PlayStation Store and the lack of backwards compatibility

Sony has work to do on PlayStation backwards compatibility - an area it's lagging behind Xbox One...

PlayStation Store
Photo: Sony

Blood soaks the walls of the fog-filled entrance to a labyrinthine alley.

Bravely, Harry continues into the darkness. A siren wails hauntingly from some unknown place. There is something terribly disconcerting about all this. Perhaps he should go back? And then, in the blackness, he sees a gurney. A bloody sheet covers what can only be a body lying beneath it. And yet, Harry goes on. More blood is splattered on the concrete, even more drips from the chain link fence. And then he comes across it – a horrifying decomposing corpse hangs from the fence in front of him. And what are those figures coming towards him out of the gloom?

Things are looking very bad in the town of Silent Hill.

It is one of the most memorable moments in video game history. It is also a moment I’ve never played. And not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t. Sony won’t let me.

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After I saw Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk at a cinema three times in two days, I was very much in the frame of mind to immerse myself in a World War II videogame. But when I searched the PlayStation Store, I discovered that there were barely any to choose from. Advertising for Call Of Duty: WW2 was ubiquitous, but only available for pre-order. No earlier Call Of Duty games set during that conflict were present. In terms of shooters which I could play there and then, I was left with very little of interest aside from Sniper Elite 3 and 4.

Being relatively new to serious gaming and to the PlayStation 4, this came as a surprise. I had imagined there to be an army of World War II games. And indeed there are – enough to keep you playing until your hands seize up. Except so few are in the Store. What happened to that Medal Of Honor franchise I had been vaguely aware of, created as it was by Steven Spielberg? Evidently missing in action. Battlefield 1943 – why isn’t that for sale? The Saboteur? I’ve heard it’s a hidden gem. Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway? Nope. Not even 2003’s The Great Escape.

It’s not that there are no World War Two games for PS4, and there are alternatives to first or third-person shooters, such as Sudden Strike 4. It’s just that there could be so many more.

I even found the diverse combat of World War I to be under-represented. The single-player War Stories of Battlefield 1 were excellent, but the only other Great War shooter I could find was Verdun, and that proved to be a misfire.

Checking out the Store’s personalised recommendations didn’t provide me with any interesting alternatives. Why would I want to play Rocket League because I’d played Verdun? What does Titanfall 2 have to do with The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter? And why do the same games show up in every list?

Perhaps the answer is that there simply aren’t that many games in the entire PlayStation Store, and the algorithms were desperately grasping at anything they could find in an unsuccessful attempt to entice me into making another purchase. For the Store is a master of nothing. If you happen to like every genre of game imaginable, you’re spoilt for choice. But if you’re more discerning and, say, primarily a horror aficionado, you’ll quickly be stuck for anything good to play. Just like with Netflix, there’s a deceptive amount of filler.

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Of course, I don’t expect – nor do I want – developers to churn out PS4 games like James Patterson churns out novels. There are only so many titles that can be produced for each generation of console, and that’s just fine. What isn’t is the lack of games from previous generations to bulk up the library with quality content.

Personally, I don’t even care about proper remasters such as The Last Of Us, Crash Bandicoot, or Grand Theft Auto V, as impressive as those remasters are. In fact, I’d actually prefer them unadulterated. I want to play Metal Gear Solid as it was originally designed, released and experienced. I’m a purist. So no one need bother with an expensive lick of paint that I am then charged a fortune for. I’m happy with a cheap, plentiful supply of old games, no upgrades necessary.

And yes, I could use an emulator on the PC or buy a dusty old console off eBay. But I shouldn’t have to.

Jim Ryan, Sony’s head of global sales, told Time: “I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?”

Outside of those with an academic interest in the history of video games, perhaps he’s right. But Gran Turismo is a car racing series. There are no characters or storyline to get wrapped up in. If there’s Gran Turismo Sport to play, then you’ll probably go with the newer model over Gran Turismo 2. (Though tell that to the two million people who bought the NES Classic or those who still prefer PC’s Civilization IV to its two successors.)

But when I played the original Tomb Raider via Steam recently, I loved it. I appreciated it as a pioneering work of game development and I enjoyed it for what it still is – an engrossing action adventure. Because a good game is more than the resolution of its graphics. Video games are an art form and just as with a vintage feature film, one of the marks of a masterpiece is that it transcends the technology of the time in which it was made. The Third Man remains a captivating experience when viewed today. The Terminator still thrills. And although I grew up in the age of CGI, I have no problem suspending my disbelief for The Poseidon Adventure.

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It’s a joy to be able to watch these classics whenever I feel like it, and I pay money to do so. But the PlayStation world at present is like the film industry before VHS. You better play a game while it’s out now before it’s gone for good, with all that hard work, investment and artistry unappreciated by younger gamers when it should be being honoured.

I don’t doubt that outside of PlayStation exclusives, there is probably a minefield of licensing issues inherent in bringing some of these games back, but I can’t imagine most developers or publishers turning their noses up at giving a decade-old game a new lease of life.

One of the reasons Jim Ryan cites for the lack of backwards compatibility on Sony devices is that “it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much”. And it is true that Microsoft’s Xbox One users don’t spend a great deal of time, proportionally, playing older games. I can’t speak for what makes the most business sense, but I am heartened by the principle set out by Microsoft Corporate Vice President Mike Ybarra: “We want gamers to play the best games of the past, current, and future. It’s what gamers have asked for.”

Regardless, with the technological challenges involved, not to mention the difficulty of getting the console to play physical copies of old PS1, PS2 and PS3 discs, it is probably too late for the PS4.

But it might not be too late for the PS5. Rumours are that it will be backwards compatible with the PS4 Pro. Yet for me, this doesn’t go far enough in mining the back catalogue. It’s a disservice to gamers, developers and the history of Sony itself.