Right now, it seems like it’s easier than ever to play old games. Countless remakes and remasters are in the pipeline, and services like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now are keeping previously inaccessible titles alive through growing digital libraries and the cloud. Yet I’m starting to think that this is an appealing smokescreen for a series of growing issues regarding backwards compatibility.
Jargon such as Smart Delivery (where players can buy Cyberpunk 2077 on any Xbox and play it across every console in the family) makes it seem like we’ve got it all figured out, but I’d argue that there’s still plenty to worry about as we shift into the next console generation. These contemporary solutions, while helpful in the short term, come with their own series of complex caveats.
You may have realised that it’s not as easy as putting a PlayStation 1 disc in your PlayStation 2 anymore – in fact, it feels increasingly alien to even swap discs out of a console nowadays, as our purchasing trends towards virtual storefronts and digital keys.
Never has this been more prevalent than in the era of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. As games balloon in size, PC disc drives disappear and storefronts like Steam and the Epic Games Store become more robust. It’s looking increasingly likely that physical video games will become part of the furniture as much as CDs and DVDs are now.
Take the most popular games of the moment – Fortnite and Call Of Duty: Warzone – they’re both free, fully crossplay ready and they plan to exist for as long as people keep playing them. If this is the model of the future, then what will happen to the games on our shelves?
To further complicate matters, gaming has shifted towards a streaming service model at an alarming pace. Publishers now lord over libraries of games, which shed and gain titles like a rising tide every month as licenses expire.
In the future, it seems like exclusivity will no longer be about the console you own, but the subscriptions you pay for on a monthly basis. By tying the backwards compatibility issue up in these fiscal labyrinths, Google Stadia and Uplay+ will soon have the same appetising exclusives as Netflix and Prime Video do now – unfortunately, buying one console or the other won’t cut the mustard.
The initial fear was that games were going to be inaccessible on newer consoles because of the way they were built – but with plenty of modern remakes like Spyro Reignited Trilogy adapting the codebase of old titles to reimagine them for modern consoles, this problem appears to be a thing of the past.
A passing glance at the impressive state of modern emulation will prove that. If Virtuous can get BioShock on the Nintendo Switch, the future is bright. So the issue that remains here is that these old games are going to be locked to a certain service, which may come with its own price tag.
On the surface, I can play digital versions of Xbox and Xbox 360 games like Destroy All Humans! and Red Dead Redemption on my Xbox One X, but under the hood, I don’t really own them. If the license expires and I have to move to a new console – the game will be lost to the digital aether, trapped in an obsolete hard drive like a fossil in amber.
This is a particularly important issue right now as we approach the launch of the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X. Historically, as we’ve shifted gears into a new generation, disc formats have changed, making old games unplayable. Console makers have acknowledged the demand for backwards compatibility, sure, but they’ve yet to provide an all-encompassing solution where every older game functions just as well.
In the Xbox One’s case, you can play 32 carefully selected “classics” from the original Xbox, and a curated selection – 560 of the 2085 Xbox 360 games ever released. The numbers speak for themselves – this isn’t ideal, but the question is whether this gulf is going to grow or recede in the next generation.
Game developers simply don’t have the time to remaster and fix every older game so that it works no questions asked in the next-generation. Yet at the same time, it’s not easy for people to repurchase their games digitally or buy new versions for the console they’ve had to move onto because their old one has suddenly been made redundant.
So what’s the solution? Out of the big three, Nintendo seems to be least interested, opting to release its older, most beloved games via mini consoles and passion project remakes to make another sale. I’m hopeful that we’ll see GameCube and Nintendo 64 games on a modern Nintendo console, but I won’t hold my breath.
Microsoft has said that every game that works on the Xbox One will be playable on the Xbox Series X – an admirable feat – but does this essentially sign a death warrant for all the games that never made the backwards compatible cut in the previous generation? And as far as Smart Delivery is concerned, Microsoft has confirmed that physical disks will only support Smart Delivery “if the developer or publisher decides to implement the technology.” That doesn’t fill me with confidence, and will certainly push consumers even further towards digital purchases, which can be delisted, lost or held to ransom, depending on which services or storefront you’ve opted into – just look at P.T. or Scott Pilgrim VS. The World.
Sony also revealed this week that from July, every PS4 game submitted for certification will have to work on the PS5 – great news, but the company also had to clarify that only the “overwhelming majority” of the 4,000+ PS4 titles released will be playable on PS5. What does an overwhelming majority mean in numbers, though? And does this mean that it will be curated, so only the best games may see the light of day on the PS5? All of us have guilty pleasures…
I’m sure we’ll learn more about this approach as the PS5 conference rears its head, but one thing is for certain: the next generation will be a make or break moment for backwards compatibility. As console makers try to shift us onto services and away from physical discs, it looks like it’s going to go beyond what you own, and come down to a question of licensing rather than technical exclusivity. The conversation has changed, and there are now more questions than answers.