As E3 closes up shop for the year, we finally have a moment to reflect on a week of gorging ourselves on news about the continuing console war between Microsoft and Sony (and, uh, Nintendo). It's all very new and exciting news about the next half-decade of gaming, but in a lot of ways, it feels like the same old fight we've been having for decades now. It's time for something new.
So much of console gaming seems complacent or even insistent on remaining exactly as it always has been. You might buy some of your games online now, and you have a hard drive now. Voice and motion and second screen exist. But the basic building blocks of what makes consoles consoles remain intact, warts and all. And it's past time we found a better way.
Backwards Compatibility and Building a Platform
On the one hand, backwards compatibility in a console can and should be written off as a luxury that's nice to have, but not especially necessary. No one is forcing you to sell or break or dispose of your old consoles, and you can always buy old consoles inexpensively even decades after the fact. Hell, you can pick up a used Sega Genesis on Amazon for 15 bucks.
On the other hand: What in the actual fuck? Video games have for decades been dying to be considered equals with other forms of entertainment. By now, everyone is mostly in agreement that at a minimum they have the capacity to be artful and tell smart, engaging stories in creative ways. But unlike every other content medium, games come with an expiration date. Want to play Final Fantasy 12 right now? Better dig out your PlayStation 2.
The closest analog to this dead-ending might be out-of-print books. There's an entire century of books missing from print, basically, because publishing houses are waiting on their copyright to expire. Similarly, old games eventually return, as emulated titles on phones and PCs, or as retro titles, ported or remastered on new systems. It's Square Enix's entire business model at this point. But there's still a lag between old and new that lasts entire generations. A single console that plays All The Games would be much closer to the platonic ideal, right?
Sony is the closest to making this happen, by allowing cross-device gaming with the PSP and PSP Vita for the PS3 and PS4. It's also got a massive number of ports from the original PlayStation on PSN. As a retrofit, that's a pretty good solution. But going forward, Gaikai—what Sony calls its cloud-based game archive—streaming seems, at best, like an always-connected headache, and at worst, a possibly unplayable disaster.
Nintendo, meanwhile, has an admirable history of making itself as backwards-compatible as possible, even if that makes for awkward hardware contortions. It is still, despite all that, locked into the new Wii U with only its catalog of Wii games emulated, and no integration with its wonderful mobile game library.
And the Xbox One just doesn't play anything but Xbox One games.
The funny thing is, the answer is staring everyone in the face. Android-based gaming consoles like Ouya are beginning to creep into existence, and iOS won't be far behind. The problems these boxes will face are totally different from traditional consoles' challenges, but backwards compatibility is never an issue for either. Apps might be missing new features, or might not be optimized for new screens, but they're never more than a little tinkering away from being just fine. It's a much better system than tossing a pile of plastic discs in the trash heap every seven years.