

Microsoft confirmed this week that it is updating the Halo: The Master Chief Collection with an optimized version for Series X. This enables it to take advantage of next-gen features like the Velocity architecture, which could improve load times by patching how games deliver data from the SSD into RAM.

But the Halo bundle is also getting support to run at 120 frames per second on Series X. And while an optimized version will help with that, developers don't need to compile a separate optimized port to hit that framerate.

Backward-compatible games likely cannot access all of the latest hardware in the Series X. But just like an older PC release when a new GPU comes out, Xbox One games can take advantage of the extra horsepower.

Non-native service games on Xbox Series X should run great

What all of that means is that you should see a lot of improvements for live-service games on day one of the Series X even if developers don't rush out an optimized version. And many studios might not want to put resources into that yet. A native port might not improve an older release all that much over the benefits that the backward-compatible version is already getting.

A live-service online competitive game would probably already run at faster than 60 frames per second on Xbox Series X without requiring native optimizations. And the Series X empowers developers to take advantage of that. It's likely that we will see many games that aren't on the Xbox Series X “Optimized” list that get updates to run at 120 frames per second.

Essentially, Xbox works like a PC in this regard. Games can use the available DirectX graphics APIs to use whatever output options are available on the hardware.

We still don't know how PS5 will perform with the PS4 library

Sony is taking a slightly different approach with PS5's backward compatibility. Instead of unleashing all of the PS5's power on older games, Sony is only going to do that with select games. In this Game Boost mode, Sony promises increased or more stable framerates. But Sony is also worried about compatibility, so it's building in multiple legacy modes into the PS5 that run the system slower to match the capabilities of the PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro.

These profiles could dampen the effect that PS5 hardware has on PS4 games, but we won't know until we test this for ourselves. Sony Interactive Entertainment's engineers and designers know what they're doing, so I expect that those profiles won't hold backward-compatible games back without good reason. That said, looking back to the PS4 and PS4 Pro, only games that got Game Boost updates ran better on the updated PlayStation console when it launched. Sony later released a Boost Mode that you could enable to get better performance even in un-optimized games. It's possible that Sony may follow a similar pattern with the PS5.

If PS5 runs backward-compatible games in strict profiles, however, that could cause some live-services to feel underwhelming on the new hardware. Again, anything that gets a native port to PS5 won't have a problem. Fortnite is probably going to run faster and look sharper on PS5 thanks to it launching a new version alongside that system's debut. But Apex Legends or Rocket League might not see a similar improvement.

Legacy mode could slow down load times

These profiles could even mitigate the improved loading times. While the PS4's hard drive is like sludge compared to the PS5's SSD, the CPU on the PS4 is also a major bottleneck. Load times may not speed up all that much if the PS5 is mimicking the PS4's CPU even during loads.

For what it's worth, this is why I'm skeptical that PS5 will lock down games to strict profiles. Sony has no reason not to unlock more power during loading because that shouldn't have compatibility issues.

Live service games may need a PS5 port as soon as possible

For developers weighing the return-on-investment of updating their games, a Game Boost patch is probably not worth the effort, at least for ongoing live-service games that prioritize a high framerate. That's because backward-compatible games on PS5, even with Game Boost, cannot run faster than 60 frames per second.

Where Xbox's APIs act like a PC, PS5 is still very much a console. Sony built new dev tools for PS5, and the PS4's APIs don't hook into the system in the same way. The PS4's system only supports outputting game video at 4K and 60Hz. And so that limitation is carrying over for backward-compatible games on PS5.

This is a problem, but it's one for developers and not for players. PS5 fully supports 120Hz. Ubisoft is porting Rainbow Six: Siege to PS5 with the stated goal of supporting that higher framerate standard. You also probably don't even have a TV that can do 120Hz at 4K. So chances are you won't even notice this issue.

But it is an issue for the people making the games. It's more work to port the game, and that is work that Sony could eliminate by unlocking its development tools on its end to patch in 120Hz support into the PS4 Legacy profiles or Game Boost mode on PS5. And by doing that, Sony could ensure that the players who do care about something like an ultrahigh framerate won't have to wait for developers to fully update their games to next-gen.

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