With the unveiling of the PS3 redesign there came a lot of fanfare and a host of bullet points: cheaper to produce, price drop for consumers, redesigned case, lower power consumption, I could go on. The one feature, or lack thereof, that did catch my attention was the final nail in the coffin of backwards compatibility. It’s “off the table” according to John Koller, Sony America’s marketing man talking to Kotaku, finally ruling out any hope that PlayStation 3 owners may be able to run their sizeable PlayStation 2 collections on the same black box.
Aside from me finding it amusing that it was Sony who mocked Microsoft for their limited backwards compatibility at the birth of the 360, I think this decision has several repercussions for the end-user, most of which relating to cold, hard cash.
The first is that this call in theory saves them money. If ever you’ve cracked open an old machine there are lots of tracks and chips on the motherboards but the most important thing you are looking for is the main processor. That is the brains of the operation and the more power you have in it then the shinier your games can be. The trouble is, as they got more and more powerful they also got more and more tricky to emulate when it came to the next generation.
Changes in hardware, software, specifications and the general design of the underlying architecture make the broad statement of “backwards compatibility” a nightmare for those tasked with achieving it. Technology had advanced far enough that when the PS2 ship it managed to do so with a chip literally containing a condensed PS1 onboard, but it was no where near that easy for the Xbox. Rather than creating their own proprietary technology for the original Xbox, Microsoft utilised off the shelf components from a variety of manufacturers meaning that licensing a cheaper, smaller version of the original Xbox inside the 360 would be a supremely tricky affair. Instead, they attempted to take code written for an Intel processor and nVidia graphics card and port it to a multi-cored Power PC processor and ATI graphics card. Switching brands on their two key components meant that at the lowest level many things would have to be changed or at least would perform different enough for it not to be considered anything but an easy job.
For a comparison, imagine putting a short piece of English prose through the Google language translator into French; most of what you get should be fine but it just takes one mistranslation to possibly change the entire meaning of the piece. And at least continental poetry won’t crash your computer. As such, each Xbox Original game that went through the backwards compatibility process had to be tested individually to check for quirks of the porting process and have its own emulation executable customised to get around such issues. A very costly and inefficient affair an and one that explains why only a portion of the Xbox’s catalogue has been converted to its successor.
If the thought of saving money on development was not attractive enough, Sony will surely have been looking at the success of the Wii’s virtual console and, to a lesser degree, Microsoft’s Xbox Originals on the Live Marketplace. Both present a library of games for you to buy and download from long dead generations of consoles, some of which you may still own and have sitting on your shelf waiting for the day you decide to bring your original PlayStation, for example, back down from the loft.
Already on the PlayStation Network you can download various PS1 games, including acclaimed titles such as Final Fantasy VII, and so surely it is just a matter of time before they are joined by full games from its older sibling, the PS2. With the lack of hardware emulation on all but the very early PS3, the process would, as with the Xbox, run entirely in software with the cost of producing such an emulator would then be paid for by those willing to download it. Why include something for free when you can announce it later with a fanfare and, as an added bonus, charge for it?
But isn’t backwards compatibility really only something looked for by only a small percentage of players? Whilst many still play older console’s games, the community still surrounding Halo 2 alone is testament to this fact, is it something that could make or break the decision to buy a piece of hardware? This concept is relatively new and only introduced in a big way with the PlayStation 2. Prior to that backwards compatibility was a strange and foreign concept, mainly due to the medium games were presented on, but it does seems that journalists and players are fixated on the concept.
Personally, the actuality of being able to play a selection of older gamers without the need to dig out my original Xbox or my GameCube is nice but it’s not a deal breaker when it comes to buying the next iteration of a company’s hardware. Next time my wife wants to play Tomb Raider I know I’m going to have to start digging around for composite cables and venture behind the telly to make space for another plug; the fact I have to do that did not put me off embracing a PS3. You should ultimately buy a console for it currently offers, not for what it did in a previous life.