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Developer explains why full PS5 backward compatibility is impossible

Backward compatibility on PS5 probably won't be everything nostalgia-seekers are hoping for.

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Sony’s PlayStation 5 is quickly approaching its greatly anticipated 2020 holiday release and what could be a major June 4 reveal, but a new interview with a game developer about the PS5's struggles with backward compatibility highlight another drawback for the next-gen console.

In an interview published Tuesday with GamingBolt, Cradle Games Technical Director Marc-André Jutras spoke about all the roadblocks that come with backward compatibility for next-gen consoles, which helps contextualize why the PS5's backward compatibility might wind up a bit lacking.

Sony confirmed that the “majority of the 4,000+ PS4 titles will be played on the PS5” in a March 18 blog post, but the company hasn’t said anything about its game library from older consoles. There’s still room for Sony to surprise gamers with a beefy PS5 back catalog of older games come launch, but that doesn't seem likely. "As a gamer, it’s hard to figure out what’s the big deal with this,” Jutras said. “How come PS5 isn’t backward compatible with PS4, 3, 2, 1?"

The explanation is a dry one involving licensing laws.

“As a developer however, I can see where some legal stuff could get a bit blurry, especially if the goal is to have those older gamers sold in some stores,” Jutras said. “Some companies don’t exist anymore and licenses of those titles might not be so easy to figure out. I also understand that older consoles might have some form of hardware [digital rights management] that could prevent newer consoles from reading older disks.”

Will long-time PlayStation fans be able to slot in their 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' CDs into the PS5 and start gaming?Rockstar Games

In other words, Sony is probably trying to include as many older PlayStation games as possible, but gamers hoping for a more robust backward compatibility that would allow them to play classic games from vintage consoles like the PS2 or even PS1 on the PS5 might be in for a disappointing next-gen console on that front.

Jutras — who’s in the middle of developing the Dark Souls-esque sci-fi role-playing game called Hellpoint for current-gen consoles and PC — discussed how he understands that PS4-only backward compatibility can be a point of frustration for many gamers. There are a wide array of PS3, PS2, and PS1 emulators available online, so why can’t Sony just bake them into the PS5?

Full backward compatibility, to the point where gamers can pop in their PS2 copy of Def Jam: Fight for NY, most likely won’t happen. That’s because older discs use various forms of encryption to secure their content, which would mean Sony would need to build the PS5 to read a big list of outdated game security measures.

Trying to cram all that into a new console would be impractical, but there’s an all-digital workaround to that issue that Microsoft Xbox Series X will use that Sony is seemingly glossing over, which is to bundle a huge catalogue of older games as part of a digital library subscription service.

Microsoft's "Smart Delivery" feature might make the Xbox Series X's backward compatibility strategy a cut above the PS5's.Microsoft / Xbox

The Inverse Analysis — The Series X will offer players hundreds of Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games to play on launch day, according to a February 24 blog post. The company is leveraging its $10 a month Xbox Game Pass that already lets users play vintage titles on Xbox One consoles, plus it’ll elevate its subscription service with the Series X’s “Smart Delivery” feature.

Smart Delivery lets gamers play titles they bought on the Xbox One on the Series X at no additional cost. That’ll save players $60 for every game they may want to buy a remastered version of once the Series X comes out, plus it’ll give Microsoft’s next-gen library more depth on launch day.

Sony could do something similar with its PS Plus service that costs $60 for a yearlong subscription. It already gives gamers access to older PlayStation titles on the PS4, so extending this pseudo-backward compatibility to the PS5 would be natural.

The PS5 might end up working this way, but without a clear counterpoint to Smart Delivery, it seems that the Series X will edge out Sony’s console in terms of backward compatibility and library size, but there are still a lot of things we don't know about the PS5.

Sony has been dodgy about giving gamers a full picture of the PS5. As of this writing, we still don't even know what the console looks like. The company might have a response to all of the Series X’s swings when it finally reveals the console, but for now, the future of the Series X is on solid ground while the PS5’s remains up in the air.

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