Every console generation begins with a slow trickle of game releases as developers transition to new hardware. The launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series consoles in November last year won’t break the trend; through mid 2021 there may be fewer than ten titles exclusive to the Series X and PS5 combined. Nevertheless, the pandemic’s impact and unique hardware of this console generation — lightning fast SSDs and wide backward compatibility — will make this a gaming year like none we’ve ever had. Consider the experience “old game plus” where gamers spend a lot of time playing what came before but in revitalized ways.
Regarding the unfamiliar and new, it’s already a bleak sign to see how few firm release dates we have on the calendar three months into the year. I expect the news will only get more dire over time; many if not most titles with a vague 2021 release date will get bumped back to 2022.
We can put most of the blame on the pandemic which has had a catastrophic impact across the gaming industry. At a glance, you might expect otherwise given how critical technology plays into the creation process. But the lifecycle of game development isn’t as remote friendly as the larger tech industry. First there’s the learning curve; even large games tend to cram cross disciplinary staff under the same roof in collaborative, open floor plans. It takes time to coordinate sometimes hundreds of personnel all working apart. Also some game divisions like mocap and audio can be especially difficult without close face to face interaction as Xbox head Phil Spencer noted almost a year ago.
One bellwether to further delays comes from Sony. Every one of their first party titles is slipping back which suggests larger uncontrollable forces at hand. Gran Turismo 7 was delayed to 2022. Two “launch window” games are debuting suspiciously late: Returnal was pushed to April, and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart has a June launch. The cumulative news portends poorly for Sony’s remaining big 2021 games Horizon: Forbidden West and God of War Ragnarok. I doubt Sony will try to squeeze two high profile action games out over the last few months of the year.
What will come out, at least in the mid to high budget range, will be tried and true sequels to established hits. Annualized sports franchises that can fall back on established technology and assets are a lock. Sony confirmed an April release for MLB The Show 21 on PS5 and Series X. Inevitably we’ll see new FIFA and NBA 2K previews by mid summer, both of which already came out with PS5 and Series X enhanced editions in late 2020. Also, the widely popular Far Cry and Resident Evil series have release dates for May this year.
In addition, Sony and Microsoft know how mega big budget sequel exclusives – Halo Infinite, Horizon: Forbidden West, and God of War Ragnarok – have the potential to sell hardware and establish ecosystem lock in. I’d expect two out of these three titles to launch this year. Across all these sequels we’ve seen minimal gameplay, but I’d venture to guess none will be a strong departure from what came before, more iteration or evolution than net new experience.
However, iterative releases can be rejuvenated from the power of the new console hardware. Graphics bumps are, like in every generation, a given with new GPU and CPU power. But as I wrote earlier, it’s the SSD this generation that will feel revolutionary in day to day practice, with far faster load times to make play sessions more efficient.
Also, it’s not just new games, but old titles that feel new thanks to hardware boosts. The Series X and PS5 play virtually every title from their previous generation, often with visual enhancements, no developer patch needed. A multi year old PS4 or Xbox One game with the right makeover — bump in resolution, frame rate, faster load times — can be a completely different experience, justifying a second look from PS5 and Series X console owners.
To boot, developers are now proactively patching last generation games to ensure their games take full advantage of the new console capabilities. Changes include everything from uncapping frame rates, adding higher quality textures, and new lighting effects like ray tracing. Microsoft and Sony have already patched some flagship best sellers like God of War and Forza Horizon 4. Third party publishers are also on the case patching popular games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Destiny 2. In most cases it’s the original game getting a bump, but in rare situations we’re seeing net new remasters on sale like with Spiderman or the original Mass Effect trilogy out this May.
I suspect we’ll see more of this over time. Enhancements incentivize more purchases of games (including DLC) otherwise past their prime. For Microsoft, a strategically enhanced older game like Forza bumps up the value of Game Pass. Sony likewise will happily improve Ghosts of Tsushuma given its a marquee PS4 exclusive, inherently improving the draw of the larger PlayStation ecosystem.
Admittedly, a year focused on enhanced older experiences while many new games get bumped back to 2022 should feel frustrating. But I think the larger gaming public will be ok with this new reality. Known quantities made better are comforting to a world still reeling from the impact of COVID-19 and the Trump administration. For brand new console gamers who jumped in for entertainment needs during the pandemic, all games feel new, and there’s an incredibly rich, varied catalog for them to catch up on. Shortages in PS5 and Xbox Series hardware will continue which means less people bemoaning their small current gen libraries. Consider it an extended, cozy retreat before we see a lot more output next year.