Wednesday, September 9, 2009


The big console news right now is the price drops and redesigns going on, and one of the aspects of the Playstation 3 redesign is the absence of backwards compatibility from the new models despite Sony having recently patented a system for software backwards compatibility running on the PS3’s Cell processor.

I hear all the justifications. Some of them are good. Most are not. Sony’s Director of Hardware Marketing, John Keller, claims that backwards compatibility is “not as big as a purchase intent driver as you may be hearing,” which is ridiculous, considering that the currently marketed PS3 units are not backwards compatible, so it is actually impossible for backwards compatibility to be a purchase intent driver. Good show, Mr. Keller.

Some fans claim that the need for backwards compatibility just isn’t there. That it is only relevant at the beginning of a console’s life, when there is not a sufficient catalog of next-gen titles to support the console. Others argue that no one wants to play last-gen games anymore, or that they just don’t even if they have the capacity. This is obviously not true, or Keller wouldn’t casually remark that “it’s all people ever talk about.” Frankly, that’d be a red flag for me if I worked in marketing. But then, I don’t. I’m not going to get into the quality or breadth of the PS3’s game library here – that’s too much a matter of opinion.

Here’s my take: a lack of backwards compatibility in a popular mainstream gaming console is dangerous. It’s obviously not going to bring about the end of days or anything, but from a consumer’s perspective we should all be concerned about it. It is functionality that should be included in next-gen consoles. We paid the money for the last-gen games; we should not lazily accept the loss of the ability to play them. Video games are not like books or movies or music. Books require no operating system to use, and paper is almost a universal medium. Movies and music can be copied from last-gen media onto next-gen media with a minimal loss of quality and no loss in utility. But a video game depends not only on the media it is printed on but also the operating system of the console or computer it was designed for. When that operating system becomes defunct, so does the game.

Yes, Playstation 2 systems cost $100 brand new, today. But what about tomorrow? When the consoles disappear, the Playstation 2 library is gone. There will be future attempts to resurrect it for the sake of nostalgia, like Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii, but these downloadable content libraries are slow to grow, incomplete, and still dependent on yet another operating system – not to mention the fact that they require a second purchase of the game! Every time a console is made obsolete and its successor is not backwards compatible, hundreds of creative works are lost to the playing public, and their return is entirely dependent on the vagaries of manufacturer foresight. Video game console manufacturers are historically not the most foresighted organizations, as evidenced by Sony’s seemingly willful ignorance of their consumer base’s interest in backwards compatibility.

This concerns me. Video games are the books and movies of the next century. It is too easy to imagine a world where, say, the Lord of the Rings came out for George Allen & Unwin’s UnwinBox in 1954, but was never ported to Houghton Mifflin’s PlayMifflin 3 in the 1960s, and therefore failed to become the cultural phenomenon that inspired an entire genre of fiction as well as fantasy roleplaying. This is not an acceptable vision of the future of creative expression. This sort of thinking on the part of hardware manufacturers needs to stop.

Of course, John Keller is something of a denial expert, who passionately refuted the existence of the PSP Go! and PS3 Slim prior to the release of those two system revisions. Sony has a wonderfully self-aware commercial out now that captures the resultant hilarity far better than I ever could here. The only way to know for sure what the future holds is to wait and see.

But this gamer won't be buying a PS3 until backwards compatibility is confirmed.

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