Recently at E3, Peter Moore, Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of the Interactive Gaming division was interviewed about the Xbox 360. During the interview he was asked about backwards compatibility for old Xbox games on the new 360 console. Some gamers had noticed that the number of compatible games, while increasing, seemed to be doing so quite slowly, and wondered if the company was still committed to improving the software-based compatibility layer in Microsoft’s flagship console.
Moore commented that Microsoft had under-promised and over-delivered on that feature, and that “nobody was concerned about backwards compatibility any more.” The response to this comment was not quite what Moore had expected, and in a recent podcast with Major Nelson, attempted to set the record straight. He started off by mentioning that interviews had changed considerably since he started in the industry. Where it was once just five guys in a room with notepads and pencils, now everyone had video podcasting abilities. While this allows greater access by the fans to corporate people, it can lead to misunderstandings when people report on the video having not actually watched the full thing:
“What I said was ‘nobody was concerned about backwards comparability anymore’ meaning that based on what we said at E3 in 2005 when we said that the best-selling games would be backwards compatible, but quite frankly didn’t give numbers and were a bit vague, there was a lot of consternation about ‘what does that mean’—then our team went off and did unbelievable software emulation. Now here we stand with 200 titles backwards compatible and more arriving, and so what my words about ‘nobody is concerned about backwards compat’ were misinterpreted as ‘nobody cares about backwards compat’ which is not the case at all!
We want to get as close to possible to stated target of every game being backwards compatible.”
If you look at the chain of links, it’s easy to see where “nobody is concerned about backwards compatibility” became “gamers don’t care about backwards compatibility.” It’s a subtle shift, but the meaning is completely changed.
The issue of backwards compatibility is an interesting one, because traditionally consoles haven’t bothered to address it at all. If you wanted to play the original Super Mario Bros., you pulled the old Nintendo Entertainment System out of the closet, instead of thinking that you could play it on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System instead. Sony’s PlayStation 2, released in late 2000, was the first major console to ship with backwards compatibility for its predecessor. The PS2 used a hardware emulation solution that included the old PS1 CPU as a controller chip and did a pretty good job with most PS1 games.
Microsoft’s Xbox 360 took a different approach. Before the final specs had even been released, I remember some of my Microsoft friends asking me—as if conducting an informal survey—whether or not I thought backwards compatibility was really that important. In the end the company went with a software emulation solution that plays a much smaller fraction of older games than the PS2’s hardware solution offered. According to Moore, the project worked out better than expected:
“It’s a very gnarly problem, taking games from the original Xbox which had an Intel CPU and Nvidia GPU, and running them on the new IBM and ATI CPU/GPU combination. It’s not easy work. I was in a meeting when we started talking about this with Bill Gates and he said it was very difficult emulation work. I think that he would have liked to take a crack at it himself! But in time our emulation ninjas, our Fusion team did phenomenal work and continue to do phenomenal work.”
Sony’s response with the PlayStation 3 has been, like much of their announcements about that platform, fairly confusing. At first they said that the PS3 would utilize software-based emulation much like the 360. More recently there have been murmurs that instead the console will feature hardware-based compatibility instead. As with other specifics about the PS3, things seem to be changing fairly quickly.
In the meantime, Microsoft is preparing an update for the Xbox 360 that will add over 20 new titles to the backwards compatibility list. These titles include:
4×4 EVO 2Amped 2Bad Boys 2Big Mutha TruckersDOOM 3Dreamfall: The Longest JourneyFatal FrameFlatOutGrabbed by the GhouliesIntellivision LivesLEGO Star WarsMinority ReportMLB SlugFest 20-04The PunisherRalliSport ChallengeSilent Hill 4: The RoomSpawn ArmageddonSpider-ManStar Wars BattlefrontState of EmergencyZapper
Additional Japanese-only titles:
Bistro Cupid 1Flight AcademyOthello SeminarIgo SeminarShogi SeminarMahjong Seminar
Will this update be enough to satisfy Xbox 360 fans who still want to play old titles on their new hardware? Whether or not you feel Microsoft’s effort is acceptable may depend on how many old Xbox games you own that aren’t currently on the list. Gamers who still have titles that aren’t supported will be watching Microsoft’s further efforts in this area closely.