The Xbox One officially became a backward compatible console on November 12, rolling out more than 100 games that are now available for download. It’s a great development if you have any interest in retro gaming. I love backward compatibility because I like knowing that the history of the medium is preserved in a playable and accessible state, and it was thrilling to see games like Mass Effect, Gears of War, and Perfect Dark running on the Xbox One at a recent event in Toronto.
Having said that, I suspect that Microsoft’s motivations are slightly less altruistic.
“Time and time again, when we asked fans what they want to see on Xbox One, backwards compatibility was the top of that list consistently,” said Microsoft Platform Manager Jeff Rivait at the Microsoft gala to celebrate the update. “It’s something that we were able to work on and then deliver.”
Phrased differently, Microsoft is going to sell old games because fan feedback indicates that there’s a market for nostalgia. That’s not quite how the company would put it, but it’s unlikely that backwards compatibility would be happening if it didn’t expect the platform to be profitable.
And you know what? That’s fine. It takes time to port a game to a new platform and people deserve to be compensated for their work. But sometimes it’s useful to remember that consumers and publishers frequently approach the same issue from two very different perspectives. Backwards compatibility is great for gamers who will now have access to a wider selection of games they’d like to play. But it’s also great for the bottom line for developers that are looking to extend the life spans of beloved franchises.
In fact, the ease of digital distribution could make backward compatibility one of the best promotional tools available to publishers.
“It enables publishers to do really cool things. People who bought Fallout 4 on Xbox One got the Xbox 360 version of Fallout 3 for free,” said Rivait, citing Rainbow Six and Just Cause as other franchises that have pulled a similar gambit. “It gives both publishers and ourselves opportunities to add some additional value to Xbox gamers that no one else can touch.”
The same approach can even help build audiences beyond generational boundaries. Backward compatibility theoretically appeals to older gamers that know the games because they played them when they were new. However, many of those games still hold up – there’s a reason they’re considered classics – and including those earlier installments in a promotional giveaway can encourage younger audiences to look beyond the most recent iterations of franchises like Call of Duty.
“Halo’s a great example,” said Rivait. “When you have franchises that are ten years old, there are tons of people who haven’t played the original Halo or Halo 2. With things like the Halo: Master Chief Collection or backward compatibility, you’re giving them the opportunity to play these classic games for the first time. They get the chance to go back and see where it all started.”
So if backwards compatibility is so fantastic for publishers and developers, why did it take so long to appear on the latest console generations? It’s speculation on my part, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with technology.
“We were able to create a software emulator that worked across Xbox 360 games pretty quickly and easily, so there isn’t much development investment or significant work to make it happen,” said Rivait.
In other words, it’s a lot cheaper to make a digital version of Doom playable on the Xbox One than it would have been to make an N64 cartridge compatible with a disc drive. Better emulation software makes updating an old game a relatively painless process for Microsoft and any collaborating developers, and both are eager to put more games in front of consumers.
It helps that backward compatibility is part of a larger Xbox One update that also introduces button mapping for all games, allowing payers find a controller configuration that works for them. It makes those older games far more accessible for gamers of every stripe, especially when you consider how frustrating and sometimes painful older controllers could be. That’s doubly true if you’re accustomed to modern conventions. The last time I played Perfect Dark on an N64 I got slaughtered by a group of low-level AI bots. The updated version plays much more smoothly than the original, ensuring that players will give it more of a chance than they might have had they had to struggle with archaic schemes.
The update similarly ensures a more seamless user experience. The newly added games are compatible with the full suite of Xbox One features (streaming, etc.), successfully integrating old games into the modern online gaming experience. It all serves to give players more options, and it makes retro gaming far more appealing than it was when it was confined to out of date technology.
“Gamers are the people who own the games and the ones who play, so everything we do on Xbox is based off of what fans and gamers want to see on our platform,” Rivait.
As easy as it is to be cynical, there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment. Giving customers the games and features they want is generally a good way to earn their financial trust, and it generates a scenario in which everyone goes home happy. Gamers get to play games and publishers get to make enough money to make more games that gamers will want to play. With hundreds of titles already available and hundreds more on the way, there’s sure to be something to suit anyone’s personal tastes (Rivait is particularly looking forward to Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and Pac-Man Championship Edition).
Me? I’m down for Mass Effect, Beyond Good and Evil, and Banjo-Kazooie. But I always like having options. The Xbox One is now a backward compatible console. Whether you’re a publisher or a fan, there’s really nothing to complain about.