As we tread into 2019, rumours, speculations and news titbits about next-gen consoles have been making the rounds throughout the black hole that is the internet. While some are more credible than others, and some seem more plausible than others, one bit of news that stood out the most in my eyes is a patent from Sony on backward compatibility. It says that Sony is working on backward compatibility, such that it can bring a whole library of games dating back to the PS1 in one console. While this news may seem like just another strand in a giant pile, look a bit closer and its implications may seem to hint on something much larger. Here are the reasons why.
First, let’s just get the elephant out of the room. This is a patent. And patents are made all the time by companies whenever they see an opportunity in a concept in order to protect the said concept. And the patented concept may or may not see the day of light. More often than not they don’t. So the whole thing needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But, be an optimist for a while and try to piece the events of the past few years together and it all makes sense.
To begin with, we have Sony’s rival Microsoft holding the torch for backcompat (yes, that’s a term). And it keeps stressing on the value-add it brings to its current line-up of consoles. In fact, backward compatibility was one of the features that Phil Spencer pushed to help Xbox One gain some momentum against the PS4 after its tumultuous launch. This did help turn some heads and managed to gain interest on the Xbox One in the PS4 dominated first couple of years. In a recent event at CES 2019, Phil Spencer explained that they went to great lengths to achieve this and that it “required work at the silicon level” to get it working. So yes, Microsoft does see value in backward compatibility and it has factored in on their rather successful run in 2018.
Companies seem to throw in the term “We are listening” a lot towards their customers. And the amount of truth that lies in that statement largely depends on where these companies see themselves commercially and what financial prospects they’re looking at. But, in the past 5 years, Sony has time and again proved that they have made improvements for the better. While the pursued goal may still be market dominance and, as a result, a lucrative business model as with any corporation, Sony has created a much more satisfied customer base and development community in the process. The changes from the PS3 to PS4 have primarily been based on what the customer and the developers want. That said, Sony has been noticeably avoiding backward compatibility and cross play on the PS4. From what I can gather these may not have been the priority for Sony when they were making the move towards the then next-gen PS4. But 2 years later in the PS4 cycle backcompat seemed to have hit its stride once again and Sony has been interested in it since. The recently revealed patent actually dates back to two years which indicates that this may have been originally planned for the PS4 in some way or form. But given the PS4s success, it seems that Sony has gone with the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach. So the backcompat feature could be carried over and applied to their next console.
Naturally, Sony would not want to miss on any feature that would give them an upper hand. In the case of the patent in question, it aims much higher than Xbox by leaping back four generations. All of this may seem too ambitious but it makes sense when we look at it from Sony’s perspective. In last week’s DICE keynote Sony executive Shawn Layden reflected back on the PS3’s rough launch. “The PS3 was our Icarus Moment” he said, “We didn’t listen to our customers. We created a devilish development environment. We reacted too slowly and our network was underdeveloped. And worst of all was the price point”. He later explained about their decision “to transform the company into what they are today” and highlighted their efforts towards making good games and maintaining healthy relationships with developers to help the next generation. To me, this felt sincere and all of what he said makes sense given what the PlayStation brands means today compared to 2008. So it makes a whole lot of sense that they apply whatever features or improvements were missed in the PS4 over to the PS5.
Sony may have hit a home run with the PS4, but in the ever-evolving gaming industry they need to keep up with, if not telegraph what lies ahead. With subscription services like Xbox game pass and PS now gaining traction, the future leaning more towards streaming, more than one console expected from a company in the same generation, emphasis on crossplay, and prospects of hybrid consoles, there are so many things happening in the industry right now. And amidst all of this Microsoft seems poised to go all guns blazing next generation with multiple studio acquisitions and a renewed focus on exclusive titles. While Sony has this covered with its own studios and exclusive IPs, it is what else Microsoft brings to the table that they need to focus on. Backcompat is a viable and strong value-add that will instantly gratify a large user base. Personally, I would pre-order a PS5 in a heartbeat if they just bring the whole PS4 library to the PS5. And if it can play PS3, PS2 and PS1 games as the patent suggests, then that is a bonus. Given what the company has learnt over the years, the prospect of this happening seems more real. Although I do hope that they don’t restrict it behind a paywall or a mandatory PS plus subscription. I guess we would have to wait until PSX this year to find it out. Here’s hoping that Sony gives us what we want, yet again.