Download-only titles and likely next gen compatibility

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With Sony’s Playstation 4 announcement came news that PSN exclusive games (i.e. download-only) may not work on PS4. Sony implied they’ll do their best to help make them work, but given they said PS4 won’t be physically backwards compatible with PS3 games disks why should digitally distributed games be any different? They are after all running on the same hardware and it’s the significant architecture differences between PS3 and PS4 that are the reason the PS4 won’t play PS3 games from blu-rays.

The reason many PS3 versions of multi-platform games have been so ropey, more so in the PS3’s early years, is because it’s proprietary design is so different from other platforms it therefore requires more effort to optimise for. Effort that many developers can’t afford to budget for, haven’t got the necessary skill to implement, or possibly can’t be bothered to make.

In my opinion the reason the Xbox (particularly the 360 this generation) has found favour with developers is it’s basically a PC, albeit one with a standardised spec. Most of it’s components and core software share much in common with PCs. In particular, and unsurprising Microsoft Windows technologies like DirectX. This core architecture is so well known that it makes developing for Xbox a relative breeze. It’s hardly surprising then that the Xbox versions have been consistently solid.

The reason I mention all this? Well I believe that although, at the time of writing, the new Xbox hasn’t been announced that the 360’s digital-only games  on Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) have a greater likelihood of making the jump to next gen. Why? Well it’s precisely because Xbox’s have always been based on PC architecture. The next one will be too, of that there is little doubt.

Sure, the change of graphics card technology between the original Xbox and the 360 meant it wasn’t fully backwards compatible but modern cards have so much grunt that I can imagine they wouldn’t break much sweat to emulate an earlier lineage as necessary. There is no complicated Cell chip to emulate like on PS3. Chip emulation is especially difficult when proprietary designs are used, you just have to look at how few Saturn games have been re-released via new channels like XBLA and PSN. So difficult is the Saturn to emulate most of those games that have have been re-released were based on the PC versions released back then.

The PS4’s new PC-esque architecture should help make the problems with multi-platform games a thing of  the past. Rumours suggest the core specifications of the PS4 and the new Xbox will be very similar indeed. The architecture change is therefore great for Sony with regard to new games but means it’s legacy releases aren’t easily supported.

Sony have said “cloud” streaming will be used to give a sort of backward compatibility via Gaikai (a company it purchased last year) but that was said in relation to disk games, not digital-only releases. I suspect this will be their answer though as I can’t see many developers going through their entire catalogue and reworking their games. A virtual machine on Sony’s servers will likely be the most cost effective answer. Unfortunately those with intermittent  slow or no broadband will be left without.

It’s historical PC lineage should make the next Xbox (I doubt it will be called the much used “720”) much more likely to able to run it’s back catalogue. The question could well be will Microsoft want to implement it? Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it will be done.

Backwards compatibility may be a nice gesture to dedicated fans but there isn’t necessarily enough to make it worth the effort, especially if it’s difficult to monetise.

Many of us have bought digital-only games this generation but if our equipment fails it is up to both the manufacturers and the software publishers whether we will continue to be able to play them. They are after all in the business of making money so they may not allow us to re-download without some sort of fee. We will only be able to buy replacement current generation machines for a  couple years more new and second hand machines will only last so long.

From this point of view it’s much more likely that PCs will be the way to go for longer term access to older titles. Although PC gaming is significantly weighted towards digital downloads now, the very fact that PC progression is continual and incremental with no designated technological “generations” I believe means titles will be available on stores like Steam for longer. This potentially bodes well for Steambox and the continued current resurgence in PC gaming in general.

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