One of the more surprising announcements at Microsoft’s E3 press conference yesterday was that backwards compatibility is coming to Xbox One. While Playstation 4 allows you to play PS3 games via Playstation Now, it’s a rental service not a backwards compatibility system. Microsoft offering the option for you to play your old Xbox 360 games on Xbox One does give them an edge when people are deciding which new console to buy, but will it be enough to catch up on the lead that Sony already has?
The lack of backwards compatibility was a hot topic when both the Xbox One and PS4 were announced, despite the fact that there are only a select handful of backward compatible consoles. Back in the days of cartridge consoles, like the NES and SNES, backward compatibility wasn’t even a possibility as the cartridges they used were different sizes. It wasn’t until Playstation 2 that backwards compatibility was introduced on consoles; this was followed by the Xbox 360, Wii and Wii U.
So why wasn’t backwards compatibility included from the start of this generation? Well for Playstation it was a simple case of hardware. Both the PS4 and Xbox One are based on PC-style architecture, but while the Xbox 360 was also designed this way, the PS3 had very different architecture. Microsoft clearly wasn’t a fan of backwards compatibility though. While the Xbox 360 did have backwards compatibility, it was limited to certain games: you couldn’t just put any Xbox game disc into your 360 and expect it to work.
What has changed? Well, for one, Xbox is no longer the leading console on the market. In the heady days of the Xbox 360, Microsoft had a significant lead over Sony. The Playstation 3 was too expensive at launch, awkwardly shaped and difficult to program for. Despite the PS3 having a significantly more powerful CPU than the 360, the game pipeline that their architecture demanded meant that the majority of developers could get better results out of the inferior Xbox 360. Sony rectified that with the Playstation 4 by basing it on PC architecture and putting (slightly) more powerful hardware in their machine than Microsoft. Then there was the debacle that was the Xbox One reveal. Microsoft revealed their new console at a glitzy event that showed the Xbox One as everything that the hardcore gamers, who were going to buy the console, weren’t interested in. There are conflicting reports as to how big Sony’s lead in this console generation is but the general consensus is that Sony has a 30-40% sales lead so far.
The other thing that has changed is the head of Xbox. Phil Spencer is now in charge of Microsoft’s Xbox division and he has been nothing short of a breath of fresh air for the brand. Focusing on games, re-packaging the Xbox One without Kinect so they could match the price of the PS4, and generally being a good guy who is as passionate about gaming as his customers are (you couldn’t imagine previous Microsoft execs publicly congratulating Sony on the release of their console or on the release of Bloodborne). He has dramatically raised the profile of the console. I also can’t help but think that he was one of the champions for this change in policy.
Backwards compatibility places Xbox One as a console for gamers. It defies the view that it is an expensive console and makes it appear more attainable for everybody. The thing that really makes me think that Microsoft is making this policy change to support gamers is that compatibility is not just restricted to hard copies of games. If you purchased one of the backward compatible games digitally from the Xbox Store, Microsoft will allow you to download that game onto your Xbox One for free and play it again.
Microsoft is also positioning this as a bonus feature for certain new games. During the press conference they announced that if you buy Fallout 4 you’ll also get a copy of Fallout 3 and if you buy Rainbow Six: Siege you’ll get copies of Rainbow Six: Vegas and Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. This is a really smart move; If you’re one of the people who have both an Xbox One and a Playstation 4, this gives you a really good reason to purchase the game for your Xbox. It’s only a little thing and at the end of the day most people probably won’t play the original games but it is a plus that you won’t get anywhere else.
Now to the question in hand, will this new feature win the console war for Microsoft? I don’t think it will, but it will help the Xbox One to catch up to the sales of PS4. This news will help to persuade people who are keeping hold of their Xbox 360s to upgrade and as that’s a customer base of over 84 million, that has to help. More than that though, it emphasizes that the Xbox brand is moving in the right direction: the direction of gamers. It shows that Microsoft cares about its customers and that it supports loyalty across Xbox platforms. Well played Phil, we gamers salute you!