On a number of occasions, news has come out about Sony filing patents for technology related to backwards compatibility in the upcoming PlayStation 5. Whether backwards compatibility is integrated into the next generation or not could show a movement toward the preservation of video game history. Film, art, and literature are documented, stored, and saved to keep the history of what they tell alive, and the same should be done for games.
For example, the PlayStation 2 is notable for having a massive game library that holds a wide variety of titles, some of which have gone down in history as influential or industry changing. While many of those games have been updated and ported to new consoles, most are being left to the ages to be forgotten. As time goes by, older systems will age and begin to fail, leaving people with no way to play those gems of yore. Consumers have bought these products with hopes of being able to play them for as long as they have them. The discs may last for decades before they deteriorate, but not the systems used to play them. Having new, updated hardware that can play older games will help keep the history of them alive and give people a chance to rediscover titles or dig up new ones. These rumors may seem as though they will compete with the successful PlayStation Now, but not everyone is going to be looking for old physical games except collectors or nostalgia chasers. Additionally, for collectors, PlayStation Now is a way to try older games and decide if they would want to go on the search for a physical copy.
Getting hopes up for backwards compatibility on the PlayStation 5 because of recent patents might make sense, but businesses often file claims just to protect their technology and ideas. Filing patents is a way for companies to protect what they are working on in case of an information leak or to stop a competitor who may have coincidentally come up with a similar idea. If the patent does not work or the end product is too expensive to manufacture, the plans could be scrapped.
Game consoles are becoming more comparable to computer architecture, too, and porting games across multiple platforms and generations is becoming easier. With consoles growing more akin to PCs, companies should be able to port games to new hardware or find ways to improve forward compatibility. With consoles changing their structure, studios should also be able to take franchises and put them into one disc or download. Hopefully, collections and remasters of old games can become more prevalent, as preserving the history of the medium is important to build the future.
Microsoft has its own forward-thinking style of backwards compatibility, which focuses on a digital porting methodology. The titles are hand-picked by the company as digital download ports where the disc is needed to start a game. This method is due to testing and making sure that the title works with modern hardware. Improvements to the source game are also available, but whether these ports will continue working in the next generation is a big question.
In contrast, Sony is looking to have a traditional style of backwards compatibility that works without downloading, as any disc can be inserted into the system and played. This approach gives people another way to discover old games compared to the titles hand-picked by Microsoft. Sony is offering the ability to play all titles at launch, while Microsoft is offering fans the best selection at a slow release pattern. Both styles have their own pros and cons, but finding a mix of the two may be the best choice.
Sony can still release games as digital downloads, especially for those that are rare or expensive, such as the PlayStation’s Rival Schools (as of writing USD $80–$120) or the PlayStation 2’s Rule of Rose (USD $300–$400). Doing so would give the company the opportunity to help people explore hidden gems and niche titles that would normally be unheard of. With better backwards compatibility options built into the system, issues such as the PSOne Classics not working on the PlayStation 4 would become non-existent, as transferring those titles across generations would become easier; this flaw from the transition to the PlayStation 4 may have affected sales of the PS2 Classics as people learned what happens from the past.
These patents may show that home consoles are slowly moving toward a cell phone-style update structure. Every so often, a newly updated system is released that can play both previous and new games, while more are made exclusive to the new systems. This method would best be shown by Nintendo with its Nintendo 3DS and the New Nintendo 3DS. The latter is able to play all previous titles, yet still had a few that could only be played on that version of the hardware. Hopefully, with this process, multiplayer games would have cross-generation online play because ultimately it would still be the same game. This method would also help sell consoles early on, as many people wait for a library to grow or the console to drop in price. Backwards compatibility would give consoles an ever-expanding library that can be played while people wait for new titles to come out.
Having backwards compatibility is important to the history of the gaming industry, especially as franchises and stories span over multiple generations. The true problem is emulation, as the stronger an older generation is, the harder building a modern system to run older games becomes. Luckily, these patents show that Sony may be aiming to give players what they want, but Sony is a business first and getting backwards compatibility to work properly may be some time out. Akin to film, art, and literature, games are an interactive art form and deserve preservation and documentation—not only for the medium, but to see how far humans have come with technology and the advancement of art across many forms of media. More than ever, Sony has an opportunity to help.