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.
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.