Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 have been revealed and, sadly, it looks like neither of them are going to be backwards compatible. Yes, this includes every digitally distributed title and every piece of DLC that you have. Sony has announced that you may, eventually, be able to play previous PlayStation titles via their new Gaikai streaming service, while Microsoft is still keeping tightlipped about how the Xbox One will handle previous Xbox titles. However, it looks like both consoles won’t come packaged with backwards compatibility right out the gate.
Backwards compatibility is a relatively new concept. We practically never heard of it until the PlayStation 2 let us play PlayStation games. You can’t slot your NES games into an SNES can you? Not anymore than you can slot your SNES games into your N64 or your N64 games into your GameCube. Similarly, you couldn’t put Genesis games into your Sega Saturn either.
Why is that? Surely the SNES is more powerful than the Nintendo, so couldn’t it play Nintendo games? Probably, but Nintendo cartridges are simply shaped differently than Super Nintendo cartridges, so we simply took the lack of backwards compatibility at face value.
But it’s not the shape of the cartridge that makes a system backwards compatible; it’s the shape of its architecture. The NES and SNES use completely different chipsets and completely different programming for those chipsets. To be able to be backwards compatible Nintendo would have, essentially, had to figure out a way to emulate the Nintendo’s chipset on the Super Nintendo. Either that, or they would literally have had to include an entire Nintendo chipset in every Super Nintendo unit, essentially forcing you to buy two consoles in one.
This might seem a little weird, but it’s actually how many consoles handle backwards compatibility today. For example, the PS3 essentially included a full PS2 chipset in every launch unit. This is what allows the old PS3s to play PS2 games. However, when the PS3 slim came out, the PS2 chipset was omitted and viola, instant price drop.
Now, it’s a bit easier to figure out ways to emulate extremely old systems on current day technology. That’s why virtual-console games run without a hitch. Sure, the NES, SNES, and N64 chipsets and internal architecture are incredibly different from the Wii’s, but the Wii is powerful enough that all of the emulation can be done software side. Anyone who has used a computer emulator knows that this is possible.
However, try to find a computer emulator that plays PS3 games flawlessly. Impossible, right? No matter how hard you look, home computers cannot even begin to emulate the PS3 flawlessly. Heck, computer emulators chug and glitch out when it comes to PS2 and PSP games. So it’s not that simple, even with top of the line hardware, to emulate games as recent as a generation ago completely with software.
So this gives companies like Sony and Microsoft a choice. Either they include their old chipsets in their new gaming machines and charge the user more, or strip away backwards compatibility and charge the user less. The question is simple: which will piss off gamers the least? It looks like the answer to that is “no backwards compatibility.”
Now, many of you are probably skeptical at this point. Some of you are wagging your finger and saying: “Wait a minute. Video games are developed on computers! If development builds can be played on computers, why can’t the final product?”
That’s a good question, and the answer is actually pretty simple. The code of any game developed on a PC is then optimized to work on whatever system it will be released for. There are reasons why Xbox games don’t run in a PS3 besides just DRM restrictions. So it is possible to make a version of a PS3 game that runs on the PS4, but that would have to be done by the company that made the game in the first place. This is essentially what happens when HD Remixes are released. So, in a very real way, the reason why the PS4 doesn’t play PS3 games is the same reason why the PS4 doesn’t play Xbox games, they aren’t designed for it.
Unfortunately, converting a game into a format that runs on updated hardware takes time and money; time and money that not every company is willing to spend. Not only that, but spending that money generally means that you have to buy the game for the updated console. So it’s just like you are purchasing the game for the first time, all over again, and that’s not what people want when it comes to backwards compatibility.
But the thing is, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. No one is taking away your PS3 or your Xbox 360. You can still play all the old games you know and love. Simply keep your old consoles in good working condition and you’ll be fine. We have always had to contend with this since video games were first created. Just because we got lucky with a few backwards compatible consoles doesn’t mean it will become the new industry standard, and it probably shouldn’t become the standard, just to keep the cost of games, game development, and new consoles down.