Sony began the current generation extremely confident that the PlayStation 3 would be a given. Everyone would buy it because of the Sony name, no matter the price, and games would come, no matter the difficulty of development. They were wrong. A series of mistakes, one being the decision to continue with their often maligned cell processor, caused a number of hiccups in the PS3’s early life. The most notable on the consumer side was backwards compatibility with the PS2. Early models had varying degrees of backwards compatibility, but the process was difficult, and within a few years Sony was scrambling to lower the price of the console. One of the quickest to do this was to drop compatibility. It was a financial decision made to help the consumer with a lower price point, and a reality of upgrading consoles.
The first thing to take into consideration is the difficulty of making games work on different hardware. Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report, when discussing the same subject, mentions specific quotes from this time regarding the PS3. He quotes Shuhei Yoshida, President of SCE World Wide Studios stating the following in regard to PS3 backwards compatibility.
“The selection is limited. Because some games took advantage of the unique hardware architecture of the PS2… once games do that it’s extremely hard to emulate on another system, even if the other system is much higher in capability.”
Now as details are coming out about the PlayStation 4, and we see that they’re finally abandoning their cell-based processor and taking advantage of x86 hardware, these same problems are rearing up yet again.
These same difficulties and financial woes must have come into play when Sony was designing the PS4, and lo and behold, backwards compatibility is again off the plate. The change in hardware will benefit developers, but makes backwards compatibility much more difficult. It’s a give-and-take Sony had to consider. It’s the company acknowledging previous mistakes, and hopefully fixing them.
In addition to making things easier on the developer side, it boils down to a simple question for the consumer: Would you rather pay an additional $50-$100 so your PS4 could play games from a console you already own? Sony needs to avoid another $599 price point and help developers. Removing backwards compatibility is a side effect of both.
Another thing to drive home is that backwards compatibility is a matter of convenience, nothing more. When looking at the history of consoles, this option is a relatively new one, which has only been available on a small percentage of machines. And it was available mostly because it was somewhat simple to do with certain hardware. It was a neat little feature hardware manufacturers could throw out as a cherry on top of your console sundae.
But even in the early life of current-gen machines, we could see reality setting in once again. Both Microsoft and Sony completely abandoned the idea of backwards compatibility within a few years. Microsoft slowly made a very limited amount of Xbox games playable through emulation, and Sony tried to keep the feature, but had to drop it to cut costs. And even when this happened, as it was becoming clear that this feature was going away, we still maintained.
A great number of PS3 owners can’t play any PS2 games on the system, and they’re still fine. Their PS2s still exists, and Sony still produced the system until earlier this year. The ability to play these games didn’t go anywhere, and neither will the ability to play PS3 games. If backwards compatibility is an issue for you, then you probably have a PS3. And if you have a PS3, you can still play PS3 games. Backwards compatibility won’t change the fact that physical media deteriorates.
There will come a time when those discs won’t work in any machine, no matter the features. The temporary security blanket of compatibility only provides simple convenience when changing to a new console. We’ve survived without it in the past, and we will survive without it in the future. I’d rather Sony cut this type of feature and work on digging itself out of the hole it dug with the PS3. If the promised plans come to fruition, we’ll be streaming the entire catalog of PS1, PS2 and PS3 games anyway. Would I prefer the PS4 have backwards compatibility? Sure, I’d like it to do anything to make my life easier. But there comes a point when we need to realize the reality of the situation.