Forward Momentum

At E3 2015, Microsoft announced that they would be adding Xbox 360 backward compatibility to the Xbox One. While many people were excited, I didn’t think much of it at the time. That may be because I never owned an Xbox 360, so I didn’t have a library of games that I wanted to go back to. I also remember people not be satisfied with backward compatibility for the original Xbox on the Xbox 360. Add to this the issues of games releasing slowly, publishers having to agree to have their games released, and some major technical challenges during the preview phase. It sounded like a nice feature to have but something that would be forgotten in less than a year. We are now eleven months removed from the launch of this endeavor, and I’m glad to say I stand corrected.

The program launched with 104 titles of varying quality last November. It was a good start, but it would have been a very disappointing end. There were some great games in the lineup, such as Mass Effect and Super Meat Boy, but it was barely scratching the surface. There are now somewhere between 250 and 260 games that are backward compatible on Xbox One, and the selection remains great. For the majority of this year, games have been added at a weekly clip.

This consistency, as well as the game selection, has made the Xbox One exciting in a way that its native games sometimes fail to do. Earlier this year, Red Dead Redemption sales increased over 6000% when it came to Xbox One. Just last month, GameStop increased the price of used Lost Odyssey copies after the game’s backward compatible launch. Lost Odyssey was a niche JRPG on the Xbox 360 that’s mostly known for failing to sell consoles in Japan. When it was added to this program, it gained a level of recognition that it didn’t have previously. Backward compatibility has invigorated the Xbox One ecosystem.

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For people who owned an Xbox 360, I’m sure backward compatibility is a nice, convenient way to move their libraries over to a new console and be able to either put away or sell the old one. However, for somebody like me who didn’t own an Xbox 360, this is a great opportunity to play a bunch of games that I never had the ability to previously. I played through Forza Horizon earlier this year and loved it. I’m starting to dig in to Lost Odyssey right now. I played through the original Gears of War for the first time last year and look forward to playing through the rest of the franchise one day. And the list keeps growing: Geometry Wars, Fable II, Alan Wake, Halo: Reach, Ikaruga, Viva Piñata, etc. There are other people like me who are jumping into the Xbox ecosystem for the first time, and this is a great way for them to catch up on a bunch of great exclusives.

The game selection is obviously the most important part of this endeavor, but Microsoft has found other ways to benefit from backward compatibility. For example, it has elevated their Games with Gold promotion. Every month they give away two Xbox One and two Xbox 360 games to Xbox Live Gold subscribers. Since backward compatibility launched, all of the Xbox 360 games have been and will be backward compatible. This means that Xbox One owners are getting four games a month. It’s unlikely that all four games are going to be great, but the chances of having a hit are much higher when there are four games included. September was a great example of this. Earthlock: Festival of Magic and Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, the Xbox One games, were not going to generate a lot of excitement. However, they were paired with Mirror’s Edge and Forza Horizon, two great games, on the Xbox 360. This makes people say “2 out of 4 is pretty great” as opposed to “It’s a shame the good games are on a console that’s in my closet”.

They have also used backward compatibility to promote pre-orders and new game releases. If you pre-ordered Fallout 4, you got a free copy of Fallout 3. This has become a common promotion and was used for games such as Doom, Dark Souls 3, and Just Cause 3. If you played Gears of War: Ultimate Edition before December 1, 2015, you got free copies of all four Gears of War games. The same promotion is currently happening again with Gears of War 4. These are great ways to get players invested in a franchise that you are putting out new games for. Microsoft also used backward compatibility as a way to put Xbox 360 games into Rare Replay. While having to download all of those games individually was a bit of a pain, it was a very smart use of resources.

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But the biggest, most important use of backward compatibility is game preservation. On August 30, it was announced that Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse would be delisted on September 2. Simultaneously the game was made backward compatible. For two days, people were able to buy the game before it was gone forever. Or if they already owned it, they were now able to transfer it onto the new generation of consoles. That’s a game that would have been lost on the Xbox 360 due to licensing issues. Now it lives on, and hopefully this will still be true when Microsoft puts out new hardware. The other game that this is currently happening to is Forza Horizon. The game is being delisted on October 20, presumably due to either car or music licensing. Before this, the game was made backward compatible and was a part of the Games with Gold promotion in September. This gave everyone a chance to download the game, and the downloadable content, before it disappears from the store. This is less of a big deal when it comes to preservation due to Forza Horizon having a physical release, but it’s still a great gesture. All video games deserve to be preserved, and I applaud Microsoft for using backward compatibility to embrace this.

Microsoft have made strides to show that this is an endeavor they care about and not just an afterthought; a big change from 2013 when then president of the Xbox division Don Mattrick referred to the concept as “really backwards”. When Halo: Reach arrived on Xbox One, it did not run well. The game recently received an update that greatly improves the performance. Multi-disc games have been made backward compatible despite early concerns that this was not possible. This shows that the backward compatibility team at Microsoft is really putting the work in to make this program the best it can be.

Current head of Xbox Phil Spencer is very communicative about the program on Twitter. He often responds to specific fan requests and gives what have been honest answers so far. For example, back in June he mentioned wanting to get Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon backward compatible. The former now is, and he keeps hinting about the latter. This means that when he talks about eventually wanting every Xbox 360 game to be backward compatible or looking into doing the same thing with original Xbox games, I have to believe him to some extent. Both of these propositions are probably a long way off, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there is somebody internally looking at how to make them both happen. Microsoft’s commitment to this program that they could have easily abandoned has regained a lot of trust that they rightfully lost at the start of the generation.

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Backward compatibility has become a very strong weapon in Microsoft’s arsenal. With constant additions of great games, it has given the Xbox faithful a reason to move on from the Xbox 360 and newcomers a chance to catch up. Microsoft has used the program intelligently so far, making it a big part of the Xbox One ecosystem. If they continue to garner this trust by keeping up with the pace they are at right now, it might make next year’s Project Scorpio a little more enticing to a lot of people.

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