Forward Thinking for Backwards Compatibility

My first gaming console was an SNES given to me as a Christmas gift by my aunt and uncle. Later, they gave me their own Sega Genesis when I got hooked on a game after playing it at their house. And several Christmases after that, they got me a Playstation. The GameCube was the first console that I saved up for and bought myself.

I remember each of those moments vividly. I look back on the hours I spent playing games like Super Mario World, Shining Force (I and II), Spyro the Dragon, and Super Smash Bros. Melee (my primary motivation for getting the GameCube) with that warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. My SNES and Genesis consoles and cartridges are long gone, and my Playstation and GameCube have been passed on to younger siblings (though I kept some of the games), but I will always cherish those memories.

Great franchises like Zelda, Rayman, and Sonic the Hedgehog have lived on to see new installments on the latest and greatest technology, and for that I am abundantly grateful. However, I was almost as excited to download Shining Force again from the Wii Virtual Console as I was to buy Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Those old games still hold a certain charm. Resources like the Wii Virtual Console and the PSN Store have not only enabled me to enjoy games from my youth again, but they have also given me the opportunity to play games that I missed out on, like Super Mario RPG and Metal Gear Solid. Even with all of the newer games on my “must-play” list, sometimes nothing hits the spot like a retro game.

I dredge up all of that (probably boring) history to make a point: good games are timeless. Like in film, our modern achievements are standing on the shoulders of the classics. I think that any gamer can understand this. What I don’t understand is why the game companies don’t really seem to value their own art form.

Ever since the XboxOne was announced, the hot topic in the gaming world has been Microsoft’s draconian DRM restrictions. Even with their subsequent reversal, the discussion rages on. But while Sony and Microsoft have both announced consoles without backward compatibility, no one is really talking about it.

One exception is this excellent article from Gameological Society. As I read that, it deeply resonated with me. I was truly disappointed to see it drowned out in the cacophony of “Microsoft Sux!” and “Sony Won E3” headlines.

While certainly not a poster child for modern gaming at this point, I think that Nintendo is the only one to have gotten this right. The Wii supported GameCube discs (at least originally) and the Wii U supports Wii discs. They have provided one generation of backward compatibility, with older games delivered through an online store–although the extremely limited selection in the Wii U’s Virtual Console is disheartening. I haven’t purchased a Wii U yet, but when I do I’ll still be able to play all of the Wii games that I have accumulated over the years.

Why couldn’t Sony and Microsoft have done the same? I have invested a significant amount of money in PS3 games, even in the short time that I’ve owned the console. I plan to purchase many more PS3 games as I work my way through everything I’ve missed and stellar new titles like The Last of Us. If I buy a PS4, I’ll have to keep my PS3 around to play those games.

The stock answer for this conundrum is that it isn’t possible for new hardware to support legacy games, that it would be too expensive. Basically what we’re saying is that backward compatibility isn’t compatible with forward-thinking.

I strongly disagree with that sentiment. I also strongly agree with this one from the aforementioned Gameological Society article:

Shunning support for older games isn’t just bad for players—it denigrates the entire art form.

Yes, I understand that to take the XboxOne and PS4 and make them able to play discs from the previous generation would be expensive and technologically challenging. That obstacle is not lost on me. But what if we were having this discussion at the beginning of the product’s development cycle and not at the end? What if the console had been engineered from the beginning to be backward-compatible?

In my opinion, the problem here is not a technological one. The problem is one of ideology and of culture. If Sony and Microsoft held backward compatibility as a core value, it would have informed their design choices with the next generation. It would have changed the way that they approached it.

Wouldn’t that have held us back? I don’t believe it would have. Creativity is by definition born within constraints. I am not knowledgeable enough about the domain of console development to speak authoritatively on the matter, but as a software developer I do know that design is always about compromise. “A thousand no’s for every yes,” like that Apple video says.

Backward compatibility matters. Current consoles should play at least the previous generation’s games, and games older than that should at least be made available digitally. Ideally, we shouldn’t have to buy those games again either. What if Sony or Microsoft (or Nintendo) “moved the industry forward” not by cutting off support for current and classic games, but allowed us to digitize them and play them on our next-generation consoles (a la iTunes Match, for example)? That’s a future I could get excited about.

The problem is that we are allowing good things like better hardware (or foolish things like integrating with TV service) get in the way of the most important things. I for one care about the timeless experience of a well-crafted game far more than about hardware specs. And I care about sharing those experiences with others far more than “social gaming” features.

I think we need to remind the game developers and console makers what really matters. We have been very loud about DRM–and people are still talking about it. We should be just as loud if not louder about the issue of backward compatibility. Let’s talk about the meaningful experiences we’ve had with our games. Let’s celebrate gaming as the art form that it is and not allow its history to be ignored.