Monday, February 20, 2012

Would you purchase a Hardware Backward Compatibility add-on?

Software compatibility coming late in the platform's life and not supporting all titles or added cost for all gamers when some hardware components are integrated in the new system to offer compatibility with the previous machine's games?

It seems that Sony does understand that previous systems' libraries are indeed a very important asset (Kutaragi docet) and that some users want the most affordable option and do not care about those titles.... yet :).

This is an issue which became apparent to everyone with the way HW compatibility was handled in an already expensive to buy and to manufacture console. PS3 was introduced with both Emotion Engine and Graphics Synthesizer, respectively CPU and GPU of PlayStation 2, when it launched in Japan and the U.S. in 2006. Come March 2007, the EU launch gave us a PS3 with a cost reduction already in place: the system only featured the Graphics Synthesizer instead of the combo EE+GS@90nm SoC. The Cell processor in the PS3 emulated the Emotion Engine. 
Successively, to further simplify the console PCB and reduce costs Sony removed the GS chip and two Direct Rambus RDRAM modules used for backward compatibility (BC).
To further reduce manufacturing costs support for hardware assisted BC was completely removed and thus PS3 systems could only play PSOne content which is very well emulated in software by PS3.
Support for PS2 software emulation was long in the works and from the patents you can find on the subject it is clear Sony did a huge amount of work  on it: software emulator for various components, synchronization, dynamic re-compilation, GS commands to custom shaders, etc...
Also, they did realize how much money there was on the table by working diligently on a path that would enable older content to live a new life and generate profits in future and current platforms. Even games whose source code might be lost. Apparently, even some very famous games in the past have suffered from such a problem.
This approach eventually birthed two initiatives which are known as PS2 Classics HD line and the PS2 titles available for purchase on PlayStation Network (PSN).

The Classics HD line, of which the ICO/Shadow of the Colossus combo package is one of its best showcases, represents a series of titles which have essentially been ported to PS3 with some assets enhanced, with increased output resolution (ICO in 1080p looks stunning, even compared to some PS3 titles in my opinion), sometimes stereoscopic 3D rendering support,   Trophies, etc.. but the most important thing for me is that all those titles have a good chance at being preserved for the future. New code has been written, their data structures have been reviewed, and now it can be kept safe and ported again and again. PS2's architecture was certainly very good for its time, but very different from today's CPU's and especially GPU's which are evolving but on a less exotic path. PS2's graphics chip did not only have, for example, a huge effective bandwidth to its graphics memory, but it also did some operations at a speed that modern GPU's do not. Context switches, flushing depth and texture buffers, and state changes in general are very taxing on modern GPU's while the old GS did them at an incredible speed which allowed mad scientists/game programmers to dig deep in those salt mines and come up with incredibly unique ways of performing a certain task at realtime speed. The current graphics market is driven essentially by PC graphics vendors, players that value BC and software compatibility quite a lot actually. I see them evolving technology without  as many breaks from one platform to the next as you could see from NES to SNES to N64 to GCN, for example.
The PS2 titles released on PSN take advantage of a PS2 emulator which has been present in some form or the other inside PS3's Firmware for quite some time, albeit never used so far, but collecting the fruits of many years of work. Such emulator will likely have a very portable generic PC codebase which might not run fast enough on other platforms maybe, but titles would run and once you port the emulator well enough you have also brought over all those titles. I assume modern videogame companies are much better at not losing source code anymore.
Let's go back to the original headline of this post though, would you pay for the ability to play old games on your platform? How would they deliver such a solution to you and give you a good emulation of those titles up to your satisfaction?

What you see there is a concept Sony is exploring in a recent patent application in which a very pragmatic approach to the solution is to allow gamers to actually vote with their wallet about BC with previous generation titles or just jump to the leanest and meanest game machine just launched on the market without paying for a feature they are not planning to use (maybe they already own a working previous generation console).
The idea would be to connect a compatibility add-on that would connect to the new generation game console and provide the HW necessary to run the old software on while allowing the user to use the game controls, the output connection, and other resources such as the storage space provided by the  new generation device.
This approach would allow one compatibility add-on to power one or more compatibility platforms: a PS3 compatibility add-on for PS4, for example, could help PS4 to play PS3 games as well as PS2 and PSOne titles taking advantage of the software emulators for PS2 and PSOne running on PS3 today and that could run on this kind of add-on.
What do you think? I personally feel that it is a huge opportunity for Sony, but read the patent application yourself and tell me what your thoughts are.

USPTO link

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