Nearly a decade and a half ago, Sony engineers working on the PlayStation 2 were hit by inspiration. They were already using surplus processors from the now outdated PlayStation 1 as basic input/output chips in their new system to save money. Since the chips were already there, they reasoned, it would be trivial to make the older system’s games work on the new one. Besides, it would make a nice bullet point for the back of the box.
“A happy accident,” Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker called it. Now that happy accident haunts every console announcement, as hardware manufacturers have to explain why the feature everyone instantly fell in love with doesn’t have their full support. Backwards compatibility is ultimately about preservation of our medium’s history, and what we have to ask ourselves is, how important is that? Let’s argue.
How necessary is it for systems to be able to run their predecessor’s games?
Backwards compatibility is a wonderful feature, I don’t think anyone can argue that it isn’t. Everyone appreciates being able to play their older games on the newer hardware. What I want to ask is, who really needs it? It seems like anyone who owns a large library of PS2 games probably owns a PS2– and I’m sorry, but if you trade in your previous generation system to get the next one, you’re just a fool, considering that you’re going to get maybe five dollars for the thing. By the time a new system is out, game stores have little interest in the old one.
Also consider that only one system yet has been fully backwards compatible (the PS2). It’s not just about software, it’s about hardware too. Your Rock Band guitars, your Steel Battalion controller monstrosity: these pieces of hardware don’t work on anything but the original system, and they’re crucial to the experience. Just try playing Rock Band with a regular controller, or Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles with no extra screen. So what would be the point of being able to play those games anyway, if it would be an inferior experience to the original?
If a console has backwards compatibility, that’s a wonderful thing. I will always appreciate that. I just don’t think it’s worth how damned hard and expensive it is to implement it, and it’s also not nearly as useful as people make it out to be.
It may not seem like an important step to take when fans are grabbing upscaled, anti-aliased re-releases of classic games by the truckload, but backwards compatibility goes a long way toward keeping your customers happy. It’s easy (and common) to build up libraries containing hundreds of titles, from the loathed to the loved. Unfortunately, maintaining a stable of legacy consoles to run every one of your games is a much more inconvenient burden. These monolithic black boxes take a lot of space, and most of us don’t have the storage to spare for our ever-growing stable.
A backwards-compatible console is also necessary if we want to give games the same respect that movies, books, and other forms of art receive. Though the print may have faded and the pages yellowed, I can still read my parents’ 40-year-old copies of the Bourne saga. My first PS3 lasted a whopping two years before it took a bow and dragged my copy of Arkham Asylum to its grave.
Citizens in the far-flung future of 2023 should be able to experience the same game of Journey that captivated me in 2012. Hell, they should get the opportunity to suffer the same bitter twangs of disappointment that Aliens: Colonial Marines wrought upon our species only one month ago! Backwards compatibility shows that you care about the legacy of your medium, and such a stance will bring console manufacturers an everlasting loyalty that makes the costs negligible.
How much of a priority should the maintenance of servers for outdated systems be?
Well, I say low, but with a caveat. I’m talking multiplayer servers. If a new system comes out, and they decide to phase out then-outdated console MP servers, that seems completely reasonable to me. The multiplayer is added with the understanding that it won’t always be there, and that the servers will get shut down someday. That’s fine. I’ll miss being able to play Shadowrun (not that I really can now anyway with how few people stuck with it), but I’ll move on. I’d love for them to keep them up forever, but that’s obviously a pretty unrealistic idea, and I’m okay with living in the real world.
But as far as servers that keep DLC and patches running? You need that. You NEED that. Not to mention games that validate against a server to allow access to single player– if you shut that down without disabling it first I will break you in HALF. Game companies like to argue that digital games are a service, not a possession, so they have no obligation not to screw you with your pants on. That’s not how you market the games, that’s not how you advertise them, that’s not what they are. You don’t just get to slip “oh and we can fuck you over whenever we want” into a User Agreement and expect that to fly.
The first concern anyone likely has when a console manufacturer shuts down their servers is the fate of their beloved multiplayer games. I sympathize with the players who will eventually lose access to Uncharted 3’s online components, but it will likely die of natural causes before any plug is pulled. The best multiplayer games tend to survive for a few good years, with players naturally moving on over time until you hop online on a Friday night and the only ones left are the same five guys you played with last week. However, it’s another matter entirely when dealing with DLC-reliant single-player games…
Last week, I finally got around to finishing Asura’s Wrath. Its ending was a bombardment of awe-inspiring battles that dwarfed the previous acts, and for a story that contains one set piece where the Earth is turned into a giant kabob, this is no small feat. I only had access to this memorable conclusion because I bought and downloaded it on the PlayStation Store. That’s right; a crucial bit of storytelling is held hostage in a garden of servers, and since Sony confirmed that the content in the PlayStation Network today won’t be compatible in the PlayStation Network of tomorrow, these servers have an expiration date.
After the PS4 launches, the old PlayStation Network servers will likely be around for a
few years. What happens to my copy of Asura’s Wrath when my PS3 breaks, when I want to
share it with a friend, or when my hard drive dies (the most mortal of modern technologies) after the servers are taken down? I will own a game with an incomplete ending, an ending that took years of work to craft, and Asura’s wrath will pale in comparison to my own.
Do we need an organization dedicated to maintaining an archive of games?
Nope. Nope nope nope. Look at the history of mankind. People have been making things that fade away for as long as… well, as long as we’ve been making things. That is the very nature of time: some stuff is going to disappear. And I’m sure some truly incredible pieces of art have been lost to the ages, and that’s very sad. But it’s worth it. It’s the cost of having the bad stuff fade away too.
Thirty years from now, I don’t want anyone to know that Barbarian for PS2 ever existed. They will. Our documenting these days is too good for it to vanish entirely. But only a few people will know. Certainly, eventually all copies of that stinker will vanish off the earth. That’s how it has to be. For good art, for amazing works, to stand out in the march of history, the bad ones have to gently fade from memory. It’s part of how humans work.
The games that are really something special will still be around. The SNES died, but it’s not hard to get a copy of Link to the Past on Wii, GBA, 3DS, etc. Quality titles will stick around. We don’t need an archive for that.
We’re living in an age where our entertainment is moving to “the cloud” at a rapid pace. We’re told that this is a safer, cheaper, and more convenient way to store our purchased content (and for the most part, that’s accurate), but they’re also trapped with companies that fall just as easily as they rise. Many customers were left without a decent portion of their Direct2Drive library after it was bought and consolidated into GameFly’s catalog. At least they had access to backups, a luxury that lab rats in the OnLive experiment won’t possess as soon as the plug on that failed venture is pulled.
Now more than ever, we require a dedicated group who will ensure that games won’t disappear into the ether. Thankfully, sites like GOG.com work to preserve PC titles in a format compatible with most modern computers, but they are only one team focusing on one small corner of the field. As a business, they also aren’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts; they’ll only restore games that have the possibility of making a decent return in sales. We need a nonprofit company dedicated to preserving every game imaginable. As long as we don’t preserve our games, we’re no better than someone constructing a sandcastle sitting by the shore, hopeful that the tide won’t eventually wash in and destroy everything.