Future Compatible

This post was written in 2017, titled Temporarily Unavailable: A Point about Backwards Compatibility and Historical Gaming. It might be a little outdated, but I still stand by the single-format future.

Video games are a very young medium.

The motion picture has been doing the rounds since the late 19th century; books and writing have existed for centuries; music, probably even longer. Over the years, the methods of their production have changed drastically – the printing press, cassette tapes, and DVDs are just a few examples of how they’ve been transmitted.

Video games have run the gamut in significantly less time – and have arguably seen a much wider range of competing formats. Since their introduction, companies have contended for a bigger slice of the pie, and today we see the four survivors of that race: the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch and good old PC.

What’s my point in all this? Well…

I have a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog on an original Mega Drive cartridge. It’s a neat little piece. Unfortunately, I can’t play it. I have nothing that will take it.

That may seem a bit of an extreme example – of course a Mega Drive game is only going to work on a Mega Drive. So how about this wonderful copy of Tetris for PC, released in 1987? You’d think that’d at least run in DOSBox, right?

…well, yeah, if you have a 5.25″ floppy drive to hand.

Here’s an even better example: I really fancy a game of Lego Lord of the Rings for Xbox 360, but all I have is an Xbox One! Surely, surely that’ll work? A game made for a console just one generation back…?

You’ve guessed the outcome, I bet.

And this brings me to my point. If I happened upon a book from 1708, I’d be able to read it without issue. If I wanted to play a CD from 1986, I’d just shove it into my modern computer, and the job would be, as we say, a good’un. I could put that same disc into a Hi-Fi from 2002, a DVD player from 2007, or any number of other CD-loving devices. They’d work without trouble.

But if I wanted to play a video game from 1986, I’d be up the creek unless I happened to have the system it was made for.

Six years ago, the gaming landscape was rife with exclusives. You wanna play Halo: Reach, you’d better have an Xbox 360 or you don’t get the pleasure. Nowadays, both Sony and Microsoft are embracing a single unifying platform – PC. Sony allows PS4 games on PC through PlayStation Now – which sounds like a mid-90s dial-up service – and many current Xbox One games can be played natively on Windows 10, including Halo 5.

Just to make this clear, my point isn’t “hurr durr PC Master Race” et cetera. It just happens that PC is a highly-customisable platform that can be made to suit anyone. Incidentally, I’ve always held the argument that consoles are for people who just want to play games without the hassle, but in my experience, consoles are now much more hassle than PC. But that’s besides the point.

So here’s what I think needs to happen. Either console developers need to get their behinds in gear and make backwards compatibility work properly again, or – and this is probably the best choice for everyone – have game developers build for a single platform. Let’s examine the first option.

The PlayStation 2 has the best backwards compatibility of any console ever. And it’s not for the incredible powers of software emulation, because that isn’t infallible even after over 20 years. It’s actually because the PS2 contains the necessary hardware from the PS1 to run all those games perfectly. And of course it’s perfect, because it’s running on the very same hardware.

So why isn’t everyone doing that? The thing with the PS1 and PS2 is that they can fit in teeny-tiny packages. The PS2 Slim is one of the smallest consoles I’ve seen, especially for one that essentially contains two consoles in one. It’d probably be even smaller were it not for the disc drive. However, no console beyond that has ever got close to its minute profile. You try putting Xbox 360 S components inside an Xbox One, and you’ve got yourself quite the behemoth – with all the necessary cooling, it’d end up being the size of an ATX PC chassis. We have to rely on software emulation, and that isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Old games have to be specifically engineered to work on new consoles, which means compatibility comes in dribs and drabs. It’s not really the best solution…but it kinda works…

The second option sounds too easy, doesn’t it? Let’s assume that, from now on, the PC is the only gaming platform on the market. (Ideally PC running GNU/Linux, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves)

Now, a good PC isn’t cheap. There are plenty of so-called “console killer” PC builds floating around the web, but those are DIY machines and still end up costing more than your average console anyway. Prebuilt computers naturally have a significant markup on top of that. But if PCs were the only systems on the market for gaming, you’d think the prices would be much lower. After all, there’d be plenty of competition.

Instead of different consoles, you’d have different brands of computer vying for your attention. Want something that can do it all, or just something that plays games? Want a big, powerful, expensive machine that you can proudly display at your desk, or a small, cheap, compact box to go under your telly? Component manufacturers would still compete for your cash, and in addition to NVidia and AMD, there might be a few more GPU vendors. 3Dfx and Silicon Integrated Systems might have still been doing the rounds!

This might seem like a crazy pipe dream, but think about it. This is essentially the situation with, say, record players. Producers wouldn’t make separate types of record for different turntable manufacturers, so why should the same happen with video games? It’s understandable that it started out this way, back when PCs were playing catch-up. Now it’s the other way around, it seems a bit pointless to keep making new consoles. This way, we’ll never have problems with compatibility and we’ll be able to play today’s games in another thirty years’ time.

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