Why Can’t PlayStation Get Backwards Compatibility Right? 

A decade-plus of frustration culminates in an awful PS5 announcement

Yesterday gave us our most in-depth look so far at Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 5 console, via an in-depth technical lecture by lead system architect Mark Cerny. For what it was – a developer-facing GDC talk, given in lieu of this year’s cancelled GDC conference – it was fine. Cerny is good at communicating this kind of deep, mechanical and methodological ideas, and if you’re into that side of the gaming equation, this was no doubt a treasure trove. But what it wasn’t was any kind of consumer-facing presentation of what the PS5 will be. There were no games, no demos, no controller, no user interface, no form factor, no system features, or any of the other things you might expect in a genuine console launch presentation titled “The Road to PS5” (a misleading piece of branding by Sony’s marketing team that certainly did Cerny’s lecture no favor). Considering details on the new system have been so sparse for so long – and especially considering how aggressively and effectively Microsoft has been pitching a holistic, consumer-focused vision for the Xbox Series X in the meantime – Sony’s ‘unveiling’ of the PS5 couldn’t help but feel like a let-down. 

A lot of the details Cerny presented are ones I’m willing to wait and see on how they’ll pan out (in no small part because, even as someone who covers this stuff extensively, I found a lot of Cerny’s talk either indecipherable or meaningless). Putting the PS5 spec sheet next to the Xbox Series X’s shows a system that’s slightly less powerful in virtually every regard, save the PS5’s highly customized SSD, which looks to be twice as fast as what the Series X is offering. It’s also nearly 200gb smaller (825gb versus the Series X’s 1tb), which means you cannot currently buy a new PlayStation 4 with less storage than what its successor will have inside. 

But of course, specs don’t tell the whole story, and the PS5’s SSD is a wild card that could be a real game-changer. Or, like many console innovations, it could be relatively unimportant, if cross-platform developers don’t wind up making use of its full potential. We won’t know until we see some actual games running on this thing, and especially not until both the PS5 and the Series X are out in the wild and we have a sense of each console’s strengths and weaknesses as the next generation gets fully underway. 

So in the aggregate, while Sony’s event was a bit baffling and frustrating from a consumer perspective, it’s hardly the end of the world, and there’s a lot more to see before making big, final judgments on the overall vision. That said, there was one detail in here that should absolutely spark concern in anyone invested in the PlayStation ecosystem, and that’s the way the PS5 will handle backwards compatibility with PS4 games. 

The section on this in Cerny’s talk was a real head-scratcher, and led to a lot of confusion online over whether PS4 games would run natively on the PS5, with additional testing needed to make use of the PS5’s “Boost Mode” feature, or whether all PS4 games would need to be tested for any compatibility on the PS5. This was clarified later in the day by a post from Sony executive Hideaki Nishino on the PlayStation blog, where he explained: 

“We recently took a look at the top 100 PS4 titles as ranked by play time, and we’re expecting almost all of them to be playable at launch on PS5. With more than 4000 games published on PS4, we will continue the testing process and expand backwards compatibility coverage over time.” 

What this means is that the PS5 will run some PS4 games, but not all, and not all at once. Games will need to be individually tested before they can run on the PS5, and while Sony is committing to a having a big chunk of the console’s most popular games available on day one, that is of course only a tiny fraction of the PS4’s vast, deep library. Additional compatibility will roll out over time, but only if Sony and, presumably, the publishers of those games can come to agreements and spend the time and money to get games working. Playing a PS4 game on your PS5 will not be as simple as popping the disc in or downloading it from your library; you will have to check first if the game is compatible, presumably with an online list Sony will have to maintain to communicate with players, and if the game you want to play isn’t on that list, your only option will be to dust off your old PS4 – presuming you didn’t sell the older console to offset the (probably high) cost of the PS5. 

Meanwhile, let’s jump over to Xbox and review backwards compatibility plans for the Series X. As detailed in this Xbox Wire post, it’s pretty simple:  

“The Xbox team is so committed to the concept of compatibility and cross generation play, that not only do your games move forward with you, but so do your Xbox One accessories, your game saves, and progression. In fact, your entire gaming legacy moves forward with you to the next generation.” 

Put another way: If you have a game that runs on your Xbox One, it will run on your Xbox Series X, natively. As Microsoft has detailed multiple times, those games will also benefit from “improved boot and load times, more stable frame rates, higher resolutions and improved image quality,” as Xbox and Xbox 360 games have for years on the Xbox One. You’ll also be able to use Xbox One controllers and accessories on the Series X, cross-gen multiplayer is guaranteed, Xbox’s robust and friction-less cloud save system means you don’t have to worry about transferring progress, etc. The basic message is: If you have an Xbox One, and you want to upgrade to a Series X, you won’t lose a thing, and you don’t have to worry about compatibility at all when making the switch. 

And frankly, at this point, that should be the bar that any new home console has to cross. At the start of this last generation, neither Sony nor Microsoft were offering backwards compatibility with prior generations in the PS4 or Xbox One, and while it was frustrating, there were clear technical reasons why a clean break needed to be made, to bring system architecture more in line with PCs and make things easier on developers. It was disappointing, sure, but save Nintendo’s flailing Wii U, there was no competition to point to that was doing it better. 

But that’s not the case anymore. After the Xbox One’s rough launch, Phil Spencer’s team took a lot of drastic, creative steps to improve the platform and make it appealing to the many players who had been turned off by the initial announcement and launch hardware/software offerings. One of the most significant was the implementation of a robust backwards compatibility initiative, bringing Xbox 360 and, later, original Xbox games to the entire Xbox One family of systems. It wasn’t a perfect backwards compatibility solution – Xbox and 360 games couldn’t just run natively on the Xbox One, so games had to be checked for emulation on an individual basis, sort of like what Sony is now planning for PS4 games on the PS5 – but it felt like a massive breath of fresh air for any gamer frustrated their existing library was completely absent from the new platforms. Microsoft didn’t require you to buy any of these games again: If you owned them digitally, they just showed up in your library when available, and if you had the disc, you could pop it in and download the software. If you had saves in the cloud, those carried over, as did all Achievements from the 360. And all of these games benefitted from the increased power of the Xbox One and especially the Xbox One X, sometimes to dramatic degrees. Short of having full, native compatibility, this was a dream scenario for players, and Microsoft threw a lot of weight behind the initiative before hitting the pause button last year in the lead up to the Series X. 

Meanwhile, Sony never got a single PS1 or PS3 game running on the PS4, and the small handful of PS2 games they brought over as digital releases had to be re-purchased regardless of whether you owned them before, and were incompatible with existing save data. In 2017, two years into Xbox’s backwards compatibility initiative, Jim Ryan – then Sony’s global sales chief, now the President and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment – gave an interview to Time in which he said backwards compatibility was “one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much.” To twist the knife, he said PS1 and PS2 games look “ancient,” and asked “why would anybody play this?”

The picture is clear and stark: Microsoft has a tested, proven track record of supporting and innovating on backwards compatibility in a consumer-friendly, value-added way, while Sony has been dismissive if not outright of hostile of finding ways to keep legacy game libraries alive (and we haven’t even mentioned the company literally ripping PS2 support out of the PS3 when it became clear their initial pricing model was a failure). The backwards compatibility solution they’ve come up with for the PS5 is imperfect no matter what, but if it was announced in the context of a company that had demonstrated any kind of interest in making this kind of feature work, we could at least trust that it would get better with time. With Sony, though, it is entirely reasonable to expect a worst-case scenario where this patchwork solution starts out with a lot of massive holes, and that if those holes get filled, it will only be in part, and it will probably take a lot of time to get there. 

So many awful implications follow from what Sony has announced for backwards compatibility for the PS5. As I said before, you won’t be able to sell or trade in your PS4, because there will inevitably be some gaps in support for your existing library, and there will be no way to know when or if they will ever be filled in. You will have to keep a list around to see what does and doesn’t work throughout the lifespan of the PS5. No save game or trophy progress compatibility has been announced, and while one presumes it will be there, we have no idea what form it will take. 

Most importantly, having game-by-game compatibility means Sony will have to clear everything again with publishers, which could lead to a whole host of issues, including the inevitability that some publishers will be able to hold PS4 games back from running on the PS5 so they can instead sell them to you again as a “Remastered” re-release, as has been common practice throughout this generation. Microsoft has fully eliminated this possibility on the Series X, and even created a system called ‘Smart Delivery’ whereby games released for this generation can be upgraded with Series X enhancements without the need for publishers to sell the games a second time. Sony, meanwhile, has given the industry a green light to continue consumer-hostile practices that have frustrated all of us throughout these past seven years. 

Worst of all is the sense that we are all being dicked around by Sony here, after multiple generations now of the company fucking this up, ignoring the pleas of their large, loyal user base and pretending the competition simply doesn’t exist. The bottom line is that the PlayStation 5’s entire backwards compatibility initiative rests on a company that is manifestly and holistically bad at this part of the equation suddenly becoming good at it. And why on earth would any of us trust in that? 

This truly feels like a betrayal from Sony. Universal backwards compatibility with the PS4 library was a simple bar they needed to clear to make moving to the next generation feel viable, and not doing it throws the whole enterprise into question. It clarifies, for me, that while the PlayStation brand has long done the core of the business right – creating and cultivating big, excellent, and oftentimes groundbreaking exclusive games – they have gotten increasingly bad at everything else around the periphery for most of this generation, from the disappointing and underpowered PS4 Pro, to the system’s increasingly bloated, slow, and inefficient UI, to a long stretch of offering absolute bottom-of-the-barrel crap with PS Plus, to being dragged to support cross-platform play kicking and screaming years after Microsoft and Nintendo got in the game, to the total and complete lack of any kind of backwards compatibility initiative. Over the course of this console generation, the paradox of PlayStation has been a system increasingly adept and fostering outstanding exclusive titles, and increasingly inept at presenting and packaging their platform in a way that feels user friendly or responsive to the community. And failing to clear the backwards compatibility bar for the PS5 only draws that disconcerting dichotomy into sharper focus. 

If pre-orders opened today, I would feel fairly enthusiastic about slapping down a deposit on the Xbox Series X – a platform that has proven great strength and innovation in all the areas where Sony is increasingly faltering – and have no desire whatsoever to do the same for the PlayStation 5. Maybe that will change, and in the end, what matters most is that the PlayStation brand gets you games from their incredible suite of first-party developers. Whenever we get Spider-Man 2, the next God of War, or whatever Naughty Dog cooks up after Last of Us Part II, I will, eventually, want to be there for that. I just wish that didn’t mean having to keep my PS4, PS3, and PS2 on the shelf alongside the PS5 to access my gaming library. 


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