That’s What She Said
Maybe you’ve heard of this thing called a PlayStation, manufactured by a little company called Sony. It was a nifty little machine, and back in the 90s, it was the first successful gaming console of the decade created by neither Nintendo nor Sega. It was followed up by the immensely popular PlayStation 2, and they have kept a nice trend of numerical naming going with PlayStations 3 and 4, something the other gaming companies of the day have not quite grasped.
Now in the old days, cartridge formats changed with every generation, so backwards compatibility was something of a mythical property that couldn’t possibly exist without some complicated hardware to allow a new system to fit the carts from the older one. But these new-fangled PlayStations used something called a “compact discs”, and those changed much less over the years. Every generation of disc drives has been able to read every older type of discs from CD to DVD to Blu Ray (let’s all forget about HD DVD).
So for a few years we thought backwards compatibility was going to be the way of the future. New systems would be able to play old games. But it hasn’t been the case. The PS2 was the first system to truly work this way, and the PS3 followed suit, but only at first. If you own a PS3 that plays PS3, you payed a lot of money for it. Only the first generation of PS3 systems had this capability. PS4 systems don’t play PS3 games at all.
This happened because it turns out that the capability is slightly more complicated than just the ability to read the discs. The operating systems and hardware have to be compatible, and generational changes between PlayStation devices have been so complete that, even to just have PS1 compatibility they had to basically include a PS1 inside the PS3 hardware.
Nintendo picked up the mantle from Sony and has been more consistent in the recent generations. Most Wii systems can play GameCube games, and all Wii U systems can play Wii Games. It’s not clear how long this will last though, since they did remove backwards compatibility from the very late model Wii systems to make them cheaper.
The other reason backwards compatibility might go out the window would be that it allows them to sell us on Virtual Console type services on even one or two generation old games. Sony has jumped on this with their PlayStation Now service, which allows you to stream PS3 games on the PS4. The processing occurs somewhere on their server, and you only stream visual and inputs across the Internet to play the game.
The service is ridiculously expensive, with games being rented at prices higher than their value on the PS3. The service also experiences some lag, which could have been predicted by anyone who ever streamed any video at all. Even Netflix and YouTube can experience delays with buffering, and those are predictable streams. The visual data being sent for a video game is much more dynamic and changes constantly.
It doesn’t even make sense to stream PS3 games, since the hardware they run on is not very expensive now. Game streaming services like OnLive advertise that you can play games that run on powerful hardware without buying that hardware yourself. Essentially PS Now is charging you a premium to play games on less powerful hardware while using an exorbitant amount of data.
Hopefully Sony will come up with a better service to replace PS Now when it inevitably tanks. I am betting on some sort of software emulation, and praying that whatever they do they connect it to PSN so that you don’t have to pay for your PS3 digital games again. Until then, just buy a PS3 if you don’t already have one.