Sony’s PS5 Backward-Compatibility Strategy Sounds Like It Sucks
We’ve known for a while that Sony’s PS5 backward compatibility policy wasn’t going to match Microsoft’s, but the company hasn’t disclosed many details to-date. Recently posted (and now removed) information on an Ubisoft help page, however, suggests that the console’s capabilities are more limited than its competition.
Ubisoft’s Australian help site posted the following to a web page dedicated to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 multiplayer connectivity questions:
PlayStation 4 players will be able to join multiplayer games with PlayStation 5 players. Backwards compatibility will be available for supported PlayStation 4 titles, but will not be possible for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, or PlayStation games.
In March, Sony’s Senior VP Hideaki Nishino told gamers he expected the majority of PS4 titles to be compatible on PlayStation 5 and the company showed the following slide:
The company never stated that it was adding support for more than just the PS4, so news that it’s limited to that platform isn’t a shock. This, however, is one of the biggest differences between Microsoft and Sony this generation. The only thing Microsoft could be doing to further improve its backward-compatibility stance is to add support for previous-generation peripherals, and that would require some kind of physical hardware kit or dongle purchase. Sony offers a curated selection of PS2 and PS3 titles via its cloud services, but the company does not offer the physical disc back-compatibility that Microsoft has embraced with the Xbox Series X.
It’s Time for Consoles to Join PCs
Backward compatibility is a fundamental feature of PC gaming, as far back as the Ctrl-Alt-Numpad Minus keyboard command to drop an 80286 or faster PC down to 4.77MHz (also known as deactivating turbo). Getting old games to run isn’t always easy, but the vast majority of PC games can either be played natively or emulated, even on modern PCs. If I want to play Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire, one of my all-time favorite titles, I can choose from the remade version or the original, no problem.
There’s no reason consoles shouldn’t offer the same feature. When I was a child, gaming on a console meant you were playing on a completely different type of machine compared with a DOS or Windows 3.1 PC in its default configuration. Consoles didn’t run operating systems and they lacked internal storage. They had integrated sound and graphics capabilities that were far better for playing games than the default DOS PC of the late 1980s. The games you played on a console versus on a PC were entirely different because the underlying hardware was entirely different.
Today, those differences are a shadow of what they once were. Consoles have some dedicated IP blocks, like the decompression engines that enable Sony and Microsoft’s next-generation storage capabilities, but this is small potatoes. These systems use PC GPU architectures and commodity x86 CPU designs. One of the advantages of the PC ecosystem has always been robust backward compatibility, and it makes sense to see Microsoft embracing it. Pushing compatibility back to the OG Xbox allows the company to appeal to any gamer who used to own a Microsoft console and might have kept a few favorite games, but hasn’t picked a side in the upcoming refresh. It’s also a baked-in reason for any current Xbox owner to stay with the platform. Microsoft might as well be waving a flag and jumping up and down in its efforts to emphasize how seriously it takes the feature. Sony, less so. As a PC gamer without a dog in this fight, demanding this kind of feature is a no-brainer to me. I don’t know how many gamers are going to buy on the basis of playing older titles, but this is one area where Microsoft seems to have an advantage.
It’s going to be an interesting launch season for both companies, but so far Microsoft seems to be the better-positioned of the two, despite the loss of Halo Infinite as a launch title. At the very least, the company’s emphasis on supporting older titles allows it to talk about the benefits Xbox Series X can bring to those games. It may have been able to work with companies to ensure smooth play for older titles on Xbox Series X during the pandemic, even if development on launch titles inevitably slowed.
Then again, Sony has something going into this match-up that Microsoft can’t really compete with: incumbency. As the reigning champ of the last generation, Sony is assumed to have the default loyalty of a larger group of gamers. We’ll find out if that’s enough when both platforms launch later this year.