Backwards compatibility is a thorny subject in modern gaming due to how poorly it has been handled most of the time. With each leap of a console generation, the previous one becomes obsolete due to the games not working on the shiny new console. There are various reasons that have been given for why this happens with the most obvious one being the system architecture being too different to allow for the previous generation’s games to run properly. Many classic consoles did a good enough job of having the previous generation’s catalogue available, but we saw them deviate from the programme in this generation that caused major hurdles for those that want to play their older games. I firmly believe that if this happens again in the next generation which is possibly coming sooner than we think, there will be some big problems.
First, we need to provide context to this whole thing. When the PS4 released, backwards compatibility was nowhere on the feature list. The PS3’s games would be confined to that console alone which was a kick in the gut for many gamers like myself who didn’t have a PS3 in the last generation but still wanted to play the classic games that the console had. It was somewhat baffling that they made this choice, but it makes sense if you consider what a complicated mess the PS3’s internal architecture was. Developers didn’t even know how to harness the machine’s power until the very end of the console’s lifespan and I think that the investment to get those old games to work on the new console was just way too much.
Sony did have some programmes in place to bring some degree of backwards compatibility, but the offerings have been woefully inadequate. PS2 games are on the console, but downloadable only and at an extremely low percentage of the colossal PS2 backlog. There are also PSone classics on the PS Vita that you can buy that follow the same trajectory. Along with that, you have PS Now, which is a game streaming service that allows you to play PS3 games on the PS4, but again with only a handful of titles and it is completely unfeasible for people like us that have slow internet connections, or happen to live in the “wrong” place.
Microsoft did a better job of this with the Xbox One receiving backwards compatibility support a short while after it launched. However, their implementation was far from perfect as the functionality released with just a handful of games and the promise that more will be added in the future. Currently, the catalogue is quite robust and includes all the major titles from the Xbox 360 era as well as games being added piecemeal to the available list as time goes on. Xbox Original games also recently starting making their way to the programme, but also just a select few. It’s very close to full backwards compatibility right now, but it took years to build and it’s not completely seamless as the backwards compatible games require an emulator to work which strips you away from the Xbox One’s user interface.
The Switch also threw a big wrinkle into the whole concept of backwards compatibility. It is a fundamentally different console than its predecessors and getting Wii and Wii U games to work on it is an obvious impossibility. The Wii and Wii U line-up is significant enough for you to feel its absence, but Nintendo has done what I think is the biggest issue that arose from the backwards compatibility skirmish. Remasters. Or as they should be called, ports. They take successful games from the previous generation and maybe throw in a Switch exclusive feature and sell the game again at a premium price point. The other two consoles did the same with remasters popping up everywhere of games that were a highlight of the last generation, often packaged as new experiences with slightly lower prices than a new release game.
The PS4 had The Last of Us Remastered, the Xbox One had Gears of War Ultimate Edition and many more of their exclusives remastered for “1080p, 60 fps” gaming. Other publishers followed in their footsteps by bringing over their successful franchises to the new consoles with a graphics and performance bumps to justify their existence. In the early days of this happening, I didn’t mind it too much as it was a new lease on life for the classic games we loved in the last generation. However, we’re nearly at the end of the current console cycle and what do I see in the game release lists all the time? Remasters. They’re still bringing back games that are not even a decade old and it’s gotten so ubiquitous that they very nearly achieved full backwards compatibility accidentally.
Remasters have become a bit of a plague as every day we hear of another port coming to the Switch or another game from the last generation getting a remaster. Note that I don’t include remakes in this equation because they’re entirely new experiences based on a game. I’m talking about a port of a game that just benefits from the increased hardware performance and nothing else. It’s almost shameful that we’re still playing games from within the last decade when their original version is available on the previous console in all its glory with a slight hit in the resolution. We can’t do much about the phenomenon now since it’s so embedded already, but I do fear about the future and how history may repeat itself.
The next generation of consoles are coming, we can’t deny that and backwards compatibility might be more important than it has ever been. Microsoft is the one I’m least worried about since they have pushed this inclusive ecosystem for a while now and have shown that they want to keep their offerings as cohesive as possible. It would be a major character break of them to not offer backwards compatibility on their next console and I think they’ll even include their current offerings for Xbox Original and Xbox 360 games as well. Phil Spencer has said on many occasions that they want their systems to be as inclusive as possible.
Sony is a bit of a wildcard since they have shown signs of anti-consumer ways with the lifespan of the PS4. However, they’re starting to feel pressure from Microsoft in this regard and it would be a suicide mission for them to exclude PS4 games in their next console. Thanks to a more unified system architecture and more streamlined ways of making hardware, I don’t think it will be as difficult to achieve than it was for the PS3. Nintendo has their hands behind their backs with the Switch and with the console being relatively new, it’s more or less excluded from the next generation so they’re probably going to just focus on Switch for the foreseeable future.
As you can see, I remain positive. All logic and common sense will tell us that backwards compatibility will surely be a feature in the next generation. But if it’s not, it can spell disaster. When the new consoles drop and they don’t have it, we’re in for remaster central once again and I don’t think my heart can take it. However, that’s a completely pessimistic view of the future and we should rather focus on how this can be correctly implemented.
The simplest way for games to avoid the “buy this again on your new system for more frames and better graphics” curse is to be backwards compatible and rather than release an entirely new game, just bring out a patch that can work with the new console. Pumping up the framerate and upping the resolution is a relatively simple task. I know, because we’ve seen it happen already. We get “performance mode” patches for games, HDR updates, more graphical options depending on the strength of your machine and so on. Allowing a game to receive an update on the new console to perform up to snuff is easy and can also increase the lifespan of that title since people that missed it will obviously buy it on the new console. That’s dubious as well because they might throw in a price for the upgrade in order to make it financially viable, but I sure hope they won’t be that corrupt.
In the end, my only desire is that we avoid what happened in this generation. I’m still seeing games that released during the final years of the last generation be remastered for a quick buck and it’s usually nothing more than nostalgia bait and preying on fans. Some graphical upgrades do not a new game make. I understand why it’s difficult to do backwards compatibility, but with the technology where it is and the industry at large, console manufacturers can’t afford to have their games gated off to outdated hardware. It’s in their best interests as well because if one console does offer backwards compatibility and the other does not, that would be a crippling blow that may just change the tides of the entire console marketplace. We’ll have to wait and see what their strategies are, but I sure hope they don’t want me to buy GTA V for the third time.