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How Xbox Smart Delivery works

In February, Microsoft announced some of the key features arriving with its next video game console, the Xbox Series X. That post wasn’t merely a laundry list of speeds and feeds. It was both a technological and a philosophical statement, a roadmap for what consumers should expect when they buy their next Xbox.

One of the most interesting parts of that post was the introduction of Smart Delivery, something that can absolutely save you money down the road. Here’s how.

The problem

Bleak Falls Barrow, the first major dungeon in Skyrim.
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

As an example, let’s look at The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim — a game that has been ported to virtually every platform known to man, but which has required consumers to repurchase it almost every time … with one notable exception.

Skyrim was first released in 2011 on PlayStation 3, Windows PC, and Xbox 360. The Xbox One came out in 2013, but Skyrim was never included in Microsoft’s backward compatibility program. In 2016, Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Special Edition, a new version of the game with upgraded graphics for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Fans who already owned the game on Xbox 360 had to buy it again.

Meanwhile, people who already owned the PC version on Steam got Skyrim Special Edition as a free upgrade.

Smart Delivery should accomplish the same thing as Skyrim’s free PC upgrade. It’ll help end the issue of buying the same console game multiple times. Microsoft describes it as a technology that “empowers you to buy a game once and know that — whether you are playing it on Xbox One or Xbox Series X — you are getting the right version of that game on whatever Xbox you’re playing on.”

Microsoft hasn’t yet delineated how Smart Delivery works on a technical level, but the messaging is plain. If a game supports Smart Delivery, you’ll only need to buy one copy of it to play it on either of the modern Xbox consoles. And, when you do, you can rest assured that you’ll be playing the best version of the game for that particular platform.

This is the sort of thing that fans on PC have enjoyed for a long, long time. Skyrim isn’t an anomaly. PC games regularly get upgraded for free, which allows players to take advantage of hardware improvements like more powerful GPUs and better monitors. In this way, Smart Delivery will bring Xbox gaming more in line with PC gaming.

The consumer experience

Halo Infinite
Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios

We don’t yet know how Smart Delivery technically works, but Microsoft has talked around the topic enough that we have a reasonable expectation of how the consumer experience is going to work.

Games will launch, and both physical and digital versions will be sold for the Xbox One and for the Xbox Series X. Consumers will be free to buy whichever version they like, and they’ll be able to authenticate their ownership of that game, either by placing the physical disc into their console or by having a digital license tied to their Microsoft account. Then, regardless of whether they’re playing on an Xbox One or an Xbox Series X, the console itself will provide them with the appropriate version of the game.

This is different from backward compatibility, mind you. Microsoft made a name for itself by putting time and effort into making Xbox and Xbox 360 games compatible with the Xbox One. The Xbox One version of Madden NFL 21 may be playable on Xbox Series X via backward compatibility, but that experience wouldn’t be like playing the version built specifically for the next-gen console; instead, players would only get some benefits provided by the newer, more powerful hardware. Smart Delivery, on the other hand, will give consumers access to the fully upgraded Xbox Series X versions of the games they buy for Xbox One.

Buy the game once, play it across console generations, and benefit from your investment in newer hardware. Philosophically, it’s that simple. As for whether it works that well in practice … we’ll have to wait and see.

The philosophy

Cyberpunk 2077
Image: CD Projekt Red

Here’s where things get sketchy.

Remember I mentioned the philosophy bit? Microsoft commits that it will use Smart Delivery for every Xbox Game Studios title. That commitment means that all of the company’s upcoming first-party games, like Halo Infinite, will work on both consoles.

Microsoft has also said it’s making the Smart Delivery technology available to all developers and publishers. But Microsoft isn’t requiring those companies to follow its standard. The ball is in their court.

Currently, we only know of 12 games that will offer Smart Delivery:

  • Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (Ubisoft)
  • Call of the Sea (Raw Fury)
  • Chorus (Deep Silver)
  • Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt Red)
  • Dirt 5 (Codemasters)
  • Gears 5 (The Coalition)
  • Halo Infinite (Xbox Game Studios)
  • Scarlet Nexus (Bandai Namco)
  • Second Extinction (Systemic Reaction)
  • The Ascent (Neon Giant/Curve Digital)
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 (Paradox Interactive)
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Sega)

Electronic Arts was one of the first third-party publishers to make its position on Smart Delivery known. It initially stated that it would only offer upgrades from Xbox One to Xbox Series X for Madden NFL 21 — not the other way around — and only for a limited time. After fans cried foul, EA reversed course.

“During our recent Inside Xbox announce, we included some dates limiting this […] approach. Having listened to our players response we’re extending the offer all the way through our Madden 21 season up to the release of Madden NFL 22, so players can upgrade to Madden NFL 21 on Xbox Series X whenever they first purchase their new console within that period.

Notably, EA makes no mention of its offer going both ways. That means that if you purchase Madden NFL 21 for the Xbox Series X, you should not expect to be able to play the game on Xbox One. Look for more clarity on the subject of how EA is handling its variation of Smart Delivery — which it calls “Dual Entitlement” — at EA Play Live on June 18.

One thing is clear, however: Smart Delivery is pro-consumer, because it makes cross-generational console compatibility possible and prevents fans from having to buy the same game twice. Microsoft has committed to using that technology for all of its Xbox Game Studios titles. Now it’s up to other developers and publishers — and Sony, Microsoft’s biggest competitor in the console space — to make their own philosophical positions on the subject known.

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