It’s ironic that Sony has had such a tumultuous time with backward compatibility of late. In the transition from the PSone to the PlayStation 2, the platform holder essentially set the expectation for the feature moving forwards – but it hasn’t always managed to uphold that standard in recent years. Initial models of the PlayStation 3 included support for previous generation titles, before the technology was whipped out in order to cut costs. With the PlayStation 4 looming, what happens if the company’s latest machine isn’t compatible with its current library?

It’s a very real possibility for which we should all be prepared. As has grown increasingly obvious throughout the system’s lifespan, the PS3 is a complex beast. The much vaunted CELL processer – which dominated the early discussions surrounding the machine – has become something of a poisoned chalice for the console, drawing the best out of the manufacturer’s enormous stable of first-party developers, but causing complications and confusion among third-party teams. And its implementation may come back to haunt the company again.

Rumours suggest that Sony is switching to a PC-based architecture for its next system. While the details are understandably vague – and generally dull unless you’re a computer scientist – they almost unanimously agree that the CELL processor will be put out to pasture once the upcoming console arrives. That creates a rather unique (but not entirely unfamiliar) headache for the platform holder, as it’s forced to find creative ways to support legacy content.

In an interview with PSU.com late last year, When Vikings Attack developer Clever Beans emphasised the difficulty that the manufacturer is set to face moving forward. “As to whether the PS4 will be backward compatible, I would think that is something that would be very difficult to achieve,” director Martin Turton revealed when talking about the long-term future of his team’s PlayStation Network exclusive. It’s perhaps worth stressing that legacy PSone and (possibly) PS2 support shouldn’t be a problem – it’s the current generation that’s the real concern.

So, assuming that the platform holder is hindered by the PS3’s unruly architecture, what is the solution? Well, according to Turton – who stresses that he has no insider information on the PS4 – cloud-based streaming could be the answer. It’s a sensible response considering Sony’s recent high profile acquisition of Gaikai, but would the online focused option really make sense in the long term?

For many, backward compatibility is all about pulling out an old piece of software and having it work on a modern machine. It’s not clear how Gaikai and, subsequently, the PS4, could make that process seamless. For starters, the solution would rely on the end user having a strong Internet connection and a large bandwidth cap, which is not as prevalent in some parts of the world as it should be. But furthermore, Sony would need to concoct a clever method of detecting which titles people own, in order to assign them appropriate access to the cloud server. That doesn’t sound like a particularly cheap problem to solve. Furthermore, Sony would need to cover the cost of maintaining the servers that stream the content, cutting into its profit margins. If it does use cloud technology to tick the PS4’s backward compatibility box, you’d be incredibly naive to think that it would be free. A PlayStation Plus subscription would be required at the very least.

With the evident headaches and hassles depicted within, it’s worth pondering the importance of backward compatibility in the first place. For many, the consistency between systems can be a large factor in their decision to upgrade, but the importance is perhaps emphasised in a system’s early days. As a console’s library matures, the desire for legacy software begins to evaporate – but there’s always the appeal of knowing that you can return to old favourites at a later date.

Of course, the transition between the PS3 and PS4 will be unlike any other. While physical backward compatibility will once again take precedent, there’s also the digital space to consider this time around. Many of you will have accrued enormous PSN collections over the past six years, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of those. There’s no doubt that accounts will carry forward – and Trophies, friend relationships, and more with them – but if the manufacturer’s next platform is simply unable to emulate the CELL architecture, then does that mean that your digital purchases will be lost in the online ether too?

As the imminent announcement of the PS4 looms, it’s going to be interesting to see how the console deals with backward compatibility – if, indeed, it even does at all. Only you will be able to decide how important the functionality is to you, but based on what we know, we recommend keeping your expectations low.

Do you think that the PS4 will include backward compatibility? Will it affect your anticipation for the console if it doesn’t? Let us know in the comments section below.