One step forward, two steps back…
The PlayStation 4 brought up a very sore consumer issue – backwards compatibility.
Now, this isn’t to suggest that the PS3 was ever going to be the simplest architecture to engineer software or hardware emulation for; as advanced as the PlayStation 4 is technically, it’s a very different beast to the Cell-driven PlayStation 3. The GPU is also wildly different. It would be easy to pretend that Sony are deliberately withholding the emulation card in the conceited hope that new purchasers of the hardware – current pre-orders are starting at an eye-watering $899.99 AUD, or just over £600 in crisp British notes – will also have the money to spend on replacing their content, but realistically at such prices it seems rather crude to make that stand as a reasonable explanation. The problem is quite simple; it’s going to be a technical headache for the PS4, out of the box, to emulate and run any title from the PlayStation back catalogue that people want.
The issue is, of course, that people DO want it.
We can chew the fat all we want but there is a deep-seated anger at Sony for not getting this part of the PlayStation 4 right. Many of course have an extensive digital collection of titles on their PSN account, some free and some paid-for downloads because they couldn’t get a physical copy any more, and it is here that Sony have run into a problem. It’s very easy to argue that a person should keep their old consoles – I have, many times after all, not least because they tend to run better on the hardware they were intended for in some cases but because of the potential for an increase in value in the future – but those of us who do, already do. And we still own a variety of digital content as well, for various reasons – I don’t want to open my PS1 games these days. I genuinely don’t. Some of them have doubled, trebled and quadrupled in value over the years and it is very important to me that they now remain in as pristine a condition as possible. I wouldn’t let my siblings, whom I love very much, touch them without having the urge to break their fingers. I’m that obsessive over it. From Vagrant Story, Tomba! and Final Fantasy IX to other titles like Parasite Eve and Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, I have these old games on my PSN account because it means I can rest the physical copies on bedding made of goose feathers, treasured and valued and kept safe away from grubby fingers and my unfortunately ever-increasing clumsiness as arthritis starts to set in.
Many argue that this is the reason Gaikai was purchased by Sony, and that we should be patient, but patience is only as good as the hints that such a thing would actually end up happening, and for Sony, dodging the issue has been a bit of an artform. Sony pushed the PS Network hard, especially since the hack, and gave the platform value and content that many were thrilled at. People bought the content digitally expecting to invariably end up playing it indefinitely, and now of course it appears they won’t unless they keep the PlayStation 3; and even here, there is an indication that the current PS Network will evolve and change for the new network, meaning such content needs to be downloaded and kept on your hard drive or it may disappear forever. This is the nub of the issue; who owns this digital content?
Ownership of digital content is a contentious issue that we’ve argued over for some time. So let’s get this clear; I am not against a digital future. Actually, as bandwidth increases now and networks become faster and more reliable across the world, digital content is starting to make a lot more sense and with Gaikai powering a streaming service, and the PlayStation 4 hardware able to seed a title for you to play whilst it downloads the rest of it in the background, Sony are sitting on a potential revolution here, the real future of the digital push. The whole system is designed for this brave new future, the reliance of social spheres all based online and consumers demanding the latest content as fast as possible has resonated very potently with Sony and that is to be commended; regardless of “anti-social” (Sony’s words!) gamers who don’t want to integrate socially, that is the future and you go with it, or end up being squashed by the avalanche coming from behind. It’s happening, and we shouldn’t stop Sony from pushing it as far and as fast as it will go.
But ownership of the content – this ties into the Sony patents issue where they were proposing a method that would effectively render games unable to function second-hand. Sony may not be implementing that system – wise move to be sure – but their cards are face-up. And it is here where Sony, typically, refuse to move into the new era of gaming.
All companies have two major consumer bugbears; the first is piracy. With falling piracy numbers and an increasing reliance and expectation of a digital era, piracy is one of those issues I have said repeatedly is self-righting itself. As games become easier to get and cheaper, as rental services like LoveFilm and Netflix begin to offer a wide range of new game titles for you to keep indefinitely before sending them back in pre-paid envelopes, as digital platforms gain traction, there is less and less need to pirate anything. Piracy is becoming fussy, complicated and difficult to manage, constantly needing to refresh and update it with patches to keep your title relevant and functional. The problem is that with such a focus on piracy numbers – as I have said in the past, those numbers are inflated by the necessity to keep the title updated (you can have a pirated copy with 8 patches count as 9 pirated versions, compared to a retail sale which remains at a flat one sale!). Companies may not like piracy, but their insistence to apply such a backward and archaic view to the numbers as some kind of flat-rate lost sales count is doing everyone a massive disservice. Convenience is king these days; and for the majority, it is more convenient to buy or rent a game than it ever will be to download a pirated game, then crack it, then download a dozen or so packets and un-RAR them, then apply cracks to them, then combine, run the executable, then find patches and go through the process again… it’s just a faff. Too many hoops to jump through and for what? By the end of it, you’ve likely ended up with a virus or two on your computer, been through enough forced-ads to make Dancing On Ice look competently presented and could have bought the game cheaply and downloaded it AND be halfway through finishing it by the time you’ve got a pirated version working! It’s… well. It’s just stupid these days to do that. Sony are a company you’d think would know this and be amused and delighted that technology has caught up enough to render piracy so complicated, risky and dumb – but no, it’s still a bugbear and we’re all still potential thieves. It’s sad.
The other issue is second-hand sales. Again, these are counted as lost sales and EA, UbiSoft, Sega and many others have grasped the iron firmly and taken it upon themselves to insist and promote content for day-one, expecting people somehow to have already gotten a second-hand copy of a game, as well as season passes and online mode passes. We’re constantly told that it’s better to buy new; the thing is, restricting second-hand sales isn’t realistically going to increase your first-hand sales either. Most people buy second-hand games on a whim, in passing. I go into a shop and there’s a big pile of games on a table and I rifle through them, hmm-ing and ahh-ing as I go through them to see games I’ve played, games I own, games I have no interest in and games which pique my curiosity. I don’t buy second hand games to hurt the industry; some games aren’t available any more, and if I can pick up a copy second hand I will. Not only that, but a few occasions I’ve picked up a title which has opened my eyes to buying games of that series on day one – Project Zero one of them, and thank heavens it did because Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly remains one of my all-time favourite horror games. Sometimes it’s just because it’s cheaper, or because the industry is terrible at one thing; knowing when to cut its own prices.
Digital as a future has two problems for the gaming world to deal with and yes, pricing is one of those issues. A game that is six months old and has faded from public consciousness remaining at a full RRP of £39.99 does seem quite unreasonable when a second-hand copy of the game is going for £10. The industry wants to get as much money as it can but it consistently fails to appreciate that consumers are not always made of money; many of them may be youngsters buying with pocket money, or people on tighter budgets between jobs. The accusation that consumers deserve to be gouged in this way because they are somehow always looking to “steal” from the industry has to stop. The industry has to find a way of relating with the customer without making them feel like they are being treated poorly in some sense. Which seems odd when the whole point of backwards compatibility was to add value to a product and give the consumer a reason to upgrade from the start…
Sony pioneered the whole backwards-compatibility thing with the PlayStation 2, and I genuinely believe it was a huge part of why it became such a behemoth in the market. Ordinarily, people would have waited on buying their new machine because the launch line-up tends to be less than stellar (nothing changes there!), and there are still games coming out for the previous system that are wanted, anticipated and can generate much-needed income for developers, studios and hardware manufacturers. But with the PlayStation 2, you didn’t NEED to wait. You could buy the console, play all the new games coming out AND enjoy the DVD player and wait for a decent wave of new-console games too, as well as dabble in the often murky launch line-up that comes with it. Sony created a desirable commodity with backwards compatibility; engineering itself a market that for the first two years could bridge both gaps, sell to two audiences and ultimately seem future-proofed to boot. It was consumer-friendly enough to send waves across the industry; the PS3 and X-Box 360 did drop the ball with backwards compatibility but the Wii obviously did not; not only that, but Nintendo made sure that a selection of its classic titles were downloadable and playable from the Wii and that is still true of the Wii mode on the Wii-U; it’s a bit of a roundabout way of doing it, but it clearly doesn’t hurt Nintendo any – it’s money in its coffers. I’m not saying it is why the Wii became such a huge selling machine, but it certainly didn’t hinder it any.
Pushing into a digital future means consumers will expect more – and for £600/$600/$900AUD, consumers can be forgiven for expecting more from their purchase than this. They have spend hundreds if not thousands of their hard-earned Pounds, Dollars and Euros on games physically or digitally and they have every right to want to continue to play and enjoy that content on new hardware. And Sony obviously do need the PlayStation 4 to sell; this isn’t a cheap system and it’s quite likely even at such a hefty price tag that the company is not going to be making much money on each unit sold. If you upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8, Valve’s Steam service does not expect you to pay for all your games again. You can redownload them without penalty, you bought them and they are theoretically still yours to obtain and play, even some EA games which have disappeared from sale on its service are still downloadable for those who purchased them. It’s the right way to do things, the honest and decent way to do it. Nintendo still lets you enjoy and redownload all the things you did on the Wii, even if it is a bit of an inconvenient faff with the Wii-Mode, it is not so inconvenient that it seems impossible and unworthy of your time (and some of these titles will be made super-cheap for people to re-purchase on the Wii-U as well, which is a good way of doing things). If we are buying new hardware, this doesn’t mean we want to ignore the past; because then your new machine is directly competing with your old one, and at the start of a consoles lifespan, truth is that’s a battle the PlayStation 4 can only lose at this point.
If the industry is so set against the consumer, then its digital services will inevitably and invariably show this contempt; EA’s Origin service is a prime example of a service that roots around your hard drive for evidence of shady goings on. When you have Nintendo of all companies setting out a decent example of consumer-friendly backwards compatibility and downloading of older content – you know, the company that the industry, the press and most of the gaming community mocks for having no idea how to run and operate an online service? – then you’ve got a real problem on your hands, not least because the Wii-U is half the cost and will have had a year on the market. Microsoft have yet to show any evidence but the X-Box 360 architecture should be relatively more straight-forward to make backwards compatible than the PlayStation 3 ever will be.
Even then, the digital service can only succeed if it is driven by the consumer. This means pricing has to be tackled, ownership and transferability needs to be investigated and most importantly, Sony desperately needs to keep its own customers sweet. Many of the people revolting at this news are its potential customers, people who are being dissuaded and turned off purchasing the PlayStation 4 based on this ideal. When a new system is so utterly aimed at expanding and encapsulating the digital sphere, it’s no good to just get some of it right. Sony are pushing for total integration; this means that not only does it want you in the digital bubble, but it’s going to pre-load and offer you content to buy digitally as a result. Which means more and more of your content is going to end up being digital. This is a problem if people start off wary of your digital service from day one.
And it’s not reasonable to always ask people to keep their PS3’s. No offence, but the PS3 hasn’t been the most reliable machine I’ve ever owned (although Sony customer services rock on that front, it must be said!), plus it’s living room real-estate, space that might be needed (for the PlayStation 4, I guess!). People who upgrade their phones can transfer content without much hassle. People who upgrade their operating system can re-download content from Steam free of charge. Most digital TV tuners/receivers/recorders can transfer content nowadays without much effort. In a world thriving on the well-designed and easy-to-use, it’s no longer good enough to ask customers to compromise on anything. People don’t want to lose something to gain something. People want it all, and they are willing to pay good money for the opportunity to have it all. Again, at such hefty prices, the PlayStation 4 is not the sort of machine that can get away with compromise; it’s going to be a terribly expensive machine and people will want, expect and demand the very best. And if it’s not there at launch, then you can’t reasonably expect people to want it at launch. Surely the 3DS, Wii-U and Vita have proven this categorically over the last couple of years? When you have content people want, oh look! People buy it! Whodathunkit? Until then, deal with low sales numbers. It ain’t going to magically change overnight.
You might think this is all premature. Sony have months to put it right, You may think they will because they want to do this right. Sure, I’ll go along with that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be very critical of the decisions being made here. With such an emphasis on digital and such disregard for past content, Sony have put itself into a very tight corner. At this point, it’s a very expensive brand new console which only plays PS4 games (and maybe Blu-rays, although Sony were suspiciously tight-lipped on that front too!). A £600 investment that only plays a handful of brand new £50-RRP games and a few digital releases paid for by Sony. Call me picky, but that seems like a pretty poor potential kick-off. Complain about the Wii-U all you like; it had downloads, it had backwards compatibility and it had Miiverse all there from the very start. At half the anticipated price of the PlayStation 4. And by the time Sony get out of the door, Nintendo is likely to have Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and Mario Kart/Smash Bros. out on the market as well. You know, it’s killer titles which in the past have accounted for tens of millions of sales? And this isn’t to even bring Microsoft into the circle yet – they remain tight-lipped, but if there’s a company with the cash and the contacts to undermine the PlayStation 4 in specifications and price, it’s Microsoft.
Sony are banking the farm on the PlayStation 4. It’s recent financial troubles haven’t magically disappeared; they still need to make money with this console. They need it to not only sell, but sell well. They cannot afford any cock-ups, and as much as it’s the hardware that generally falls flat, the firmware and the digital servers will also be prime targets for failures too, as well as tempting lures for hackers and the unscrupulous underbelly of the world. A lot is being made about its digital presence. How it will change the world.
The problem is, you can’t always ignore the past. Sony did so much right with the PS3 and the PS Network – much more than X-Box Live ever did, for sure. Casually tossing all that goodwill and consumer warmth out of the back of the car just to make it “a bit cheaper to run” is all well and good, but you know, bigger fool you Sony.
Again, people expect better. It doesn’t make us haters. It makes us sensible consumers. You want us to fork out this much money? Earn it. Prove to us you deserve it. Flip the bird, and I’m going to get into bed with Microsoft’s new console. I am no fanboy and I will not excuse such behaviour. There is always an alternative. Always a company trying to do it right.
Just makes me laugh that that company right now might be Nintendo!