Monday, 26 October 2015

Video Game Backwards Compatibility: Do we need it?

The entertainment unit below my TV is overflowing.  Behind it, all of the cables and cords a tangled, horridly unattractive mess.  But why is it so cluttered?  Well, for starters, there's my unnecessarily large cable box/modem (due to my inability to cut the Cable cord).  Next, there are all three current-gen consoles.  In addition to those, however, also sit a Playstation 3, as well as, strangely enough, most recently, a Playstation 2.  All of these systems get used, and unfortunately, are beginning to take up more space than I have.

Most gamers, at this point, have traded their old consoles in or have them shoved away in a box somewhere, done with the old and moved entirely onto the new.  But me, and gamers alike, refuse to move on from previous generation consoles entirely.  Don't get me wrongthe majority of my time spent gaming is on current gen consoles, but I find myself going back to the older consoles at least a couple of times a month because there are games there that I simply can't let go of.

While we're in an era of Smart TVs that allow us to run applications like Netflix, thereby potentially removing a set top box from our entertainment units and freeing up space, if you're a video gamer, this isn't an option at this point.  For some, they've got their one console and it's all they need.  Others, however, continue to enjoy playing games on multiple consoles, new and old, whether it's a game you keep going back to, or you're playing games from your seemingly never ending backlog.  For me, it's a little of both.  I've got games that I still haven't completed (or even started), but would like to, and I've got games that I love going back to (Rockstar Games' 2002 The Warriors, anyone?).

I long to have a clean entertainment unit with minimal clutterjust a TV and one or two set top boxesbut at this point, this just can't be.  For one thing, there will always be consoles from different companies, thereby increasing the number of boxes on my entertainment unit (if you're console agnostic).  Next, only some games from previous generations of consoles are available to play on current generation consoles, whether through disc or digitally, the latter more common at this point, which means I have a continued use for previous generation consoles.  This leads me to the issue at hand: backwards compatible consoles.

I've heard it time and time again over the last several years, and still today: we don't need backwards compatibility. (For those of you who are unaware, the term backwards compatibility refers to, in this particular case, a video game console capable of playing games from previous console generations.)  All I can say is that this argument is, like most things, simply a matter of opinion.  I would love to move on from my PS2 and PS3, playing all of these games on the better, faster PS4, but the fact of the matter is I can't because the PS4 is not capable of doing such a thing.  Sure, Playstation Now is still a thing somehow, but I'd rather not digitally rent the games that I already own.  Besides, PS Now doesn't necessarily have all of the games I want to play, not to mention I'd be getting away from the simplicity that I appreciate about the PS2, and to a certain extent, the PS3 (the latter more about familiarity than simplicity).  And yes, for those of you asking yourselves, I do really play old games often enough to justify wanting backwards compatibility on my consoles.

Unfortunately, the number of individuals who would (or actually do) utilize the backwards compatible functionality of a console is relatively small, which means companies would be (or are, in Microsoft's case) putting in the work to make consoles backwards compatible for such a small percentage of their audience, or they're less inclined to do so (like Sony is).

At E3 2015, Microsoft announced their plan to start rolling out backwards compatibility for the Xbox One.  They released an initial list of games already backwards compatible, and will continue to grow this list as they work on making more games capable of being backwards compatible.  This is great news and it was received well when it was initially announced.  But it makes me wonder how large the list will actually grow to be.  Let me explain...

When the PS3 was first released, the console was backwards compatible, capable of playing [most] PS2 games.  The Xbox 360, too, was capable of playing a number of original Xbox games, the list continuing to grow for a couple of years.  And the Nintendo Wii was capable of playing Gamecube discs and even had a port on the console to plug in Gamecube controllers.

For the first while, gamers were excited about this backwards compatibility, because even though they had one of these new game consoles, they still wanted to play their old games from their old consoles.  Once this excitement wore off and gamers had become more enveloped in newly released games on the new platforms, however, backwards compatibility became less relevant.  Sony axed backwards compatibility capability when they released the PS3 "Slim" three years after the PS3's launch, Microsoft, despite its growing list of Xbox games playable on the 360 stopped adding games to this list in late-2007, and backwards compatibility ceased to function on Wii consoles released near the end of the generation.  All three major consoles put an end to backwards compatibility on their systems, presumably from a lack of demand, and from the effort required to implement it just not being worth it.  As a result, I've got to imagine that the excitement for backwards compatibility on the Xbox One will quickly wear off for most gamers in a similar fashion.

While we're well into this new generation and there haven't been new Xbox 360 games that gamers are keen on playing on their Xbox Ones, it's still an exciting launch with a subsequent peak and drop in the aforementioned excitement.  On the flip side of things, with the Games with Gold program and 360 games that gamers get "free," this may prove to aid in making backwards compatibility more relevant and help it stick around on the Xbox.

The fact of the matter is that Sony's console is outselling Microsoft's.  What this means, from a sales and marketing stand point, is that Microsoft needs to give consumers another reason to buy their console.  Even if the excitement only lasts a little while, Microsoft will seemingly be able to give their Xbox One the slight boost that it needs with the announcement of backwards compatibility.  And while the capability of backwards compatibility may not draw in every-day consumers, it very well may draw in the hardcore gamer who has yet to adopt an Xbox One and has been waiting to be given a reason to.  But at the same time, it's not necessarily all about getting console sales up.  It also might be about Microsoft keeping their audience happy, and with implementing backwards compatibility capability, they seem to be doing so, judging by the reactions received upon hearing the news.

In the end, backwards compatibility remains a topic that appears to be evenly split when it comes to the opinion of gamers.  Some believe it is unnecessary, while othersan admittedly much smaller percentage of gamerswant the capability.  Whether you're like me and would like to play all of your old games on the current generation of consoles, or you disagree and continue to look nowhere but forward, it looks like we're headed towards being capable of doing the former, at least when it comes to Microsoft and the Xbox One.  Sony, meanwhile, will continue to boast being able to play all of your favourite games through Playstation Now, a service that I have to believe is suffering and isn't working out as they might have hoped once upon a time.  At the very least with Playstation, many "Playstation Classics" are available to play digitally on the PS3, and even the Vita in some instances.  As for Nintendo, the list of games from previous generations of consoles seems to be slowly, but steadily, growing on the Virtual Console.

All in all, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are all taking certain steps to allow backwards compatibility on their consoles in some form or another, whether you're able to put your old discs in your Xbox One and play them, rent them digitally through a streaming service like Playstation's Playstation Now, or buy them digitally through Nintendo's Virtual Console.  Certain methods are surely more feasible than others, or at least more preferable, but so long as gamers are able to appreciate their favourite games from consoles old and new, I appreciate the effort that is being put forward by the console makers.  But for now, until I'm able to take any one of my old game discs and pop them into one of my current generation consoles, the tangled mess of cables behind my entertainment unit will remain, the clutter a constant reminder of the lack of backwards compatibility capability.

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