Whenever a new console generation kicks off, it’s inevitable that there will be some games that are released on both new and old systems. This is perfectly understandable in many cases, as games which are new and have had a lot of time and effort put into their development want to get the widest audience possible. Many titles in this category go unnoticed, or at most some reviewers will point out that the game may not be fully-optimised for new hardware. But some other titles are the subject of pretty heavy criticism, and I can fully understand why.
When it was announced that Grand Theft Auto V would be ported to the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, many fans were upset. This was a game initially developed for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and it’s going to be ported again? Grand Theft Auto V has been a juggernaut this console generation after getting its start in 2013, but after more than seven years fans are itching for a new entry in the series.
In 2014, when Grand Theft Auto V was re-released on current-gen consoles, it was barely a year old. No one at the time begrudged Rockstar the chance to port the title to new hardware because there was an understanding that the game had been a big undertaking. As the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era drew to a close, it made sense to bring some new titles to the new systems.
But that was six years ago, and in that time Rockstar has developed and published precisely one new game – Red Dead Redemption II. There are arguments to be heard that the pace of game development as a whole has slowed, and I don’t want to ignore the reality that developing an open-world game on the scale of Grand Theft Auto V is a colossal undertaking. But that doesn’t excuse what seems to many fans to be the company taking shortcuts.
What’s worse is that the time and effort spent on creating a next-gen port could arguably be better spent creating a new title. Even in a studio with the financial resources of Rockstar, porting existing games does take time, resources, and personnel away from other projects. So it’s not just a case of corner-cutting – fans feel that the company is wasting time.
Practically every current-gen title is going to be “forward-compatible” with new hardware anyway. What that means is that any Xbox One game should work on the Xbox Series X, and any PlayStation 4 game should work on PlayStation 5 by default – including titles like Grand Theft Auto V. So there’s no need to spend time and money reworking a seven-year-old game for new hardware; existing versions will work just fine.
If the upgrades were going to be free, allowing players who own a current-gen copy of the game to experience the tweaks and changes on new hardware, I don’t think anyone would mind. In fact, players have praised companies like CD Projekt Red, whose 2015 title The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is receiving such a free upgrade. But Rockstar – and other companies too – plan to re-release their old games and get gamers to shell out more money for the next-gen version. It feels decidedly anti-consumer.
Even though I’m not a big online multiplayer person, I recognise the appeal that Grand Theft Auto V has as an online experience. But after seven years I feel that online experience has run its course, and most players will be ready for a new challenge. Those who want to stick with what they already have can either continue to play on Xbox One/PlayStation 4 or can even bring their existing copy of the game to the new consoles; there’s no need to buy it all over again.
Another company that has been roundly criticised for its approach to next-gen is 505 Games, publisher of Control. This is a game I’ve been looking forward to playing, as it has great reviews, but it’s another example of next-gen upgrades being denied to existing fans. The only way to play Control will be to buy it again on the new consoles, and to many fans the small upgrade seems like a big expense.
The Last Of Us was similarly criticised at the beginning of the PlayStation 4 era for being re-released in a “remastered” state less than a year on from its PlayStation 3 debut. At the time I was genuinely shocked by the gall of developer Naughty Dog; how can a game less than a year old be remastered already? But The Last Of Us sold very well on PlayStation 4, cementing this business model in the minds of executives as one that works and will rake in cash for comparatively little effort.
At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about. Money. Re-releasing a game with a few minor upgrades and hardware-specific tweaks is relatively inexpensive and offers companies huge financial rewards. It should be no surprise to learn that a big company wants to make more money, and I get that we live in a society where profit and growth matter. It’s just that it feels so anti-consumer, and even big companies need to be aware of their reputations. It’s easy to dismiss criticism and backlash as coming from just a whiny minority of hardcore fans, but companies like Electronic Arts have found – to their great cost – just what can happen when they push players too far.
It’s only in the last console generation that the idea of cross-generation releases has been such a big deal anyway. In the days of the SNES and the Nintendo 64 the idea of a game from one system being ported wholesale to new hardware just didn’t exist. There were ports, but they tended to be things like Super Mario All-Stars, which was a compilation of several games instead of a single title, and offered players good value as a result.
But if you’d told me in 2005, when the Xbox 360 was launched, that the original Halo game was just going to be straight-up ported to the new system and that players would be expected to “just buy it again” I’d have been absolutely gobsmacked. What a nonsense idea that would have been even as recently as 2005! We’ve come to accept some of these things in the fifteen years since, but even by today’s standards, some of the proposals for next-gen re-releases are drawing well-earned backlash.
Though it wasn’t possible to predict the impact of the coronavirus pandemic even a few short months ago, the changing situation in the world should be something companies take note of. There’s a good chance that many folks are going to have less disposable income at least in the short-term, and being asked to re-purchase a seven-year-old game on a new console is definitely not something that should be considered under current circumstances. Even were it not for the pandemic, I think this practice would still be inappropriate and anti-consumer. But given where things currently sit, it’s even worse.
This is the kind of practice that can start big companies on a slippery slope to reputational damage and more widespread criticism, and I would advise them to tread carefully. Rockstar – or any other company engaged in a similar practice – could garner a lot of goodwill today by announcing that the next-gen version of whatever game they’re working on will be free to anyone who currently owns it. Or, on the flip side, they could continue to draw criticism and ire for their greed and lack of care.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of press kits on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.