May 30, 2013
The Gameological Society has a brilliant column today in which the games industry is shooting itself in the foot by not embracing its past and enabling backwards compatibility on the next generation of consoles.
As far as I’m concerned, there are only two arguments against backwards compatibility that make any sense:
- The technology and methodology required to make old software work on new/different hardware is too expensive to justify; and
- Old games – even the best of them – can look and feel incredibly dated.
I don’t know enough about #1 to make any sort of coherent argument for or against it; I’m probably only repeating it here since it’s pretty much what the console manufacturers have said about it.
#2 is something I can understand, I suppose. If you play GTA3 right after playing GTA4, the differences between the two games are so profound that GTA3 becomes almost unplayable. Similarly, while System Shock 2 might be an incredible game, it’s also incredibly archaic and unintuitive in terms of its mechanics; there’s a reason why those older games had lengthy tutorials that explicitly showed you how everything worked.
But to throw out an entire generation’s worth of content simply because the format has changed?
Imagine if you couldn’t listen to the Beatles anymore simply because the world had moved on from vinyl to CD and the record companies found it too cost-prohibitive to transfer their libraries over. Or if movie companies decided that transferring VHS movies to DVD was, to paraphrase Microsoft’s Don Mattrick, “backwards-thinking”.
Here’s the key section from the GS article linked to above:
…Sony’s PlayStation 3 launched in 2006 with full backward compatibility for all previous PlayStation formats. PS2 compatibility was achieved through specialized hardware on the PS3 circuit board. 2008 saw the removal of PS2 compatibility from all future PS3 revisions as a cost-cutting measure, with a cheaper software-only solution being deemed [unfeasible] by Sony. Yet in 2011 Sony began selling PS2 games digitally on PS3. Hackers have since discovered that these games are running via a surprisingly robust backward compatibility solution that could be applied to old PS2 discs, but is not.
I have to surmise from all of this that backward compatibility for games would be possible but expensive. Sony and Microsoft could have been faced with a choice between two expensive forms of backward compatibility, and they chose to support one medium, video, but not the other, games.
This sends a clear message that these companies consider the medium of film and television to be more important than the medium of games. Why would two companies with such enormous investments in games make such a seemingly skewed judgment call? Well, they would probably argue that the culture has made it for them, by giving film and television pride of place in society, and relegating games as a lesser medium. And this may be the case. But when gaming’s industry leaders buy into that broader belief, it hurts the long-term health of the art form.
I hate to keep bringing up Red Dead Redemption – I feel like it’s been in every post I’ve written lately – but it’s a key example of the legacy we’d be losing without backwards compatibility. I’ve been starting to work on my BEST GAMES OF THIS GENERATION post, and RDR is most likely right up at the top of my Top 10 list. For me, RDR is Rockstar’s finest hour – a masterpiece top to bottom, and one of the finest games ever made. And once the new consoles arrive, there will only be two ways I can continue to play it – either Rockstar re-releases it to work on the XB1 and the PS4 (which seems unlikely, given that they never even gave it a PC port), or I continue to hold on to my dying 360 and hope it doesn’t completely break (since I wouldn’t be able to replace it).