Looking Backwards to the Future

The current cycle of consoles has been long.  Consumers have grown weary and are indeed ready for change. It also doesn't help matters that software sales as of late have been on the sluggish side. So while many of us are probably waiting around for the big titles of 2013 to be released such as Metal Gear Rising, Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite, etc., a great deal of us are waiting for the next-generation of consoles to arrive.

With the Wii U already in stores, Microsoft and Sony are next in-line to make their next-generation debut with their latest console entries expected to launch later this year or early next. Speculation meanwhile – with the help of leaks and rumors – has been running rampant about what exactly is under the hood of each company's console, and what features we can expect. One of the more important pieces I’m eager to hear about is the backwards compatibility these long-awaited consoles will offer. Given each console's long life cycle and the large physical and digital libraries consumers have amassed since launch, backwards compatibility is likely to be a big factor in terms of early adoption rates.

When it comes to predicting the availability of backwards compatibility in future consoles, the best consumers can do is make educated guesses and use whatever little info is available. Still, it’s important to look at the historical precedent of supporting backwards compatibility between these companies, the complexity of current consoles, and how cost might factor in. What follows are my own educated guesses about what might be the case for Microsoft and Sony’s next consoles, along with Nintendo’s current stance on backwards compatibility. And just as we saw with Sony in the current generation, what may be the case at launch may not be the case for long.

When Microsoft came into the current console generation, way back in 2005, they faced an uphill battle in terms of providing support for original Xbox games. After an unpleasant and costly partnership with nVidia on the original Xbox GPU, Microsoft switched teams and went with an AMD GPU for the current 360. Microsoft also ditched an Intel based processor in favor of a PowerPC processor from IBM. Such an about-face crushed any possibility of providing hardware-based emulation; from launch Microsoft went with a software solution for emulation that eventually came into its own. Most of the notable original Xbox titles saw support, although incremental improvements to emulation eventually stopped.

In showing support for their first piece of hardware, Microsoft ran a short-lived “Xbox Originals” program that made original titles available on the marketplace, although only around thirty games were ever released. Additionally, Microsoft reconfigured licensing to make downloaded content more portable between different machines.

Most importantly, Microsoft’s next console does not seem too distant a relative from the 360. Widely circulated rumors have stated that the next Xbox project, codenamed “Durango”, will again be using an AMD designed GPU along with an AMD processor. This could allow for hardware enhanced compatibility, much like the post-launch 80GB PlayStation 3 model that retained the PlayStation 2 GPU. 360 titles also run on a layer of DirectX that should allow for easier support in future consoles.

Verdict: 80% chance that Microsoft has competent backwards compatibility Day 1 in Durango.

Sony was once a champion of backwards compatibility. The near one hundred percent level of support for PlayStation titles on the PlayStation 2 certainly extended the lifespan of the original PlayStation library and those titles continued to sell for years. Recently however, Sony’s backwards compatibility priorities have been hard to place. The launch 20/60 gig models had full hardware-based PS2 support built in, which eventually changed to partial hardware support (EU/80 gig model) and eventually all hardware support was dropped. These were quick-and-dirty ways to cut the manufacturing cost of the once expensive PS3. It also indirectly helped start a successful initiative however as without PS2 backwards compatibility, Sony decided to compile popular PS2 titles into well-done and profitable HD collections to be released on the PS3.

PS1 games have always been supported on PS3, and PS2 games have slowly been added to the PSN store, which are run via software emulation. Meanwhile the Vita has wide support for PSP titles, but only those purchased digitally. Given that Sony did not want to continue with the UMD format, the company did the best with the Vita to provide some level of legacy support.

Like Microsoft, rumors have pointed to Sony also using AMD for both the CPU and GPU in their next console, often referred to by the codename "Orbis". Unfortunately, Sony looks bound to run into a similar problem as the one they faced between the PS2 – PS3 transition. The PS2 had a notoriously complicated architecture and continues to be difficult to emulate in the hobbyist scene. The PS3 with its Cell processor is also known for its high level of complexity. Since this will lead to a radical switch in architecture, BC will not be an easy endeavor. Cell emulation cannot be easily brute forced nor will a chip be physically present on the next machine due to Cell’s high cost. With the entire company struggling for years now to maintain revenue, Sony simply cannot afford to shove a Cell in there like they did with launch PS3s having PS2 chips embedded.

There has been ongoing speculation that Sony’s buyout of Gaikai was to make room for legacy support of PS3 titles (as well as PS2) through cloud gaming. It is certainly possible that this was the motive for the buyout and such a move would be a show of good faith to consumers. Since the buyout however, Sony has yet t make a single Gaikai-related announcement.

Verdict: Sony may be able to create some method of backwards compatibility down the line with Orbis, but at launch I would say there’s no more than a 30% chance that backwards compatibility is somehow present for PS3 titles. It will be costly and complex to have either software or hardware based emulation at launch.

Regarding Nintendo, the veteran gaming company has shown all their cards regarding backwards compatibility now that the Wii U and 3DS are both out, and with the recent Wii U Virtual Console announcement. They have continued their pattern of supporting the previous generation's software (WiiU – Wii, Wii – GCN, DS – GBA, etc.) and have always been able to provide nearly 100% support due to hardware based solutions. The Wii U support for Wii however, has been criticized for being a bit half-baked and many an Xzibit joke has been made about it being a console within a console. There are also unexpected quirks of users having to force 480p when using HDMI in order to play Wii Virtual Console games in 4:3.

I do not expect much of this to get fixed as Nintendo will likely focus more on moving any prior Wii Virtual Console games to have full Wii U VC support, rather than fixing the console-in-a-console solution.

No matter what is announced regarding backwards compatibility in these upcoming consoles, one thing is certain. Expect all three companies to try and repackage prior generation titles with some next generation perks. Hopefully consumers can expect some good news regarding BC however and collections will not be the only way for future console owners to experience current generation classics.

Written by Associate Writer Thomas Szlezak. 

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