We're Not Entitled to Backwards Compatibility…Sort Of

So as everyone on Earth knows by now, the initial reveal of the PlayStation 4 took place last week. It’s been discussed to death already and I don’t have a ton more to add except that a) I was stunned by how much Sony didn’t screw this presentation up as they so love to do and b) the complaints about them not showing the physical hardware are dumb because it’s just a black box you’ll put under your TV and never look at anyway. If you want to hear more, I appeared on an episode of my buddy Chris Cesarano’s Downloathable Content podcast and we had a great discussion about the whole thing. I went into the event kind of expecting Sony to bomb it and came out actually pretty excited for the PlayStation 4.

The one subject Sony dodged during the show and only got on record about after was whether the PS4 would be backwards compatible with the PS3. Since the two systems are so vastly different under the hood (they are less apples to oranges and more apples to dragonfruit), I didn’t expect the PS4 to be able to play PS3 retail games. With Sony’s acquisition of Gaikai and their extensive hyping of that technology during the show, I did expect that they might offer compatibility through online streaming as a viable option. Their responses to questions about that in several subsequent interviews has essentially been “We hope to do that one day but definitely not at launch and we’re not really talking more about it right now.”

This has created a bit of a firestorm among hardcore gamers, many of whom thinks Sony is making a big mistake by omitting backwards compatibility and that it actually owes this to their fans, both to reward historical loyalty but also to preserve the PlayStation legacy. Probably the best articulation of this argument I’ve seen is this video in MovieBob’s Game OverThinker series. Now, I like MovieBob and a lot of what he does and I frequently agree with him. When it comes to this subject though, I think he and those who share this viewpoint are acting both very spoiled and entitled and also just simply being unreasonable. However, I also don’t think we’re entirely wrong for demanding backwards compatibility, at least when it comes to digital purchases.

The whole notion of backwards compatibility is actually relatively new, only really becoming a thing since the PS2. Previous generation systems were largely not compatible with those that came before and the story goes that PS2’s case, it was a happy accident because Sony apparently put the PS1’s processor in the machine to act as an I/O controller and it was trivially easy to add in native PS1 playback support along with that. In the case of Nintendo with the Wii, GameCube and Wii U, those systems were able to be backwards compatible because they’re all essentially the same architecture underneath, each just being a slightly tweaked and faster version of what came before. Backwards compatibility was a nice value add for the hardcore and that’s all it was supposed to be. Sony continued this trend with the PS3 initially by putting the PS2’s Emotion processor in it, ensure 100% backwards compatibility. It was cool but here’s the thing: The PS3 was also “Five hundred and ninety-nine US dollars.” That was in large part because of two things: The crazy, insane, expensive Cell processor and putting the guts of a PS2 in it. Backwards compatibility was eventually downgraded to software emulation to cut costs and when maintaining that became too difficult, it was scrapped from the PS3 altogether, at least for PS2 games. A lot of people got upset then and a lot of people are getting upset about it not even making an appearance on PS4.

Here’s the thing though guys: You aren’t owed backwards compatibility. It was a nice novelty once before but we can’t have our cake and eat it too. In this economy and with the shifts happening in the game industry, no one’s going to buy a $500+ PS4, at least not enough to make it viable. Sony needs to be able to make this system powerful and also affordable. They can’t do that if they have to put an expensive Cell processor in the thing, in addition to everything else needed to support it. Given that the vast majority of people who say they want backwards compatibility rarely if ever actually use it (I have a launch PS3 and have probably played less than 3 hours of PS2 games on it), it simply doesn’t make business sense for Sony to incur the costs of that. Charging everyone more for a feature only a few want and will largely ignore is bad business. If we don’t want another “Five hundred and ninety-nine US dollars”, sacrifices have to be made and I think backwards compatibility should be at the front of things to cut. You have a PS3, you can play all your disc games already and like with the PS2, you’ll be able to buy PS3s for at least a couple of years to come. If you’re concerned that your PS3 may die soon, buy another one when they get cheaper. It’s as simple as that. If you aren’t prepared to pay for the feature and expect everyone else to also pay for it (including those that don’t want it), then you don’t get to have it. Sony has no responsibility to support old technology in perpetuity, not for your convenience or “gaming’s legacy.” If you’re not going to buy a PS4 because it won’t play PS3 games, your priorities are broken. You don’t buy new hardware to play old stuff.

Here’s the thing though: I’m fine with this argument for disc based games but digital games and content are a whole other story.

If I want to play any of the myriad PS3 games I have sitting on Blu-ray discs, I will always be able to do that. I have a PS3 and if PlayStation Network is ever taken down, I may not be able to play games online any more but I’ll still be able to put the disc in and access any parts of my physical library that I wish. This is not so with digital games. Any content I have purchased from PSN only survives as long as I can keep it downloaded on my system and even then, some of it likely requires a server to respond to it before allowing me to play. This is content I paid for but if PSN goes away, it disappears into the ether. That’s not right and it’s not fair. If I paid for a game, I believe I deserve to always have access to it in some way. Now, should Sony one day declare that PSN for PS3 is going away and gives me the option to download everything unlocked, that would be great but it’s unlikely they would do that or that all of their publishing partners would let them. This is not an issue with discs but with digital content, I have no control over my access to it.

For disc based content, I consider this a non-issue because I can just put it in the old system and have access to it. But if Sony cannot guarantee that PSN for PS3 will be up forever, I do believe they have a responsibility to paying customers to make those products available in the future, whether through native backwards compatibility or a streaming option I can get for free or a nominal upgrade fee. Microsoft and Nintendo owe us no less. I suspect in the future when Apple decides to bring iOS out of the Windows 3.1 interface era and makes a major upgrade to it, a similar problem will occur but will cause a much bigger mainstream outrage. This is a problem that’s been largely solved on the PC with services like Steam but of course, the PC is a much more open system and thus, it’s much easier to solve there. It’s not insurmountable for the console manufacturers though and it’s a problem finally being brought into the limelight for them.

Media companies want everyone to move to a new “digital age in the cloud” and the gaming industry is probably one of the biggest proponents of this. They are desperate to cut out retail and the poisonous leeching effect is has on the profit margins of an already razor-thin profit industry. However, it will only take a few missteps like what Sony is doing with PS3 digital purchases to sour the public at large on the concept. I’ll tell you what, I’m definitely going to think a lot longer and harder about what digital purchases I make on the next consoles if I know there’s a chance they may be temporary and become unavailable to me one day. Digital distribution is critical to the game industry’s future but it can’t be a one way street and they have to make it worth our while to buy our games online instead of going to a store and physically owning it, especially if they want to keep charging the same prices. Whether you’re making a game console or a closed mobile operating system, you have to start thinking about the future as well as the present if you’re going to deliver software electronically. People might be willing to lose a bunch of $1 apps in a few years, I doubt they’ll be so accommodating with $10, $15 and $60 games.

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2 Responses to We're Not Entitled to Backwards Compatibility…Sort Of

  1. pkamd says:

    I can corroborate the fact that backward compatibility is harder on the hardware than it looks. After recently trying store after store trying to get a backward compatible PS3 that would actually work, I gave up and bought a PS3 slim. The guys at the store admitted they saw this happen often with the backward compatible models. Dumping the bits that made the compatibility possible made the whole system more stable, so I’m not surprised Sony went this way for the PS4.
    To add to your discussion, however, Sega tried backward compatibility on it’s console systems long before the Playstation 2. Granted the Sega CD and 32X were more like add-ons to the Genesis, than full on consoles themselves, but the 32X would play Genesis games. Saturn was originally going to have backward compatibility with the Genesis, but Sega scrapped the idea because it wasn’t ready to hang the Genesis out to dry yet. Good move, since Genesis systems are still sold in Brazil.

    • Man, you’re right. I’d forgotten about the previous Sega stuff. It definitely was still intended as a value add but you’re right in that unlike with the PS2, that was very much an intentional feature.

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