A reader explores why Microsoft has become so committed to backwards compatibility and what it could mean for the future of Xbox.
This next generation rivalry is turning out to be unexpectedly interesting. This gen was boring. Xbox One was a complete disaster before it even started and Sony didn’t make any major mistakes. Great games, good generation, but not much drama.
But now, with the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5, we not only have two (or three) consoles that are fairly different, but they’re being made by companies whose entire attitude towards the games industry is also completely different. And that hasn’t happened for a long, long time (not counting Nintendo, who always do their own thing).
I’ll lay my cards on the table before I start: I’ve pre-ordered a PlayStation 5 already. However, I am very interested in getting an Xbox Series S and while I’m not sure when the only thing that’s stopping me is cash and the lack of games at the moment. Which brings me to the point of my feature.
I’ve been fascinated by Microsoft’s obsession with backwards compatibility for a long while, because they’ve put so much effort into it and used it as a successful stick with which to beat Sony. This despite it being, to my mind, an incredibly trivial feature that hardly ever gets used. I can’t remember ever using backwards compatibility on any console I’ve owned that’s had it and I don’t recall any of my friends ever mentioning the concept or that they thought it was in anyway important.
The general impression I get from talking to people online is that this is a common sentiment and precisely why Sony has often ignored it; especially after the one time they did give it some prominence, with the PlayStation 3, they quickly got frustrated that people were just sticking with buying cheaper PlayStation 2 games. Microsoft clearly doesn’t consider that an issue though, not least because of Smart Delivery, and I’m curious to know why.
My initial theory was that they’d simply hit on the one thing Sony doesn’t do and tried to use it as leverage. Combined with the lack of first party exclusives on the Xbox One, backwards compatibility was really the only thing they had in their favour so they ran with it – especially as it allowed them to pretend the Xbox One had more games than it does. (A trick they’re reusing for the Xbox Series X launch line-up, where almost everything is just old ‘optimized’ Xbox One games.)
At first I don’t think there was any more to it than that but then Game Pass started and, together with experiments with streaming that lead to xCloud, Microsoft must’ve begun thinking about the long term future of the Xbox branding and of gaming as a whole. And that’s where they really started to diverge from Sony.
Even Sony’s biggest failure ended up outselling Microsoft’s greatest success (PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox 360) so it’s no surprise to find that Sony are not rocking the boat too much with the PlayStation 5. There are some interesting innovations with the SSD and controller but at heart it’s just another big plastic box whose best games are all exclusives you have to pay checks notes £70 for.
Microsoft still offers that – or will offer that, whenever they get around to releasing a new game – but the real draw for them is Game Pass. Something that’s much praised for its obvious value for money but which, combined with xCloud, shows a much clearer and more convincing view of the future than Sony has offered. And I say that even as I expect the PlayStation 5 to ‘win’ the next generation.
The other reason Microsoft are so keen on backwards compatibility is – obviously – Game Pass. Microsoft isn’t making Blinx: The Time Sweeper and Tour de France 2009 backwards compatible because they think anyone wants to play them, or that they’re deserving of special cultural preservation, but because they want as big a list of games as possible so they can claim to be the Netflix of gaming.
And I don’t mean that as some sort of gotcha moment. It’s not a criticism. I think Microsoft’s attempts to beat Sony by changing the nature of the game are very clever and the only sensible direction they could’ve taken. Everything Microsoft does now, from buying Bethesda to adding HDR to Fuzion Frenzy, is all about making Game Pass more desirable and ensuring they have an unassailable lead over Sony when it comes to streaming and subscriptions.
I suspect it’s going to work for them too. However well they do this generation (my guess is it’ll be better than the Xbox One but not as good as the Xbox 360) they will be poised for the revolution afterwards in a way that Sony has no chance of countering, unless they start taking what Microsoft is doing seriously. Which given their half-hearted backwards compatibility and lack of decent subscription service they are not doing right now.
But that’s for the future. For now I’m looking forward to playing Demon’s Souls on my PlayStation 5 and all the other games that will come in the years after that. Beyond that though, I suspect that Microsoft’s adventures in backwards compatibility will prove to have some very long-term benefits…
By reader Luger
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