During today’s Xbox 20th Anniversary live stream, Microsoft announced a list of over 70 games coming to its backwards compatibility program. Peggy Lo, Xbox’s head of the backwards compatibility program, extolled the virtues of video game preservation and how important that is to Xbox as a company.
What Lo didn’t mention on the stream was that this would be the final backwards compatibility drop.
“This latest and final addition of 70+ titles to the backwards compatibility program was only possible through the passion and feedback from the community,” reads Lo’s post on the Xbox blog. “Your constant requests for specific titles and enhancements encouraged the Backwards Compatibility team to partner with the original creators to preserve thousands of games from over four generations of Xbox.
“While we continue to stay focused on preserving and enhancing the art form of games, we have reached the limit of our ability to bring new games to the catalog from the past due to licensing, legal and technical constraints. Thank you for being part of this journey with us.”
In fairness to Lo and her team, they’ve done phenomenal work with the games they could get hold of. All these old games get frame rate boosts, HDR colour, resolution increases, the works. All these games look and run better than ever. The Xbox backwards compatibility team has ensured a pristine second life for every game they were able to secure.
This is doubly remarkable when you consider what a thorn in the industry’s side back-compat has been. Old games are difficult to get running on modern hardware, and all that R&D costs a fortune. Add to this the fact that the audience for back-compat titles is relatively small, and AAA publishers almost invariably arrive at the same conclusion — “we’d prefer it if you played our newer, more expensive games instead.” Altruistic preservation is one thing, but this is AAA. There are always other business considerations involved.
A perfect example of this: Sony famously got PS2 games running natively on the PS3, but the hardware required to do so drove up the console’s launch price substantially. Sony dropped that hardware in subsequent models to bring the price down. That defeat killed Sony’s interest in back-compat for over a decade. It has only recently started to look at backwards compatibility again on the PS5. Native back-compat was a bold move on Sony’s part, and a piece of genuine technical wizardry. 60GB launch PS3’s containing the back-compat hardware remain prized among collectors to this day.
Sony’s stumble told Lo’s team at Xbox to come at back-compat another way — emulation. This opened the door to multi-platform releases, which fed neatly into the company’s lofty ambitions for Game Pass. That hungry beast will always require more content, and older games present a convenient way to fill out the roster.
The backwards compatibility program almost certainly cost Xbox a fortune, but it’s done what it needed to do. It has created a living museum of Xbox’s history that will now live on the Game Pass platform. There’s absolutely more than Xbox could do in the name of video game preservation, but it has set an important precedent.
So cheers, Xbox backwards compatibility program, for what you were able to accomplish. The games you were able to secure and preserve are now available to everyone, for good. In an industry that prizes “out with the old, in with the new”, the value of your work cannot be overstated.
There’s more to be done to improve the state of video game preservation across the industry. I hope the Xbox back-compat team is a part of it.