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Musings on Xbox One Backwards Compatibility with Xbox 360

For many people out there, there was no bigger announcement (save, perhaps, the news about FFVII) during E3 2015 than Microsoft revealing its plans to support local backwards compatibility in the Xbox One for last-generation games.  Not long ago, the very idea of backwards compatibility was considered to be technically impossible (or at least very difficult), so much so that former Xbox-boss Don Mattrick panned the idea.

So it was a great surprise to hear Phil Spencer announce that this very feature would be appearing on Xbox One this year.  In his reveal, he noted that there would be an initial 100 games available by the time it officially launched this holiday.  But he also sold the idea that these games would be running natively, which is absolutely inaccurate.  Like I noted in my E3 summation for Microsoft and Sony, there is no way it can be native because there is no hidden tri-core PowerPC processor somewhere inside the console.  Instead, the Xbox One OS is emulating its predecessor’s environment.  I believe he was trying to characterize it that way to draw a distinction between this feature and the PlayStation Now service, which relies on streaming.

So how was Microsoft able to pull this off?  Well, we’ll probably never receive a definitive answer, but I have a strange theory that might not be too far off from the truth.  You see, the process of emulating PowerPC on an Intel processor has already been accomplished — by Apple in 2006.  Back then, the Cupertino-based company was transitioning to Intel and needed to find a way to allow existing PowerPC apps to run on this new hardware.  That company’s solution was called Rosetta, which Wikipedia describes as a dynamic binary translator, and it worked surprisingly well.  I suspect that Microsoft was able to learn much from observing Apple’s work and managed to accomplish the same feat.  That said, it’s also important to remember that games are heavier programs than many of those old Mac applications that Rosetta handled so well, so I definitely have concerns about frame rates, load times, and other stability questions.

Indeed, while the Xbox 360 similarly offered backwards compatibility with its forebear, its performance ranged from passable to atrocious. I remember trying to play the original Xbox version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and it was awful.  The frame rate issues were so bad that I had to quit.  (A later remaster for the PS3 was actually quite excellent, but that game was clearly recompiled for that console.  No emulation.)

Unlike how backwards compatibility used to work on earlier consoles, this process requires that these Xbox 360 games be downloaded from Xbox Live before they can be played locally.  When you insert the game disc, all it’s doing is verifying that you own that game, which means that there must be some recompile work needed to allow the game to function.  Microsoft touted that this process wasn’t difficult and that it only needed the approval of the publishers to make their games work, though I wonder what fees it will assess.  This leads me to another realization:

Not every Xbox 360 game will receive this treatment, as you can imagine there are publishers who have (or will have) remasters of last-gen games they intend to sell for current-gen consoles.  For example, why would SquareEnix authorize a backwards compatible version of Tomb Raider (2013) when it would rather have you buy the Definitive Edition on the Xbox One?1

So what about Sony?  Well, Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida has already said that this announcement does not impact his company’s plans for PlayStation.  We’ll see if Sony changes its mind, but my guess is that the company will continue to rely upon PlayStation Now for this functionality, especially since trying to emulate the seven SPUs of the Cell processor sounds like an absurd proposition.  In truth, the rental (or subscription) model that Now offers is probably more attractive to publishers than allowing old game discs to work on new systems anyway.

Further still, those publishers would rather do an inexpensive port of those games and have them purchasable all over again on these new consoles.  And I must admit that this is how I’d rather play them, too, since they’re guaranteed to run better than through emulation.

Even so, Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for a very pro-consumer effort.


1. A potential counter-example is the inclusion of the first Mass Effect on the initial preview list.  We haven’t yet received a confirmation, but many people believe that EA intends to re-release the Mass Effect trilogy in remastered form during the lead-up to Mass Effect: Andromeda.  Why, then, would the company have allowed Microsoft to include this if it would compete with that release?  Easy answer, actually: Microsoft still owns the publishing rights to the first Mass Effect on the Xbox 360; in fact, EA was unable to bring this title to the PS3 until 2012 per a condition of that agreement.

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Written by Michael

19 June 2015 at 12:03 am