Editorial: Will Backwards Compatibility Become a Thing of the Past?

Source: en:Image:360controller.jpg

With the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 currently battling it out for the rights to call themselves this year’s “must-have” console, many aspects of both systems have been analysed and critiqued; DRM, always-online policies, the technical specifications, and much more besides.

One particular point that I feel has been a little less covered, however, is that of backwards compatibility. For those unaware of what the term “backwards compatibility” means, it essentially states that a current generation console (in this example the Xbox One/PS4) is capable of playing games from the previous generation (the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3), thus allowing a user to still continue to play games that they may have purchased in the past while also enjoying this generation’s blockbuster hits.

First, a little history lesson in regards to backwards compatibility with the two consoles being considered here;

  • The Xbox 360 was compatible with some, but not all, of the original Microsoft Xbox console’s games. While I won’t list all of them here, Wikipedia has comprised a fantastic list of all of the games from the original Xbox that work with the Xbox 360 currently.
  • The PlayStation 2 was capable of playing all PlayStation 1 games. When the PlayStation 3 released, earlier models (the 20GB, 60GB and 80GB models) were capable of playing PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 games. This feature was removed in newer models and the PS3 Slim, as Sony stated they felt that there were enough PS3 titles that most people would not be concerned about having access to their older back catalog.
  • I should also state that both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 featured the capability to download older games through their respective live functions, although this required users to purchase the game a second time. More on this later.

Essentially, both consoles had some form of backwards compatibility, regardless of how limited this feature was.

Skip forward to 2013, and we’re now looking at a future of next-gen consoles that feature little/no backwards compatibility whatsoever. Many people believe this is a conscientious decision by the companies to not support backwards compatibility, although a great deal of it actually boils down to hardware restraints. Without getting extremely technical and remaining on a level everyone can understand, both of the new consoles use x86 chipsets, which are very different to the sets that were previously used in the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. This puts a rather large void between the possibility of allowing backwards compatibility.

The all-in-one entertainment system that completely disregards its older titles. (Source: Dalvenjah via Wikimedia Commons)

Microsoft seems quite content to allow their older titles slip into the background (a comment from ex-boss Don Mattrick stated that “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards”) and have stated that their new console will definitely not support old 360 titles or any of the Xbox Live Arcade titles that people have collected over the years.

Sony, on the other hand, have stated that they would like to use the cloud-streaming service Gaikai to eventually provide PS3 titles for streaming. This at first seems like an excellent concept and certainly makes it seem as though this effort by Sony puts them heads above Microsoft, until you realise that their plan is currently far from bulletproof. For one, its highly unlikely that Sony will be giving these PS3 ‘streams’ away for free – you’ll either be looking at paying up-front to purchase a title you already own again, or paying a monthly subscription fee to access a set amount of games. Secondly, Gaikai is currently incapable of streaming at anything higher than 720p resolution, and even that requires quite the internet connection. Finally, Sony have only nodded to the capability of Gaikai being used, and have not yet given us any indication of whether or not these streaming assets will be accessible upon launch. Currently, its looking very unlikely.

I would just like to stop for a moment and put my 2 cents in with regards to how things are going to work from now on, assuming that my above two paragraphs are set in stone and this is how things will definitely be. For one, users will be forced to pay for their old titles yet again even though they may have potentially bought them once (or even twice) prior, which induces even more expense for the end user. Secondly, there’s an unknown period of when and where we’re actually going to see backwards compatibility – Sony has been incredibly vague about their Gaikai service, and Microsoft has essentially dismissed any likelihood of something occurring with their console, which means we’re all pretty much in the dark as of now. This is before you consider that if you purchase an Xbox One and one day feel like playing some Fallout 3 or some Modern Warfare 2, you’ll have to re-connect your entire system to a separate TV in order to do so. Its a matter of convenience, more than anything.

Lastly, let us not forget the competition these two giants face in this sector. While I don’t pretend to know an awful lot about the Wii U, quoted from Nintendo’s website, Wii U users can currently access a back catalog via the Virtual Console consisting of;

  • Wii (game discs)
  • GameCube (downloads only)
  • Nintendo 64
  • Super Nintendo
  • NES
  • Neo Geo
  • SEGA Master System

That’s a heck of a list right there, and that’s before we even consider that the other major competitor in this sector, the humble gaming PC, has endless backwards compatibility. Heck, just the other week I picked up the ‘Oddworld’ series via Amazon, a set of games that stretch back to the PlayStation 1, for next to nothing.

Indeed, if you search Google right now for the term backwards compatibility, you’ll find no end of articles regarding the significant lack of it in the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (and oddly enough, a considerably large amount of Don Mattrick pictures…).

The famous adage goes “you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone”, and this stands true for backwards compatibility. Many people don’t consider that they may want to play their older games when they receive their brand-new shiny Xbox One at Christmas time, but a few months down the line, when you get the itch to do a speed-run through of Portal 2, its going to suck real hard when you realise you’ve sold your 360 and can’t just jump onto the online store and download it immediately. Furthermore, competitors such as the PC allow you to do this already – this is hardly ground-breaking stuff.

Right now we stand at a cross-roads, with no real direction in which to go. Only time will really tell whether or not backwards compatibility will make a come-back, or simply become something that is remembered fondly when the Xbox “Two” or the “PS5” release in a few years time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go blow some dust off my PlayStation 2…

EDIT – A good friend of mine informed me that not all PS1 games worked with the PS2, but these were rare cases such as Monkey Hero which used specific code that confused the PS2 and made it unplayable.


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[Source: Wikipedia – List of Xbox games compatible with Xbox 360]

[Source: Nintendo – List of backward compatible sources for the Wii U]