How important to you is backwards compatibility in your console purchasing decisions? Is the ability to play PlayStation 3 games on a PlayStation 4 (or Orbis, or whatever) something that will make your purchase of any new console more likely?
Backwards compatibility has always seemed a bit of an odd feature for people to demand in a new console. Don’t we buy a new console because we want the new, exciting features and increase in power? Isn’t a large part of the reason we upgrade to get away from the restrictions of a previous generation? And even if you want to continue playing your library of games from the previous generation, won’t you still have that machine?
And yet, it’s an issue that appears in comments sections and on forums over and over again. It’s obviously something that many people are very passionate about.
It’s not exactly a staple of console hardware, either. The SNES didn’t play NES games at all. The N64 didn’t play SNES or NES games and the Gamecube failed to play N64, SNES or NES games. The Wii did have backward compatibility for the Gamecube and emulated a lot of older consoles through its Virtual Console system and the Wii U works similarly, although without any Gamecube titles just yet.
If you wanted backward compatibility on a Mega Drive (or Genesis), you needed an extra device known as the Master System Converter in Europe, Mega Adapter in Japan and Power Base Converter in the US. That was a pass-through device that converted the cartridge slot to accept Master System cartridges. The Master System Converter cost about £40, roughly the price of a new game, and wasn’t universally functional. The Saturn didn’t play Mega Drive games and the Dreamcast didn’t play Saturn games either.
The functionality was much more common in home computers. The new iterations of Spectrum computers ran programs made for older machines. The Amiga was compatible through each step of the system’s life. But it could be argued that the console business has always been slightly different, with larger generational leaps and more defined, lengthier periods with a single hardware focus.
So, backwards compatibility is a relatively new thing for consoles.
Only the PlayStation 2, Wii and Xbox 360 have reliably supported it in home consoles (Nintendo’s handhelds have a good track record for backwards compatibility, to be fair). Sony even removed the ability from the PS3 in the first hardware revision and sales certainly didn’t suffer for it. So why does it seem that many are expecting it in the next generation?
It’s not something that worries EA’s Chief Financial Officer, Blake Jorgensen. He recently said, during an investor call, “an important thing to remember is that next-gen consoles will most likely not be backwards compatible.” He went on to imply that this was a good thing for EA’s business as it would mean they could maintain sales of current generation software.
He also pointed out that incompatibility between generations would mean that groups of friends who enjoy playing online would all upgrade around the same time, assisting sales of next generation software when the time comes.
It’s easy for us older folk to forget that many modern console owners are too young to remember a change in generations that didn’t at least feature plenty of discussion around backwards compatibility. The PS2 had it, and dominated that generation. The Xbox 360 was almost entirely backwards compatible. The PS3 launched with it and there was a lot of backlash, at least online, when Sony removed it. So it’s reasonable that anyone under 20 years old would feel like it’s an assumed feature to at least seriously consider when they’re upgrading.
How imperative is it, though? If Sony unveils the PlayStation 4 and there’s no possibility of playing PlayStation 3 games on it, would you be put off from buying the new console? How far back do you want them to go with it, is one generation enough or would you demand PS2 and PS1 compatibility too? What are your plans for your existing generation of consoles, after you own the next generation?
Of course, some newer questions about backwards compatibility will arise with this generational shift. We now have large libraries of digitally distributed games, made for PS3 or Xbox 360 and sold via PSN and XBLA. We’ll most likely still be using some version of the PSN and XBLA on our next generation of consoles, so will those libraries fragment into games compatible only with this current generation and those compatible only with the next generation?
It would be, I believe, a major selling point if Sony or Microsoft can claim to have an existing library of hundreds of digitally available games when they launch their next consoles. Quite aside from the convenience of being able to re-download or even transfer my existing purchases to a new machine, I think the appeal to newcomers would be significant. But it’s certainly not a deal breaker for me.
Ultimately, when I buy the next generation of consoles, it will be because I want something new. I won’t pack away my PS3 or Xbox 360 until I’ve finished playing games on those consoles and when I do, it will be because there’s more excitement in the new than there is temptation in the old. But we’re all different, so let’s hear how you intend to bridge the generational leap with your own buying and playing habits.