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Last Gen is New Again


Tonare 3500

Images are taken from The Regular Show Wiki.

This year's E3 was supercharged with so many things that made people feel very excited for the future of video games. Funny as it may sound, one of biggest headliners that many people are now eagerly looking forward to is the addition of backwards compatibility for Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One. Phil Spencer said at their press conference that there have been an overwhelming amount of requests to have this feature on their current gen console. They originally thought it was impossible to incorporate given the differences in hardware architectures, but it is now well under development, and is scheduled to be available for everyone before this year ends. Many people cheered in celebration.

The shift from Power architectures to the more popular x86 architecture has forced majority of the platform holders to drop backwards compatibility from their home consoles. As the the current gen raised its curtains, the community saw new video game systems lacking the ability to play previous gen games. This opened an opportunity to creators and publishers to cater to people who want to catch up on older titles using new hardware by working on ports and remakes. Overall, the market seem to have been accepting of cross-generational games, as indicated by the general sales numbers, or perhaps just the fact that there aren't any publisher complaining about not making enough money with their ports. On the contrary, many of them like Square-Enix have have actually come out not too long ago to say that such ventures are working well for their businesses. Capcom have even stated that HD remakes will be a key business activity for them due to recent hits like their Resident Evil HD Remake.

It is understandable that at the beginning of a new console generation, the shelves (both virtual and real life) will be filled with cross-generational titles, whether they're new, or port of ones that have been released before, because it takes a while for the entire community to fully warm up to new consoles. While there will always be the people who will jump onboard the moment doors open, there will also be the conservative ones who will wait and see before they join the bandwagon, especially when their backlogs are still filled with old games they've been meaning to play. Even if the adoption rate is faster than even Sony have expected, the industry will still dilly-dally between past and present as we witness the gradation in timelines. Console generations may be dictated by manufactured devices, but video games remain a business of real people who take some time to adapt. As more and more games from previous generation get ported to the current one, however, many people also get more and more agited, growing impatient of the new consoles that are not even 2 years old as if there's absolutely nothing new to play on them. There are several reasons this trend bothers a number of people–many of them seem personal–but they all seem to stem from a common underlying concern: the question of whether the effort (and the energy) poured into bringing the past into the present is worth it, and whether such efforts would have been better spent on moving forward instead.

Golden Badge

There's no denying that current gen ports are quite a lucrative venture for publishers and creators. Being able to capitalize on an existent code base and concepts, then marketing them again for profit is truly a great business opportunity. However there have also been such projects that have gone beyond just cosmetic updates, like The Last of Us: Remastered. Naughty Dog used the chance to remaster their hit PS3 game to enhance their engine so that it runs well on the PS4. So while they were working on a product that was utltimately meant to be sold to consumers, they were also making changes to their development framework so that the games they develop in the future (or simultaneously) run well on current generation hardware. Having a code base that they already knew was working to begin with most likely made the process of updating their engine easier compared to if they did it with a new game starting from scratch, which would have introduced a lot more uncertainties. It was hitting two birds with one stone opportunity for them, and it didn't hurt that there still many people who want to play the game on the PS4. It sounds like effort well spent. This is not to say that every publisher who re-releases their games into the current gen have the same things in their agenda. However, as with the case of Naughty Dog with TLoU Remastered, in many different ways, it is for these companies an investment for the future.

While the question of allocating resources seems to be cause of unease surrounding HD remakes and remasters, it's also an interesting question about backwards compatibilty. Microsoft's approach to backwards compatibility requires their direct involvement; they themselves will be doing all the work to make Xbox 360 games work on the Xbox One, which sounds as if they're handling ports. It's up to the users to tell them through a polling a site they set up which of the previous gen games they would like to be playable on the current gen console. However, aside from that, the process also "involves talking with the publisher and making sure that this is consistent with their goals for the game as well". It's clear that what MS cannot accomplish natively through hardware, they're implementing through machine virtualization, complemented by allocation of man power. Xbox One's backwards compatibility hinges on many different variables, some from consumer side, and some from publisher side; it's not exactly a straightforward solution. If people have to vote which games they'd like to see compatible with Xbox One, then it might be an indication that there is, in general, a significant effort involved in making it happen. It might be an indication that there's a limited resource that needs to be allocated based on priorities set based on the poll.

At the time when people are being vocal about their concerns on the efforts put forth into HD remakes and current gen ports, we see Microsoft pouring resources on making backwards compatibility happen more than a year after their console launched. Whether it's actually worth all the trouble on their end, we have yet to see. Some people, however, don't seem to think so, and would rather Microsoft allocate those resources on more valuable system features "pushing gaming forward"–a parallel criticism to publishers doing HD remakes and remasters–or enhancements like improved installation times. Clearly, when it comes to bringing the past to present, this just seem to be a very common concern, that we are spending too much energy on it. History tells us how it might not pay off as well as many of us would like to think.

Video Games

Before Microsoft's announcement at E3 this year, the Wii U had been the only home console to support the feature. It has been capable of playing Wii games from the very beginning, which is something that Nintendo put a high priority on during the system's development. It was so important for the platform holder that it's one of the biggest factor in the system's hardware design, one that was meant to "absorb" the Wii (see Q5 in the link), but one that ended up being quite an oddball in the current generation. Considering how the Wii sold like hotcakes in the past, and how it built such huge install base for itself, if it is to be believed that there's high business value in keeping backwards compatibility, then the Wii U shouldn't have gone through a painful crawl in terms of sales. So, was the effort in designing their console around backwards compatibility worth it for Nintendo? For many consumers, including me, I believe so: backwards compatibility made it very easy for me to stop being on the fence about it, and to finally cave in and get a Wii U. I felt more confidence in my purchase considering I still have quite a few Wii gems I'd like to play. However, it is also easy to see how such design decision may have been holding the system back to some degree, which could even explain the lack of stellar third party support for it. Even the name "Wii U" itself (which "absorbs the Wii" quite well) has been speculated to have caused confusion in the market resulting in the system's not so impressive performance in terms of sales.

Similar to the Wii U, the 3DS has also been backwards compatible (with NDS games) from the very start, but that didn't stop it from almost failing to launch. The market seemed to have felt like, even with backwards compatibility, $250 for the handheld was not worth it, a story that's quite similar to the PS3's. Many years ago, as many would remember, Sony sold PS3 at launch for $600–a price that was driven up by the PS2 hardware inside the console to support backwards compatibility–and then told people to work harder for it. They eventually had to drop the feature (along with the integrated hardware) to set better prices for their Cell powered machine. The PS3 soon caught up in sales some time after that.

Let's not forget about the PlayStation Vita. Among all PlayStation systems in existence, so far, the current gen handheld by Sony seems to have the widest cross-generation platform support. It's technically fully backwards compatible with all PSP games. It can play most of the PS One classics on the PSN. It can also play a few PS2-era games like Final Fantasy X/X-2, Metal Gear Solid 2/3, Persona 3 (Portable)/4 (Golden), etc. It's a solid classics machine. Furthermore, it has cross-platform support with some PS3 games like Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, etc. as with some other PS4 games like Resogun. By some degree of technicality, it can be argued that the handheld is also compatible with all PS4 games since Sony have required every PS4 game to support Remote Play. Unlike in the Wii U's case, supporting backwards compatibility did not seem to hinder the capabilities of Vita for what it is. Not too long from its launch, the Vita has for itself a sizeable back catalog of games from PS One, to PSP, in addition to few new titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss. What happened to it? It ended up being the butt of the jokes especially for people who can't appreciate it, calling it "PortStation Vita" or even things like "Persona machine" or "indie machine" in some derogatory sense. When people talk about the importance of backwards compatibility, they would usually state how they care about the investments they've put into building their personal library of games, and that they don't want to rebuy them again. When people talk about cross-buy support among cross-generation devices, some of them dismiss it as a marketing gimmick, instead of looking at it as consumer friendly practice. With all the great things the Vita can deliver on, many people seem to love to hate it for that one "necessary evil": memory cards, a part of Sony's DRM solution to control piracy that was rampant on the PSP.

Ball in a Cup Game

Backwards compatibility, in general, is a desirable feature, not only for consumers, but also for platform holders. It's hard to think that console manufacturers would deliberately design their systems to not include the feature just to sell their current gen ports, or their expensive video game streaming service–or whatever evil conspiracy anyone on the Internet can come up with–simply because all of those aren't mutually exclusive; they could co-exist just fine. One could argue that backwards compatibility would compete with others for consumer attention, but in the big picture it probably doesn't matter that much to these companies. The main goal is to sell consoles, and backwards compatibility is one feature that makes it easy to convince people to jump into the current generation. Ideally, it instantly expands any system's library with no additional expense to anyone–none to platform holders, none to publishers, and especially none to consumers. If companies could offer all those options within acceptable amount of investments, they probably would. Again, the goal is to convince people to jump in and buy new hardware, and anything that helps in achieving that would be very welcome to platform holders. Thinking about it, what we're probably seeing now actually, is Microsoft struggling to make that happen. Even after announcing backwards compatibility, MS announced Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. If this works for them, and it negatively affects their closest contender's bottomline, we'll most likely see Sony scramble to move mountains. However, if this ends up being just another of the community's short term caprices, then it's going to be business as usual moving forward.

Concerns about the industry dwelling too much in the past is not completely unfounded; they're fairly reasonable (as long as they aren't blown out of proportion, of course). As has been pointed out, there are actually legitimate questions about the amount of attention we pay into bringing the past into the present, and how it could be holding us back. In any case, it is also apparent that a sizeable section of the gaming community actually like playing old games, which is really nothing new. Most of these people don't care how they get to play them, whether through backwards compatibility, or current generation ports; it only matters to them that options exist. Ultimately, it's all about having choice. In addition, with the PS4 remaining non-backwards compatible, there are now more points of divergence between it and the Xbox One, which some people love clumping together as the same underpowered PCs. It has to be noted though that through PSN, the PS4 offers cross-buy support for some cross-generational (cross-platform) titles. PS4 ports of games like Flower, and flOw are free to download for anyone who have bought them before for the PS3, which is another approach to achieving backwards compatibility. There are many ways to skin the cat, as they say. Consumers have choice, and companies are competing for our attention. Choice, and competition only move the video game industry forward.

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About Psycho Punchone of us since 11:15 AM on 05.18.2010

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