Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?
Nicholas: Before we begin with this week’s discussion, I wanted to give you an insight into how ‘broken’ my mind is. Two weeks ago I was still on holidays from work was sitting at home wondering what to do. I looked into my cupboard for a game to play, and noticed that I still hadn’t finished (not by a long shot) GTA V. I was going to play it, but since it was now on an old console I didn’t want to. So because of my ridiculous OCD tendencies, I didn’t pick it up, and until today, it still remains unfinished.
Now the reason I mention this isn’t so readers can realize how ridiculous I am, but to lead on to the topic I wanted to discuss this week. Whenever a new console is announced the first question gamers always ask is, “will it be backwards compatible”. Admittedly, I was one of those gamers who was disappointed when the Xbox One was announced that it wouldn’t play Xbox 360 discs. To kick things off this week, are you too one of those gamers that wishes consoles would be compatible with older games? Do you think it’s a functionality developers should focus on when developing new systems?
Andy: Man, this is a topic I, and many others, thought long and hard about last summer when the new consoles were announced and feature sets were being discussed. I think we are going to differ on opinions with this one. I don’t think consoles need to have it, nor should they have it for that matter anymore. Now, I say that not really as a gamer but from a realistic standpoint. Would it be nice if my Xbox One played my Xbox 360 games? Sure it would. Yet realistically, it’s just not practical to keep adding that in. I can’t ever pretend to be a high technology guy – but I have to believe it adds unneeded work and headaches to try and get a new console to basically be two machines. Sony did it for a while with the Play Station 3 but removed that feature, same with Microsoft and the 360. If you look at it just from that angle there has to be a reason they removed it.
The whole technology angle aside for now though, the easiest argument for not needing backwards compatibility is simple – and I know you’re heard it before – just keep your old system. The television I game on most often has 3 HDMI ports so switching between consoles is as simple as hitting the ‘Display’ button on my remote. Personally, I like looking at my entertainment centre and seeing multiple consoles and the stacks of games I have. To be honest though, for me personally, I’m not sure why the obsession is there for some people that always ask for backwards compatibility. Maybe you can shed some light on it, is it simply a matter of convenience or is there something more to it for you?
Nicholas: I think the most obvious answer, as you have stated, is convenience. You’re quite right, most televisions these days do have multiple HDMI ports, so switching between consoles is usually not much more than a press of a button on your remote, but there are some things we need to consider here. You mentioned that you liked to look at your entertainment centre and see multiple consoles – but what about those people who have more than three consoles (I know, first world problem incoming). I own all three of the last generation consoles, an Xbox One, a Nintendo Wii U, as well as all other home Nintendo consoles. Now the Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360, and Xbox One all run via HDMI port, which is one more cable than I have ports for. So if I ever wanted to switch to one of the consoles that isn’t currently connected, I need to get up, change the cables, and sit back down again. Yes there are parts you can buy that add extra HDMI cables to your TV, but I’d rather not spend money where I don’t have to.
This all said, ‘convenience’ goes beyond just switching channels on my television. Any gamer will know the messiness and hassles that comes with owning a computer or multiple consoles – cables. The area behind my cabinet where my television and consoles sit is a complete mess of wires – HMDI cables, power cables, sensor bar cables – and with multiple units, it all adds up. Having backwards compatibility just means less clutter and a neater system. Returning back to what you said about liking to look at your gaming collection, you can still keen your consoles there, but just put all the cables back in the box and rely on the one current-generation console. Well, that’s what I’d like anyway.
This all said though, I’ve been thinking and despite the stink that gamers through up at the beginning of each generation about a lack of backwards compatibility, when you actually look back at the older consoles, the ability to play previous-generation games has never really been that common. Now I came into the console scene with the SNES, but it wasn’t until the Wii came along that any Nintendo console could play the games from the console before it (that is, the GameCube). Yes the Xbox 360 was backwards compatibility, but only for a certain list of games. The PS2 played PS One games, and the original PS3 played PS2 games too, but apart from that, it’s really only ever been Nintendo (and only recently) who have really been ‘backwards compatible’. This begs me to ask – is this demand for such a function on our consoles merely another example of gamer entitlement?
Andy: Before I get to the last part of your response let me bring up something that kind of stuck out to me in your first paragraph. You mentioned in your last sentence that you’d rather not spend more money than you have to. Completely understandable point, however, in that vein would there not – conceivably anyway – be an added expense for a console to have built-in backwards compatibility? I mean, there has to be an added expense to make a console essentially two (or more) consoles. I would also assume that, removing backwards compatibility on the PS3 allowed Sony to lower the price. I don’t know what it was in Australia, but when the PS3 was released in the US it was $600 which was crazy back then. So yes, it would be convenient to have it, but at the same time don’t expect that to be a free addition either.
Now, to your last question. Is it entitlement? I’m not sure if that’s the right word. I think it actually may be more of a want because of the convenience and nostalgia it adds versus gamers flat out thinking they are entitled to it. Or, that’s how I’d like to hope the reason is. Here’s the thing about that though. We have this brand new shiny console that can do incredibly things never seen on a console before… why play last generation games on it? I mentioned my entertainment centre before and how I like looking and seeing the evolution of gaming. For me though, my reality is that since I got my Xbox One I have turned my Xbox 360 on maybe, and this is a big maybe, half a dozen times. I just haven’t had a need, or a want, to play anything on the 360. So, if backwards compatibility was included with the Xbox One I don’t think I would use it all that much – if at all.
In my opinion, the very idea of consoles are not to play past titles but to play current and to a point future titles. Now, I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t bring up the other option. That being PC gaming. This is something we talked about before here and PC has a clear advantage to consoles in this area. Heck, this past Steam sale I bought Age of Empires 2 a 12 year old game plays just as well as Batman: Arkham Origins with no modifications needed. You mentioned all the different consoles you currently have, so you’re a good person to ask this to. In the last say 60 days, how often have you played each of those consoles? Are you like me and haven’t touched much aside from the Xbox One or do you round out your gaming better?
Nicholas: Before I continue, you mentioned that the PS3 cost $600 and that was a lot for you guys – try $1000 when it initially launched in Australia! Moving on though, I’ll be honest, since the Xbox One launched, I’ve not touched my Xbox 360. Like I said at the beginning of the article, because of my stupid logic, I still haven’t been able to really drive myself to pick up my old Xbox 360 controller and turn the console on. That said though, I’d be lying if I said I’ve been gaming regularly lately anyway. In the past few weeks I’ve just found myself gaming a whole lot less, with just a few hours on my Wii U with Super Mario 3D World and a few with Forza Motorsport 5 for a recent DLC pack I reviewed.
Now saying that really does link with what you said earlier, and the question really needs to be asked – is backwards compatibility actually important? With every new generation of consoles, I’ve found myself very rarely ever going back to an old console whenever I purchased a new one. I absolutely loved my N64 (and it’s still the greatest console of all time in my opinion), but when I purchased my GameCube, I just didn’t go back to play it unless I had some family or friends over and we wanted to play something like Mario Kart or Mario Party for laughs. I’m sure once I have a few more games for the console, once there’s a new open-world game to replace GTA V, that I’ll have forgotten all about it, and much like with my need to play my GameCube, I’ll have well and truly moved on from the Xbox 360.
You’ve mentioned a few times now about the cost/feasibility of actually building a console with backwards compatibility capabilities, and this is something I’d like to touch on now a little further. I won’t claim to know what’s required to allow a new console to play old games, and I won’t claim to understand the cost, but let’s take a look at some prices. The Nintendo Wii U launched for approximately $430 last year in Australia. It plays Wii U games and Wii games. Now the Xbox One launched for $600, but it only plays Xbox One games. The Wii when it first launched it cost $400 and it played Wii games, and GameCube games. When the Xbox 360 launched it cost approximately $800 and only played Xbox 360 games and a handful of Xbox games. If consoles are getting more powerful, and obviously the costs are falling, do you think the cost of backwards compatibility would still be that significant? I don’t want to sound ignorant, but if I can harness my inner-Jeremy Clarkson, how hard can it be? If Blu-ray players can play both blu-ray and normal DVDs, what exactly is that different between a DVD used for a movie and that used for a game, and why is the technology required to read these discs changing so dramatically that so much more effort is required for new generation games to read old discs?
Andy: I wish I had some advanced technology degree, or knowledge about how developing a console works. When reading about the new consoles I remember reading an article, forgive me for not remembering which one – or even where it was from, but to paraphrase it; backwards compatibility is not possible due to the advance of system architecture, and to have it as a feature would create a resource drain in terms of not only hardware, but build time to fit it in. From the logical standpoint, you have a valid argument about Blu-ray players having the ability to play both types of disc. The only rebuttal I have to that is with logic of my own. If it truly was that simple, it would make sense for both Sony and Microsoft to include that as a feature. Being that both announced fairly early that it would not be a feature makes me believe that it’s much more difficult than the average gamer thinks.
Of course another way to think about it. Maybe Microsoft and Sony did their research and that pointed to the fact that even if it was an included, only a small percentage of people would actually use it. I also wonder of those who are vocal about wanting it included, what their use would be three months from now, six months from now and even a year from now. I have to think that as more time passes that small percentage of people who want it, will use it less and less. When we talked last year about things we were looking forward to with the upcoming consoles one of the things I said was I wanted something new, something fresh and not a rehash of things we’ve already played over and over. For me the allure of a vintage system and games is just that, it’s an experience that I look for when I want to reminisce about a game, and part of that charm is the console and controller. Having a system be backwards compatible ‘just because’, it just doesn’t make sense to me.
Now that I think about it, when the Xbox 360 was first released and had the option of backwards compatibility I think I may have used it, at the most, a dozen times before it lost its appeal. You’ve had a variety of console across the years, after a new console has come out how often have you went back to that library – aside from when family/friends are over just for fun? And, have you seen your time between going back to those older games/console getting longer and longer?
Nicholas: Perhaps during the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube years I might have switched back between them to play some of my favourite games from the generations past, but I honestly can’t remember ever sitting down (properly) and going back to my GameCube once I purchased my Xbox 360. I tried to play Need For Speed Most Wanted on my GameCube a few years ago but the combination of a now much larger television and standard-definition graphics just made it essentially unplayable.
While we can only speak for ourselves, I think just in our experience we’ve highlighted the fact that gamers don’t really go back to older consoles once they purchase next-generation ones, and I think that’s because a) we’ve got more than enough games to play from the new generation and b) there just isn’t enough time. I think that’s why gamers care so much about backwards compatibility on launch and not a year or so later, because by that time most developers would already have released or are releasing their big titles and the need to go back to old ones is essentially non-existent (unless you’re a Wii U owner).
All this said though, we’ve been focusing on all backwards compatibility being disc-based – that is, relying on the new consoles to play the discs from the old systems. What if we’re looking at it all wrong? All three major companies have online stores – Xbox Live for Xbox, PlayStation Network for PlayStation, and the Nintendo eShop for Nintendo. On-top of that, two of the three have a digital distribution store for old games – Xbox Live Arcade and the Virtual Console, with PlayStation set to launch their own with the ‘PlayStation Now’ system. Is this the way of the future? Do you think companies like Sony and Microsoft are not worrying about having backwards compatibility technology built into the consoles themselves because they’re trying to move into digital distribution, and that’s where we’ll finally see backwards compatibility? I mean, sure, we might need to pay to play our own games again, but for a few dollars, is this the way to go?
Andy: Oh, it absolutely is. By doing a digital distribution model they can satisfy both groups. They don’t have to charge every gamer more upfront to enable disc based backwards compatibility, but those gamers who still want to play those older games on a new platform can do so. It also makes sense from a technology standpoint as well. Maybe with a true backwards compatibility there would be issues that arise such as bugs and glitches, I’d imagine it may be more difficult to patch, versus if it’s a 100% digital game it’s much easier to put out fixes and patches.
Actually, now that you bring it up in that context I wouldn’t be surprised if the digital model played a bigger role in backwards compatibility not being included. Maybe it was a much easier decision for them to make with plans like that on the table. Of course there are a couple drawbacks speaking strictly from a gamers standpoint. How long will it take Insert game name here to be added to the online store. How big will the download be. And, of course, having to buy the same game again to be able to play it on the new system. With all that said though, I think the digital model is the best solution to get those gamers who want to play older generation games the ability to play them.
Now for the million dollar question. At the end of the day when all the smoke has settled and that segment of gamers is able to secure their backwards compatibility in one shape or form… is it really worth it? In your Need for Speed example above, due to a variety of factors it was virtually unplayable – or at least not enjoyable to play any longer. For me, some games I have fantastic memories of enjoying and playing the crap out of. I’m concerned that if I went back and tried to play some of my favourites that magic would be gone. Is that a reasonable fear to have about one of the drawbacks of playing older games again?
Nicholas: Not entirely, but let me explain. A few years ago I purchased a Need For Speed pack which included Underground, Underground 2, and Most Wanted for PC. A few months ago (yes, months) I actually got around to connecting my PC to my television and I opened the games up. I played Underground and apart from a slight issue where the car would turn to the right (controller problem), I had a blast. Yes, the graphics were dated, but that nostalgia factor and the fact that it’s one of my favourite games of all time just make old graphics and a slight game issue almost irrelevant. When gamers want the ability to play old games because they genuinely love them, I don’t think they’ll mind. Why I found Most Wanted so hard to play given I love that game too – I don’t know, but I know that I’ve played other games on my GameCube on my large television and I had a good time. I suspect that’s what a lot of gamers want backwards compatibility for, for the greater part. It’s not necessarily so they can pick up Dead Space 3 for example and play it through because they never got a chance on the Xbox 360, but more so to play those classics that they still love today (and I think that’s why the Virtual Console is doing so well with Nintendo).
You know, we’ve covered a lot in this article, and where we (or at least I) started wondering whether we’d ever see backwards compatibility, thinking about the Virtual Console and the PlayStation Now service might actually mean we’re closer than we think. To finish our conversation this week, did you have any final thoughts on the topic of backwards compatibility? Do you still stand by the idea that it is somewhat unnecessary?
Andy: For the most part I still do think it’s largely unnecessary, but I will add a caveat to that. In terms of building in additional hardware to a console and (potentially) adding more cost to the console, I don’t think it’s needed. Now, in terms of being able to play older games via download or streaming then I’m OK with that as there’s no upfront cost to me, a person who most likely won’t use that option. I still go back to the statement that there’s no need to get rid of the previous console(s) if there is content you want to play or replay later.
For those gamers who want to experience those games that they fondly remember the digital option is a great way to get that to them. I don’t see either Microsoft or Sony putting their entire catalogues out there because that would be unreasonable. So there is still the possibility that some gamers will be left out from certain titles that they want to play. To reframe it though, I think it’s a great thing that there are games out there that may be a generation or two ago that people still want to play. That’s the great thing about being a gamer, there is always something out there to play, and at the end of the day play what makes you happy no matter what platform it’s on.
Tune in next time for the next instalment of Game On or Game Over. If you have any ideas for our next article, feel free to contact Andy or Nicholas on Twitter.
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