Madden 21 shows that cross-gen gaming on Xbox Series X and PS5 could be messy

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EA’s upcoming Madden NFL 21 is coming to the Xbox Series X, and owners of the game for the current-gen Xbox One will be able to upgrade to the Series X version for free, the company announced today at Microsoft’s gameplay reveal showcase. But there’s a catch: instead of using Microsoft’s Smart Delivery program to offer the free upgrade, EA will be running its own — far more limited — upgrade offer.

At its core, EA’s deal has the same goal as Microsoft’s Smart Delivery program: to make sure that players don’t have to buy two copies of a game for the two separate consoles. But EA is adding a host of extra restrictions for its offer. Players must purchase Madden NFL 21 on Xbox One by December 31st, 2020 to be eligible to get a Series X upgrade, and they’ll only have until March 31st, 2021 to be able to upgrade their copy.

In contrast, Microsoft’s Smart Delivery program is far more generous: players can buy either the Xbox One or Xbox Series X version of a cross-generation game and receive the other console’s version for free, with no time limits. So you can download a copy of Cyberpunk 2077 on your Xbox Series X and it’ll also work on an Xbox One, compared to EA’s offer, which appears to only allow a limited-time upgrade from the current generation to the next.

It’s confusing, partially because EA has yet to offer any concrete details on the program. Will EA’s other Xbox One and Xbox Series X games released this fall and in 2021 have upgrade programs? Comments from EA COO Blake Jorgensen during the company’s earnings call referred to an effect on revenue “from the games we are launching for the current generation of consoles that can also be upgraded free for the next generation,” although it’s not clear what the scope of that will be or whether it’ll just be limited to a few select titles.

Also unknown is how EA’s upgrade will actually work? Will players have to mail in a physical copy or provide a proof of purchase? Will digitally downloaded copies of Madden 21 be included in the offer?

And of course, there’s the question of whether EA will only be offering the upgrade program for Xbox customers or if PlayStation owners will have a similar offer for the PS4 and PS5 versions of Madden 21.

Complicating things further is the fact that Sony has yet to announce whether it’ll be offering a cross-generation upgrade program like Smart Delivery (or really anything at all about games for the PlayStation 5). But even if there is a PlayStation 5 equivalent, it seems likely that EA would use its own upgrade system there for PS4 owners looking to upgrade to the PS5 version, as it has for the Xbox One / Xbox Series X cycle.

All this is made more maddening by the fact that Microsoft already has a perfectly good and customer-friendly program to help avoid this issue entirely. Based on the limitations EA has announced for its upgrade program, it’s hard to interpret the company’s decision to create its own system as anything other than a less generous imitation of Microsoft’s Smart Delivery system. And at a time when so many other major developers — including big names like Ubisoft, CD Projekt Red, and Microsoft’s own first-party studios — are embracing the consumer-friendly approach, that’s just disappointing to see.

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