The PS4 Might Never Have True Backwards Compatibility: Here’s Why and What Sony Could Do

The PS4 Might Never Have True Backwards Compatibility: Here’s Why and What Sony Could Do

Microsoft announced backwards compatibility for the Xbox One at its E3 press conference, and preview members are already enjoying it with a number of Xbox 360 of games.

That caused quite a stir in the gaming community, and of course quite a few voices expressed the desire for Sony to do the same on the PS4. That’s really nothing new, the demand has always been there, and Microsoft move just amplified it.

It’s easy to think that Sony is holding back on the feature just because it could negatively influence the demand for PlayStation Now, or simply because they have other priorities, but while I don’t have any insider knowledge on Sony’s plans, I don’t think the reason has anything to do with that.

It’s also easy to think that more powerful hardware can easily emulate less powerful hardware, but it’s not so simple.

The Xbox 360 was built on a PowerPC architecture, which is quite different from the x86-64 architecture of the Xbox One, but the difference is not so great that it completely prevents emulation.

On the other hand, the PS3 was built on an extremely hi-tech state-of-the-art architecture based on the Cell processor and on its SPU (Synergistic Processing Unit). That required games to be specifically optimized to run on that kind of hardware.

That’s the reason why there has always been a large gap between first party and third party games on PS3. Almost only first party developers had the resources and the know-how to develop games fully optimized for the console’s peculiar architecture, while most third parties had to settle for a compromise.

The problem is that the Cell and its SPU are so unique and peculiar that they most probably make emulation impossible, at least on current generation consoles. It’s normally possible to “brute force” emulation by using hardware that is massively more powerful than the target. The problem is that current generation consoles, including the PS4, don’t exactly have a massively powerful CPU.

20131016-JAPAN-0563_editThe motherboard of a PS4 – Image Courtesy: Wired

The 8-core AMD x86-64 Jaguar CPU built into Sony’s new console isn’t a powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, and it most probably doesn’t have the juice required to get even close to emulating the Cell at a reasonable performance.

That’s the main reason why the PS4 probably won’t ever have full-fledged native emulation. In order to emulate PS3 games on PS4, each studio would probably have to redesign large areas of the code to make its games run on the x86-64 architecture. That’s not a very viable way to spend resources and development time.

This means that Sony now finds itself at a competitive disadvantage (we don’t have enough elements to judge how big, just yet) on the backwards emulation factor.

How can Sony overcome the obstacle? PlayStation Now offers a range of games that could be considered a partial equivalent to backwards compatibility. The problem is evident as the bright sun: if you want to play a PS3 game on PS4, you have to pay for it, no matter if you already own it.

That doesn’t make the slightest sense from the perspective of a consumer, especially considering PlayStation Now‘s pricing, which isn’t exactly what I’d consider cheap.

In order to close the backwards compatibility gap, at least partly, Sony could finally allow those who own PlayStation 3 games to play them on PlayStation 4 and PS Vita and other compatible devices like Samsung TVs (a little but relevant additional bonus) for free via PlayStation Now.

If you have a digital copy, it’s pretty simple: your account could detect it, and enable streaming automatically. If you have a disk, you’d need to keep it in the PS4’s drive in order to play your PlayStation Now copy.

MyPs3The motherboard of my PS3 when I disassembled it to change the thermal paste, with the “Naked” CELL and RSX Chips

I can easily imagine that many feel that Sony would never be willing to give up part of its PlayStation Now revenue for this purpose, but we should probably think about who is PlayStation Now‘s main target audience.

I seriously doubt that Sony sees the service as targeted primarily to those that already own PS3 games. That’s because those gamers most probably already played the titles they own. The possibility that they would be willing to pay a rather steep rental price to play an old game they already experienced is not exactly massive. A PS3 owner might use PlayStation now for games he never owned, but in this case the problem simply doesn’t exist.

PlayStation Now is primarily targeted to those that never bought a PS3, and have no intention to buy one. As such, they also don’t have a relevant PS3 game collection. That kind of target would be left mostly untouched by offering a virtual backwards compatibility service via streaming.

In order to make up for the missed revenue (which I don’t think would be very relevant, anyway), they could even lock the feature behind PlayStation Plus. It would add a further perk (and a big one) to their premium service, and improve its penetration among PS4 users.

Will they do it? or even explore the possibility? Your guess here is as good as mine. I can see them taking “wait and see” stance until the holidays, to gauge what kind of impact the Xbox One’s backwards compatibility will have on sales.

If it makes a big impact, then we might see Sony scramble for a solution, and using PlayStation Now might be the ideal chance. If it doesn’t, then it’ll probably be business as usual.

Of course I might be entirely wrong, and the talented engineers at Sony might manage to pull a miracle, implementing hardware backwards compatibility on the console, But I seriously doubt that’s very likely.

Quite obviously, your mileage may vary on whether backwards compatibility is even necessary, but that’s another story for another time.

[Special thanks to @Tidux and Jeremy Conrad for brainstorming the topic with me on Twitter]