Backwards Compatibility Is An Essential Feature For Next Gen Consoles

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Backwards Compatibility Is An Essential Feature For Next Gen Consoles
Image: Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt Red)

Teraflops, SSDs, processing capabilities and ray tracing: these are the new battlegrounds in the next-gen console wars. But one of the most important features is often mentioned as a lesser priority. That feature is backwards compatibility, and like the speed of a CPU or the frame rate of a game, its support and inclusion should be mandatory.

Much of the conversation around backwards compatibility focuses on the idea of “moving forward” — in other words, leaving the past behind. This idea has featured heavily in Sony’s backwards compatibility ethos since the disastrous launch of the original $995.95 PlayStation 3 that allowed for Playstation 2 backwards compatibility.

To enable this, Sony added a dedicated “Emotion Engine” and GPU into the PS3. The feature was needed because of the architectural changes between the two consoles, but the added hardware blew out the PS3’s enormous cost. These hardware modules were removed in later revisions. Some European, South Korean and US 80GB PS3’s do have hybrid software-hardware support for PS2 games, but later models stripped all the specialised hardware out, removing PS2 backward compatibility entirely.

Sony developed a longer-term solution in PlayStation Now, a software-based streaming service that allowed PlayStation users to access PlayStation 2 emulation from a cloud server. The service (which is still live for PlayStation 4) never launched in Australia, likely due to its speed and data centre requirements. As it stands, PlayStation 2 games are currently only available to play on a PlayStation 2 console in Australia unless they’re part of the limited ‘PS2 Classics’ range for PlayStation 4 which contains around 50 games.

This history meant the PlayStation 4 was not backwards compatible with PlayStation 3 games — or games from any other PlayStation console. In a 2017 interview with TIME, Sony global sales chief Jim Ryan implied the reason for this lack of support was a lack of interest. “When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much,” Ryan said.

Despite the obvious allure of next-gen games, revisiting the past is a common and still exciting endeavour. Classics from across the PlayStation library deserve a chance to shine, even when existing technology has outpaced them. Games operate as important cultural touchstones and in many ways are like time capsules. Preservation is an important issue, and one enabled by backwards compatibility — but that’s not the only reason why the feature is essential.

Backwards Compatibility: PlayStation 5

playstation 5 backwards compatibility Image: Ubisoft

Already, Sony and Microsoft have marked out uniquely different approaches to backwards compatibility with their new generation of consoles.

Unlike past consoles, the PlayStation 5 will be backwards compatible with “most” PlayStation 4 games. In March, it was confirmed that “almost all” of the top 100 most-played PlayStation 4 games would run on the PS5 but boosted frequency between the console generations meant all games required testing.

“The boost is truly massive this time around and some game code can’t handle it,” explained PS5 lead architect Mark Cerny in a console deep dive. “Testing has to be done on a title-by-title basis.”

This backwards compatibility is possible because the PS5 hardware is based on the PS4 from the ground up. While the PlayStation 5 represents a leap in games technology, outside of improvements to processing, storage and other capabilities, it essentially resembles the PS4.

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In a clarifying statement, Sony said they “believe that the overwhelming majority” of PS4 titles will be playable on the PS5. While this may mean some games slip through the cracks, the vast majority of PS4 games will be playable, although not necessarily with any added functionality or performance. Moreover, Sony is now offering support for developers who need it.

In May, the company delivered an edict that all games developed after July 13 would need to be PS5 compatible with support provided on an as-needed basis. This effectively ensures that all PlayStation 4 titles can be future-proofed for the next generation — a much needed step for a company who hasn’t always prioritised backwards compatibility.

As of writing, there are no confirmed plans to extend this PS5 support to older titles.

Backwards Compatibility: Xbox Series X

xbox series x backwards compatibility Image: Xbox Game Studios

In comparison, the Xbox Series X boasts a robust system of backwards compatibility with games from multiple past consoles. In 2015, Microsoft introduced Xbox 360 Backwards Compatibility that allowed all users to play Xbox 360 games on an Xbox One. In 2017, this was expanded to encompass a range of original Xbox games. Many of these titles are available on Xbox Game Pass, making them extremely accessible for anyone to play.

Compatibility with past consoles not only adds to the vast library of a next gen console, it also enables players to revisit their favourite titles without the need to purchase it again. While absence makes the heart grow fonder and makes remasters or reboots more appealing, the simple fact is that people should be allowed to play the games they own. Last gen games shouldn’t gather dust as technology advances.

The Xbox Series X continues Microsoft’s practise of extending backwards compatibility across generations. The console will run games from Xbox One, Xbox 360 and the original Xbox, making up four console generations and a massive library of games. A new Smart Delivery system will also allow players who bought cross-gen Xbox One games to upgrade to the Xbox Series X version at no extra cost, ensuring a smoother transition between console generations.

In late May, it was also confirmed these games would not just be backwards compatible, but also feature a variety of improvements. Higher frame rates, steadier performance, maximum resolution, better visual quality and automatic HDR support were promised for all backwards compatible games. A ‘Quick Resume’ feature will also be available for past games to streamline gameplay.

The Future Of Games

future of games

Sony and Microsoft’s approaches to backwards compatibility are very different. Preservation and legacy are clear focuses for Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, while Sony has a narrower focus on bridging the PS4 and PS5 console generations.

All games have value that isn’t diminished by age or circumstance. While remasters are a great way to revisit past games and experiences old stories as new, they threaten to rewrite the history of games and their original creators. On a consumer level, it’s also a poor way of leaning on nostalgia and asking people to rebuy games.

When you consider how robust Microsoft’s backwards compatibility offerings are, Sony’s approach is disappointing. The PlayStation One, PS2 and PS3 have back catalogues that feature incredible games not yet playable on modern consoles. Ape Escape and the Digimon World franchise are my personal favourites, but the list is long. While remastered games can be fun, the real solution is much simpler: make all consoles backwards compatible. Sony’s rich gaming history deserves exploration.

Games have always been tied into nostalgia and emotion. They inspire loyalty, dedication and a fervour hard to find in other forms of media. Microsoft’s shown that legacy is worth preserving by offering such a robust line-up of classic titles, representing years of hard work, dedication and love from their talented creators and the players that experience them.

It’s essential we don’t let these games become obsolete.

Comments

  • It could use some clarity that Microsoft isn’t offering full backwards compatibility, as its only a list of select titles on both 360 and Xbox that are compatible forwards. While the lists of compatible titles may seem massive, I know from having gone through it that there are significant exclusions of Xbox ‘exclusives’ from both the OG Xbox and 360 era that make up my personal collection.

    Well, significant for me anyway. I’d likely buy a Series X in a heartbeat if I could actually play all my OG Xbox and 360 games on it. But I can’t.

    • All “backwards compatible” titles will work on Series X, full list here:
      https://majornelson.com/blog/xbox-one-backward-compatibility/

      Sadly the program required approval from the publisher for them to be compatible and some publishers opted to remaster rather than allow the original games to play. Other publishers are no longer around.

      I’m curious to know if compatibility will work on Series X in the same way it does on XB1 in that you can still throw in your OG Xbox disc into the tray and it recognises ownership.

      • So this is really “all the compatibility you had before is still there”? There’s no new titles?
        Sounds like something that those loyal to the XBox have already experienced, with not a whole lot for those who are on the fence.

        • Correct, though its been about a year since they added any titles to the back compat list, for a while there they were adding new titles each week. Hoping they start to add more.

        • Yes Xbox uses do have access to a similar amount of games at the moment through backwards compatibility but its new console that not only plays those games, it plays this gen games and the next gen games. Its keeping up and ahead of backwards compatibility.

          A HUGE plus to all of this is that a lot, im hearing most, of these games are now running with higher frame rates and HDR is being added to many of them. So its not just a good library of old games, they are all improved. Sony clearly has the edge in first party games by a long way but i feel like Microsoft is making one heck of a gaming console. There will be literally tones of stuff to play and all with an enhanced experience.

  • A whole article on what is very nearly a non-issue for Microsoft and Sony platforms next generation and yet not one mention of the biggest offender of all? Even after they just announced that we will soon have yet another chance to buy the Mario back catalogue?

  • “Essential” is too strong a word for this. While I believe having compatibility for the previous generation is a highly marketable factor – simply due to the consumer’s current investment – , any further and the returns will diminish. Have they ever released the percentage of play time of BC games?
    While I would love to play Jade Cocoon 2 and Metal Gear Solid again, it going to be the forward momentum that will lead me to purchase a console – not “Gears of War with HDR”.

  • For me, ever since going Digital (mostly), BC is the biggest feature I want to see as it means I have confidence I can always access my library.

    I’ve quite enjoyed replaying thu MGS 3,2,PW on XB1X as well as Bad Company 1 for example. These are games I simply wouldn’t have been able to play on current gen systems otherwise.

    Sony’s lack of support means I simply don’t buy many multi plat games for the system.

  • Backwards compatibility is certainly the key point for me. I have kept my PS2, PS3 and soon PS4 so I can continue to play the games I like but I’m always worried about that day when a part breaks and no one is able to fix it. It’s why I’m heavily considering going pure PC because backwards compatibility is celebrated on it and we’re now in an age where games are ported across many platforms.

  • I know many care about this feature, but almost all my friends just want the next new thing and dont look bad. they all say something like “yeah it would be nice if i can chuck that disk from 10 years ago and play it for like an hour, but there is always another cool game to experience”
    I personally very few times played an old favorite. If I manage to get some gaming time I would rather to enjoy a new experience myself.
    But again I totally understand people with a large collect of disks or digital games who want to make sure it moves to the next system.

    • given that the most used way these days is just to jump on thier online store and purchase (much like steam), it is more than ever important for the PS5 to be able to run PS4 games that are avaiable through the online store.

      • That’s a story for another article: in-console store menus that aren’t horrendous to navigate.

        I know part of it is based around general loading issues, but all sides (hi Nintendo, you have this problem just as badly now) need some serious UX updates.

        • Thank god you can access the PSN Store on a desktop. I don’t know what I would do if I was forced to use the console store, which regularly takes forever to load, assuming it doesnt instantly just fail loading the first time and force me to restart the console.

  • Can a code-literate contributor explain why boosting the PS5’s “frequency” (what?) means some code “can’t handle it”? Why? Does some bit of code get ahead of itself, or something? No doubt it’s a valid issue, I just don’t get it.

    • I’m interested to know this also. My old-guy understanding would be that certain things like game tick would be tied to the CPU clock, but I didn’t think that really happened any more.

      Maybe some engines assume a longer load in or lead time, and “do stuff while you wait”? I expect it’s not so much the clock speed, but the integration of “too fast” I/O and caching that’s the problem.

      • Oh, you still get games where fps is tied to frame rate. Need for Speed comes to mind, and there’s other examples like Fallout 4.

          • Sorry, was typing on my phone. But yeah, I meant the game speed is tied to the fps, which obviously is horrifically bad from a scalability POV. And it’s probably apparent that more devs have relied on this than what most gamers realise, which is why Sony is being a bit cautious here.

          • I figure that when your target platform is static, it’s easy to make that mistake.
            Though it would be hilarious to play Fallout4 at 4x>>

          • Considering MS have announced all titles playable on XBO (BC & current) will work on XB SX, is there a reason Sony is being more cautious – besides them possibly not having tested them yet?

  • All games have value that isn’t diminished by age or circumstance.

    To you, maybe. To some others users, sure.

    To Microsoft, Sony and developers, absolutely not.

    Backward compatibility makes little or no economic sense. Traditionally the consoles are sold below cost and the difference made up in software sales, or through subscriptions. That doesn’t work if Joe Public buys his subsidised console then mostly plays games he bought before.

    BC is included on both consoles to keep consumers happy, but history has shown it gets dropped if it becomes too expensive or difficult.

    • I think thats changing, at least from Microsoft’s side, as they are realising the very long tails of sales they can now have on titles that lost value a decade ago.

  • When they were announcing the backwards-compatibility list, Skate 1 and 3 made the cut. I bought an Xb1 expecting Skate 2 (which is the only previous-gen game I need to play again) to eventually be made compatible until they announced no more games. Will the XboxSeX ever expand that list? Should I keep hoping or give up and buy a second-hand 360? Should I just lay down and cry?

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