Expect the Death of Backward Compatibility Next Year
With the next console generation just barely peeking up over the horizon, I think we can safely say one thing is certain: For the most part, they won’t be backwards-compatible.
Already, the vestiges of the practice of making old games work in new consoles are disappearing. Nintendo’s Wii-U might end up a notable exception — it’ll play your old Wii games, for example. Not GameCube games, though, even though the Wii was capable of supporting those. For the rest of your old Nintendo library, you’ll need downloads.
As for the next Playstation and Xbox iterations, it’s probably pretty safe to say that you’re seeing the last of those platforms’ backward compatibility capabilities. The Playstation 3 originally included backward compatibility, but that hardware was thrown out to reduce costs within the first year of the system’s life. The Xbox 360 notably managed to become backward compatible for most of the games in the old Xbox library, but it required a ton of extra software because Microsoft didn’t own the rights to the original Xbox processor — which mean that compatibility programs for every game had to be created after the fact.
While backward compatibility between the next generation and this one will likely be easier for the console makers to accomplish, there’s one big reason that they won’t do it: They don’t have to. If there’s anything the rise of digital distribution has demonstrated, it’s that gamers are willing to pay again for old games. You’ve demonstrated that you like your old games, and would like to play them on your new hardware — so why would Microsoft, Sony or anyone give away the privilege for free?
We’re already seeing the push in the new direction of paying for games more than once. Nintendo has done extremely well with its Wii Virtual Console, which has made a host of back-catalog Nintendo games available to customers who want to pay for them. Many of those games haven’t been available on a new system for years, really, like items from the old NES and SNES library.
Sony has picked up on the trend, too, making a whole lot of old Playstation and Playstation 2 games available as digital downloads, as has Microsoft. Given the success all three have found in making older games available to new players, it seems obvious that there won’t be any sort of push to make sure you can play Xbox 360 games on your Xbox Whatever — and even if you can, you definitely won’t see original Xbox games being played on it. Of course, hardware costs are undoubtedly a factor when it comes to consoles, but there’s clearly money to be made in this space, and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are interested in making it.
On the one hand, it’s a good thing. Nintendo’s Virtual Console managed to scare up games that are simply no longer available anywhere else. If you’re lucky enough to have an old copy of Super Metroid, plus a working SNES, then congratulations on being lucky and fortuitous in your protection of video gaming history. If not, though, there were years when you were SOL on that front, particularly if you knew nothing of the emulator scene on PC. Opening up old game libraries makes a lot of titles players have never heard of available to them for the first time.
On the other hand, we’re almost definitely going to be rebuying the same games we’ve already bought in the future. There’s not really a solution to that part.