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PS4 Backwards Compatibility Explained: Why Sony Ditched Offline BC and Why The Cloud is the Future

 

 

The big issue for the PlayStation 4 is its lack of offline backwards compatibility. It’s the most often repeated complaint, usually followed by some variation of the phrase “it’s not a deal breaker, but really Sony should have made more of an effort.” Moments later, a foil-hat equipped conspiracy theorist will explain in great detail about how this is just another way that Sony is trying to bleed money out of their fans, and then that horrible word will rear its ugly head: anti-consumerism.

The truth is, there’s a very good reason that the PlayStation 4 doesn’t have backwards compatibility. It’s not because Sony want to screw you over, although I know some of you would love for that to be true.

The PlayStation 3

We’ll begin with the most topical console. When the PlayStation 3 was released, Sony said the Cell was the best thing since disks. Developers would be able to do things that just wouldn’t be possible anywhere else, and that turned out to be true for a short while.  Although the 360 fell short in some ways, the Cell did give Microsoft a massive advantage in others. For a start, third party studios just couldn’t get their head around it, or, for that matter, why Sony would expect them to even have to. You’ve all heard Gabe Newell’s comments, John Carmack’s comments.

Over the years, some developers have changed their mind on the PS3, others remain unhappy with how things turned out. That’s partly why Sony have allowed a more open system for the PS4 and why you’ll find the quality of ports will suddenly increase tenfold.

But all those things that people were complaining about haven’t just gone away. The developers have learned how to work with Sony’s cell, but that doesn’t make it any less an unusual beast to have to tame. It’s a one-of-a-kind processor that uses distributes data to Synergistic Processing Elements (“SPEs”) for it to be processed separately. This means, in theory, that the PS3s can handle data more efficiently than if it was just a 2005 equivalent CPU, but it also means that data has to be sent to it in a specific way.

The Cell Processor cannot be emulated. That isn’t because of the unusual way it handles its processes – although, that might make it impossible to emulate in the future – but because there just isn’t a beefy enough computer to handle it. That goes doubly for anything available to consumers. You’d need something far more powerful than a PS3 to emulate it, and it’s just not possible with today’s technology. This goes for everything – it’s why there’s a SNES emulator out there that practically nobody can run.

Asking Sony to emulate the PS3 with software is a bit like asking why you just can’t put PC disks into the PS4 and have them work. From a tech standpoint, you’re far more likely to get a console that’s compatible with 360 games than you are PS3 games.

Software emulation was and probably never will be an option, at least not on the PS4. So how about just sticking PS3 parts in the PS4 and having it run through that?

Why can’t they release a different, more expensive SKU?

The Hardware Solution

Some people don’t understand the technology needed to emulate the PS3 on PS4, and I can forgive them for that. Some people do realize why it’s an issue, however, and have found another solution. Why can’t Sony just go ahead and put the parts needed into the PS4 and release it as part of an exclusive, limited release SKU?

Before we even get into the real issue here, let’s just say this. Even if the rest of this section weren’t true, Sony would still need to get the Cell working alongside other parts of the PS4. I can’t say for certain that it’s impossible, but it brings up some very complicated problems. What happens if you’re playing a PS3 game and press the home button? Which processor handles friends logging in and out? How about video uploads?

How do you swap between processors mid-game?

Is there a motherboard that could take both the cell and the PS4 processor and control them both without error? There’s a reason you need an Intel board if you plan to buy an Intel processor and the same applies for the Cell/PS4.

So let’s say that Sony decide making a bonus SKU with PS3 compatibility isn’t suicide. It’s still impossible, or at least ridiculously difficult. But then, it is complete suicide. The people who flaunt this solution, as if they’re returning with fire form the gods, tend to be under the assumption that they’d only have to pay for the PS4, plus the cost of the PS3. For $600, they think, they could have backwards compatibility, and that’s a price they’re willing to pay.

What they don’t take into account is the extra work needed. Not only paying people to work out the problems mentioned above, but then paying them to build a PS4 that houses all the parts from the PS3 without them overheating or interfering with PS4 processes. Then they’d need to market it, transport it to stores. Then they’d have to explain to the people complaining about the $2000 price tag why it’s so high. There’s just no way it’d sell.

The hardware option is out. It already backfired with the PS3 (PS2 compatibility was dropped almost immediately), and that was much cheaper than the PS4 would be if it needed to be modified for PS3 components as well. Maybe, as parts become cheaper, this might be an option in five or ten years. By then we’ll be more worried about PS5 backwards compatibility though.

The PlayStation Network

So the PS4 can’t read PlayStation 3 disks. We understand that. Why can’t I transfer my digital purchases forward then?

I understand your confusion, and I understand your annoyance. Perhaps you weren’t certain about buying digital content the first time you jumped onto the PlayStation Store and this seems to back up your opinion. Unfortunately, these games were built for PS3, the same as a game on disk. Short of remaking that game, recoding everything, there’s no way it could be compatible. Think about the sort of work that goes into the HD Collections – the time between announcement and release. Is that how long you want to wait for your content to be available? What happens when the company that made it went bust? Do Sony have to go back and remake the game, just so you can have it sitting in your list, unplayed?

This, to me, is the biggest kick in the teeth to come out of the lack of PS4 backwards compatibility, because it seems to confirm everybody’s digital worries. Like everything else on this list, there’s just no other way around it.

PlayStation 2

The PS3 is a no-go, but what about the PlayStation 2? There are loads of PS2 emulators out there, and the PS4 should be more than powerful enough to get them running.

PlayStation 2 emulation is a confusing beast. Some games work absolutely perfectly, other games are more difficult to get started. We should start by saying Sony can’t just head online and the best emulator they see in their system, they’d need to do it from scratch. That’s complicated enough, but then they’d have to confirm that there aren’t any games that are going to do strange things to the PS4 components.

They spend twelve months working on an emulator (there’s no way they could have it done at launch) and then release it. On it doesn’t work with Game X. Everybody wants Game X to play perfectly, so they complain. Only fixing Game X will make everything else break.

There’s ways around this, including end user options so they can fiddle with settings themselves. The problem is, for everyone confident enough to adjust quite technical settings, there will be hundreds that just can’t and won’t.

This is why PS2 games that are released on the PlayStation store are done so individually. Each comes packed with their very own emulator, tweaked so that the game remains exactly as your remember it. That means you have to pay again, but behind the scenes, you’d probably be surprised by how much effort went into that re-release.

PCSX2

PCSX2, the PlayStation 2 emulator, can currently play around 78% of the PS2 library without issue on PC. The PS4 is almost certainly powerful enough to run PCSX2 or an equivalent, Sony could do it if they wanted to!

Unfortunately, this logic is flawed.

PCSX2 is open source, being developed by a team of many different people over the space of, as of writing, almost twelve years. It started off slowly – literally – and has gradually gotten better over the intervening years. For the sake of argument, we’re going to presume that Sony can just download a copy of PCSX2 and put it onto the PS4 (they can’t, they’d need to do twelve years of development, albeit with slightly more knowledge of the internal working of a PlayStation 2, from scratch. It’s still not an easy job). There are a lot of reasons why this isn’t true, the most obvious being that Sony probably don’t want to be seen actively supporting a group that – at the height of the PS2′s popularity – were trying to offer a free alternative to their console.

Anyway, they put aside their differences, perhaps over tea and biscuits, and Sony announce that full PS2 software emulation, courtesy of PCSX2, is coming to the PS4. What’s the problem?

Firstly, 78% is just far too low. It’s a great number, for a free emulator on the internet, but 78% is still too low to be official. That’s 500 games that will at some point crash the system or worse. The worst that might happen is that the end user will have to turn off their console at the wall and power it back up to continue their game, but without testing every game, how will Sony know that? What happens when one of the 22% that don’t work perfectly crashes, the end user turns off their PS4 and the PS4 doesn’t power back up?

The best way to ensure a game works with PCSX2 is to play around with settings and plug-ins. PCSX2 is plug-in based, letting the user build upon the base application with other bits of software which tell it how to display graphics, play audio or react to button presses from the controller. It does very little of that for itself. Although, with 2300 games tested in the emulator, there’s a chance you’ve played your entire library and never had to change settings or plug-ins, there’s a reason that each game on the compatibility list has a link to a forum post where users discuss the best settings for ideal play. Think about that for a second, how will Sony set that up?

Emulation is a pretty advanced PC hobby anyway, and getting PCSX2 set up makes you far more technically minded than the average computer user. If you’ve ever set up PCSX2, you can guarentee that you’re not the equivalent to the sort of person that just wants to put a disk in the drive and let it play. Software emulation for the PS2 isn’t an option until they can play 100% of games without crash (as in, others just don’t start) or until Sony can take a PCSX2 equivalent software and make it so that it automatically switches to the ideal settings for a specific game and takes all the pressure off the end user. Given that nobody else has managed to do it in 12 years, this isn’t going to happen any time soon.

The PlayStation

And finally, the PlayStation. This has been emulated on the PS3 and Vita, across mobile devices and the PS2 could play the disks as well. It seems like such an odd thing to take out. Until you take Gaikai into account.

Sony would need to build a new PlayStation emulator that works for the PS4. Think how long it took the Vita to get PS1 compatibility, and expect a similar timescale. This is something they could do relatively easily, but it would take time and money, resources that would be saved by the implementation of Gaikai.

Gaikai

Some people seem confused by how cloud gaming works. Basically, your system acts a bit like your router, taking in data from across the internet and displaying it on your TV. All the hard bits – the bits usually handled by the graphics/processing chips inside your machine – are done thousands of miles away. You really can’t tell the difference. Think about how amazed you were when you first used a decent wireless controller, and then scale that out to the distance between you house and a server farm on the other side of the country. It’s amazing technology and you don’t need superfast speeds to take advantage of it (although your allowance might take a hit).

This is where things become more impressive. Rather than your PS4 working out how to play Ps3 games, it just connects to what is effectively a PS3 and lets that do the work. No need for extra parts or strange errors. Better than that though, Sony can give you access to thousands of games without hardly any time or effort on their part. It’s as easy as uploading it  - once – and then letting people get at it.

Cloud Gaming might not have hit its stride yet, but you can see why it’s the most logical way of handling backwards compatibility on the PS4. Once the service is up, they can release hundreds of games over a matter of weeks.

Offline BC shouldn’t be an issue, how they plan to handle access to the cloud should be.

Cloud Issues

Since the initial publication of this article, quite a few people have expressed concern over cloud gaming. They’ve complained about latency, about the issue of poor connection, and the truth is that they have nothing to worry about. I interviewed Steve Perlman at the launch of OnLive in the UK, and Warren Buckley (managing director of customer service for BT) was there as well. He said, theoretically, he thought cloud gaming could be made to work on as low a connection as 2GB, and although OnLive never managed it, I’m interested to see how Sony are going to handle compression for Gaikai. It’s within the realm of reason that they will work with major ISPs to get an allowance exception – BT did this with OnLive and it’s not as big a company – and that they may have found a way of reducing the pressure on your network.

I actually tried OnLive out on a 2GB connection, and it wasn’t exactly successful. The graphics were a little messy and latency was a devil, but it played. With a little work and the presumption that Mr Buckley really did think that people on a connection as little as 2GB will one day be able to enjoy games over the Cloud, there’s no reason not to give Sony the benefit of the doubt until their unveil more about their streaming plans.

There’s also the matter of resolution. A PS1 game and PS3 game are not equal, and it’s going to be easier to stream a PS1 game than it will be to stream a PS3 game. If you’re expecting PC-Ultra visuals, you’re going to need a beast of a connection. If you want to play Final Fantasy VII, the problem of internet usage will be far less prevalent.

Finally, latency: it doesn’t exist. Latency is the time it takes for your machine to speak with a server. If anybody has ever told you latency is an issue with OnLive – especially with the OnLive console – then they were wrong. While using the service on PC might bring up other issues, the dedicated console managed to play as if the hardware was right in the box. I played Arkham Asylum and Deus Ex over OnLive, and in both cases it worked as smoothly as on consoles and with better visuals. With an extra two years of pushing the tech (and Sony’s bank balance), Gaikai could feasibly have made the technology even better. And if they haven’t, they’ll have to when the PlayStation 4 launches and nothing works.

Conclusion

Sony have spoken a lot about subscriptions, about expanding their plus catalogue. It’d be nice to think that, with a little spending, you could get access to every single game on the cloud without having to ever pay outside of your monthly subscription. Obviously it has to be a fair price, but the amount of games at your fingertips would be almost unplayable.

There’s also the issue of content we already own. If they plan to go the subscription-only route to Gaikai, this might annoy people who perhaps don’t want to play their titles over the cloud (even if the value would be undeniable). There’s no easy way of handling this situation without losing customers, although I’d like t’ think that they’ll give people access to the stuff they’ve already bought, or at least some free Plus/Gaikai based on how much you’ve spent over the years.

In short, traditional backwards compatibility will not work on the PlayStation 4, no matter how much you moan about it (or how many times you repeat “it would be nice though”). Sony are counting on Gaikai to fulfil this need, and are obviously banking on people converting to the cloud revolution as soon as they’re given a chance to see it in action. As somebody who has played games on the cloud, I see this as only a good thing, but giving access by alternative means doesn’t necessarily mean Sony don’t have to find ways of handling the deeper problems.

 

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Article By

Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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