Backwards compatibility is an interesting topic. The idea of buying a new piece of hardware just to play older things seems almost absurd when you look at it from that facet, however there’s also the angle of preservation of games, and localizing everything to one machine. It’s not just games either. Movies and music have both faced compatibility issues as formats have evolved and changed. You couldn’t play a VHS tape in your DVD player (unless it was one of those combo joints with both onboard), and I can’t tell you the last time I actually tossed one of my old DVDs into a Blu-ray player to watch a movie. With the PS5 on its way and backwards compatibility once again taking the stage for discussion, I have to again wonder if it really matters? The PS4 was one of the most successful consoles ever, and it didn’t have it, so does PS5 backwards compatibility matter?
Had you asked me the question back at the launch of the PS4 (and I’m sure some people did), I would have said no. Sure it would have been nice to play PS3 games on my PS4, but I still had both systems hooked up, so I could go back to the PS3 anytime I wanted. The number of times I went back to older PS3 games diminished rather quickly, and I don’t honestly remember when I last booted up that old machine. I wanted to play new games on my PS4. And to this day, if I ever really want to go back to the PS3, it’s sitting right there, easily accessible.
Hell, the more I think about it, I don’t even have time to play all of the games I own on my current console, let alone dipping back into last-generation games. Sure, a big portion of that is thanks to engaging with fewer games for longer—living games are actually a point I’ll come back to soon—but even if that weren’t the case, there are a lot of new games coming out, new experiences to be had, and I rarely want to revisit or replay games from years ago, unless it’s in chasing a Platinum trophy (which I also sadly don’t engage in as much as I used to).
Another big argument against backwards compatibility is the expense (or at least was the expense, again, a point I’ll come back to). A big part of why the PS3 was a staggering $600 at launch was that it essentially housed a PS2 inside of it as well in order to get backwards compatibility to work. The PS3 architecture was not capable of naturally emulating, so early adopters were paying for both this gen and last gen’s console packed into one. And as much as I used it (almost never), that expense was simply not valuable to me as a consumer. Sony figured that out mid-generation when a PS3 released for much cheaper without the backwards compatibility option. And then again when the PS4 released, the friendly $400 price point (and smaller size) was thanks to not being loaded up with an onboard PS3 just so people could return to last gen.
Why PS5 Backwards Compatibility is Crucial
So what’s changed in the last few years? Why am I suddenly in full support of being able to play PS4 games on the PS5? First of all, it will smooth the transition. We already know that the tech being packed into the PS5 box is not going to be cheap. I doubt they’ll make a $600 launch blunder again, but don’t count on a nice $400 entry point at launch either. The price will reflect the premium tech to some degree, and that’s a hard pill to swallow less than a year after getting games like The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima on PS4. You want people to make the transition? Promise them the ability to have their current library right on that new console. It needs to be an overlap, not a hard cut.
The advent of digital has a big part to play too. When I bought a PS3, I eventually sold off my PS2 and a good majority of my games. I was a bit more stubborn with my PS3 when the PS4 came around, and now all those games just take up space. But now, most of my library is digital, attached to my PSN profile (or my wife’s). I can’t simply sell that off. Those are things that I have amassed, and if you want to make digital feel welcoming, you can’t give any indication that those digital purchases would ever “go away.” Letting people bring their digital libraries onto the PS5 is a smart way to both smooth the transition into the next generation, as well as convince people that a digital library will persist.
When we talk about costs, I’m not looking for backwards compatibility with PS1-PS3 games. I just want my PS4 library to stay with me, more along the lines of how buying an upgraded PC doesn’t wipe out your Steam library. The hardware required to emulate and make the PS5 backwards compatible with those older gen consoles (particularly the PS3, with its goofy Cell processor) is simply too cost prohibitive for a limited feature that few people would realistically use. Given that the PS5 is running on the same basic foundations as the PS4, it should make it a lot easier to get those games working on the new hardware.
Living games are just one more reason that extending the life of PS4 games is so important. Games like Destiny 2 won’t need to get a whole new “next-gen” entry (with Bungie’s reported 5-year vision for the game starting right now, it’d be hard to justify). Bungie can optimize the title for the new hardware, giving improvements to players who upgrade, while maintaining parity across all versions of the game. Just remember previous cross-gen release of games and then compare them to how games are handled on the PS4 and PS4 Pro. I think that latter comparison is what we’ll start seeing a lot more of; optimizations of last-gen and cross-gen releases, running on the same executable, OS, and even multiplayer servers.
Does PS5 backwards compatibility matter? Yes, at least when it comes to the PS4. For PS4 libraries—digital at minimum—those games would guarantee a strong launch lineup for the PS5, essentially the entire PS4 catalog at people’s fingertips on release. Anything prior to the PS4 is not crucial, and in fact, probably a waste of resources to add to the console for a premium cost. It will ease the transition into next-gen for those reluctant to upgrade, and provide tremendous value proposition for those who don’t yet have a PS4.
Gaming is moving into an incredible place of digital media, cloud services, and ongoing, living experiences that don’t seem to have an end. Couple that with increasing calls for cross-play, cross-save, and cross-progression across platforms, and game consoles can’t hold onto the self-contained ideals of the past. It’s no longer about having a singular box with this specific library, but about a platform as a place to play all games connected to your wider account.
It’s going to be a bit of an adjustment period and a bumpy road, but while I believe that dedicated consoles aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, I’ve always been a fan of the idea of consoles as a service. I want my PSN account to go everywhere with me, whether I’m on a PS4, PS5, or even partnered with a cloud service like Stadia (a pipedream, I know). PS5 backwards compatibility is the next step towards changing hearts and minds and allowing people to see a console as a more open platform, which is why it’s a crucial feature for both the evolution of gaming and Sony maintaining a relevant stance in the rapidly evolving gaming space.
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