Sony is dominating Microsoft when it comes to the video game console wars. It's no contest: Sony's PlayStation 4 is outselling Microsoft's Xbox One by 2-to-1 in North America. Things are more dire in Europe.
As Sony put it in a recent interview with Time Magazine: "In Europe, it's really been fortress PlayStation by at least 3-to-1 in unit sales." Woof.
There are a variety of reasons for Sony's success with the PlayStation 4, prime among them the $400 price point of the PS4 at launch — a $100 price drop compared to Microsoft's $500 Xbox One. Both consoles are dramatically less expensive now, yet Sony maintains its sales lead month after month in no small part due to the tremendous momentum it built early on.
But Microsoft's been making smart moves to re-capture consumer interest since the lukewarm launch of Xbox One in 2013. One of the company's smartest moves to date, in fact, is something that Sony outright disregards: the concept of backwards compatibility.
The term itself is a snoozer, but what it means for you is simple: The games you already own from previous consoles work on the new one.
Announced in June 2015, Microsoft's Xbox One is able to play a huge portion of the Xbox 360 game library (so-called "backwards compatibility"). If you already own the game digitally, you simply download it to your Xbox One. If you own the disc, you put it in your drive, download a digital copy of the game, and you're good to go. Maybe you just want to play a game from the previous console that you don't own? You can buy it through the Xbox One and play it there.
It's a service that few gamers will ever use. Just under 2% of time spent by Xbox One owners using the console is spent playing Xbox 360 games, according to a recent study by Ars Technica.
This is actually the reason that Head of Global Sales and Marketing at Sony International Entertainment Jim Ryan cited when asked by Time Magazine about a similar concept on PlayStation 4. With Sony's rich history of games, from the first PlayStation through to the PlayStation 3, why not introduce backwards compatibility on the PS4?
"It is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much," Ryan said. He's not wrong!
And yet, it's a crucial sell point for the Xbox One that Sony is choosing to ignore.
If owners aren't actually using the feature, why bother supporting it? The answer is simple: It makes people feel good.
If you're one of the tens of millions of people who bought an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3, you no doubt spent even more money buying into their game libraries. Maybe you bought a few games, or maybe you bought dozens. Either way, those games become distinctly less useful when you buy a new game console. For one, it's likely that you outright unplugged your older game console — TVs only have so many inputs, and people only have so much space in their home entertainment setups.
You could trade them in, but what if they were digital games? With the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the vast majority of games were available both in retail stores on disc and as downloadable purchases. Do you just say goodbye to those games? The idea of a persistent digital library has become more and more normalized these days — when you move from an old phone to a new phone (or an old tablet to a new tablet), there's an expectation that your digital software library will come with you (from games to apps to music and beyond).
Microsoft is embracing this philosophy with its push toward backwards compatibility. Sony, bizarrely, doesn't seem to even grok why backwards compatibility is important to players. While Ryan is technically correct that few players actually use backwards compatibility, the impact such a service has is one of those un-quantifiable metrics that makes a tremendous difference in perception.
Say you're a teenager asking your parents for a PlayStation 4 for a birthday present. Say your parents already bought you a PlayStation 3 years earlier, and a smattering of $60 games. "Does the PlayStation 4 play all those old games you own?" is a reasonable question your parents could ask, and it cuts to the heart of why something like backwards compatibility matters so much.
You may not care about those old games. You may never play them again, in fact. But you paid for them, and the value of being able to play them again is meaningful even if you have no intention of actually playing them.
That Sony seemingly misses this concept now is strange at best — this is a company that put backwards compatibility into every PlayStation home console with the exception of its most recent console, the PlayStation 4.
Things get even weirder when you see the rest of Ryan's answer to the question about backwards compatibility.
"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?," he told Time Magazine.
To be completely clear, this is the head of PlayStation's global marketing and sales expressing that he doesn't understand why anyone would want to play classic PlayStation games — games that people grew up with, that hundreds of people worked to create, that hold a special place in the hearts of millions. Beyond being an outrageous thing to say from a public-relations perspective, it demonstrates a lack of understanding that reflects poorly on the entire PlayStation team at Sony.
Support for backwards compatibility won't turn around Microsoft's sales problem with the Xbox One, but it does set a strong foundation for the future of Xbox as a digital platform.
More importantly, Sony's lack of understanding the importance of such a service puts Microsoft in a position to reclaim the hearts and minds — and wallets — of game console buyers in the long term.