EA is already making next-gen upgrades confusing

Microsoft’s big Inside Xbox episode from Thursday morning, which promised a “first look” at Xbox Series X gameplay footage, didn’t exactly set the world on fire. But if you look past the next-generation games on display, the showcase did provide an indication of what Xbox customers can expect if they’re looking to play the Xbox Series X versions of Xbox One games: a lack of clarity, at least when it comes to third-party publishers.

In all, Microsoft showed 13 Xbox Series X titles ranging from big-budget blockbusters like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to indie games from unfamiliar names such as FYQD-Studio’s Bright Memory: Infinite. The episode said that nine of the games will be part of Microsoft’s Smart Delivery program. That means that anybody who buys those games on Xbox One will also receive the upgraded Xbox Series X version (whenever it’s released) at no additional cost.

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Smart Delivery is a pro-consumer initiative. People who are excited for a current-generation game probably don’t want to put off playing it until the next-generation version is released, while owners of current-gen games don’t want to have to pay for a next-gen upgrade, which may or may not deliver a night-and-day improvement. It’s great that Microsoft introduced this program for Xbox customers; in addition, its existence puts pressure on Sony to do the same thing for PlayStation players.

But one issue that became apparent on Thursday is that Smart Delivery is not as simple as it sounds — and that’s because of third-party publishers. Microsoft has committed to offering Smart Delivery for all Xbox Game Studios titles, and other companies are welcome to join the program. A number of third parties have done so, including the makers of two of 2020’s most anticipated games: CD Projekt Red with Cyberpunk 2077, and Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=vD4kh3-74a8%3Frel%3D0

Electronic Arts, however, is handling next-gen upgrades a little differently: It turns out that there’s a catch.

EA debuted a few seconds of in-engine Madden NFL 21 gameplay footage during Inside Xbox. The segment concluded with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes saying that the company would provide free Xbox Series X upgrades for the Xbox One version of the game. That’s true, but only for a limited time: In order to get the next-gen version of Madden NFL 21 for free, you “must purchase the game [on Xbox One] before Dec. 31 and redeem your upgrade on Xbox Series X by March 31, 2021,” EA says in an FAQ on the EA Sports website. (Sony has not announced a similar program for next-gen upgrades; the FAQ says that EA will announce further details regarding other platforms, and its other games, “as we approach EA Play Live on June 11.”)

Sure, EA is free to do as it pleases, and if you wanted to defend the company, you could say that at least it’s offering a free upgrade for some amount of time. And hey — maybe the next-gen version of Madden will be a transformatively different product from the current-gen game à la the PlayStation 4/Xbox One launch title NBA 2K14 (i.e., something that may warrant a second $60 purchase).

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But leaving aside how consumer-friendly (or not) it is to put boundaries on Smart Delivery, the bigger issue is that it creates confusion. It muddles the messaging for prospective console buyers — they’ll have to research individual games to find out if a next-gen upgrade will be free.

Microsoft can’t force third parties to participate in Smart Delivery, but if other companies follow EA’s lead and come up with their own unique policies, the inconsistency will be a hassle for the public to navigate. Remember the dawn of the current generation, when Microsoft shot itself in the foot with its “Xbox One-Eighty” regarding used games and online check-ins? Even after that reversal, the perception that the Xbox One was an always-online console stuck.

We’re on the precipice of a new console generation. It’s a time that’s typically full of excitement about the next-gen possibilities — but also full of confusion, as platform holders and game publishers drip-feed details about their products and plans.

For now, we’re all operating with limited information, and everything is in flux. (It’s worth noting that this is normal in the lead-up to any new generation, but the coronavirus pandemic, of course, is throwing everything further out of whack.) With about six months to go until the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are scheduled to launch, there’s still time for game publishers to revise their plans and clear things up.

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