Nov 11, 2012

Backwards Compatibility: How it hurt Sony, and why it’s still important.

PS3RejectedFor the uninitiated – “backwards compatibility” is the ability of a new video game console to play the games of the proceeding video game console. For eg., the ability to play your PS1 Final Fantasy game discs on your PS2.

With that outta the way, lemme tell you a story.

I’ve been playing Persona 3 on my Playstation 2 for about 4 years. That’s how I play games. I’m no completionist, when it comes to finishing games, though I do like to purchase complete sets of games. Like most 30-something gamers with full-time jobs, there just isn’t the time to get hung up on finishing games. So I play bits and pieces of as many games as I can. Those games good enough to stick out, I return to over and over again for years until one day, maybe, I get to see the ending.

Persona 3 is one of those games. It’s quirky enough to relate to my tastes, but has gameplay elements deficient enough to require significant breaks in order to complete it. Maybe once a year, I’ll dedicate a weekend to it, and it will be months before I pick it up again.

I’ve played, and finished, most games this way, although, like many gamers, I only finish a tiny minority of the games I start. In fact, I can’t even seem to keep entering all the new games I start into my “backloggery”, let alone hope to ever finish a quarter of them.

Consequently, I have a comparatively enormous collection of games. Obviously there are millions of gamers out there with more games than I have… but many of those folks actively trade their titles in for new games. I don’t. I purchase games with a collectors mentality. (It drives my spouse crazy, though she’s also comparatively tolerant, hence the ongoing success of our relationship.) I buy games that I like to see on my shelf. It’s a vainly difficult concept to explain, but my geek-ego benefits as much from the presence of countless obscure RPG titles with female protagonists, as it does from the distinct absence of anything remotely resembling Madden or Call of Duty.

There is a contradiction in my style of play, however. Although I bounce around from game to game, in most cases, I won’t begin a sequel until I’ve played the pre-requisite games. The Metroid Prime series is a great example. I have had, on my shelf, wrapped in plastic since Xmas 2007, an unopened copy of “Corruption,” the third game in the series. It will remain unopened on my shelf until I can bring myself to finish the two games before it. It’s quite possible I’ll never get to the game. It’s also unlikely that I’ll ever sell the copy, because I like the Metroid series, and I derive the same please from seeing it on my shelf, that I suspect a hockey-card collector experiences from seeing a particular card in their binder. What’s important to the game industry, however, is that I bought the game.

So it’s worthwhile exploring why I bought that game for the Wii, and why I haven’t bought Persona 4 for the PS3, (or a PS3 for that matter.) The first two titles of the Metroid Prime series are GameCube titles, the final title in the series was released on the Wii. I felt justified buying the whole series, knowing that I may never get around to playing it, because in my mind it’s a nice easy intuitive process to play all three on the Wii without having to dig one of my old GameCubes out to have a go.

Persona 3, on the other hand, is a PS2 title. The PS3 does not play PS2 discs, so were I to buy one, I’d have to reconnect the PS2 to start chipping away at the series again.

Many have poo-pooed this “swapping-console” complaint as a non-issue. Modern TV’s have multiple video inputs, they say. It shouldn’t be the hassle it’s made out to be. Hooking up a new console to my setup, however, IS a legitimate hassle. I’ve rigged it so that the cables travel through wholes in the wall, behind cabinets, and in-and-out of drawers. Each change to this setup is a significant hassle. It simply won’t happen. I have three slots in the TV stand, one for each of the major game companies. I have a 360, which plays most of the Xbox back-catalogue. I have a Wii, which plays the GameCube back-catalogue. And I have a PS2, which plays my old PSOne catalogue. Great games like “Legend of Dragoon,” which I’m playing now, in addition to a pile of old Square titles I revisit periodically.

Swapping out the PS2 for a PS3, immediately removes two-consoles worth of games I’ve purchased from my immediately playable library. This complaint has been posed to Sony multiple times, and their response goes something like this: “We’re confident the quality of our new PS3 titles will convince our customers that there’s no need to revisit their old games.”

From a business perspective, I can understand why a bunch of Corporate hacks in the Sony boardroom would decide to remove any disincentive for customers to purchase new games. This is how they view backwards compatibility. However, just because I can understand how they came to that decision, I can’t agree that it makes an ounce of sense. When I purchased both my 360, and Wii consoles, I did so knowing that I’d be able to swap the new console in for the old, and still be able to play all the old games I’d invested in. Yet somehow, this did little to stop me from putting thousands of dollars into each of the two markets. I have shelves of 360 and Wii games to add to my Xbox and GameCube titles. My ability to play the old titles on the new consoles seems to have done little to limit me from buying new games.

And now that we’re reaching the end of the life cycle for all three consoles, (at time of writing, we’re one-week ahead of the Wii U launch) I still haven’t bought a PS3. This is odd, considering that I purchased, (and still own) every major game console since the NES. Looking back on this generation in its entirety, I can confidently say that backwards compatibility remains the only reason I haven’t purchased a PS3.

But aside from the issue of space on the TV stand, why is this so important? in a word, confidence. With the video-game market increasingly moving towards digital distribution, gamers have questions about how their previously purchased games will survive once a hardware generation advances. How Nintendo handles the transfer of digitally-purchased Wii games to the new Wii U console will be telling. Will customers have to pay a transition fee, like Sony customers have had to do in the portable market? In the mind of a gamer, it boils down to this. Can we feel safe piling loads of money into a digital distribution service, only to find out during the next hardware cycle, that all of those games cease to exist? With Sony’s refusal to respect the previous investments their customers made in previous console generations, the outlook here is not good.

So in the future, when asked, “how can I play my PS2 version of Persona 3 on your new console?”

…if Sony’s response remains: “forget Persona 3, we’ve got Persona 4 on the new console,”

…then for gamers like me, they will cease to be an option.

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