Xbox One and the Importance of Modern Game Preservation via Backwards Compatibility

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This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.

Since this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, there’s been a lot of talk about the issue of backwards compatibility of console games.

This is, of course, the result of the new feature of the Xbox One: the official Xbox 360 emulator. This is exciting news as the previous generation consoles still can’t be properly emulated on the PC and is definitely a step in the right direction – unfortunately, it’s still not enough.

Short Term Compatibility

Backwards compatibility on consoles is nothing new – PlayStation 2 and 3 could play the games from the first PlayStation (also, early PlayStation 3 games could play PlayStation 2 titles), Xbox 360 could emulate some of the Xbox games and all the Nintendo handhelds as well as some of the consoles scould play the games from the previous ones. There were many ways to achieve this: onboard chips from the older generations, addon peripherals, emulators. Unfortunately, all of them had a similar problem: after a few generations, the support was dropped.

While GameBoy Advance could play GameBoy and GameBoy Color games, the Nintendo DS couldn’t play those but could play GameBoy Advance titles. DSi and 3DS were compatible with the DS but not with GameBoy Advance. Wii U can run Wii games and you can play GameCube games on Wii but it’s not possible to play GameCube games on Wii U.

The reasons for this are mostly technical – you just can’t put an endless number of processors in a single console, running emulators from within emulators is extremely inefficient and writing emulators for older consoles for each subsequent one would mean that the each coming generation will need more of those emulators (Xbox 360 needed one to play Xbox games but Xbox One would need two, the next generation – three etc.).

Xbox One has implemented some Xbox 360 backwards-compatibility. For the technical reasons listed above, this is understandable. Unfortunately, this brings us back to what caused the need for backwards compatibility in the first place: the fact that people want to play older games. Microsoft’s solution, just like Nintendo’s solution before it, limits the consequences of the problem but doesn’t really solve it – it’s just that it’s not the games from five years ago that become unplayable but the ones from ten years ago.

These Xbox 360 Games, or These Xbox 360 Games

There is another problem Xbox One’s emulators has, this time shared with Nintendo’s Virtual Console and Sony’s PSN Store and PlayStation Now, even though unlike those it allows you to play the games you already own: it only gives you access to certain titles. If you want to play the game, whether it’s a physical copy or a digital download, it must be supported by the emulator.

Technically, the emulator could run anything (like every emulator, it uses software to process the code the same way the emulated hardware would) that doesn’t use the unsupported peripherals, there seem to be copyright and licensing issues that prevent many of the games from being released as compatible.

If proper agreements are reached, many popular titles can become playable, this raises a few important questions which go beyond the issue of consoles specifically and are shared with any situations in which things are rereleased after the years or their availability depends entirely on digital distribution: what if the agreement is reached but problems arise later?

What if the proper copyright holder cannot be found? What about the more niche games where making a deal with the owner might not be worth it because of the lack of mass-market appeal? What about homebrews? What if you find a last remaining copy of a rare game that wasn’t released digitally but you don’t have the original hardware?

Speaking of copyrights, there’s another problem which might ruin the chance of playing some of the titles: the DRM. Like other copyright issues, it’s not exclusive to the consoles as problems with copy-protection software are a common annoyance among PC gamers but they might also become an issue for people who will want to play old games on Xbox One.

While the lack of compatibility between the DRM itself and the newer hardware and firmware will likely not be a problem as hardware, firmware and DRM are provided by Microsoft, there is a creeping danger in the form of always-online DRM. While this has so far mostly affected PC releases, it is possible that the consoles will come next – and let’s not forget that Microsoft has already tried to implement this feature for the console itself.

The Solution?

Xbox 360 CPU

Xbox 360 CPU

Gamers themselves are capable of creating emulators, archiving abandonware, cracking DRM and developing fan-made patches that make old games playable on modern systems – unfortunately, those are either in a legally gray area or outright illegal. More formalized non-profit preservation initiatives (like The Internet Archive Software Collection or Commodore 64 Preservation Project) usually have a clear legal status but they do share a common issue with the emulation community: they’re just not good at preserving anything newer than PlayStation 2.

Attempts to emulate the more modern machines have ran into several serious problems. The x86 processor architecture used by the original Xbox, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is complex and difficult to emulate, even on the PCs which also use it. Previous generation consoles had different processors but they’re also complex and not too well documented – and even though a lot progress has been made on emulating them, they’re still in the alpha stages.

Eventually, all those machines will be emulated but it might take years or even decades and some games might get lost in the meantime. To prevent this, we need initiatives supported by game developers and hardware producers – and the harsh truth is that to get them interested, those initiatives must be profitable.

From the perspective of those who make games and gaming hardware, there’s no point in giving hardware data sheets, game source codes or any sort of assets to Internet Archive or other non-profits as long as long as the games can be profitable – whether as a franchise or as a source of cheap re-releases.

To preserve XXI century console games, what is needed is a console equivalent of GOG (or maybe just having GOG become multiplatform): something that balances the needs of the player with the cold, hard numbers that the publishers like. Sure, it is a compromise – but it might be a necessary one.

Maciej Miszczyk

About

I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.



  • Godmars

    So when everyone said that BC on the PS3 wasn’t needed, where was all the attention then?

  • Nin

    I remember the sheer despair I had when my Gameboy color games wouldn’t fit in my DS.

  • sanic

    Well I worked at wal-mart and made sure everyone knew which ps3’s were backwards compatible and which were not, it cost a few sales but people deserved to know.

  • Mr0303

    The backwards compatibility of the original fat PS3 is what generated the 599$ price. The sales picked up after they removed it from the later models.

  • Godmars

    No. That was BR and the CPU chip.

    And really, the 360 when it first launch was also $599, but because there was a lesser model, then a price drop after a year as the PS3 came out, the $100 price difference was hammed to death.

    And still, none of that has nothing to do with when no hassle BC was being offered a gen before – people complained about it. Now its coming piecemeal and is the best thing ever.

  • Nagato

    Has to be noted that the Wii U actually can play Gamecube games right out of the box; it just lacks the ability to handle those minidiscs and a platform holder willing to release those games digitally.

    Also, as far as the other two companies are concerned, backwards compatability going back to at least this very generation (and possibly even the previous) should more or less be a guarantee given the standardized architecture and components they’re using now – technically at least; whether they’ll actually implement b/c in favor of more profitable ventures like paid streaming and re-releases is an entirely different matter.

  • Nagato

    You’re completely right on Bluray and Cell being what drove the PS3’s price up.

    The 360, however, never came close to costing anywhere near 600 bucks: it launched at 400 for the “Premium” model, and 300 for the “Core” one.

  • deadeye

    Thing is, preservation of old media is not really something companies are interested in. Not unless there’s profit in it. Sites like GOG are doing great work, but they will never be comprehensive.

    Also, as you said, a lot of the stuff that preservation requires is flat out illegal. Copyrights being the biggest obstacle.

    If a company doesn’t want to give their rights over to allow them to be on a certain service, there’s nothing that can be done about it. You also have games with licensed media, where the owners of that media can decide what can happen to the game. For example, the reason why there hasn’t been any digital releases of Kingdom Hearts games is because of Utada Hikaru’s songs.

    There’s no getting around stuff like that. Emulating it would be very much illegal. Companies obviously can’t support anything like that.

  • Dgnfly

    I woulden’t have mind if Sony made an attachment that would make ps3 games playable again on ps4 cause in the long run if consoles keep killing off older Generations games and your Download content there is little sense in not going back to PC gaming again.

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    for what it’s worth, I considered dropping backwards compatibility a bad move. I didn’t do anything about it though because IIRC I was still in middle school when it happened so this might be the reason why you never read my opinion piece about how the lack of backwards compatibility on the PS3 sucks.

  • scemar

    This hardly seems like a problem but that’s because we take illegal emulation and roms for granted.
    We just accept them as status quo and embrace breaking the law in order to enjoy older games.
    As long as breaking the law is still an option, no problem and GGs. But if we ever come to a day when than changes we’ll be screwed.
    Hopefully that day never comes and we can remain happy pirates of old games forever.

  • scemar

    The biggest offender of this is Nintendo.
    They sit on a mountain of content, they have so many games from all past generations fully controlled by their copyright branch, they have the technical capacity to make all of them available across their systems and yet they do not offer any legal alternative to buy and play plenty of them.
    In fact they seem to be leaving the initiative towards selling old games behind and offer less games on their WiiU than they did with their Wii’s Virtual Console.

  • Vampok

    If copyright law was sane and they lasted only 10-15 years or so, then this kind of stuff would take care of itself. People or businesses could actually get together and work full time (taking donations) on making perfect emulators of old systems and gather together and distribute complete archives of all games for them, without worrying about some company suing them just because they own the copyright, even if they aren’t using it.

    I can’t help but look at sites like The Pirate Bay, and their large selection even under current circumstances, and imagine how if copyright laws didn’t get in the way as much as they do we’d probably have some site that could make available like, every piece of media ever created before 2000 in any format you could want…

  • Dewey Defeats Truman

    The fact that games can just fucking disappear frightens me. Seeing something like PT becoming unplayable unless you already had it downloaded (or do some sketchy as all hell workarounds) is exactly why I never buy a digital release of something I can get physically for my consoles.

  • scemar

    All praise lord Mickey for blessing us with eternal copyright.

  • Chocolate ISISCream

    Amen FAM!!

  • Lucas00

    Yeah… like ps4 remasters Microsoft?? we need new games not these fucking garbage….

  • Antoinant

    The PC platform isn’t doing good either with the mandatory online DRMs.
    Vidya as a whole took a huge hit since it went mainstream

  • Dgnfly

    I know, the DRM is kinda why i went console or else i would have most likely stayed with PC gaming. The only pc games i buy and download are from GOG considering DRM free.

    I do have to agree that it took a massive hit not just in general but in quality itself.

  • KefkaFollower

    And PC gamers should take some responsibility on this situation.

    Who hasn’t read post from a pc gamer saying he don’t take the DRM Free option ‘cos he wants all its catalog on the same platform or ‘cos he want automated updates.

    Plenty of PC gamers choose the comfort of platforms which *are* DRM them self rather to other options. If all you play is multiplayer, the platform client will make no difference. But if all you play is single player games, you have no excuses.

  • Feniks

    Yeah last year I wanted to play Starlancer again. Nobody sells that game anymore so I had to resort to TPB.

  • Feniks

    BC is something only a small group cares about unfortunately. I’ve bought only 10-15 old games on PSN.

  • Feniks

    I hate DRM. Always online for a single player game makes no sense. And I hate Steam, I just want to buy and play a game anonymously.

    But PC master race doesn’t care anymore about freedom.

  • Godmars

    And I own a good number of PS1 and PS2 titles from back in the day. Was in the middle of replaying all of the Onimusha games when my PS3 YLOD for the second time. I am part of that small group.

  • Patrick England (Shadoan)

    Necessary one? More like it will need to become a requirement.

  • EvaUnitO2

    For the love of god people, emulation is *not* illegal. Stop conflating illegitimate software copies with emulation.