Are console manufactures increasingly looking towards backwards compatibility to bulk out a thin selection of next-gen games?
To combat the first-party release drought both manufacturers undoubtedly saw coming, Microsoft and Sony have long been conscripting indie developers to push out new and updated editions of their established games, but even this strategy doesn’t seem to be enough as we face a protracted dry season for dedicated next-gen releases.
Could backwards compatibility provide some relief until more of the familiar game franchises announce their end-of-year appearances?
Last year, Microsoft’s Don Mattrick, now CEO at Zynga, poured scorn on the likelihood of Xbox 360 compatibility being a feature of the then-unreleased Xbox One, telling the Wall Street Journal that “if you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards.”
Less than a year later those are among the last of the ex-Xbox chief’s words still to be eaten and there are signs that Microsoft are considering one more U-turn, with Xbox partner developer Frank Savage revealing in March that there are internal discussions being held on the matter of emulating Xbox 360 games on Xbox One, removing the need to have two Microsoft consoles where one would seen to be preferable for most people.
So far it would seem those discussions have not become solid plans: “We’re not done thinking them through yet, unfortunately.” said Savage. “It turns out to be hard to emulate the PowerPC  stuff on the [Xbox One] X86 stuff. So there’s nothing to announce, but I would love to see [backwards compatibility] myself.”
Microsoft have since come out to hose down rising hopes that Xbox One 360 emulation might be close at hand, reiterating the “super challenging” difficultly in bridging the two Xbox systems. When we asked Microsoft for comment, a spokesperson said there was nothing further to share on the matter.
“We care very much about the investment people have made in Xbox 360 and will continue to support it with a pipeline of new games and new apps well into the future.”
In short, whether backwards compatibility is on an informal wish list or scheduled to be a thing, Microsoft will be sure to let us know how they get on in the fullness of time.
Given how patchy and half-hearted backwards compatibility was between the original Xbox and the Xbox 360, perhaps we shouldn’t get our hopes up, but there is a fundamental difference in the console changeover this generation compared to last, in that there is plenty of life left in the Xbox 360 and PS3 in spite of their enforced senescence.
Even with next-gen exclusives finally appearing on the horizon, among them Batman: Arkham Knight and Assassin’s Creed: Unity, publishers are more than happy to push new games towards the old hardware on account of their vast user bases.
With 170m Xbox 360 and PS3s in circulation compared to less than 10m Xbox One and PS3 machines, is it any wonder that EA are playing it safe with FIFA World Cup and 2K Games likewise with the recently announced Borderlands prequel sequel?
“I think that the difference this time around, compared to last cycle” says analyst Michael Pachter, “is that the legacy consoles have relatively high value – so they are worth something on trade in – and companies like Take-Two keep pumping out games on legacy consoles only.”
Citing the release of Grand Theft Auto V last autumn and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel this year as indicative of the combined staying power of the Xbox 360 and PS3, Pachter continues: “That’s a combination that creates a need for backward compatibility, with more people trading in old consoles – due to high value – and more people wanting new games that are legacy console exclusive. We didn’t really have that problem in the last cycle, as few games were legacy exclusive.”
Pachter believes it isn’t simply a case that new games are continuing to be produced for Xbox 360 and PS3 that necessitates some measure of next-gen backwards compatibility, but that older games, such as the Call Of Duty: Black Ops series, continue to be played in greater numbers than their next-gen successors. “Multiplayer further complicates matters” he says, “since games have longer lives in 2014 than they did in 2007, on average. Multiplayer existed in 2007, but its prevalence in games has probably tripled since then.”
Could it be that the huge growth of online multiplayer gaming since the onset of Xbox Live has helped not just prolong the life of the 360 and PS3, but hindered the adoption of their successors?
On the basis of how well next-gen hardware sales have been going thus far, for Sony especially, it’s hard to see a direct correlation, but with triple-A games still on the PS3/360 release schedule and lingering multiplayer interest in games that this time last generation would have been gathering dust, it’s hard to argue the case wholly against backwards compatibility.
While the hardware and emulation challenges are entirely similar for PS4 as they are for Xbox One – in that both next-gen machines are very different beasts from their predecessors, Sony has traditionally been more open to allowing its back catalogue of games in from the cold, just so long as people are prepared to pay for the privilege.
To that end, Sony is approaching the issue of backwards compatibility from a wholly different angle, avoiding the physical media problems entirely and supplanting them with a range of cloud-based streaming issues. PlayStation Now is to be the solution and will require a high-speed broadband or cable connection with game content streamed not from pre-owned discs but via the Gaikai server infrastructure that Sony paid $380m for back in July 2012.
The service is currently undergoing beta testing in the US and is hoped to be launched towards the end of the year, and while the idea of playing previous and current generation PlayStation games available to PS4 users appeals a great deal, Sony may have difficulty convincing veteran fans to re-invest in a digital back-catalogue, especially when access to purchases may be limited by the quality of one’s internet connection.
“I think backward compatibility is desirable,” says analyst Michael Pachter. “PlayStation Now for that purpose would be brilliant, but I don’t think very many people would pay a subscription fee for the privilege of playing games they already bought.”
As an aside, the interesting potential for PlayStation Now is that whilst it’s being pitched as a service for Playstation 4 owners, in time it will be backwards compatible in itself, available across PS3, Vita, select smart TVs and touchscreen devices.
While the focus to provide next-gen access to legacy games is on Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo, arguably the weakest of the three console manufacturers in terms of its future games line-up, has of course been pursuing a policy of backwards compatibility for years via its Virtual Console download service.
Moreover, with Virtual Console games easily and freely transferrable from Wii to Wii U, the feeling is that while Nintendo may have gotten a lot wrong in this current console cycle, on this one issue it is far ahead of the competition.
In recent weeks the service has been expanded to include the first among what will sure to be an extensive range of Gameboy Advance titles, starting with Advance Wars, Metroid Fusion, Yoshi’s Island and Golden Sun.
With an unrivaled catalogue of first-party games to draw from Nintendo has quite an advantage, but the fact that backwards compatibility is nearly always a consideration of hardware design is evidence enough to shame its rivals.
Between the three main console manufacturers “Nintendo is doing the right thing,” says Pachter “but the small installed base of Wii U owners is going to keep it from making a big impact.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine backwards compatibility, even if it included the entirely of Nintendo’s games, tempting a rush of gamers to adopt Nintendo’s flagging console, but for Microsoft, lagging behind Sony in the terms of hardware sales and with a lean summer of releases ahead (and it’s not looking much better for Sony), it can’t do any harm to get gamers on side by tempting them as much with the games they currently have as with the games they want to play in the months ahead.