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Opinion: Sony’s PS4 Backwards Compatibility Mistake

playstation 4 controllerWith the announcement of the PS4 came lots of interesting announcements, games, information and controllers (no box mind). One very interesting piece of information was that be it digital or physical the PS4 will not have backwards compatibility with the PS3. Whilst this is initially disappointing what are the effects such a decision could have on the PS4’s future?

If we think back to the launch of the PS3, along with all the other bells and whistles the PS3 had the ability to play PS2 games. Great, or not, the PS3 was expensive and well struggled to get into people’s  homes. It did not take long for the PS3 to be revised where a number of components like USB ports and backwards compatibility to be stripped from the machine. Meaning that if you did not buy a PS3 at launch or not too long after, which is not a small percentage, you would not have this function.
Sony at this point did not want to let the PS2 die, and why would you? At the time it had sold more than any other console in history but the Wii and Xbox 360 were already out of the gates and Sony had to keep up. The problem was Sony did not manage that fine balance between letting the PS2 gently fade out and creating a buzz about the PS3. when backwards compatibility was stripped from the PS3 it gave gamers a reason to keep hold of their PS2’s (which Sony wanted) but at the expense of purchasing a PS3 (which Sony did not want). I am not saying this is the only reason PS3 was a slow starter but it definitely contributed and it certainly prolonged the PS2’s life-cycle.

killzone-4-flyingWhat is evident from this is how Sony perceives backwards compatibility. At first it was deemed important, the Wii could play GameCube games and the 360 could play Xbox games (not all) so why shouldn’t the PS3 play PS2 games? However then it became an unessesary expense. Did gamers really need this added little luxury. There are arguments for and against for what happened here on the PS3 but this is about the PS4 and what is important to understand is what Sony learnt and how this affects the PS4.
Whilst starting slow the PS3 has now outsold the 360 globally and pushed over 70 million units, that is a lot of people, and a lot of these people will have invested heavily in their PS3’s. This is no different to what normally happens but there is a big difference here, the digital services and distribution of games has gone into overdrive with the PS3 and that has changed what it means to be backwards compatible. If my PS4 disc drive can play PS4 games but it can not play PS3 games that is in some ways acceptable, but what about all those people who nought digital versions of games or who are devoted PS+ subscribers, they have to start from scratch. Complete digital collections wiped out. Why is it impossible to allow a user to login on their PS4 and re-download all the content they bought on the PSN store, or the content they downloaded from subscribing to a premium service. Will PS+ even be available on the PS4 to begin with or will there be a wait like on the Vita, if you consider PS3 games are not compatible there will be no games to be offered for free.

Sony-PlayStation-4-ControllerThis links with the PS2 to PS3 transition because it means avid PS3 gamers may look at all their PS3 games, all the new PS3 releases and their PS+ subscription and wonder why it is they should make the jump to the PS4. If this is the case then the PS4 will be a slow starter and starting slow is not a good thing. The Vita is struggling and that has all the world’s media writing about how it is doomed and Sony are doomed and this creates a very bad perception of the product. If people see nobody is buying it then it must not be very good right? Backwards compatibility here would offer PS3 owners to make a smooth transition from one console to the next whilst being able to keep a part of their PS3. It would not guarantee sales but it would make the deal a whole lot sweeter. When the PS4 was announced it seemed to want to correct all the mistakes made with the PS3 and push for a more social and connected community and having no backwards compatibility seems to contradict that. Especially in the short-term, it hinders PS+ which is a great stepping stone of PlayStation’s community and deters avid gamers from adopting.

There is as always another side to this argument, whilst the PS3 was a slow starter it is now a big seller. There was a time it could not keep up with the Xbox 360 and now it surpasses it and that is without backwards compatibility. So that begs the question how necessary is this function in the long run? Well no it is not, it is obvious that this function is more important to a customer at the beginning of the life cycle rather than at the end. Customers have had the PS3’s for years and technology has moved leaps and bounds since the days of the PS2. Whilst such a function would be used the demand for PS2 games to be played on PS3’s has fallen dramatically. When you are about to jump from a console in which you have a vast library to a new one, backwards compatibility is a hot topic.

Maybe this is what Sony are banking on, that once the PS4 has been out a couple of years this debate will be obsolete and therefore by cutting that cost now on something that will not matter down the line makes perfect business sense. It does but if the PS4 struggles initially then this is certainly when of the points that people will point to as one of the problems. Whilst Sony certainly are not obligated by any means to give the world backwards compatibility it just seems to make sense that it would encourage PS3 users to pick up where they left off on the PS4, instead of potentially losing them to the competition.



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