This is mostly my opinion, so feel free to agree or
disagree. In all honesty, I miss Backwards Compatibility and maybe I probably shouldn't.
Neither the Xbox One or the PlayStation 4 is backwards compatible. You can't
take a disc from your library of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games, put it in
your new console, and play. I wish I could, and I understand why I can't, but
it does not make me want the feature any less.
When the Xbox 360 released, my friends and I were still playing
Halo 2. I miss those days of playing 4-player split-screen Halo 2 on Xbox Live.
When I brought the Xbox 360 into my room, it didn’t change
things too much. It was backwards compatible with the top-selling games on the
Xbox. The majority of our time was still spent playing Halo 2, usually on the
original Xbox. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 both have a fantastic library of
games I am still working my way through. I am currently playing Red Faction
Guerilla, for example, but I wish I could play it on my new console. I want any
excuse to use the new system, even if I am playing a game from a previous
I understand why the new consoles are not backwards
compatible. To give the hardware the option to play Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
discs is to hold them back. It’s a technical hurdle Sony and Microsoft are
working on leaping with non-hardware streaming solutions.
Implement or emulate
There are effectively two ways to provide compatibility with
previous consoles: through hardware implementation, or via software emulation
of the old machine. In the former case, it involves actually including some of
the chips from the old machine in the new machine. The Nintendo Wii, for
example, was in many ways just a more powerful version of the older GameCube,
so backwards compatibility was reasonably straightforward – indeed the Wii
originally had GameCube controller sockets and two memory card slots. It was
like a GameCube in disguise. The PlayStation 2, meanwhile, had the original
PlayStation chipset built in, so it ran pretty much any PSone title – and when
that chip wasn't being used for backwards compatibility it doubled as an
input/output processor, which was pretty canny.
What's different now is the increased complexity in hardware
and software, and heat issues. The best way to support your old console, in
terms of broadest support of all old games, is to actually include the hardware
of the old system inside the new one. CPU, GPU, sound chips, ideally the whole
This works well enough when you look at the price list for
components, as the old chips have become cheap enough to include without
bumping the cost of the new system. Sadly though, with the high frequency clock
rates (GHz), designing your board to incorporate the entire old machine is not
easy or cheap, and worse, it will emit just as much heat as the old system did
on it's own. Heat is a big factor with modern system designs and you do not
want to add 100 watts to your output, and another jet turbine style fan.
So as new hardware becomes more complex, the inclusion of
older chips and processors becomes more expensive, and with margins so tight
(manufacturers often make a loss on new machines anyway), it's an easy feature
to jettison. Indeed, although both the original versions of the Wii and the PS3
included old feature-sets in the architecture, later versions ripped these out
to cut down on costs and allow for price drops.
Microsoft updated its list of backwards compatible Xbox
games for years after the launch of the Xbox 360, spending valuable resources
on making sure its new console could play old discs, but I can’t remember the
last time I took advantage of the feature. Once a console’s library gets even a
small handful of quality, better-than-rushed-launch-games, backwards compatibility
becomes borderline pointless. I stopped caring about the Xbox 360’s list of
backwards games around the time The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion released.
Sony has made promises with its Playstation Now streaming
service saying it will allow the PlayStation 4 to play PlayStation 3 games
online with streaming video. I was hoping that you will need only a disc from
your library to play, but the reality is there are fees associated with playing
games you already own. So in my own opinion, backwards compatibility does
affect consumers! The same goes for Xbox One and Xbox 360 games. Microsoft
is already tempering expectations towards how game streaming will work on
its console. Even if these systems work well, by the time they are available,
the time when they would be most valued will have already passed. The
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, the Wii, and Wii U offer the ability to purchase and
download old games from previous consoles, but this is less a function of
backwards compatibility, and more a storefront for fans to easily purchase and
replay older titles. For backwards compatibility to be a selling point for a
new console, the ability to put an old disc from your library into a new system
Backwards compatibility is helpful for the
launch of a new console.
It helps justify the investment by allowing you to actually
play your new console (and take advantage of some of the new features) with the
last few quality titles of the previous generation. It can be a selling point
for those shifting their console loyalty, as many did this new generation, from
Microsoft over to Sony. Jumping onto a new platform with a whole collection of
exclusives from the past eight years could have been very attractive to early
adopters. It also could have presented a competitive advantage for one console
and allowed those like me, running out of storage space and HDMI ports on their
television, to remove old consoles from their TV cabinet.
It could have been a major selling point for either 2013
console, but in the long-run, backwards compatibility becomes a forgotten
feature, and I understand why it's absent. The Wii U is fully compatible with
every Wii game, but I have already happily abandoned playing Wii discs on the
system in favor of games like Pikmin 3 and Super Mario 3D World. I wish I could
take my Red Faction Guerilla disc out of the Xbox 360 and finish the game on
the new console, but by demanding that capability (and likely forgetting it in
a matter of months), I am probably short-changing other more important console
features that will have greater longevity. I want the feature now in the early
hours of my next-gen console ownership, but ask me again in a few years and
just maybe, I might not miss it as much.
But hey, there’s always HD remakes.
From a software standpoint, game companies certainly have
the physical ability to port last-generation games to next-generation, and it
wouldn't be particularly costly.