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Perserving Game Design With Backwards Compatibility

I give a passionate (and arguably hyperbolic) speech about why we need backwards compatibility in the Games industry.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

November 4, 2009

5 Min Read

As a continuation from a previous blog entry I talked about ordering Demon's Souls and how it is going to be the game that forces me to buy a PS3. I did some research on the system and such; I realized that the higher ups at Sony are idiots. Granted with Sony these days that statement can be used to rationalize the many quotes and decisions they've made this console generation. For today's knock at them it's about their stance on backwards compatibility or BC.

As I looked at the PS3 on Amazon I saw not one, not two, but 5 models not including the brand new slim one released recently. Looking at the 360's different SKUs at least you can make a point that they were each aimed at a different subset of gamer. The PS3 however seems to be designed with the goal of confusing the consumer, having done customer service at Comcast I do not envy the people at Sony support who had to answer the "what is the difference between the various models?" question over and over again.

Outside of different box art and drive size the main difference with the evolution of the PS3 models is the phasing out of BC with the Ps2. If you ask most mainstream gamers if BC is important chances are they are going to say no. However I think it is incredibly vital to the industry.

I admit that last statement may contain a bit too much hyperbole but I do feel strongly over the debate of BC. When we compare great examples from other industries or disciplines such as art, movies, books and so on to the games industry we have of course of advantage of being an interactive medium, however I also think it is one of our weaknesses as well.

When it comes down to it, reliving our greatest works is noticeably difficult compared to other mediums, classic books we can read, movies and shows we can watch on DVD but our problem is that we have that extra wrinkle of the platform to consider. For our industry it's not enough to find a rare game you also need the correct platform or all you have is an expensive Frisbee or door stop if we are referring to cartridges.

To put it another way imagine if to read books from specific publishers you need to buy a specific pair of eyeglasses that after 5 years they don't make anymore; so cross your fingers that after that time those glasses don't break or you are SOL. You can make a point in terms of design that a lot of older titles (NES and earlier) aren't exactly masterpieces but there are many titles that are worthy of being remembered.

Without going into list mode, I can think of plenty of titles that we won't see again, maybe the developers tried to capture the magic again and failed, or the game didn't sell well, or the game was downright crazy and was a once in a lifetime idea.

On the other side there are games that did sell well and were great, but are trapped on older consoles, which right now I'm thinking of almost the entire Atlus lineup for the PS2. Going to the PC chances are we each have a horror story of trying to get an older title to play on today's computers. My point is that it shouldn't be this hard to play the games we love and it's a major oversight that other creative mediums don't have to deal with.

The big debate as always is if videogames can be considered art, but I like to think that videogames are like a fine wine. They need to be preserved or they lose all their value. This is why I have such a crush over the model of Good Old Games as it is slowly but surely taking care of this issue on the pc side. However consoles are another story, Nintendo with their Wii store is going randomly through their back catalog bringing games. Microsoft has thrown the towel in last I heard with updating the 360 to allow BC, but there are plenty of titles that were able to make the transition.

Sony seems to have shrugged their shoulders in the issue as we have seen with the lack of talk about BC with the PS3. Sony should be scrambling for an easy way to get full BC on the PS3 due to the PS2 library which in my opinion has the greatest amount of high quality titles from the last 2 console generations, which of course one reason is due to Atlus again (no I'm not a shill for them I just like their games).

My dream solution is that someday there will be a catalog service like GOG for the consoles that we can use to play all these games again and that it won't be tied to one console, of course chances of that happening are the same as me beating expert vocals and expert drumming at the same time in Beatles Rock Band.

Which incidentally if I ever achieve that feat it will trigger the end of the world but I think we have at least another 20 years before that happens at least. With digital distribution models taking off all around I do wonder how much of my idea of revisiting the classics will be considered fantasy for long.

Thinking about BC I do wonder how things will be in 5 or even 10 years from now when most of the games that us older gamers have played go beyond the life expectancy of their platforms. Perhaps someday people will say games from the late 80s into the 90s are mysterious relics long lost to a previous age and historians will discuss what kind of games did we play back then ... you know before the whole Matrix concept happens.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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