PS4 lacks backwards compatibility, but what if you could stream your PSN collection?
Much like their disc-based counterparts, PlayStation 3 downloadable games won't be supported on PlayStation 4. What that means is your entire PlayStation Network library is going to have to stay put, and won't be carried over to the next generation as many people were hoping it would. That's no surprise considering the major changes to the system's architecture which, other than the issue of backwards compatibility, are excellent news. This leaves gamers who wanted the PS4 to fully replace the PS3 currently sitting on their entertainment centers in an unfortunate position, although it does present Sony with an opportunity.
Backwards compatibility has never been a guarantee going into a new generation. More often than not, it's been something we've had to do without: NES games didn't work on SNES, SNES games didn't work on N64, N64 games didn't work on GameCube, Genesis games didn't work on Saturn, and so on. More recently we've had exceptions to that as the media games were delivered on became more consistent across generations with CDs and DVDs. The current generation of consoles initially promised backwards compatibility to varying degrees, but eventually Sony stopped including the hardware necessary to play PS2 games on PS3, Microsoft stopped adding Xbox games to the list of those that could be played on 360, and Nintendo left GameCube support out of the most recent Wii hardware revision. Now, with not even PSN games being playable on PS4, you can see that there is more to backwards compatibility than having a way of getting the data onto the newer system -- particularly when the system games were originally on had complex hardware.
These decisions, while disappointing, make sense from a business perspective. Backwards compatibility drives up costs, either because hardware has to be included in the new systems or manpower has to be spent working on emulation solutions. And why do that in this age of high-definition and online-connected consoles when those two features present new opportunities: HD remakes and digitally distributed games. With both of those now a viable opportunity for making new money off of games released in previous generations, the possibility of backwards compatibility motivating a segment of gamers to pick up a system is not enough incentive needed to warrant its existence.
Fortunately, in the case of the PS4, there is a way to resolve this situation that shouldn't, in theory, cost gamers a cent. It was during a roundtable discussion with reporters yesterday that Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida revealed the lack of native compatibility for PS3 games on the new hardware. As reported by Polygon, he did note that emulation would be a potential way for making PS1 games playable on PS4, although he qualified that by saying, "[W]e are not talking about our emulation plans as yet."
The more intriguing possibility lies with the cloud technology Gaikai provides. Sony could avoid having to face the difficult task of PS3 emulation on PS4 (something that entails more than having much faster hardware) by streaming your PSN game collection to you. Yoshida didn't shoot down the idea when it was brought up, stating, "We could do so if we choose to. We know who purchased what as a record. But we are working on service plans and we haven't decided."
It's obviously not as good as native backwards compatibility, but, under the circumstances, it's the next best thing. Surely, if nothing else, it's preferable to having to keep your PS3 plugged in for those occasions when a playthrough of Journey, Flower, or Super Stardust HD is in order. And if it means access to these same games on Vita, all the better -- delivering extra value could be a way to turn a negative into, if not a positive, at least less of a negative.
While it cuts into the HD remake/digital re-release business, this would be a really wise move for Sony because of the way it could ease people into cloud gaming. Many are already uneasy about the concept, and one of the complaints about cloud gaming is the way it takes ownership out of gamers' hands even more than downloadable games, as the game always resides on the server, never your local system. By detecting what games were purchased on PS3 through your PSN account, you'd potentially be able to stream those games on PS4 while retaining ownership of them on your PS3.
That's, of course, assuming that Sony does not remove access to the downloadable versions on PS3 after you opt to access a streaming version, much like how Nintendo deletes your Virtual Console games from Wii when they are transferred to Wii U. It's by no means a given that Sony would decide to do it, but allowing continued access to the games on PS3 seems like a smart decision considering the concerns over ownership rights. That may become an issue again down the road should Sony begin offering streaming-only versions of games, but it's a problem that could be staved off for the time being by focusing on streaming trials of games and streaming your collection of PSN games (while keeping the original versions on your PS3 hard drive intact).
I'm as disappointed as anyone that the PS4 lacks full backwards compatibility (and not just because I've run out of HDMI ports to plug things into). The threat of losing out on full, hardware-driven BC is what drove me to pick up a 60GB PlayStation 3 before they became extinct, and I would have liked it if I could swap out my PS3 for a PS4 and have access to every PlayStation game I've ever purchased. But PS4 is likely to be expensive enough as-is, and I suspect it would not be worth jacking up the price of the system and facing another "599 U.S. dollars" moment in order to satisfy gamers' desire for backwards compatibility -- particularly when that feature has not been proven to have any substantial impact on sales. It's an unpleasant reality, but streaming games could help to pad the blow.