As the saying goes, there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics. It’s something that we’re facing up to right now with the somewhat heated debate and partisan commentary surrounding the worth of having backward compatibility on Xbox One. One thing’s for certain, that whether it’s 1.5% or 50%, for Microsoft it’s worth having backward compatibility on Xbox One.
There’s certainly a disparity between the figures reported on both sides of the argument, though. The Ars Technica survey that sparked this debate sampled the console usage of around 1 million Xbox One users between September 2016 and February 2017, finding that just 1.5% of the time spent on the console was used to play Xbox 360 games. It feels tiny, insignificant, barely worth mentioning, but it’s absolutely not the full picture and is only a sample of usage.
In response, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer and CMO Mike Nichols fired back late last night to say that roughly 50% of Xbox One owners have tried backward compatibility – a similar stat to what was touted six months ago – and that over 508 million hours of gaming have been enjoyed. Suddenly it’s more significant, more relevant and worthy of our attention.
Some q’s today on back compat use. Roughly 50% of xbox one owners have played, over 508 million hrs of gaming enjoyed. #pastpresentfuture
— Mike Nichols (@xboxenigma) June 7, 2017
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between these two poles. Spin those figures one way, as in Ars Technica’s survey, and averaging it out per person adds up to minutes or seconds of Xbox 360 play time per person. That’s not how people play games though, unless they’re really indecisive. There’s an awful lot of people that haven’t bothered at all, certainly, but there’s racing game fans, RPG fans, shooter fans, Skate 3 fans, and individually and in groups, those players who want to have played hours of their chosen game.
And it is making that happen. Microsoft have had backward compatibility sales, tempting people to add to their collection, but anecdotally, it’s also boosting the second hand market. Anecdotally, as popular 360 games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Red Dead Redemption have been added, their value and second hand prices have shot up in response.
The point is that for 50% of Xbox One owners, backward compatibility was of interest to them. Interest enough that they would dig out an old disc, download an old favourite or dip into the store and buy a new game and try it out, however long it’s for. For them, it’s another reason to own the console, giving them that mental security net that they can go back whenever they want, even if they don’t.
You also have to look at Sony’s efforts. What Head of Global Marketing and Sales Jim Ryan said is certainly truthful, in the grand scheme of things. “When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility,” he said in a Time interview, “I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much.” However, don’t doubt for a second that Sony wouldn’t have PS3 backward compatibility on the PS4 if it were technologically possible. In fact, they’ve made their own overtures to that particular market and the kind of nostalgia that goes with it in the past few years, also of somewhat dubious worth when it comes to play time.
PlayStation Now is effectively Sony’s equivalent attempt to breathe a life into PS3 games, but doing this through a streaming service is at least as much a necessity as it was a choice by Sony. The PS3’s Cell architecture is so complex, the games designed for it necessarily coded to work around and with its idiosyncrasies, that emulation on the PS4 simply isn’t feasible. Recognising this issue well in advance, Sony bought up the Gaikai game streaming service in 2012 and now have server farms stocked with PS3 hardware to let you play those same games remotely.
Without proud proclamations of usage time, it’s difficult to say it’s been a rip roaring success for Sony, who initially struggled to find a reasonable pricing model, and have decided to scale back its reach later this year. In the middle of August, they’re ending support for PS3, PS Vita, PS TV, Sony’s and Samsung’s TVs and Blu-ray players, leaving just PS4 and PC as the two platforms. Of course, that doesn’t mean to say it’s an unsustainable flop, but it shows that usage on anything but the surviving platforms simply wasn’t worth it for an active service.
More comparable are the PS2 games that have been wrapped up in emulation layers for PS4, boosting their game resolution, adding trophies and so on in the process. There’s some absolute classics now available, from the PS2 GTA trilogy and Psychonauts to the recent addition of Resident Evil – Code: Veronica X. As good as they are, I can’t imagine the 45 games that have been given this treatment come close to a whole percentage point of time spent of PlayStation 4.
Nintendo are also well versed in various forms of backward compatibility, often working to keep cartridges the same size or include previous system features to enable you to pop a DS cartridge in your 3DS, your Wii discs into your Wii U, and just play. Of course, that lineage is being cut with the Switch, but there’s always the Virtual Console, with Nintendo picking and choosing which games to bring to each platform. There’s certainly the demand there for certain games, as was demonstrated by Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow, and will doubtless be shown again by Pokémon Gold and Silver later this year.
So why bother with this? For all the manufacturers, it’s not really about what’s best for the consumer – just see the shifting roadblocks in place surrounding cross-network multiplayer – but about having a competitive advantage. For all the manufacturers, they can point to to PS2 Classics, backward compatibility, PS Now, Virtual Console, and even the veritable flood of remasters that we’ve seen over the last decade, and it helps to get people through the door and get gamers on side.
What you can say is that they’re value added, if not a specific reason to buy. Some people will use these features regularly, some will dabble with them, but at the end of the day, if it helps tip someone over to buying a console then it’s worth it. After all, you can’t sell the latest Gears of War, Gran Turismo, Call of Duty or Destiny to someone without a console to play it on.
Well, unless you’re Nintendo.