A brace of news reports this week highlighted an interesting scenario in console world (and arguably for PCs as well, though I’ll address that separately). First, Sony executive Jim Ryan was openly dismissive of backwards compatibility as a major focus or feature for the PS4, noting that few console players actually took advantage of the feature when it was available and that it wasn’t seen as important within Sony.
“When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much,” said Ryan, in an interview with Time. “That, and I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?”
Second, a report from Ars Technica on how Xbox One and Xbox 360 users actually use their devices was released. The report includes information on how they gathered their data and the caveats to how it should be treated. But the bottom line, for our purposes, is that Ars’ information backs up what Ryan said, 100%.
That tiny sliver (the Xbox 360 BC section) represents over 300 backwards-compatible titles.
There’s little hard data on how much consumers want backwards compatibility as a whole. Some individual websites ran their own surveys in the run-up to the Xbox One and PS4 launches back in 2013, but that’s scarcely authoritative. Still, we can safely say that many consumers talk about wanting backwards compatibility to at least some degree. Microsoft garnered a great deal of praise and media attention when it added backwards compatibility to the Xbox One, and the feature has been generally well-implemented. In some cases, emulated titles have even delivered better, smoother experiences than the original Xbox 360 version did, despite running via emulation.
The huge gap between how gamers talk about backwards compatibility and how much they use it is even stranger if you consider the way both Sony and Microsoft have adjusted their own console plans. This is the first time we’ve ever seen both manufacturers go all-in on the idea of an upgraded mid-generation platform that offers fundamentally faster performance, rather than simply adding storage or support for faster Wi-Fi. The PS4 Pro ($399 at Amazon) and upcoming Xbox Project Scorpio from Microsoft are said to be the beginning of an iPhone model for consoles, in which new editions with improved specs and capabilities arrive on a regular basis.
Implemented properly, this could be a huge boon for both game developers and consumers. Developers are no longer required to learn a brand new architecture from scratch to take advantage of new console hardware. Backwards compatibility should be easier than ever to maintain across devices based on a common CPU and GPU architecture. We don’t know how all this will play out in practice. But it’s a huge change from in the past, and it would seem to deliver precisely the kind of backwards compatibility that users claim to want, yet don’t take advantage of in practice.
Why Do We Want the Right to Play Games We Don’t Actually Play?
I say “we” above, because I’m susceptible to this myself. One of the things I like most about the PC ecosystem is that games are, broadly speaking, backwards compatible over periods of decades, if not longer. Utilities like DOSBox and dedicated communities devoted to retro gaming have kept even most early PC titles playable. Sometimes they require more hoop-jumping than others, and there are a handful of games that simply can’t be emulated with the full graphics and sound capabilities they enjoyed on their original platforms. But generally speaking, PCs are great at backwards compatibility in ways that consoles simply aren’t.
And yet — for all the value I put on backwards compatibility as a theoretical feature, if I’m being honest, it’s not a feature I use very often. I’ve recently been playing through the survival-horror game Dead Space, which dates back to 2008, and has an amazing issue I’ve only just discovered: If you unlock the game’s frame rate from the 30fps it specifies with V-Sync enabled, you can also cut your level and save-game load times from 20-30 seconds to 2-3 seconds (values are approximate and scale with your unlocked frame rate).
Dead Space is easily the oldest game I’ve played in months. The games of my childhood — the ones that had the biggest impact on me, and the ones I remember most fondly today — are games like Space Quest III, Quest for Glory 1 and 2 (I still have my Sierra Online box with Hero’s Quest printed on it before the company changed the game title to resolve a trademark dispute), and Doom.
I took Doom out for a spin via Brutal Doom before the 2016 reboot hit store shelves, but Brutal Doom is so different from the original game that it really doesn’t count as a straight replay. I haven’t played my favorite Sierra games in at least a decade, though I did check out the amazing remake by AGDInteractive of Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire. Wing Commander is one of my all-time favorite game series, but I don’t think I’ve sat down in the cockpit with Christopher Blair in the past 10 years. So why do I care about being able to play games I haven’t played in such a long time?
Here’s my guess: It’s not about the games, it’s about the memories. I loved each of the titles above, and most of us take pains to save the things that had meaning to us, even if we don’t take them down off the shelf and look at them often. I want to know that I can fire up an ancient EVGA adventure game to show it to friends as the game that got me hooked on gaming, or to share the same experience with a loved one. And robust backwards compatibility does help ensure that if you happen to come across an amazing title for an older platform, one that you intended to play but never quite got around to, that you can still experience it.
If you’ve been gaming long enough to have a set of legacy titles that you want to be able to go back to, what’s your own reasoning for emphasizing that capability? Does it come down to nostalgia, or do you have a different motivation? Sound off and let us know.