DEBATE: Dueling Thoughts On Backwards Compatibility

Friday, March 1st, 2013

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Millions watched last Wednesday when Sony revealed the Playstation 4 for the first time. That night, and in the days following, everyone was overwhelmed a deluge of news and speculation. But, I don’t think any of what we learned was more polarizing than the fact that the Playstation 4 will not be natively backwards compatible. Industry leaders brought forth the news, and their collective following spent hours quarreling like children over the issue.

Reporting Manager Steve Baltimore and I stand on opposite ends of the backwards compatibility argument. We both have quite a bit to say about the Playstation 4 in general (so I imagine we’ll both be on an episode of The Downpour Podcast to speak at length, unfiltered, in time), but we thought it would be beneficial to collectively address several key issues in the argument regarding the importance of “the system before the new system”.

Regardless of where the two of us stand, there will be no quarreling here. It’s important to know, when approaching something like this, that neither one of us are right. That’s the thing about polarizing issues—it’s completely possible to play Switzerland and understand both sides without slinging mud, spewing venom, or other obscenities. Without ado, I shall open this piece exactly how our sentiments began brewing, a bit before the Playstation 4 was revealed.

It all started with talks about Save Data.

When Nintendo revealed the Wii U Virtual Console for the first time, the semantics behind how the new Virtual Console treated our wallets (and already-existing software) ushered in people with pitchforks and flame shields all by itself. Some complaints had merit, some didn’t a lot like the issue at hand. The reason I bring up the Wii U is only because of how the new Virtual Console treats save data…

… which is to say, your old saves are an afterthought. Remember all those hours you put into Super Metroid when it came out on the Wii Virtual Console a long ways back? When you upgrade to the Wii U Version in a little while, after paying a small premium…bye-bye to all that time spent. Nintendo has said that upgrading your Wii Virtual Console games to the Wii U version will be like buying the software new.

Backwards Compatible

Nintendo finds a way to shirk save data again.

Regardless of the wallet-related antics and arguments brought forth by the new Virtual Console, the removal of save data is where I personally draw the line. To me, save data is like the atom, the building blocks of all video games. If I can take a file from a PS1 memory card from 1998 and make it playable on my new PSN copy of Final Fantasy VII or Chrono Cross via a cheap converter, if I can take save data from any of the older or newer systems (whether it be by illicit means or by simply using an SD card) and make it readable on a PC or another console…

There is absolutely, positively no reason why save data should ever be erased when migrating old software to a new platform. No, I’m not a programmer; no, I don’t know what it’s like for folks over at Nintendo. But I am a consumer—and if you are going to go out of your way to make your system backwards compatible (or try and plug new versions of existing software to loyal fans) like Nintendo has, there is no acceptable reason to forgo one’s simple save data.

The 3DS was truly the beginning of Nintendo’s fumbling with my data. Goodness knows I can access the files associated with certain games with a little bit of snooping.

Backwards Compatible

But if the save data for a certain game is corrupted, there’s no way to replace or repair it, even if you have a perfect back-up of the data in place, because of Nintendo’s new way of handling saves. I know I may not get sympathy from the majority of you for what I’ve just expressed, but isn’t that just a little…disappointing, at the very least?

Hey, at least Nintendo tried.

The Wii U contains a Wii within it. The “Wii Menu” portion of the Wii U is just like owning the last generation console, right down to the Wii Shop Channel and its Wii Points. While many consider this a weakness, my sentiment going in was “At least they tried.” I cannot say the same for Microsoft and Sony from where they currently stand. The early Playstation 3’s were backwards compatible with PS2 and PS1 games, but that was later shed to reduce costs. I’m kind of wondering if Nintendo will do the same thing when they inevitably bring down the cost of the Wii U.

Regardless of my speculation just then, here a rather icy fact regarding both the 3DS and Wii U launches: There would be next-to-nothing to play on these new systems at launch if they weren’t backwards compatible. The 3DS had Nintendogs, Pilotwings, and Steel Diver, as well as a few offshoots. The Wii U, as far as original content and not ports, put forth Mario U, Nintendo Land, ZombiU, and Scribblenauts Unlimited. I may be forgetting a few Wii U launch games, but… goodness knows I’m out of things to play on my new system. And when the 3DS launched, I had zero 3DS games to play for a long while until I sunk over 170 hours into Devil Survivor: Overclocked because I was absolutely starved for a good game made for 3DS.

Without the ability to rely upon my old systems’ libraries, my new systems would gather dust very, very quickly after I bought them. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow, but no console launch line-up has ever been good (especially when it comes to Nintendo), so backwards compatibility is important, at least initially, because the good games you bought your new system for aren’t going to come in waves immediately.

Now that I understand the Playstation 4 won’t be natively backwards compatible, I know for a fact I won’t be buying one at launch. I have far too many PS3 games to entertain myself with still, and if I can’t play the ones I already have, there’s no real sense in me buying the new system until I consider my experiences with the old one finished.

I wonder why people will try to argue with me on this. If you still have a huge backlog of PS3 games you want to play, why in the world would you rush out to buy a new system when it launches? Are people that desperate to “keep up with the Joneses”, so to speak? Everyone who thinks like this fascinates me, if only because I owned just a Wii and (3)DS until late 2011. I missed out on almost the entire last generation, (since many think the Wii doesn’t count, haha) but here I am, owning a gaming website and staying as current as my 360/PS3-owning compatriots. To be completely honest, outside of Sonic Generations and a few games I’ve gone out of my way to buy for my newly bought PS3, I haven’t spent nearly enough time with it as I probably should. There’s just no way I’m ready to make the jump yet.

There are people who HAVE played all the PS3 games they own, and want to go back to them when the new system launches, you ninny!

And that’s where I’ll speak in your defense. This habit of having an old console just to play old games is something I’ll never come to terms with. In today’s world, where we can purchase digital versions of NES games, there shouldn’t be a need for the NES anymore. The old consoles serve purposes only for small fits of nostalgia, and otherwise just take up way too much living room or storage space. I’ll be the first to admit: When I bought my 3DS, all of my other DSes were either given away or eBay fodder. And when I bought my Wii U, I said goodbye to my Wii forever (and to Gamecube support, because nostalgia going that far back just isn’t worth coming to terms with if I can sell my Wii for the price of a shiny new Wii U game). But…if Nintendo has the technology to stick a Wii in their Wii U, why can’t Sony stick a PS3 in their PS4 to serve the small, but vocal minority who fall into the category of wanting to have their cake and eat it too?

It’s 2013, ladies and gentlemen. We may not have hover-boards and all the things that Back to the Future projected we would, but our grasp upon technology and the digital age is simply staggering. I don’t ask much of my new consoles, but surely save data should be universal, and we should be guaranteed to at least have some semblance of everything available in the last console generation when ushering in the next one. Going forth into new territory, like what PS4 and the next Xbox are trying to accomplish, would be quite a bit easier on people if they could fall back upon what they know going into it.

Without ado, check out the next page where Sir Baltimore has his own thoughts to share.


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  • fjurbanski

    Hmm, I don’t know.

    I suppose I don’t really care about backwards compatibility as we see it now. But I do care about the preservation of games. If, years from now, I have no way of showing my children the original zelda, or mario 64, or Journey, or many other pivotal games, the way my dad could show me all his favorite old movies, then I’ll be mad.

    • RagunaXL

      that’s something of friend of mine and i have been talking about at work lately. we owe it to our kids to show them these great games. being a game collector is for the sake of having them anytime to play or show someone who’s never seen them.

  • Mizu D

    The more worisome aspect is the fact that PSN doesnt work on PS4

    Sony havent shed the light on how to transfer to the new network. Will we need to paid a small extra fee per game like Wii VC to Wii U? Or rebuy their game.

    The Sony conf was decent but have many questions to be answered.

  • “All those hours playing Super Metroid”?? What are you talking about? The longest anyone should play that game is 1 hour 59 minutes. If you take longer than that, you should just hang up your hat now.

  • Backwards compatibility is expensive. Either solution you see for BC always comes with a price to pay (not specifically monetary).

    Emulators? (example PSP and PS Vita) yeah, pretty much say goodbye to your save files and/or have compatibility issues.
    Put the old chip in the new console? (example PS3) yeah, expect high prices.
    Improve the old architecture? (example GC-Wii-WiiU) yeah, don’t expect a lot of power for that price.

    • Personally, I find it interesting that in the discussion of backwards compatibility, absolutely NO ONE is questioning why the three methods listed by both my fellow Sir Baltimore OR Mr. Jorge here… are considered the ONLY WAYS to accomplish this task? Has our vision and our skills with the technology become that closed and stagnant? For I say, there are several more ways that BC is possible, including one that uses one facet of the same architecture that the PS4 claims is so important to their entire system, as well as one that is quite obvious… but I doubt that *anyone* has ever even tried to consider. And when the time comes, my own stance on this issue will be revealed. For now, Jon, Steve… thanks for priming the pumps!

    • Then, what other options do you have in mind?
      I can see Sony’s new solution of using the cloud, but that also leaves you without your save files. Maybe you could upload your save files (of the games you have on your PS3) so you can use them, and then you would be using storage space so you either have to pay for that storage or are limited to a certain amount (for free, and you pay for more).

    • Well, you hit one nail on the head, Jorge, but that doesn’t necessarily leave one’s save files in the dust. It all depends on how the cloud interactions would supply the system with data, and considering how the PS4 is maximized for constant streaming, data use and writing with patching from the Geikei cloud system is almost too easy to explain. For the other ones, well… you’ll just have to wait for OUR debate series to cover that! Until then, keep on thinking and questioning what you know to be true… that’s the only way to expand your knowledge, isn’t it?

    • The capability is there

      Why do emulators have to invalidate your save files? I can copy my PSP save files to my PC, and the Vita should be able to read them, notice they are PSP files, and convert them to Vita format. This isn’t hard – someone just has to code it and include it in the Vita.

      So not having it is just being cheap, or manipulative to force people to buy the same thing multiple times.

  • dbclick

    As it relates to the PS4, I would love to have BC where it makes sense. It would certainly make me more likely to upgrade to a PS4 sooner.

    I think including the PS2-3 chips in the PS4 on-board would prove too expensive. I’m all for emulators that the system can handle. I believe the PS4 can handle the following (given the right software):

    -PS1 emulator: can read the discs (or download images from PSN if you want to buy digitally). Saves could be transferred from a PS3 to the PS4 or use a memory card adapter. PS1 emulation is nearly perfect, so this would work great.

    -PS2 emulator: can read the original discs (or download images from PSN if you want to buy digitally). To make this more viable, you’d want to do recompilation of the code (Sony’s got a patent related to simliar emulation) and possibly store the recompiled code on the PS4 HDD but require the disc in drive for verification. Saves could be transferred from a PS3 to the PS4 or use a memory card adapter. The PS4 has plenty of power with a recompiler to emulate it well. (Even the PS3 can do PS2 emulation in software – hence the PS2 Classics for sale on the PSN).

    -PS3 emulator: I doubt this is possible given the specs of the PS4 and the PS3’s complex architecture (though I would love to be proved wrong). I would recommend they allow you to insert the disc and then access a streaming version of the game from Gaikai. This may have to cost an ongoing fee, but it’s better than nothing. Saves could be uploaded to the Cloud from a PS3. PSN versions of the PS3 games could be done in the same way. It kind of sounded like Sony is already headed in this direction anyway.

    I’m slightly miffed since my PS2 Slim’s drive cover just died and my PS3 Slim won’t run PS2 games from disc (even though it could with a software update that Sony won’t give us).

  • RagunaXL

    I hear yuh! i agree. however, call me greedy, i don’t see why the ps4 can’t do as the early 80 gig ps3’s and be fully backward compatible. I wish Wii U could play everything for NES on up that nintendo ever offered. Even the third party games that never made it to Virtual Console. Many people complain about Virtual Console and ‘how many times do we have to rebuy this game.’ I don’t see a cartridge slot however, so Virtual Console will do.

    Call me crazy, whether it plays or not, you could stick any playstation (1,2,3) game inside a ps4. they just won’t work. So this PSN network or Playstation Legacy Cloud gaming service is just greedy.

    You can play the (PS1) game on your PS4 but when you stick the disc format version in it doesn’t play. They don’t want to tool a free or one-time cost emulation program on their machine… but they want to show off their machine and tell you it’s amazing. but some of us, like jonathan here, to a different degree, and i don’t mean to speak for him, are saying, “yeah yeah, i see it. it’s not amazing. backward compatibility is awesome!”

    So they can wow the teeny-boppers with their ‘social gaming’ and ‘share videos’ but my playstation days began with ps1 and ended with ps2. and half of us in here probably feel the same way.

  • TrueWiiMaster

    The one problem with your statement about the Wii U is that it DOES have that save data. It’s just stuck in Wii mode. At any time you can go back and continue from where you left off. That’s perfect backwards compatibility.

    Honestly, I was considering saving for a PS4, but now that’s not gonna happen. I never got the PS3, and I only wanted the PS4 if it would let me play what I missed along with what’s new.

  • All about the money

    If the platform holders are pushing harder and harder for digital distribution, which they are through the Nintendo Stores and PSN and whatnot, backwards compatibility for digital games is an absolute must. If I get a new computer, I don’t have to buy my entire Steam library again. If you try to make me buy it again I will hate you.

    I can understand physical games not being supported when you move from one medium to another (N64 cartridge doesn’t fit in the Gamecube =( ) but if the medium is the same (blu-ray->blu-ray) don’t lie to us and tell us you can’t do software emulation when there’s WORKING EMULATORS floating around on the PC. The PS3->PS2/PS1 emulation is proof of this, you’re just too damn cheap to include it.

    And don’t lie to us about save data either. Sava data is just data – you can make a converter to manipulate it anyway you want and end up in any format you want. Again, there’s already plenty of save editors on the PC for CONSOLE save files!

    And also don’t lie to us that no one wants to play their old games. My Playstation one is long dead, but I ocassionally pop the disks into the PS3. And viola! They work!