Next Generation Consoles: Do We Really Need Backwards Compatibility?
If you suffer from “too long, didn’t read” syndrome, the video up above covers the content, courtesy of me! Below is if you’re unable to watch or would rather read.
Today I’m going to be discussing the next-generation consoles and the matter of backwards compatibility. We’ve just recently gotten confirmation from Sony’s system architect Mark Cerny, who said that, and I’m paraphrasing here, Sony struggled with this point, and that the PS4 is switching to new X86 technology over the PS3’s old CELL chip, and featuring backwards compatibility would mean including that CELL chip in the PS4, which could lead to manufacturing headaches further down the line. Development is easier for the X86 architecture, but it could be problematic to include legacy support. In the end, Sony went for a clean break to simplify developer efforts.
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Now there has been a lot of talk around the web about backwards compatibility, and there are rumours going around that the next Xbox won’t have it either. I want to address this whole discussion using five clear topics to talk about why the omission of backwards compatibility may not be entirely a bad thing, but does have some problems for consumers and the industry. I’ll talk mostly from the PlayStation perspective because it’s the only confirmation we have so far.
1) The first topic is the matter of Price. The omission of backwards compatibility cuts the cost of manufacturing the console, and that reduces the retail price of the console, which makes it more affordable to us. This is a big deal, because when the PS3 first launched, it was extremely expensive due to being both a Blu-ray player and featuring legacy support. Once that support was dropped, in other words once backwards compatibility was removed, there was a significant price drop and more affordable bundles, I think it dropped by $100 (together with the Slim and removal of backwards compatibility), but I could be wrong about that. It’s going to be very difficult for the average consumer to transition to next-gen and purchase a whole new console, so this reduction in price is definitely welcome, and can be good for the long term pricing as well when Christmas specials and such land.
2) The second major issue is the question of: What Do You Do With Your Old Console? The problem for us as consumers is that no backwards compatibility means we’re forced to keep our current console if we wish to play older games. Maybe many consumers were hoping to sell their PS3’s before next-gen arrived to help fund their PS4 savings, but this does force a rain-check on that. It’s certainly an issue if you’ve built up a large library of games. Thankfully, Sony and other developers are helping out those who can’t make the jump immediately by making the first batch of games for current and next-generation consoles, such as Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and a number of the PS4 launch titles, but this will be a temporary thing to help the transitioning period, and isn’t long-term. Look, for me personally, I can’t speak for anyone else, I’d be inclined to just hold onto my old console, but I don’t really want to, and I can understand how it would be a problem for others who were banking on selling it. I do like that you won’t be excluded from newer games for the time being, but the absence of backwards compatibility does kind of make the PS4 a fresh start.
3) This brings me to the third matter, which is that of HD-rereleases. This is a problem for us as consumers. Will publishers look to monetize current-gen classics in the future by re-releasing them for the PS4 and next Xbox? I mean, you can’t exactly “HD upgrade” an HD game and give that as the main selling point. The main selling points of the PS2 Game HD Collections was three things, namely 1) the HD Upgrade, 2) the added trophies-slash-achievements and 3) the compilations, with multiple games on one disk. How will that work for next-gen, since the games will already have trophies and HD? What will be the selling point? You could effectively just be paying again for games you own. I suppose convenience with the compilations will help, for instance “The Uncharted trilogy” on one disk might be enticing, but firstly is that really worth top dollar, and secondly can that be done? Double layered blu-ray disks are 50GB, and games like God of War 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4 almost fill that to capacity. How would you go about fitting numerous games of that size unless you’re using very high-storage disks? It’s an important question to ask regarding what will happen to PS3 classics and already existing HD-rereleases of PS2 titles. There were whispers at Sony’s press conference that they hope to, in the future, make these available via the online service, but it’s a big uncertainty for now, and these are the questions we do need to ask.
4) The fourth topic, which may be another good reason for leaving behind backwards compatibility, is that it adds problems with game functionality. The PS3 uses six year old technology with its CELL chip, where as the PS4 will be using an entirely different architecture with its X86 tech. This can be a development headache for Sony, and if you recall there were many PS2 titles that just didn’t translate well to the PS3, and had a number of technical issues that never got fixed, depending on the game. Also, if we have to look at games releasing for current AND next generation consoles, the possibility does exist that by dual developing games for six year old tech and current tech, it may increase the risk of technical faults in our games. To this end, I’d say that removing backwards compatibility can be less of a headache for both us as gamers and Sony as manufacturers. Again, keeping your old console here could eliminate this issue, if you’re in a position to do that.
5) This leads to the final matter of discussion, which is quite an important one. Aside from some exceptions, backwards compatibility eventually stops being used (either it’s not used as much, or it’s not used at all). While the PS4’s library is still small during its early days, it will probably be used a lot, but as the quantity of games increases, backwards compatibility gets used less. I know this from my experience with the PS3. When it first came out and there were very little games, I went back to the PS2 library, but once games started releasing, I practically never revisited, and I suppose backwards compatibility got edged out by the new trend in HD re-releases. Of course the extent to which you enjoy those HD re-releases depends on you and whether you prefer the convenience of multiple games on one disk and having trophies and achievements. But in the long-run, it’s quite apparent that backwards compatibility gets used less, and this is something next-gen console publishers have to consider when it comes to manufacturing and the headaches legacy support could cause. So from both our perspective and Sony’s, backwards compatibility may be less of a big deal after a year or so of the next-gen console’s lifecycle.
I don’t have a definitive answer on what the right course of action would be. Perhaps my advice would be, if you really want to hold onto your old games, then keep the PS3 now, and maybe look at selling it once the PS4 has a price drop. Alternatively, if you’re like me and you’re impatient to get the PS4 at its launch, then maybe you’ll have to bite the bullet and sell your PS3 before it’s out unless you can afford to go right in and buy it. Of course these possible solutions depend on whether you want to keep your PS3 or not, but these are important topics we should be discussing with next-gen on the horizon. I suppose in truth we’ll find out a lot more at E3 when everything will be laid out onto the table, but until then I hope this has helped you to think about some of these matters and perhaps talk about it with your friends and around the internet. It’s definitely good to have a plan in place.
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