Editorial: Looking Forward on Backward Compatibility

But it still means you have a problem.

Backward compatibility means this grand collection isn’t just a decorative wall piece.

There was a time when every major system featured at least some degree of backward compatibility, yet today the only system to enter the eighth generation with that feature will be Nintendo’s. Backward compatibility only had a short lived use as consoles from the earlier generations were technically incapable of playing the previous generation’s games. As discs began to unify the format of games, as well as represent a dominant form of data storage outside of gaming, it became a viable option to allow consoles to play games directly from the discs of the previous generation. The popularity of this idea among all three console manufacturers likely stemmed from the same goal: to give a stronger value proposition to the coming generation in order to bolster the launch library. Consoles today, including the coming Playstation 4 and Xbox One, still use a disc format and their launch libraries could still benefit from the added help of the entire seventh generation, yet both consoles have abandoned backward compatibility. Where has this feature gone and what can be expected of it in the future?

Sony’s Playstation 3, in stark contrast to its successor, featured not one but two generations of backward compatibility. Both the original Playstation and Playstation 2 discs could be read by Playstation 3 launch systems. As the launch window closed and the PS3’s sales did not pick up in all territories as well as was hoped, Sony began stripping PS2 and then PS1 support from newer PS3 models to cut back on costs. The supposed value proposition of backward compatibility had not helped during Sony’s launch window and not long after the feature, which required special hardware, was removed. As the seventh generation stretched on, Sony began to do what many likely thought would happen to these older games — they began to resell them digitally through the Playstation Network. Of course not all games have been brought over to the service, only games likely to sell well were made available. Now, instead of spending money on making their consoles play older games for free, Sony has made a cheaper console that resells older games. It is a move that has sounded the death knell for physical backward compatibility as digital distribution has given life to new opportunities for resale.

Similarly Microsoft has turned away from backward compatibility for its coming Xbox One, but the previous system never really embraced the feature. Xbox 360s released with, and still retain, a capacity for limited backward compatibility. According to a convoluted list, only about 461 games are compatible in North America with numbers differing somewhat for other territories. As was the case with some PS3 models, the backward compatibility is handled through software on a case-by-case basis. The end result is a limited list of old games despite Microsoft only needing to worry about one system. The 360 never lost its backward compatibility but the feature often felt like a half-measure only implemented because it seemed like a standard in 2005 when the system launched. With the Xbox One putting heavy emphasis on digital media, streaming content, and cloud services, gamers will find no bastion of old ways in Microsoft’s camp.

There were also some secret ones only unlocked with a cheat device. Like the original Legend of Zelda. Yay cheat devices!

Animal Crossing had old NES games buried underground, in Tom Nook’s store and elsewhere.

Nintendo, as should surprise very few, has continued its trend of fully supporting the previous generation’s physical media. Likewise they have the most well known, if not always the best maintained, digital storefront for old games: the Virtual Console. Fittingly, the company with the largest and perhaps most famous back catalog of old games has done a great deal in bringing that catalog to current day players. Though their pricing schemes might not always seem fair, or sensible, Nintendo has always been keenly aware of their older titles. Even before backward compatibility became a common occurrence, Nintendo released Animal Crossing on the Gamecube with a dozen or so NES titles loaded onto the disc and scattered about the world to find. In following Animal Crossing games this little feature was nixed because when Wii was released the Virtual Console was selling these very games for a profit. Yet in Nintendo’s case I feel they have a special opportunity considering their much older back catalog filled with much simpler games.

Instead of reselling NES and SNES digital titles individually for a few dollars, I think Nintendo might want to consider moving back to their original idea with Animal Crossing. The idea of backward compatibility as a value proposition, as noted above, was one once held commonly for consoles. But to make that same proposition for a single new game is something I think only Nintendo can really capitalize upon. A game like Animal Crossing is a fine fit, but other new titles could be spiced up with the bonus inclusion of some old classics. Instead of stepping away from including these old titles in their new games and only selling them alongside them, which can serve to divide the consumers attention and potentially move them away from new offerings, perhaps Nintendo could find a clever way to bring back the idea of the value proposition. If ever there was a company that could use some added attraction to its new system, Nintendo would be it. And I have little doubt they could find a way to make it work as they often express a compassion for developing inspiration from older games or putting a new twist on something they did before. However I do not want the removal of Virtual Console efforts. The option should be there for the consumer to make, but finding a way to leverage their back catalog while directly benefiting their newer titles, which hold more of the responsibility for the success of their current console, might not be the worst idea.

How much do you enjoy the idea of backward compatibility? In today’s gaming landscape where titles are more abundant than ever, is there even time for replaying the old classics? And should Nintendo consider adding classic games to their newer titles like they did with Animal Crossing, or perhaps in another way?

8 comments on “Editorial: Looking Forward on Backward Compatibility”

  1. I love Backwards Compatibility, and I think it is a shame to companies that they do not continue to find ways to implement it in their products.

    People bitch and moan about how that would make the cost of consoles more expensive, but I should like to point out that they are VERY EXPENSIVE already–comparable to a pretty decent desktop or a modest laptop–and that those devices (the desktop and laptop) are pretty much backwards compatible in most meaningful ways. And, those products can often do more than a console.

    The refrain, ‘it takes too much power to emulate backwards,’ doesn’t cut a lot of ice with me. Why emulate it? Why not use your deprecated hardware, instead of releasing two SKUs? Why drop it when it only saves the consumer $20 after markup? The answers to all of these questions are very clear.

    And the end of the 90s, backwards compatibility became standardised because companies were now dealing with hardware that had the power to support it, and with a technology industry that made it possible to allow for inclusing of old chips at low prices. Moreover, there was no digital system yet in widescale deployment to allow companies to iteratively sell their old products anyway. The assumption was that people would have just kept their old system, so why not encourage them to buy the new system by saying, “And it has a library preexisting–all those old games still work!”

    But now, companies realise they can release those old games over and over again, digitally, and charge you each time. It is in their vested interest NOT to have a backwards compatible system. That way, if you want to play those old games that you already own, you will have to buy them again, digitally, on the current system. And this way, those old properties can continue to generate revenue forever.

    Just a quick note that I have no beef with companies UPGRADING old games (i.e. FFX/X-2 HD Remaster) and then releasing them as a new product which I should have to pay for. But I DO have a problem with companies just releasing their old games with little or no effort to update them (usually not even fixing serious bugs), and then charging me for each iterative release of the same exact product over and over again.

    It is policies like this which encourage piracy, and policies like this which make me wish that such companies fail.

  2. It is a little known fact that ALL models of the PS3 are currently capable of almost 100% backwards compatibility with the PS2, but the only way that people are able to access this is by hacking their PS3s.

  3. I would say I spend at least half of my gaming time playing games from at least one generation ago, so of course the idea of backwards compatibility sits very well with me. For my situation, in particular, I’m missing a good legal option to play PS2 games (I have a PS3 slim) in my living room. There’s only so much room in my entertainment center, so my PS2 is relegated to my bedroom. Sadly, it’s exclusively used by my girlfriend to watch her Gilmore Girls DVDs while she folds laundry. I have dabbled with emulating PS2 games on my computer, and it largely works fine, but it would really be nice to just have them running on the PS3 or, better yet, the Vita.

    Speaking of the Vita, I finally decided to buy one, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. I remember Julian mentioning on a podcast a while back how Xenogears just looks great on it due to the OLED screen (and possibly the anti-aliasing), and I can confirm that PS1 games look very nice on it. They generally look significantly more colorful and vibrant, and the amount of smoothing the (optional) anti-aliasing filter uses is just right to my eyes. Audio quality seems on par with the PS1, and headphones make for a decently immersive experience, when I’m so inclined. In fact, I am playing FFVII right now, and this might be my most enjoyable experience with the game. So, thank you for the recommendation, Julian, intentional or not.

    Of course, this means that I’ve had to re-buy games that I already own, just so I can get the best possible playing experience (I enjoy playing on the Vita much more than emulating on a laptop). While I’m not happy with the fact that I have to do this, I have just resigned myself to the situation, and I just generally try not to think about how badly I’m getting ripped off. Hey, at least I was able to jump on the 50% off Final Fantasy game sale earlier this year on PSN. I guess that’s about as good as it gets at this point.

  4. That’s actually bilinear filtering.

    And you’re welcome. I’ll gladly tell anyone who will listen to buy a Vita [especially before the original model is phased out in favour of the Vita Lite].

  5. It just shows you how greedy our ‘beloved’ console manufacturers can be. Now I am not comparing Sony to EA’s level of evil, but to exclude a simple feature just so you can ‘double dip’ (As Chris Privitere would say) at a later date just seems so absent minded towards their user base. Microsoft on the other hand (Who I am 100% comparing to EA in terms of stupidity and utter greediness) chose not to have this feature, but still doesn’t sell original Xbox games on their store. If they did I am not sure that Microsoft would last any longer as a console developer because that would just be incredibly douche-y, and I don’t even think Halo-Bros would pay for their beloved original Xbox Halo games again, especially with the abnoxious £52 a year price tag for using pretty much all essential services.

    Anyways, rant over. :)

  6. I don’t think it’s absent-mindedness because they probably realize exactly what they are doing and how we feel about it. They just don’t care.

    Same here. I love backwards compatibility. It seems to me like this new generation would have been easier to install backwards compatibility since the disc medium is the same. Does that not play as much of a role as I thought it did?

  7. I loved the inclusion of being able to digitally buy old games in this last generation. Being able to have my Wii set up as a “Best of Nintendo console,” all available by remote control access on my TV, not needing to dig out and set up my SNES to play Link To The Past or whatever, is grand. Also that there’s PS1/PS2 games I missed out on at the time that now I can quickly buy and hop onto with the PS3 while paying far less than they originally cost or that I could buy them for now. They are still a little overpriced.

    I don’t mind being charged something to get an old game, even one that I own. My biggest problem with it is there weren’t enough available. If Sony/whomever saw the opportunity to sell us PS2 games by cutting off backwards compatibility on the PS3, what bothers me then is that there’s not a ton of PS2 games available to purchse. Either allow us to play the games we own physically, or make them available to buy, but not neither. It also strikes me as odd (and I never had it fully explained to me from a technical standpoint) why it costs too much to put in emulation of older systems.

    Even if cloud streaming service takes of on PS4, I don’t think it’s likely that all the games I want will be available, like the PS1/2 games that still don’t exist on PSN. Add to that Nintendo’s extremely troubling “support” of Virtual Console games for the WiiU, and it looks like there will be a large swath of games lost to history, except by pirating ROMs. My ultimate wish for old and older games is that they always remain available in some meaningful way. For video games, as a major category of electronically available entertainment alongside music and movies, lack their relative simplicity of history in their mediums (that is to say, all music was available first on vinyl, then cassette, compact disc, and finally MP3, and all movies went from VHS to DVD to BD, while all video games are on so many different individual systems that are no longer manufactured). Sad is the person who only listens to music and only watches movies from the past 5 years or so; let’s not restrict our gaming culture to such parameters.

    Finally, I’ve liked all your essays Mel. It’s been fun to see you go from “always wrong Mel” to springing fully-formed into writing thoughtful and informative articles every week.

  8. FACT: Matt Dance is too kind!

    And I must say I agree with the consensus here, BC is a valuable asset that the likes of the staff and readership at L-com no doubt utilize regularly (or would if they could). To be cynical about its pervading omission is at once to be accurate and expository about the corporate trends of feature removal and increased pay-gating of things once gratis.

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