Looking Backwards: Praising the Xbox One's backward compatibility

The summer is typically thin for game releases as many publishers hold off for the holiday season. Heavy hitting game news waits for E3 and Gamescom and the hype trains lull as marketing teams shift their focus until after the summer - since some gamers braver than myself actually, like, go outside.

There is one snippet of E3 news that continues to make headlines, continues to be scrutinized and discussed. It is the bombshell of Xbox One's backward compatibility with Xbox 360 games - a feature that I believe will come to shape the console war in the months and years to come.

Looking backward

In the console space, Sony is Microsoft's only major competition, and so far the PS4 has trounced the Xbox One in terms of sales. The PS4's market share is upwards of 70% in Europe, which represents a major shift from the previous generation. The Xbox One reveal was obscured by revelations that it would be more expensive, and that Xbox One games would ship with Digital Rights Management (DRM). The news put the PS4 ahead by leaps and bounds in terms of public relations. This is especially true in Europe, where the PS4 launched far earlier than the Xbox One in several territories.

The thing is; the vast majority of gamers don't read up on gaming news or engage in Twitter console wars on an active basis. The word-of-mouth is an unsung hero (or villain) in marketing, and it's a difficult beast to control. I do I.T. for schools, and anecdotally, I still have students tell me that the Xbox One can't run used games, and can only run in 720p. Still, millions of these same people are still clinging to the last gen, and the argument to Jump Ahead may be a tough sell for those who still have dozens of Xbox 360 games.

Backward compatibility has a wide, wide range of benefits across the board, but the biggest for Microsoft is that it adds incentive for past gen holdouts to go green instead of blue. If Microsoft advertise this feature properly, the common-sense purchase argument for millions of Xbox 360 owners will shift from "the Xbox One can't do 1080p" to "the PS4 can't run my Xbox 360 games". This is an easy and powerful narrative casual fans like my company's school students can get behind.

Beyond casual fans, backward compatibility is a powerful differentiator between two systems that are largely the same. Both consoles run apps, both have fees for multiplayer, and both run all the latest and greatest games (exclusives notwithstanding). As a result, most discussions between owners always boil down to resolution. Former Xbox 360 fans who felt slighted by the Xbox One's launch policies and exaggerated resolution issues may consider coming back over to the green side, 360 collection in tow.

Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool. Sony's E3 conference won a ton of praise for Final Fantasy 7 and Shenmue related announcements, and Microsoft's response should be holiday marketing that features hundreds of beloved 360 titles of yesteryear. Free to use, all native, and with a perpetually expanding line-up. Make no mistake, backward compatibility is a killer-feature.

180 to 360 - Getting Xbox back into the retailer's favor

As mentioned earlier, the Xbox One's launch Digital Rights Management (DRM) policies were somewhat ill-received. Beyond the supposed moral outrage of trying to help publishers siphon money from brick-and-mortar retail, many had legitimate concerns over how used games would work on the Xbox One.

Microsoft's Xbox One DRM model was complex to explain succinctly, particularly in marketing. Essentially, each disk would come with a digital license and a physical license. When you installed the game from the disk, you'd be able to access the game from anywhere providing that particular disk wasn't installed on another console. If you sold the disk, the license would transfer to a new console, but there was a limit on the number of times a disk would be transferrable. If you wanted to trade in a game that had already been transferred once, you'd have to do it via "participating" retailers, who had the ability to unlock the disks for re-sale. What a mouthful.

There was a great deal of uncertainty about this system from both fans and investors. Some speculated that retailers would pass on the cost of unlocking Xbox One disks to consumers. One of the benefits of the DRM was to allow gamers to pool their licenses with up to 10 people, but it was poorly communicated. Microsoft spent the majority of their time defending the policy rather than explaining the benefits. Sony capitalized on the convoluted messaging with a now-infamous YouTube video sarcastically explaining you can share PS4 games simply by handing them over.

Consumers were outraged, but arguably it was retailers who had the most to lose. Despite arguments that used game sales harm the industry, they're a brick-and-mortar retail store's bread-and-butter. Reselling the same disk over and over at a marked-up price essentially creates money out of thin air. There's little doubt that some used games might pass through the same retail store multiple times. Each transaction generates free cash for those embattled companies, who face increased competition from the likes of Amazon.

Microsoft had removed the DRM before the Xbox One hit the shelves. Powerful retailers like Gamestop weighed in their delight:

..."GameStop welcomes today's announcement from Microsoft about changes in functionality for its next-generation console, the Xbox One. This is great news for gamers, and we applaud Microsoft for understanding consumers and the importance of the pre-owned market."...

Gamestop and other retailers that rely on used game sales saw their share prices damaged by the Xbox One's used games policies. There were anecdotal reports that Gamestop planned to limit orders of Xbox One units because of the DRM's potential damage to their earnings.

Whether or not retailers pushed PS4 over Xbox One in the early days is hard to verify. But, at the very least, Microsoft have taken their used games 180 to a full 360 - creating new retail opportunities for those companies it irked during the launch.

Sony's solution for backward compatibility is the expensive Playstation Now service, which streams digital titles you may already own over the internet. Conversely, the Xbox One uses native emulation, meaning that all those Xbox 360 disks you have tucked away will still work. And hey, if you're a curious younger gamer who might've missed out on Mass Effect Andromeda's predecessors, you'll eventually be able to go and pick up Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 from your local Gamestop on the cheap, and run them all on your Xbox One.

Gamestop director of merchandising Eric Bright praised Xbox One's backward compatibility. These statements signify a turning point for relations between Xbox and physical retail:

"Microsoft, at this E3, decided to introduce backward compatibility into their system. That's obviously something people are looking for, and GameStop will be ready, whether you're looking to purchase Xbox 360 games or trade yours in, we'll be there.""I think it breathes whole new life into Xbox 360 games that possibly consumers may not have thought about before. A huge catalog of your favorites will be available on the Xbox One."

A "huge catalog of favorites" indeed, that can feature in Gamestop used game sales, EA Access, Xbox One digital sales, exclusive bundles, etc. Backward compatibility opens up a whole new market opportunity for brick-and-mortar retailers as well as publishers who want to sell their 360 catalogs through the Xbox One store.

Most importantly, backward compatibility gives used-game retailers an incentive to push the Xbox One because the potential earnings on backward compatible titles will be larger. GAME UK already have a section (opens in new tab) dedicated to pre-owned Xbox One compatible 360 titles, and it's only going to grow.

Xbox One might've fallen out with brick-and-mortar retailers in the past, but nothing mends friendships like cold hard cash.

Various other backward benefits

I've already touched on some of the other benefits of backward compatibility, but here's a collection of other potential boons:

The backward compatibility vote could help developers gauge interest in dormant franchises

The Xbox backward compatibility Uservoice page allows users to vote on games they want to see hit the program first. As a result, some franchises that might've not done so well at launch could enjoy new life on Xbox One.

Alpha Protocol, Bulletstorm, and Dante's Inferno all have a surprising amount of votes for backward compatibility, despite perhaps not reviewing as highly as necessary for a prolonged existence (Bulletstorm 2 would be awesome!). If a franchise sees lots of votes, at the very least it lets developers know there's plenty of interest. I wouldn't bet on Alpha Protocol 2 ever seeing the light of day though.

Selling digital 360 titles on Xbox One will generate additional income for developers

As mentioned above, publishers will be able to sell their back-catalogues directly on the Xbox One as more and more of us make the switch to the newest generation. I've seen some commentators state that publishers would never agree to have their older games on Xbox One; this couldn't be further from the truth. Simply by having their 360 games available on the Xbox One store, publishers will generate new revenue.

Ubisoft head Yves Guillemot praised backward compatibility during a financial call, referring to the program as "good news for the industry". Guillemot also noted that Ubisoft's earnings through the program will be "significant" when backward compatibility hits general availability later this year.

..."It's good news for gamers that Microsoft was able to work on the compatibility aspect. They expect to come with 100 titles quite quickly, so that's really good news. It will help some of the brands, like Splinter Cell for us, to come to Xbox One, which is great."...

Those of us who have made the jump will be able to join in with those awesome Xbox 360 digital sales, safe in the knowledge that the purchases may come to Xbox One. Games like Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 could even head to the EA Access Vault, creating value for the service at very little cost to the publisher. It seems as though Microsoft are doing some of the legwork when it comes to making 360 games compatible with the Xbox One, so green-lighting older games for the program is a win-win situation for both publishers and consumers.

Definitive Editions and remakes will actually have to be Definitive Editions and remakes

Extra cash for developers is great, but some of these so-called "HD remakes" are very gratuitous. Capcom recently stated that they were targeting remakes specifically, following the success of Resident Evil's re-release on Xbox One. As more devs look to generate extra cash from porting over their older games, hopefully backward compatibility will further incentivize the need to actually add stuff to their Xbox One versions - or at least price them more fairly.

Square Enix's Final Fantasy Type-0 HD added virtually nothing from its PSP counterpart and shipped as a fully priced title. Where possible, developers might as well just send their 360 counterparts to Microsoft to be added to the backward compatibility line-up - rather than going through the costly measures of retrofitting 360 games for Xbox One.

The Xbox Store will be pre-installed on every single Windows 10 computer

Steam Sales anyone? I picked up Mass Effect digitally for Xbox One backward compatibility because it was £3 in a sale for the convenience, even though I already own the disk. I'd bet my Gamerscore that hundreds of others did too.

By adding Steam-like features to the Xbox app for Windows 10, throwing in thousands of pre-existing titles creates the prospect of awesome sales of older games. Populate that live tile with "Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360 / Xbox One) now on sale" and I'm betting a fair few people will throw money at the screen.

Ultimately, it shows that the Xbox team truly care about its fans

Nobody expected backward compatibility to become an issue in this generation. Xbox head Phil Spencer himself stated that they weren't sure if it was possible, and Sony have acknowledged that the announcement took them by surprise. The software engineering fortitude of Microsoft is arguably unmatched, and they've put that expertise, time and money to address one of the most highly requested (and unlikely) features on the Xbox One's uservoice page.

Simply, fans asked for backward compatibility, and Microsoft delivered. Now it feels like any of the requests on the Xbox Uservoice page could be on the table. Native support for Oculus Rift? All upcoming Xbox 360 Games with Gold for backward compatibility? Mouse and keyboard support? Microsoft buy Capcom?! Okay, perhaps that last one is a little out there, but I don't know what to believe anymore.

Like Windows 10, the Xbox One truly feels like a crowd-sourced development project we're all involved in. Backward compatibility is an extension of the sentiment that sees Microsoft execs like Phil Spencer and Gabe Aul directly engaging users on Twitter. If positioned properly for its autumn release, backward compatibility shows Xbox 360 owners (whether they switched to PS4 or remain undecided) that their games will have a life on Xbox One. It adds a powerful differentiator in an argument that has too often boiled down to "1080p".

Backward compatibility proves that the Xbox One has grown far beyond its divisive beginnings - and the management behind it has too.

Check out our first look at backward compatibility in the video below

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • Why can't backward compatibility be possible for every 360 games to work on xboxOne? I mean...like the Ps 2 made it possible to work on all PS1 games from the start. ?
  • It is possible. But publishers have to give their permission for Microsoft to allow it since the Xbox One isn't playing a game from a disk. That's just how the legal stuff works.
  • It's because it's not running on 360 hardware, that's what the licensing gives them permission to do. Otherwise nothing stops MS developing emu for PC and running the games on there regardless of the views and wishes of the publisher.
    Regardless of actual reasons, in the end they need publishers to ok it, and with no effort from them to actually make it BC, makes it extremely smooth and easy process for the publishers, very good thing.
  • Pay attention. School is in session
  • If that's the case, then why would Xbox 360 digital games require extra permission? There is no disc involved. I feel like Microsfot is being needlessly cautious here and, as a result, Xbox 360 backwards compatibility will not be as big as it should be. Launching with "100 games" when there are 1000 or so seems weak. I don't understand why any publisher would turn down the effortless money that would come from opening up their old catalog to new gamers. Also, it really sucks that Kinect games won't work. To compensate for this, Microsoft should release a "Kinect Collection" for Xbox One that ports over the better Xbox 360 Kinect games with updated Kinect 2 controls.
  • Xbox One is not an x360, when you use emulation it becomes a grey area, much like PC emulators.
    Unlike a PC emulator, MS and publishers are partners, they are not going to go through that grey area and sour their relationships.
    Hopefully, it won't take long to get the most important games approved and QA'd and released, and then quickly work through the rest.
    Also publishers are loving the remakes and remasters at the moment. At the moment they can basically do a HD port and sell it almost full price..... Some a more than just HD port though
  • It may be a licensing issue.
  • If it's emulated, it's a licensing issue. I don't know how the PS2 played PSOne games, but if the PS2 had the PSOne hardware inside, then that would be why.
  • Because PS2 had a physical PS1 chipboard inside the machine itself, if memory serves. The publishers can't prevent it because it's not emulation and is technically running on the hardware it was made for (they can't ask fo rmore money). This is purely emulation so publishers have to be on board first (which, admittedly, is dumb) due to the fact that they never agreed to providing 360 games on Xbox One.
  • Also, publishers would want at least to try the game running on XBO emulation if there are glitches or something like that. Emulation is not always perfect. There may be games using undocumented hardware features or bugs which could not be in the emulation. Also there is the issue with games using peripherials like musical instruments or Kinect which can't currently run in the emulator. Microsoft had to make a choice between being bold and immediately say "every xbox 360 game will be playable" and ultimately not deliver (Like Sony does) or being sincere and say not every xbox 360 will be playable on the xbo and they will respect the publishers' decision to not enable their games.
  • Because the devs need to give MS permission to allow the game to be played on XB1. Licenses only cover the ability to play on x360. All games essentially can be played on xb1, just need permission. 
  • World of Tanks...pffft!! That game
  • Beta comes out for it tomorrow
  • Yeah, im excited. It sucks though because Toylogic said Happy Wars would be cross-play with 360 too, but later said it won't :/.
  • Can't lie, that announcement was so awesome that if they add compatibility for any of my 360 JRPGs I'll probably be picking up an XBOne.
  • Was almost about to get an Xbox 360 but when I watch the presentation at E3 plans changed saving for an Xbox one now.
  • Haha good.
  • It works pretty well so far, im happy they are doing it my collection was too big. Bought my xbox one before they said anything...preview program rocks as well! Thanks MS!
  • Couldn't they release the emulating software for Windows 10?  It would be a neat app to release in the store. 
  • The emulator would require significant amounts of power to run rather smoothly, since emulated code has many more layers of processing and a much higher overhead. Since only people with powerful gaming PC's can run it, creating an emulator for windows 10 becomes a rather moot proposition.
  • The thing is the emulation on Xbox One works and is attainable to develop probably mostly thanks to locked hardware specs and capabilities each of the millions Xbox Ones has. There are so many computer configurations it would never be possible to optimize. And bone publisher would allow you to run their game with totally different results on each machine.
  • The whole point of it is to sell consoles not PCs
  • Most users who will buy WIndows 10 will be using the Home Edition, to which Hyper-V isn't licensed.   This isn't a true emulator, it's another virtual machine.  XBOX one runs a host OS, a game OS, and an App OS. This adds XBOX360 OS. I should also mention that the Hypervisor in the ONE is not quite the same as Hyper-V in (windows 2012R2/Win8.1).  It could be closer to the same for WIndows 10. While they 'could' do it, they need to keep some features for Enterprise customers. Lastly, perfomance.  While modern PCs could handle it, there is no guarantee.  XBOX is closed and the host OS isn't nearly as busy as Windows proper.  
  • Would be awesome if the xbox 360 emulator to windows 10, bought loads of arcade games I can never play anymore because I don't have a 360
  • Not gonna happen because, like all other emulators, It requires a very specific or more powerfull hardware profile to run as intended. People would star complaining they can't run their games like on the 360 with their Atom or Core M processors with inboard graphics. Also owners of high end PCs would complain about glitches due to their high end hardware. Just look at current modern console emulators. They need many "plugins" to work well on certain hardware and it's still not perfect. The reason the Xbox One 360 emulator was so quickly built, besides Microsoft having all the specs of the original 360, is because the Xbox One has a specific hardware configuration and the programmers just have to optimize for that vs the millions of PC hardware and software combinations existing.
  • I just want two things: - For Microsoft to actually pull off the backward compatibility (it must run flawlessly upon launch otherwise it may backslash); - For Ubisoft to see the dollar signs and allow all the 360 Assassin's Creed games to run on the XB1.
  • I read "backslash" and interpreted it completely differently from what you intended.
  • Well, he meant "backlash"... not "backslash" :P
  • True. God damn autocorrectors.
  • Im in preview program and so far it is working for me pretty well. Not many games yet but mass effect runs great
  • I've only had the chance to test: Kingdom of Keflings
    Geometry Wars Retro Evolved. While they're not intensive games, there were no audio issues, no video tearing, no crashes.   My only issue with it is that the shoulder triggers on the ONE controller are more sensitive.  As a result I find myself pressing them when I didn't intend to.  
  • But you still have to download the games again. Would have been better if they just had the developer's approval and provided a patch to unlock Xbox 360 games on the emulator on the One.
  • It's not due to permission. It's due to the way the emu works and ms has to wrap/package the game. It's not like PC emus. Each game basically downloads as an Xbox one game, that is actually the emu and the 360 game all in one
  • I keep seeing people misunderstanding what is meant by 'downloading' the game.  For 360 disk games you have, the 'downloading' is simply downloading from the 360 disk to the One's hard drive plus the shim from MS. It doesn't mean that the game will be downloaded from the net, thats for xbox-store games bought as digital downloads.
  • Interface and console design is where ps4 killed it. It's just so much bloody cooler than the Xbox one. I mean, who the hell picked that green on all Xbox packaging? The blue themed packaging on ps4 seems more modern
  • Yeah, because people base their purchasing decision purely on how pretty the box is
  • I got the PS4 then returned it in 2 days later pos it was. It had a hardware failure embarrassing Sony. Then bought my green packaged and Windows 8 UI Xbox One never looked back.
  • So much for that Windows 8 UI though =(
  • Yup
  • I rarely use my PS4, the air coming out of the back of that thing is just so damn hot, plus the DS4 controler is still an abject failure just like all PS controllers have been in recent generations.  If I want cramped hands there are few better ways than to game on a PS4 for more than 30 minutes.
  • The green has an interesting back story.... Think marker pens.
  • Xbox has been green since the very first console.
  • People used argue the hell out of me that the original Xbox was black.
  • Why not even the first XBOX
  • That would be awesome.  I wouldn't mind playing a few classic Xbox games like Shenmue 2 or Jet Set Radio Future.
  • I never bought an Xbox One for two reasons - couldn't play my 360 games and it looks like a clunky VCR. One down - one to go!
  • There is a redesign in the works maybe. Most consoles have had chassis redesigns 3 years into their lifecycle, so a smaller Xbox should be near, maybe fall 2016.
  • Hey I love my VCR.
  • I Hope That the Game editor authorize There Game emulation
  • Any update on getting 360 PAL discs to work (I.e. Kameo)?
  • This is honestly one of the best written articles I've ever read. Kudos. Microsoft is evolving more than any other company right now, it's unbelievable what they're doing on every level. And its only going to get better. Its a good time to be a Microsoft user/fan.
  • Thanks man. I completely agree, I mean there's a comparison to be drawn with how Satya is focussing down on a few essential Lumia offerings, and how Phil Spencer focussed down on games instead of making original TV shows etc. The company in general feels more focussed in my opinion.
  • I'll be glad when they tweak it. They are not quite there yet. Still back button and d-pad issues.
  • Very well written. Good article
  • Great read and very truthful! Thanks !
  • The xb1 is nice and all but I see ibm is still at it in making PPC a threat to be worried about
  • and now all eyes on Sony to make the move to free compatibility how much pressure is it going to take?  
  • Its also not really compatibility.  Its essentially remote play and thus will be staggeringly bad for twitch games plus eat up a LOT of your internet data which is a problem for many people who's ISPs have download caps.
  • Great read. I have a terrible attention span and normally skim through writings but this article managed to keep me interested that I actually read ALL of it! Thank you!
  • That's an awesome compliment, thank you :)