Cross-gen PS5 and Xbox Series X gaming is getting very confusing – and expensive

PS5 vs Xbox Series X
(Image credit: Future)

New console launches are an expensive event for gamers. With the PS5 and Xbox Series X release dates looming, those that want to experience the latest and greatest in console gaming will have to set aside several hundred dollars or pounds to pick up the machines and a couple of games to go with them.

Making the decision on what to pick up is particularly difficult if you’re a current-gen player. Increasingly, as new hardware is revealed, games are announced for both the outgoing and forthcoming consoles, with all the bells and whistles promised by the next generation advancements. Publishers and developers want to take early steps into the new gaming era, but can’t pass up the chance to sell copies to the millions of gamers already engaged with existing consoles. 

But what if you’re on the fence about the new machines? Do you buy the likely inferior current gen version, gaining a sale for developers, or wait for a next generation release, potentially costing a sale for the makers of the game?

Cross-generation play on PS5 and Xbox Series X (via Smart Delivery) initially seemed like the answer to this – buy a current-gen version of a game getting a next-gen release, and you’d apparently get the next-generation version thrown in too. But as we approach the launch of these new machines, it seems increasingly like that bargainous offering isn’t quite as clear cut and value-packed as it first appeared.

Next-gen upgrade pricing

The latest title to muddy the waters is NBA 2K21. It will initially launch for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC and Google’s Stadia streaming service, costing $59.99 when it releases on September 4. But that version won’t be entitled to a next-gen upgrade – instead, you’ll have to cough up for the $99.99 Mamba Forever Edition, which adds the next-gen upgrade along with some digital exclusive extras.

On top of that, there’s a standard NBA 2K21 next-gen PS5 and Xbox Series X version going on sale for the steeper $69.99 price, as well as a next-gen Mamba Forever Edition that gives you access to PS4 and Xbox One versions.

Confusing, no? In effect, you’re going to have to pay close to double in order to gain both current-gen and next-gen versions of NBA 2K21, which isn’t far off just buying the game twice, undermining the commitment the new consoles have made to cross-gen consumer value.

EA has been similarly confusing in its messaging. It offered current-gen buyers of Madden NFL 21 a free upgrade to the next-gen version, but limited the time it could be redeemed to March 21 2021. Given we’ve come to expect console supply shortages immediately after launch, it was likely that only a few people would have been able to take advantage of the upgrade. Facing a backlash, EA extended the offer up to the release of the next entry in the franchise.

Mixed messaging

In their defense, Sony and Microsoft never made hard rules on how publishers would have to deliver cross-generation offerings. Microsoft merely set the standard with its first-party titles saying that all its next-and-current-gen titles going forward would be cross generation with a single purchase.

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

But some third party teams have committed to a free upgrade. CD Projekt Red will offer Cyberpunk 2077 upgrades for free when the game eventually sees a next-gen release, as will Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix with the Marvel’s Avengers game. In both cases, the pattern seems to be that any next-gen release date remains a somewhat nebulous future time period, jeopardizing early sales of the game. In the case of NBA 2K21, both versions of the game will be launching closer together and, being an annual franchise, sales of both editions need to be maximized or the opportunity lost entirely.

Regardless, the core cross-generational messaging for both next-generation consoles is now very confusing. The advice we’d now give is not to take cross-generation support as a given – at least as a free extra. Instead, until Microsoft and Sony take the reins and set more definitive guidelines on how to offer next-gen upgrades to current-gen games, it’s going to be a grey area ripe for exploitation.

Gerald Lynch

Gerald is Editor-in-Chief of Previously he was the Executive Editor for TechRadar, taking care of the site's home cinema, gaming, smart home, entertainment and audio output. He loves gaming, but don't expect him to play with you unless your console is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. Before TechRadar, Gerald was Editor of Gizmodo UK. He is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press.