By most accounts, Sony’s Playstation 3 was a terror to develop for. The unwieldy system architecture, combined with the unusual memory allocation issues made the lives of many third party developers difficult, resulting in games that typically performed worse on the Playstation 3 than its easier-to-understand competitor, the Xbox 360.
Sony learned from this mistake, and has decided with the Playstation 4 to go a different direction in terms of system architecture, moving away from customized PowerPC-based components to a more developer-friendly x86-based system with a unified memory allocation system (all 8GB of it!). However, this shift in hardware was made while sacrificing an old friend: backwards compatibility. The Playstation 3′s Cell architecture was a similar departure from the Playstation 2, but Sony basically included the PS2′s system architecture in the first run of PS3s in order to ensure full backwards compatibility. While this was a simple solution that worked more elegantly than the Xbox 360′s software-based approach, it caused its own set of problems (including driving up the cost of the system), and eventually backwards compatibility was phased out of the Playstation 3′s feature set completely.
Despite an insistence that streaming of catalog titles will be done via Gaikai, the streaming service that Sony purchased in 2012, there’s no indication of when this streaming will be available, or to what extent it will be available. This much was said by Sony’s President and CEO Jack Tretton in an interview with Forbes:
The event also talked a lot about the PlayStation 4′s cloud services –downloading back catalog games, playing them from the cloud, sharing games between devices, even having friends log in and watch you play, or take over the controller. Is that out of the box? And will all those services be tucked behind PlayStation Plus, where users have to pay for them?
I think it’s aspirational on the device, as opposed to us standing up there, pounding the floor and saying the day this thing ships all this stuff will be there. I think it’ll absolutely be there for the device, but I don’t know whether it will be there for day one on the device. I think a lot of these are things that we’re gonna do over time. And with that said, I think there will be a tangible example of all the things that we showed. It’s just a question of how deep it will go, how many games it will involve.
Sony had a handful of issues that needed immediate fixing when it came to the next Playstation, and the hardware was part of that. In order to ensure long-term viability in the marketplace, Sony needed to move away from the Cell architecture and custom parts and focus instead on creating the biggest bang for the consumer’s buck. Obviously the final cost of the Playstation 4 is unknown, but 8GB of RAM for developers to play with is something to be excited for, even as the loss of backwards compatibility stings gamers.
No longer will games ported from other systems be substandard on the Playstation 4. In fact, if rumors are any indication, the new Playstation might be the lead platform for most development projects, considering its newfound ease of use and immense power. In order for the Playstation to survive, the changes to the system architecture needed to happen.
The other way the changes to the hardware benefit the consumer is in terms of cost. Sure, the Playstation 4 might wind up entering the marketplace at around the same cost as its predecessor, but the improvements in power will more than make up for it. Instead of overcharging for a system that produces games that are more or less the same than its cheaper competitor, the Playstation 4 has a good opportunity to deliver a mighty shot across the bow of Microsoft’s Xbox platform, potentially forcing Microsoft to scramble and change their plans to match Sony’s sudden hardware advantage.
Is backwards compatibility really that important, though? Obviously there are gamers who are up in arms about the removal of this feature, but prior to the implementation of disc-based media, there was never any expectation that old games would work on new systems. Of course, many gamers are not old enough to remember the days of the transition between the NES and Super NES, or even the transition from cartidge-based games to disc-based games, but there was a time where backwards compatibility was not considered possible. It wasn’t until the Playstation 2 changed everything in 2000 that the idea of playing older games on newer systems was even a thing.
Additionally, it’s not as though backwards compatibility was a universality in other gaming spaces, either. Thanks to services such as Good Old Games players are able to revisit classic titles like Planescape: Torment and others, but by and large many games that worked on systems of yesteryear simply cannot run on current systems. There are still games (Fallout 3 being a prime example) that do not work on Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system without heavy modification, and even then things are not as they were on older operating systems.
I suppose there is one place where losing backwards compatibility really hurts, and that’s in the digitally-distributed space. I’ve purchased dozens of games on the PSN, and the news that none of these games will work on my new system is disheartening, but expected. Those games have had their time in the sun, and it’s time to see what developers can do with this new and exciting hardware.
It’s understandable that gamers would be upset over the loss of backwards compatibility, but there needs to be a recognition that it’s never really been a major part of the gaming landscape and probably never will be.
Will you be keeping your PS3 in order to play your favorite games from this generation, or are you ready to move on? Let us know what you think in the comments.