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Sony’s Horizon Forbidden West PS5 Upgrade Strategy Straight Up Sucks

As is often the case with bad news, amidst all the exciting Tremortusk statues and Aloy outfits included in Horizon Forbidden West’s many special editions was a buried, frustrating detail about the sequel’s upcoming release. Buying the PS4 version of the next Horizon won’t guarantee players a PS5 version if they buy either the standard and special editions, nor is there a way to pay a nominal fee to upgrade to the PS5 edition. You either have to shell out $80 to buy the “Deluxe Edition”, which bundles the PS4 and PS5 editions together or buy the PS5 version at full price despite already owning the game on PS4.

It’s a frustrating decision that puts the onus on PS5-less players to have the foresight on how they’ll be playing Forbidden West in, say, a year’s time, or to pay double the price to own it on both generations of consoles down the line. It’s doubly frustrating – and ultimately, feels greedy – if you glance to the side at PlayStation’s console competition, Xbox. The concept of “Dual Entitlement” is in stark contrast to the current Xbox’s philosophy of “Smart Delivery”, which essentially means you only need to buy one version of a first-party game in order to play it on any of your consoles that support it.

And it’s triply frustrating when even third-party companies have offered free, if clunky, upgrade paths on PS5. It’s an unforced error, and a decision PlayStation should absolutely reverse – as a console maker, it has a responsibility to make its console as welcoming to players as possible, rather than leaving them feeling like they’re unnecessarily shelling out money to share in PlayStation’s ecosystem.

The Horizon cross-generation snafu isn’t the first decision like this made by the PlayStation higher-ups (please note that these decisions are not made by individual developers). Both the Ghost of Tsushima and Death Stranding Director’s Cuts come with a $9.99 fee for PS4 players to upgrade to the PS5 versions of these games. But it is the PlayStation first-party game to have a hefty $60-$70 asterisk attached if you want to own it across generations.

At the PS5’s launch, it felt like Sony was a little more embracing of those who wanted to level up a generation: Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure offered cross-gen upgrades at no additional cost. But even this wasn’t a perfect solution; PlayStation’s PS4-PS5 migration philosophy lacks the ace in the hole that is Xbox’s Smart Delivery. Transitions to next-gen on the PS5 have been clunky ever since – whether they’ve required complicated, multi-step processes to transfer saves (Final Fantasy 7 Remake), the loss of saves altogether when upgrading (Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Maneater) or a lack of transparency over which version of the game you’re actually playing (Though, luckily, a PS5 UI update currently in beta helps alleviate that last problem).

The Xbox of It All

It’s a host of problems that make buying into a game on PlayStation more of a nuisance than it should be, particularly when compared to its direct console competitor. The last couple of years have made it very clear that, more than ever before, PlayStation and Xbox are taking different approaches to this latest generation of consoles. And that’s completely fine – allowing both companies to experiment with different ideas and, hopefully, find success with them, only increases competition, which typically only increases quality as companies try to one-up each other. But PlayStation seems to be disinterested in competing with Xbox on the cross-generation front, to an almost baffling degree.

Xbox’s Smart Delivery infrastructure means that players can usually expect their progress on an Xbox One game to carry over to the Xbox Series version without paying for an upgrade fee or having to awkwardly transfer saves.

Yes, not every company opts into Smart Delivery with every game, and eventually the Xbox Series and PS5 will be the dominantly owned consoles to the extent that last generation’s players may not be as big a priority. But while the vast majority of console owners are still using Xbox One and PS4-era machines – a lot of them by necessity due to global supply constraints – Smart Delivery is a wonderful service that doesn’t preclude a player from enjoying the games they buy because of factors outside their control like chip shortages and scalpers. Besides the cost benefits of subscribing to Game Pass, it’s wonderful to feel assured that if you’re still playing on Xbox One and buy a new game, chances are pretty high you can just expect the Xbox Series version to be available when you can eventually buy a next-gen console.

What makes the comparison between PlayStation and Xbox’s philosophies all the more strange is that PlayStation had this all figured out a generation ago. Cross-Buy was a pillar of the transition from the PS3 to the PS4, and even included cross-purchase availability in some cases with the PlayStation Vita. PlayStation had a method in place to allow a smooth upgrade model that didn’t cost players extra money. Why has that sort of pro-consumer thinking been abandoned this time around?

Putting Pressure on Players

PlayStation can and should be leading by example on how to offer its players the best experience possible, especially when deciding what version of the game is heavily influenced by the sheer availability of these newer consoles. But encouraging players to buy more expensive versions of the game in anticipation of eventually owning a PS5 sets a worrying precedent. If PlayStation is OK with charging extra to make players buy two versions of the same game (yes, of course, with DualSense and technical fidelity differences that will be present on PS5 and not on PS4), why should other companies be afraid to do the same? After all, 2K and EA have already gated NBA 2K and Battlefield 2042 cross-gen access behind deluxe editions, respectively. (It’s also worth mentioning those examples won’t support Smart Delivery on Xbox, either.)

Sadly, sales are, at the end of the day, a major factor in all of this. No corporation, no matter the incredible art it facilitates, is altruistic. A company like PlayStation, especially as part of the wider Sony corporation, is beholden to meeting financial goals, pleasing shareholders, and making money out of the artistic pursuits it creates. The separation of the two different console versions makes more specific monetary sense when you consider PlayStation is trying to solidify a $70 price point for next-gen games – offering a cross-gen Horizon Forbidden West bundle at $60 or $70 would muddy that approach. That’s why a decision like this isn’t surprising, but it is disheartening, when trends outside of PlayStation show a better way, a way that doesn’t ask players to pay more for the same game when that decision is shackled by global factors no single player can control.

Ultimately, there are more than 10 times the number of PS4 owners than there are PS5 owners, and the consistent sold-out availability of the newer system surely means that players, when they can find them, want the newer hardware. But that’s not a choice everyone gets to easily make while facing limited availability and financial difficulties due to the still-ongoing worldwide pandemic. Horizon Forbidden West will likely sell very well on both PS4 and PS5, but for the much wider base of only PS4 owners, they have a crappy decision to make.

The irony of Jim Ryan’s statement that PlayStation believes in generations has been pointed out plenty of times by now. But it’s frustrating when the only tenet of that belief that carries any water today is forcing a financial choice on players to decide what generation to play on. That’s a choice they shouldn’t have to make, and one PlayStation can hopefully reverse course on before Horizon Forbidden West, and other cross-gen games like the next God of War and Gran Turismo 7, are released.

Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior Features Editor, PlayStation Lead, and host of Podcast Beyond! He’s the proud dog father of a BOY named Loki. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.