Why Backwards Compatibility Matters
It may be 2013, but the game I’m currently playing, the game that has totally enthralled me, and kept me from sleeping, is over a decade old.
Metroid: Prime was first released in 2002 on the Nintendo GameCube. I remember when I first sat down with the original version, anxious to see how developer Retro Studios would handle this updated version of the classic franchise. From the moment you step foot on the derelict Space Pirate ship, to your final encounter with Ridley, it is clear that Retro knew, inside and out, what made Metroid so popular in the first place. Every room, every enemy, every gameplay mechanic – they were all logical progressions of ideas that came before.
The Prime trilogy would never have existed if it weren’t for the numerous games that Retro clearly loves. This may seem like a simple observation – developers learn how to make better games by playing more games. See what works, make note of what doesn’t, and go forth to craft the next masterpiece. But the Prime trilogy highlights just how vital previous generations of games are to creating these modern classics.
Sadly, that part of the process is in greater jeopardy than it ever has been before.
When Sony and Microsoft announced their new consoles, there was one feature both were missing – true backwards compatibility. Granted, Sony has announced that some form of backwards compatibility will eventually be available, but as of now, no concrete plans have been made. Microsoft simply won’t offer backwards compatibility, as made evident by the fact that one of the games they hyped up during their 2013 E3 press conference was Minecraft, a game that they advertised as being purchased by 6 million people on the Xbox 360, but now must be purchased again by those same 6 million gamers. In one brief trailer, they thanked those players for purchasing the game, and then asked them to buy it all over again.
So backwards compatibility appears to be on the way out, at least with Sony and Microsoft. And unless developers start to take steps now, the negative effects this will have on the industry could potentially be felt for years to come.
Why the Lack of Backwards Compatibility is an Issue
The need for backwards compatibility may seem pointless at first. It’s not uncommon to hear a gamer proudly boast how they still have a working NES. And the SNES didn’t have backwards compatibility, and things turned out OK. But there comes a point when this old technology simply isn’t feasible to support anymore, and if and when your NES or Genesis breaks, the availability and cost of replacement parts will make relying on that system to play games an unwise decision.
Thankfully, games from that era are relatively small and simple – they are easily added to services such as Steam and Xbox Live, and are done so for minimal cost. In the end, it is considerably cheaper and easier to purchase Sonic the Hedgehog on Xbox Live than it is to keep a working Genesis around.
But games have evolved dramatically from that era and, more importantly, so has the hardware. The original Xbox is a complicated piece of technology, one that’s more likely to break on you than your NES. And although it is currently available as a downloadable title, Halo 2 is far more complicated and larger than any traditional Sonic game, and therefore costs more money to re-purchase when your Xbox breaks.
Practical issues with hardware and software are just the beginning when it comes to backwards compatibility. And as the medium continues to grow, and the games become larger and the hardware more complicated, the need for developers to look back at what made the games they love work, and avoid what didn’t work, will grow as well.
Lessons from the Lesser-Known Classics
Toward the front of my ever expanding video game collection sits a copy of developer Obsidian Entertainment’s cult hit Alpha Protocol. I picked up a used copy of the game in the winter of 2012 for five dollars. That minimal entry fee gave me access to a world with some unique and captivating role playing game (RPG) mechanics. The RPG/character creation system was not revolutionary, but it was finely tuned. You select a specific character type, and by completing missions and gaining XP, you increase your level, which allows you to spend points on various skills tailored to your character class. In this system, Obsidian Entertainment struck the perfect balance – leveling up came at a fairly rapid pace, but not so fast as to become god-like midway through the game. The powers you could level up altered the way the game played, but again, they gave you tactical advantages, not superpowers. It was a perfect balance of gameplay ideas and implementation.
Sadly, issues with financing and budget hurt the game – shoddy production values, made even worse by an engine that would often dip to sub 20 frames per second, were compounded with a poor advertising campaign from publisher Sega, resulting in low review scores and even lower sales. A sequel will never be made to game that only a handful of dedicated RPG fans have experienced in the first place.
It’s these games that are in the most danger of being forgotten, their lessons lost to a new generation of programmers and developers. A young independent developer looking to make a RPG could do much, much worse than to study and implement design choices from Alpha Protocol. But without backwards compatibility, developers will instead be more inclined to look to only the games made the most money.
That might not seem like a bad idea – indeed, if a game made a lot of money, clearly, in the eyes of consumers, it did something right. But focusing simply on what works leads to stale, repetitive gameplay. Chances need to be taken, and often chances are taken in games that aren’t as well received by the general public.
The fact of the matter is, only these popular games will be re-made in high definition for the next generation of consoles. As a fan of Mass Effect, I know it is likely that the franchise will always be around, given its widespread appeal, even if it means having to buy it all over again for a new generation. But the Alpha Protocols and Metro 2033s of the world will not get ported over, because their is no financial gain in doing so. But these games harbor true innovation, well balanced gameplay and a whole host of lessons for developers to emulate.
The Value of Games Old and New
Eventually, when lamenting the loss of backwards compatibility, someone will always use the excuse that games from the previous generation are outdated, and no one plays them anyway. There are two problems with this line of thought – first, there are plenty of games from previous generations that still hold value today. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind remains a great example of how developers can create an open world and still experiment with unconventional art design. Okami shows developers that Nintendo doesn’t own the ever-popular formula for The Legend of Zelda games, and that other developers can actually improve on this formula and make a game that is better than any Zelda game in recent memory.
And, of course, there’s the fact that the games we are about to lose easy access to are leaps ahead of games from the previous generation. Bioshock: Infinite is one of the best first person shooters ever made, and a new generation of slightly more powerful hardware is not going to invalidate that title, just like how the existence of this generation did not invalidate the existence of Half-Life 2. Video games as a medium have reached a point where shifts in game design are not as huge as they were between Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV – the medium is being refined at this stage, not experiencing gigantic leaps in evolution.
Preserving the history of these games and learning from them is now a burden which falls on developers; they need to be mindful of this and not lose sight of those who came before, their success and the mistakes they made. But it is a burden that must be carried, it is a burden that is well worth living with. The biggest tragedy video games could suffer would be for a new generation of developers twenty years from now, sitting around a table, struggling with the idea of how in the world to bring Metroid from two dimensions into three. Don’t let the short-sighted, short-term profit driven decisions of Microsoft and Sony fool you – backwards compatibility is important, and without it, all games will suffer.