Friday, January 17, 2020

With PS5 and Xbox Series X, Backward Compatibility Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Remember when the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One came out in 2013? As the initial excitement of their launch lineups began to fade and we awaited the second wave, gamers had to toggle their HDMI inputs back to their old PS3 or 360 to access their old favorites. And despite having just paid $400-$500 for a new gaming machine, they had to play them on the Bush administration-era hardware sitting next to it, still struggling to run at 720p. (Heck, you couldn't play The Last of Us on PS4 until nine months after launch!) Mercifully, the upcoming generational leap to the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 promises be the smoothest in console history: thanks to backward compatibility in both new consoles, the first time we power them on and log in we can expect to see every game (and save file) that ran on our old boxes show up ready to download and go on the new – and to run even better than before.

Like with the recent breaking down of the cross-platform multiplayer wall, Microsoft deserves credit for leading the charge on the backward-compatibility front by adding backward compatibility for hundreds of Xbox 360 games to the Xbox One over the past five years, as well as being early to declare the ambition to have every game run on the next console. Whether Sony had planned to do the same on its own or not we’ll probably never know, but if not then Microsoft’s push to eliminate the generational divide all but forced Sony to do the work of following the same path. Sony has been coy about touting the PS5’s compatibility with the PS4’s expansive library outside of an interview with Wired in April of last year (leading to confusion and speculation every time a patent mentioning backward compatibility surfaces) but it is confirmed. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=xbox-series-x-reveal-images&captions=true"]

Xbox may still hold some advantage over PlayStation in this area because the PS5 probably won’t be able to run PlayStation 3 games (outside of streaming via PlayStation Now), while the Xbox Series X will benefit from the work that was done to make 360 games run on the Xbox One. But what matters most is the Xbox One and PS4’s libraries, which both include no shortage of remasters and ports from the previous generation anyway. It’s to the great benefit of gamers on both platforms that backward compatibility has been effectively established as the new standard, and it’s a relief that we’ll all be able to sell, hand down, or donate our old consoles without fear of losing access to anything.

[poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=We%E2%80%99ll%20be%20able%20to%20sell%2C%20hand%20down%2C%20or%20donate%20our%20old%20consoles%20without%20fear%20of%20losing%20access%20to%20anything."]This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a new console play its predecessor's games: the PlayStation 2 could handle (almost) any original PlayStation disc, and the first model of the PlayStation 3 included a tiny PS2 inside it so you could play those games. But this is the first time we’ve seen it happen across both Sony and Microsoft’s consoles, and the main reason for it is that both new consoles share the standard X86 chip architecture with their previous generation. That allows software to run on either one without having to dramatically rework the code for a completely different platform (barring a major operating system change). By contrast, the PlayStation 3 ran on a proprietary Cell processor, which was different enough from the PS4’s X86 chip that porting between them took a lot of work. The Cell was, in turn, completely different from the PS2’s Emotion Engine processor, which is why later PS3 models couldn’t handle PS2 games – they didn’t include the actual hardware. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=igns-top-25-xbox-one-games"]

[poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=Old%20games%20will%20most%20likely%20play%20better%20on%20the%20new%20systems%20than%20on%20those%20they%20were%20originally%20designed%20for."]This will also be a first for backward compatibility between console generations because old games will most likely play better on the new systems than on those they were originally designed for. We already saw this with the half-step introduction of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X. While features like 4K resolution and 60 frames per second will very likely require developers to come back and patch in those options, the PS4 Pro has a Boost Mode feature that improves the frame rate of games that haven’t specifically been Pro-enhanced. It’s not foolproof: Sony had to include the option to disable it in case of technical problems, since some games were shortsightedly designed to rely on very specific hardware features for things like timing and physics. That’s likely why we’ve seen reports that Sony has patented technology that would allow the PS5 to power itself down to PS4 and PS4 Pro levels in order to fool games into thinking they’re actually running on that hardware. Regardless, load times should be faster across the board, for example, because the bottlenecks created by the old consoles’ physical hard drives and slow RAM will be long gone thanks to the new super-fast solid-state drives.

[widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=igns-top-25-playstation-4-games&captions=true"]

There’s one place where Microsoft and Sony have a majorly different approach to this new console generational transition: while your PlayStation 5 will play old games, your PlayStation 4 won’t necessarily play new ones. Sony seems intent on quickly releasing PS5-only exclusives to drive adoption of the new hardware. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s first wave of post-Series X first-party games will be available on both Series X and Xbox One (as well as on PC), though they’ll look and run better on the Series X. In an interview, Xbox lead Matt Booty said, “As our content comes out over the next year, two years, all of our games, sort of like PC, will play up and down that family of devices” so presumably we’ll see Microsoft phase out support for the original Xbox One and Xbox One S, much in the same way Apple eventually stops supporting old iPhones. Microsoft seems content to let gamers upgrade their hardware to the expensive new model at their own pace. It’s a fascinating difference in philosophies, and it will be very interesting to see which one resonates more in 2020 and beyond. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Dan Stapleton is IGN's Reviews Editor for Games. You can follow him on Twitter to hear gaming rants and lots of random Simpsons references.


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