PlayStation 4 can’t play old games. But backward compatibility was just a fad.

November 15, 2013

Sony Playstation 4. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

The first reviews of Sony's PlayStation4 are largely encouraging — although many cite a lack of killer app launch titles. But gamers hoping to use their existing game library to supplement their experience on the new hardware will be disappointed: The PS4 isn't back compatible with PlayStation3 games, nor will digital purchases made for the PS3 be available on PS4 consoles at launch. Sony's cloud gaming service Gaikai will allow gamers to stream PS3 titles from the cloud next year,  but there's no word yet on how many games will be available or if users will get automatic or discounted access to games they've already purchased.

A Sony spokesperson did confirm that "some popular previously released digital titles"  will be available to purchase on the PS4, and gamers who previously purchased them on the PS3 will be able to download the PS4 versions at no additional costs — and that gamers could "digitally upgrade" certain PS3 titles to their PS4 versions for a limited time with a $9.99 digital upgrade feed.

But backwards compatibility has always been more of the exception than the rule when it comes to gaming consoles. And with more and more options for digital ports, it's actually getting easier to play your older favorites — although that might mean paying for them more than once.

Right now, the Wii U is the only console among the current generation gaming systems that provides backwards compatibility — it can can play Wii games. Last generation, most of the initial models offered some semblance of back compatibility at some point: The initial Wii models played Gamecube games, although later versions did not; Xbox360 uses emulation to support a limited list of titles; and the initial PS3 models were back compatible with PS2 and PSOne discs, although later versions dropped PS2 compatibility.

But even that limited level of back compatibility was a relatively new thing. In the previous generation, only the PlayStation 2 was backwards compatible, and like the next generation, that didn't last throughout the console's entire lifecycle. Rather, more often than not, it seemed like console makers decided it was worth investing a little more in bolstering the number of available games until the current generation had time to build out its library. And that really only became a viable option when gaming systems moved into optical media. In the cartridge days, it wasn't even a daydream.

But the Gaikai cloud-based option for gaming gives a glimpse into why backwards compatibility is likely to become less and less of an issue: Over the past generation, console manufacturers have become much better at providing emulated options to play classic games that make having a physical copy obsolete.  Even if they aren't available on day one, console makers have become much better at making games for previous generations available for purchase via download. One look at the the games available for PS3 in the PlayStation Network store or for download via Wii U give you a pretty good idea of how widespread that model has become.

Making those games available to purchase is a win for the the console makers and developers because it's a way to get another round of money out of consumers. And it's good for gamers who may have missed a game the first time around, or don't have the original console. The only people it's not great for are people who already have an original copy lying around — and for some of them, it still might be worth paying a nominal price for access to their old games on their new console.

Correction: The original version of this post stated that the PS3 dropped compatibility for PS2 and PSOne discs in later versions. However, while it did drop PS2 backwards compatibility, it retains the ability to play PSOne discs. We regret the error. 

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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