Whispers and rumors of whispers continue to circulate about the new Xbox and its increasingly probable lack of compatibility with Xbox 360 games. Most industry analysts are convinced that this will hamper sales of the coming console, and with good reason; a long list of backwards (forward?)-compatible games gives fledgling hardware instant added value to potential buyers, lifting the purchase of a new system out of the arena of frugal practicality (“$500 for a machine that will only play these six lousy launch titles? Are they crazy?”), and boosting it into the aurora-rich thermosphere of spendthrift rationalization (“Not only will it play these six great launch titles, but all my current games to boot! This is the best bargain in the history of gaming! All for only $500!).
The reason for the change lies in the systems’ CPUs; the 360’s Xenon processor is based on the PowerPC instruction set architecture, and the forthcoming Xbox (and the PlayStation 4) will use the x86 architecture. This will make the newer systems simpler to write software for, but it’ll also make backwards compatibility impossible without the use of either an emulator, or — in the case of the Xbox — the inclusion of a Xenon CPU alongside its AMD Jaguar APU, a feature which would be prohibitively expensive. There’s no other way around this; trying to play a 360 game on a system without emulation software or a PowerPC-based processor would be like trying to get a chimpanzee to read Les Miserables to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The Cry Goes Up Both Far and Near
Asking people to give up eight years’ worth of 360 titles in exchange for a promise of better things to come will cause many potential early adopters to put off the decision to buy, so sure, eliminating backwards compatibility will hurt sales of the new Xbox at first. In the 26.2 of things, though, it’ll lead to better games.
When the original Xbox was released in November of 2001, there was no previous system for it to be backwards-compatible with; it was essentially a cold-call on the console gaming industry by a salesman with no track record in that field. As a result, the good gaming folk at Microsoft realized that they had to provide a reason for Jane and Jim Regularius to hand over their denarii in exchange for a console that competed against two other machines and essentially had nothing going for it; the PlayStation 2, which was released a year earlier, was backwards-compatible with original PlayStation games and had begun to pick up serious traction with Grand Theft Auto III. The GameCube, which was launched concurrently with the Xbox, offered no backwards compatibility, but rode the inertia of the Nintendo name for a little while before fading to third place in the sixth-generation console standings. At the beginning, and for the first time in a generation, Microsoft was the little guy in something. You might even say they were the…well, you know.
Because of this, they realized that they couldn’t skimp on content; as noted, there was no previous-generation console library to fill the gaps between new Xbox releases. They needed at least one title that would draw people away from the known entities of Nintendo and Sony, people who were hungry for something more sophisticated than the traditional cold-supper fare that consoles had offered up to that point. While Grand Theft Auto III would continue to sell trillions of PlayStation 2s exclusively for another two years, it was Halo that carved out a tenuous toehold in the industry for the Redmond rookies almost 12 years ago.
Why? Because Halo was unlike anything that had ever been seen on a console before. Its production value was unparalleled in its day, its graphics were beyond PC-quality, its mechanics hold up well even today, and for two years the only way you could play it was on the Xbox. (Windows and OS X ports were released in late 2003.) There were other exclusive titles released for the Xbox at launch, including Azurik: Rise of Perathia (about a week after launch), Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, Project Gotham Racing, Fuzion Frenzy, Mad Dash Racing, Dead or Alive 3, and NFL Fever 2002, with Blood Wake coming about a month later, but nothing could touch Halo when it came to putting controllers into people’s hands, and $299 into Microsoft’s wallet; along with the launch of Xbox Live in November of 2002, it’s the reason why Microsoft is still in the industry today.
There’s not enough of a sample to cite cause on this, but when a console manufacturer is up against burly competition, when they know that they can’t rely on last-gen software to push next-gen hardware sales, good things can happen. Whether that’s Halo on the Xbox, or Rogue Leader on the GameCube, Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64, or Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast (all except Soul Calibur were first-party publications), there’s a visible history of systems without backwards compatibility delivering launch titles that are designed to keep people coming back. That high level of quality doesn’t always hold up throughout the life of the console (see: CameCube), but I’m in favor of any factors that encourage a first-party publisher like Microsoft to hit the ground with both feet and a big-ass hammer on launch day. If Bungie had continued to develop Halo as a real-time strategy game for Mac and Windows, the gaming landscape would be very different today; indeed, fourteen people would have played Halo, Microsoft would have relied on Azurik to boost system sales, and we’d all be speaking Sony.
To Right This Wrong With Blinding Speed
There are further rumors that Microsoft will release a peripheral called the Xbox Mini that will allow 360 games previously purchased and downloaded through Xbox Live to be played on the next Xbox, but that’s not really the same, is it? The majority of my 360 games are disc-based — I can list on the fingers of one finger the number of full 360 games that I’ve downloaded through Xbox Live (BioShock), so while I don’t put much stock in the rumor’s credibility, it’s not likely to offset the adoption rate of the new system one way or another. Unless the peripheral is a pack-in with the Xbox, charging money for people to maintain the value of the games they’ve already purchased will have a negative effect on the console’s initial sales.
This won’t be an issue unless Microsoft fails to entice the reluctant adopters with attractive content, which in my world means only one thing; Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Facebook and Twitter integration, and anything what-so-fucking-ever to do with Kinect might be fine for some people, but for me they’re just another layer of ossified dinospoor that I must drill through in order to reach the only thing that truly matters; spectacular games.
Microsoft seems to have forgotten this lately, as the aforementioned non-essential applications have relegated games to a third- or fourth-tier relevance on their system. Not having the plush little cushion of backwards compatibility nestled beneath the new Xbox’s powerful gluteals might just be just the thing to remind them of why people buy gaming consoles in the first place.