A year and a half into their lifetimes, the Xbox One and PS4 are still getting flack for their inability to play the discs from each company’s previous system. More often than not I’ve heard the argument thrown around by disgruntled retail consumers, cheeky sales associates, and angry internet inhabitants that the companies didn’t include backwards compatibility so that they “could get more of your money.”
This argument has always been puzzling to me. With a bit of inspection, it really makes little sense for two simple reasons. If you are somebody who owns a library of Xbox 360 games and are upset that an Xbox One isn’t going to let you play the old discs, wouldn’t you already own a 360? Another thought: Let’s say the Xbox One is your first video game system, and you wouldn’t mind playing some of the 360 games you heard about but never had a chance to play. If Microsoft was out to get more of your money, wouldn’t they want to include backwards compatibility so new Xbox users have the chance to purchase two generations worth of their products?
So really, that argument isn’t very sound. Granted, it’s a comical and quick way to villainize these big companies, but lacks a whole lot of substance when you really think about it. Why then do the consoles lack backwards compatibility?
Well, there are a number of reasons why.
In simplest terms, with each new console developers have utilized a new disc reading infrastructure. In the case of the PS4, the internal architecture changed drastically from that of the PS3, allowing programers and developers much more ease in developing their games. This is why the Playstation 4 has such a prominent library of indie games, because developing for the latest system is less of a struggle than it ever has been for a Playstation system.
The catch? The disc reader is a fundamentally different piece of technology from the previous system’s one. If the PS4 were able to read PS3 discs, it would basically need a miniature PS3 built inside of it (Nintendo fans, think “Wii Mode” on the Wii U, where in order to play old Wii games on the new system, players literally have to enter a Wii emulator built into their console). Gamers saw this same thing with the launch models of Playstation 3, where the ability to play PS2 games existed, but came at a (literal) cost: to accommodate the existence of what was basically a mini PS2 inside the launch PS3, console price had to raise quite significantly to pay for each system’s parts and labour.
In 2009, Sony released the PS3 Slim model that saw the price significantly cut, largely due to the removal of features like backwards compatibility that the company cited as only being of actual interest for ten to twenty percent of PS3 users. The lack of a mini PS2 built inside the system also translated to a reduction in console size, something many were pleased with after the hulking size of the launch system.
Returning to the PS4, we can take the case of the launch PS3 to understand that if Sony’s latest system did boast the ability to play old discs, consumers would have been presented with not only a much larger console, but one that could range anywhere from $50.00 to $150.00 more – quite a steep price for a feature that supposedly 80% of PS3 players didn’t care about. The same general principles are true when wondering why the Xbox One can’t play 360 games, and internal statistics from that company report only 5% of gamers took advantage of the 360’s ability to play original Xbox games.
Does this make it any less of a drag that gamers can’t have their next generation systems serve as an all encompassing console that plays every disc that they have ever owned? Certainly not, but it’s worth noting that a lack of backwards compatibility isn’t anything new. Dealing strictly with home consoles and not portable systems like the Nintendo DS, only five systems have actually boasted true backwards compatibility: The Atari 7800, Playstation 2, Xbox 360, Wii, and Wii U. Classics like the SNES, N64, Sega Genesis, and more failed to ever include the functionality (without the use of external peripheral like the SNES’ Super Game Boy, that is).
It’s also worth noting that for current gen console owners still longing for a chance to play some missed classics, greats steps are being taken by developers in allowing consumers to access old games digitally. The Nintendo E Shop, which has been in operation since the launch of the original Wii, is home to a massive catalog of greatest hits from any system from the original NES to the Wii. Over on the Playstation end of things, Sony is slowly but surely adding content to their Playstation Now service, a program that allows PS4 users to essentially rent classic PS3 and one day PS2 and PS1 games on their latest system.
It’s certainly not ideal that gamers can’t pop in their old discs to their new systems, but there is a method to the madness that goes far beyond Playstation or Xbox simply “wanting more of your money.” Luckily, digital versions of gaming classics will continue to be available on the gaming platforms in the coming months and years for the more nostalgic gamer.
And hey, if you’re really pining to play a disc based version of a game you missed out on, you can bet there will be a myriad of “definitive” or “HD” re-releases just around the corner.