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Stepping Backwards

Stepping Backwards

There is something inherently depressing about the fact that, two years on from the first hardware launch of a new generation of consoles, we're still talking about backwards compatibility - a topic that has somehow managed to continue being a hot potato, and for all the wrong reasons.

This week, it's Sony's turn to wind up the backwards compatibility toy and send it rolling across the room, beating a tiny drum and tripping up anyone unfortunate enough to walk through its path.

After disappointing consumers by reneging on their promise of totally reliable backwards compatibility on the PS3, the firm had seemingly pulled a minor victory from the jaws of self-constructed defeat by providing software BC in its European models which was actually, really, rather good.

Now, however, the company has decided that after spending months convincing us all that software backwards compatibility was genuinely good enough to satisfy the vast majority of consumers, what we've really wanted all along is no backwards compatibility at all.

The announcement of an entry-level 40GB PS3 model should have been a resoundingly positive one - especially as it came, in Europe at least, alongside a significant price cut for the high-end 60GB version. The bundle now being offered at GBP 350 - a 60GB console, one controller and two games - is rather good value, not an accusation that's often been leveled at the PS3.

The 40GB model, we were less convinced of from the outset. We don't know exactly how well the Xbox 360 Core has fared since its introduction, but we do know that at launch, many of the consumers who bought Core systems only did so because they couldn't get their hands on the more complete bundle. In the United States, the previous low-end PS3 model (which had 20GB of capacity) sold so badly that it simply disappeared quietly shortly after launch.

In light of this, it's hard to see why Sony thinks yet another low-end SKU will help the PS3 in the marketplace this Christmas. However, on the face of it, more choice can't be a bad thing - and coming alongside the announcement of a genuine price drop for the full-fat version of the console, this should have been a glowingly positive announcement all over.

This does not, however, account for Sony's uncanny recent ability to deliver an entire storm system's worth of clouds for every silver lining they dish out. Two pieces of information have left a seriously bad taste in the mouths of media and consumers alike in the wake of this announcement.

Firstly, there is the utterly peculiar announcement that the 60GB model is being discontinued in Europe - with no new stock to be brought in once existing stock is depleted. It's not as bad as it sounds; Sony claims that the existing stock will last through until Christmas. However, that fact in itself leaves us wondering why on Earth the company decided to share this information.

If the 60GB model is to be discontinued with no replacement, this is one of the most bizarre and, frankly, dumb decisions we can imagine. Unless Sony actively wishes to discourage core gamers from investing in its product, we simply can't envisage any reason to take the high-end option off the market - and therefore we have to assume that the 60GB model will be discontinued so that it can be replaced, perhaps with an 80GB (becoming standard in other territories) or even 120GB model.

In which case, why tell people months in advance that the model is being discontinued? Why not wait until after Christmas, announce the new model, and enjoy a January sales spike when the new version hits the shops? The simple, and sadly rather cynical, answer is that Sony want people to be fooled into thinking that this is their last chance to pick up a "proper" PS3, to help drive sales ahead of Christmas.

We don't have a problem with companies talking up their products. However, anyone who's been following Sony's trials and tribulations in the last year could have told them that playing tricks and word games on their consumers is pretty much the last thing that a company with a reputation for breaking its promises needs right now.

Secondly, and even more bizarrely, there is the unwarranted crippling of the 40GB model. This is where the backwards compatibility debate is re-ignited. Not content with simply knocking 20GB off the hard drive space, taking out two USB ports and removing the memory card slots, all of which are reasonable functionality reductions in a low-end model, Sony has also chosen to entirely remove backwards compatibility with PS1 and PS2 games.

Any claim that this has been done for cost purposes is clearly false, because the European PS3 already emulated its predecessors in software. Some legacy chips remained on-board (but not the central processor, the Emotion Engine), but their cost is unlikely to have been much more than a dollar or two per unit - if even that.

No, the backwards compatibility has been removed not to save costs, but rather to create a distinction between the high-end and low-end models of the PS3. The absolutely staggering implication of this is that Sony now considers backwards compatibility to be a luxury feature - something consumers should be willing to pay additional money for, or which only high-end consumers will want.

Long-term readers will recall that we lambasted Microsoft over its farcical implementation of backwards compatibility in the Xbox 360, a problem whose eventual effect on the 360's hardware sales is impossible to gauge - but whose hugely negative effect on long-tail sales of Xbox software can be seen in any media retailer in the western world.

On the PlayStation 3, backwards compatibility is even more important - and not just because we all chuckled at Sony's assertion that it's not needed because the company will have a whole sixty-three titles for the PS3 by this Christmas. It's more important because the PS1 and PS2 were vastly popular systems for which an enormous library of software exists - and with the PS2 in particular, that library continues to be expanded, and to satisfy the gaming needs of a huge number of people.

The PS2's ecosystem continues to be hugely important to the software industry as a whole, and the PS2's library is still the biggest and best resource of gaming experiences for consumers. For Sony to treat compatibility with that library - and the support of that ecosystem - as a luxury feature in its new console is ludicrous, especially given the firm's own regularly cited line about PlayStation being a platform, not just a brand.

The sad thing is that up until now, Sony practically had this aspect of the market in hand. Whatever about the quality or quantity of its software titles, or its pricing strategy, one thing that was regularly praised about the PS3 was its backwards compatibility - even on the European software-compatibility models. For users with HDTVs, the ability to upscale and smooth old games in higher resolutions is a huge boon - one owners of the new 40GB models will miss out on entirely.

More than anything else, this move simply confuses the market. Last week, asked about backwards compatibility, we could simply say that the PS3 does it very well. This week, the answer is "it does it sometimes, it depends what model you get". We're all for choice - but in this instance, Sony seems to have added a choice into its range that no consumer actually wants.

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Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.