Innovation & Design

Sony's Got It Right


The fuss over Sony's decision to drop hardware backwards compatibility from European versions of the PS3 will fade quickly

Some hysterical commentators are predicting an “impending firestorm”; a public backlash. The fact is, it won’t materialize. Why? Because backwards compatibility is No Big Deal; a lot of noise made by a vocal minority.

It was the right decision for Sony to make, and ought to have been made earlier. Sony will almost certainly do the same with future iterations of the console around the world.

In fact, the company told us it would drop hardware emulation way back in the summer of 2006. In June of last year, a report in Japanese technology magazine Ultra One Monthly stated that the firm would be removing the PS2 chipset from future revisions of the PS3 hardware once it completed development of a software-based emulator.

We don’t know how much Sony is saving by removing this chip but our very rough estimate is around $30 – a significant amount of money for a company in dire need of controlling losses on its hardware. Sony must find smart ways to mitigate the $200 or so it loses every time it gains a PS3 consumer.

It is becoming clearer to everyone, including Sony, that there will be no clear winner in this console generation and that the sort of luxuries associated with market dominance are not available to the company. Guaranteed hardware backwards compatibility is one of these.

Unpopular? Us?

We understand that this will not be a popular view, most especially in the forums, where there has been some concern over this decision. They make some good arguments. They point out that Sony has prospered by offering a direct line of backwards compatibility stretching way back to 1995. They argue that people unsure of staying with PlayStation brand, or switching to Xbox 360, will not be encouraged by this news. Effectively, they say, it’s a way of alienating PlayStation’s most loyal customers.

There is some truth to this argument, and doubtless a small number of consumers will switch based on this news. We realize that some people will want to go back to their fave games, having traded in their PS2 to help pay for PS3.

But on a list of ‘reasons to buy a games console,’ backwards compatibility comes pretty low down; certainly lower than quality of current and future game libraries, quality of online services, benefits such as a Blu-ray drive; price etc.

These are the areas where Sony knows it needs to pick up its game. We don't believe BC is important enough to warrant the kind of investment being asked of Sony. Neither does Sony. Thus far, no major publishers have condemned or even questioned the decision.

Hardware Tinkering

Potentially more problematic is Sony’s tinkering with its hardware, giving software makers even more of a hard life having to create their games for multiple console iterations of the same games. There is a real danger here that we will end up in a PC-like universe where software developers and publishers become blasé about releases, patching things up later with downloadable fixes.

But Sony has done this sort of thing for the past 12 years. Each hardware platform goes through mutliple iterative versions that are all compatible with each other but slightly different from a manufacturing or component perspective. Each one is cheaper and quicker to manufacture.

Even so, Sony must strive to make sure its QA department is even more fastidious than usual; in truth an area where the company has generally been pretty effective. The company must offer support to developers, an area where its record is, well, patchy.

Also, the decision to release a list of emulated games after the console launches (in Europe) has done little to mitigate the negative press associated with this announcement. It’s all down to implementation, of course, but it looks too much like conspiracy to the online rabble-rousers.

Those Ninjas

But the real calculation for Sony in making this decision has been in terms of public reception, and thus far, the negative press surrounding this story has been low-level.

The costs of software emulation ‘Ninjas’ ought to be borne by the marketing and PR department because that is where the benefit lies. Someone somewhere is working hard to make games that nobody plays any more work on systems where nobody will play them, all to pacify a small number of BC Watchers. It is a waste of human effort.

Nintendo, a company that can draw on ferocious loyalty, has traditionally given very little thought to backwards compatibility, so it’s curious that the giant non-games originated firms are the ones with the hang-ups on this issue. Nintendo is now making money from reselling very old games online; individually. Nobody seems to see this as a problem, and why should they? Both Microsoft and Sony are now paying lip-service to BC; offering software emulation and online patches which they both realize will have a negligible impact on their businesses.

The idea that BC is somehow a duty for game publishers is absurd. The console games market is not a single platform system, probably never will be, and there is no compelling historical example of BC to draw on. Wii is backwardly compatible to GameCube but it's interesting how little play Nintendo has made of this benefit. Xbox 360 has sailed through its own BC controversy. And although the PlayStation 2 user base is larger, with a bigger library, it seems unlikely that success or failure rests on this factor.

Final thought – it would be fascinating to see a commercial test of consumers having to actually pay for BC. Having forked out a significant amount of income for the hardware, how many would pay an extra $30 or so to play all their PS2 games? And of those who did – probably the sort of people who actually buy warranties – how many would get their money’s worth?

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