Deep in the heart of Doctor Who fandom is a small group dedicated to television show reconstructions—building piecemeal renditions of 1960s-era episodes using photographs of the original broadcasts. They don’t do this because they’re following some bizarre fan doctrine only other Whovians understand. They do it because “wiping,” the practice of erasing seemingly unimportant show recordings to free up archival space or re-use tape, obliterated decades of programming. The television industry practiced wiping broadly until the early 1970s, destroying many early Who episodes permanently. And it wasn’t just silly science fictions shows that were lost. The industry proved remarkably bad at choosing what was worth archiving, erasing influential works like The Avengers and cultural touchstones like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Such a practice would never occur in television today. It’s generally understood that the medium is a deeply important part of our culture, that we generally do a poor job of determining what from today will have value tomorrow, and that the best practice is to maximize preservation and availability. The industry leaders in most mediums recognize this, and plan accordingly—they never know what they will be able to sell later.
Except in games. Here the industry leaders, Sony and Microsoft, have announced that their upcoming consoles the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One will not be able to play anything their previous machines could play. Sony is making only the vaguest promises about future support of past PlayStation games, and Microsoft’s Xbox chief outright ridiculed the idea of supporting old games, saying, “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards.”
No one could argue that the lack of backward compatibility for games is as bad as the outright erasure of television shows; that’s not what we’re seeing here. But what we are seeing is the same cavalier attitude about a medium’s importance that led to all those devastating losses in television—an attitude we now know to be wrong—applied to games. And applied by their most powerful curators, no less. The console makers have espoused an inherent belief in the disposability of the medium to the extent that it’s baked into their marketing messages. Sony offers you a box they claim is gamer-centric but won’t let you play any games you currently admire, and Microsoft offers you an “all-in-one” entertainment machine that will play anything except all the entertainments they have sold you for the past 12 years.
This denigration of games is also visible in how the companies have designed their hardware—not just by what they’ve chosen to leave out, but also by what they’ve chosen to put in.
Consider DVD video support. DVD is an outmoded system by any definition—it’s been mass-market since the ’90s, in decline for years, and a multitude of successor formats have bested it in quality and convenience. You can make all the same arguments against supporting DVD as you would against supporting old games—that most people have moved on to Blu-Ray or streaming, that anyone who cares already has a DVD player. Yet it’s widely understood that both Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One will support DVD video—otherwise, they’d be the only Blu-Ray movie-playing devices on the market not to support it.
Now, the argument against backward compatibility in games is that it is too technically challenging (read: expensive) to implement. DVD playback is a technical lark, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. It’s actually mind-bogglingly expensive, requiring the licensing of dozens of patents, playback mechanisms, and security algorithms. Even the DVD logo comes with a fee.
Let’s just look at one line item from this cost list: the MPEG-2 decoder license. This is required for DVDs to display any video. (The decoder could conceivably be used for other functionality in the console, but is so old at this point that those uses could all reasonably be described as “backward compatibility”.) The license costs a non-negotiable $2 per unit, which doesn’t seem like much until you spread it out across an entire hardware generation. Let’s assume each company wants to sell at least 50 million consoles, much less than they sold the last time around. Even then, this would be a $100,000,000 spend just for one license, which is only broadly useful for backward compatibility with DVD.
In this context, protests about the infeasibility of finagling backward compatibility for games seem to wither.
Now think about how:
1. The public doesn’t know nearly enough about any of the involved machines to say for sure that backward compatibility is impossible;
2. Engineering challenges look very different from opposite sides of a nine-figure budget;
3. The last time we were told backward compatibility was technically infeasible involved significant shenanigans.
Let’s discuss those shenanigans. Sony’s PlayStation 3 launched in 2006 with full backward compatibility for all previous PlayStation formats. PS2 compatibility was achieved through specialized hardware on the PS3 circuit board. 2008 saw the removal of PS2 compatibility from all future PS3 revisions as a cost-cutting measure, with a cheaper software-only solution being deemed infeasible by Sony. Yet in 2011 Sony began selling PS2 games digitally on PS3. Hackers have since discovered that these games are running via a surprisingly robust backward compatibility solution that could be applied to old PS2 discs, but is not.
I have to surmise from all of this that backward compatibility for games would be possible but expensive. Sony and Microsoft could have been faced with a choice between two expensive forms of backward compatibility, and they chose to support one medium, video, but not the other, games.
This sends a clear message that these companies consider the medium of film and television to be more important than the medium of games. Why would two companies with such enormous investments in games make such a seemingly skewed judgment call? Well, they would probably argue that the culture has made it for them, by giving film and television pride of place in society, and relegating games as a lesser medium. And this may be the case. But when gaming’s industry leaders buy into that broader belief, it hurts the long-term health of the art form.
Games will never be afforded their proper place in society if the groups at the forefront of the medium treat it like a second-class citizen. How could it, if its very champions are selling it out to save on short-term development costs? If Sony and Microsoft want to be in control of the most important form of artistic expression in modern culture, and I think we can assume that they do, then they need to treat games as if they already are that very thing. That requires embracing the history of the medium—supporting the playback of older games even if the cost of doing so is dear. Anything else is disrespectful. It’s backward thinking.