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Xbox One's lack of backwards compatibility is tactical, not technical

While Sony has announced plans to use cloud gaming network Gaikai to stream PS3 titles to both PS4 and Vita beginning next year in North America, Microsoft said this week that it currently has no intention of offering backwards compatibility on Xbox One. That’s not to say the company hasn’t got the capability to do so, but right now it would make no sense to commit to such a possibility.

However, in September, news emerged that Microsoft had been showing off Halo 4 running comfortably on both PC and Windows Phone as part of an internal demonstration of a prototype cloud technology. But this week, Albert Penello, senior director of product management and planning at Xbox, told Polygon it simply isn’t possible to provide a quality game streaming service to consumers at this stage. So what's the problem?

Well, it looks like Penello is cleverly opting to play Microsoft’s cards much closer to his chest. It's a tactic far removed from the arrogant and bullish messaging delivered by Microsoft at Xbox One’s announcement in May, when the company lost significant kudos among gamers and the press.

"It's really cool and really problematic, all at the same time, insofar as it's really super cool if you happen to have the world's most awesome internet connection,” he said of cloud game streaming. "So managing quality of service, the tolerance people will have for it being crappy. Can you imagine, in this day and age, with the bad information around, and we can't control the quality of that experience and make sure it's good, or have to tell people they can't do it?”

Having blundered so hard on numerous occasions following Xbox One’s announcement, Microsoft is striving to play catch up in the next-gen console marketing and PR battle. From public apologies to executive resignations, and numerous policy reversals to free game promotions, it has used every trick in its sizeable armoury to muscle its way back into the race. Sony, meanwhile, has built a PR campaign on 'doing what Microsoft isn't doing'. I can still hear the "So-ny, So-ny" chants following Jack Tretton's keynote at E3.

With Microsoft having steadied the ship in time for launch, Penello’s non-committal attitude to the possibility of cloud game streaming on Xbox One is canny. It makes sense for Microsoft to temper expectations rather than make promises it may not uphold. This way Microsoft can keep the possibility of backwards compatibility--a goodwill-generating feature if ever there was one--in its back pocket for a rainy day.

In the meantime, Microsoft appears content to let Sony try and meet the targets it has already set itself in public--and hopefully fall at the first hurdle. The PlayStation maker, for its part, has yet to specify how backwards compatible games will be accessed; i.e., for previous owners, available for purchase a la carte, or as part of an all-in-one subscription like PlayStation Plus. Sony hasn't even spoken about the actual, technical and bandwidth limits yet.

Penello told Polygon: "This is one of the things where the network just has to get better before we can do it. When that happens, you're going to have a really interesting conversation around that, can I actually run Xbox One games that way as well. I'll be really interested to see how our friends in the Bay Area [at PlayStation] deal with this problem. But I can tell you, it's totally possible. We like it, we're fans of the cloud. We're not shy about that."

But let’s be clear, Microsoft has made no firm commitment to introducing backwards compatibility as an Xbox One feature. The company said in May that only five per cent of customers play games for previous systems on newer ones, and Penello has previously acknowledged that enabling backwards compatibility via cloud streaming would likely prove a costly venture for Microsoft. Penello’s latest comments chiefly serve to highlight the fact that Microsoft is playing a smarter game now than it has at any point since Xbox One’s reveal. I, for one, applaud them for that.

14 comments

  • davidnelson - October 9, 2014 12:50 p.m.

    I think it would be great But is it possible to provide quality game I think it's a big question. http://www.sheeparcade.com/microsoft-exec-responds-to-xbox-one's-lack-of-backwards-compatibility/ if this is really true i want one xbox one :))I think it's a great console ever...
  • mike-major - November 19, 2013 1:13 p.m.

    For those who think it's no big deal to 'Keep your 360' well - perhaps that is true if you have unlimited space etc. in your entertainment console... But wait - I have space for precisely two units on mine. One is my 360. The other is my Blu-ray player and, while the XOne will do Blu-ray it won't be a matched unit to the TV like my Samsung. Besides, I don't need a Blu-Ray player, I have a very nice one. And oh yeah - where would I put another Kinect? How about which unit gets connected to the network cable? Or am I expected to clamber around and move furniture every time I want to play a different game? Or to rip apart sections of house to run another network cable? Or add a switch or router maybe? This just never ends. I'd be happy to replace my 360 with an Xbox one. It's getting long in the tooth. The gearing for the tray fails sometimes etc. But I have a couple of k worth of games I'm not gonna toss and no room for a second console and no - I'm not going to stop playing some of my favorite games or my daughter's just because Microsoft thinks it can claim 'architecture' and not build an emulator. Listen up Microsoft. Backwards Compatibility is why there is no Xbox one being bought for my household right NOW. If it had that capability I would be buying one. But it doesn't and so there will be no XOne for this household. Not until that changes. Far too many games that I still love from those old ranges. Indeed SoulCalibur 2 and Jade Empire, both original Xbox games, are two of my daughter's favorites. Not gonna happen, M$.
  • RadgarLaser2 - November 17, 2013 10:37 a.m.

    Obviously that's just part of the strategy for all consoles makers in this digital age. It's an added cost and a source of revenue they could capitalize on. Essentially they are forcing us to buy new hardware and rebuying games you probably bought before but in a less expensive (for them) manner because digital content doesn't have the added cost because of the physical materials and they can sell it indefinitely beyond the traditional life cycle. Backward compatibility is awesome for consumers but console makers are going to do what is necessary to fudge numbers to prove otherwise because it hurts their bottom dollar. They don't want you to use your last gen games when they can sell you the game again digitally. Even though we have the choice I bet there are some games you are willing to rebuy to play in your shiny new console and that's what they are banking on. Even though I personally don't like it, it's business, they want, need to make money.
  • Gemsa - November 13, 2013 2:40 a.m.

    everyone will for forget backwards compatibility once the Remastered Full HD versions of last generations games are available for purchase
  • Eightboll812 - November 12, 2013 6:01 p.m.

    I'm going to top post because there are two idiots below spouting the same misunderstanding of the article. True backwards compatibility is where you make it so the console can either emulate or run old games in old formats on a new system. And some of the comments below refer to immense technical challenges with this approach and how it can break things. And that tends to be true. There are huge challenges and usually additional hardware costs to providing backwards compatibility. MS has already ruled this out. So has Sony. What MS is talking about HERE though, is not the same thing. They are talking about a streaming service, where the game is recompiled to run on a newer device. The biggest technical challenges mentioned have almost no cost to MS. They mentioned bandwidth and some other things that they worried about being blamed for which are outside their control. So this response is from someone who clearly didn't read the article: >> "spend untold millions on an unproven, historically sketchy, unreliable feature with a ridiculous amount of problems, any one of which could completely destroy the gaming experience, and fixing one causes 15 other games to instantly break, problems that DO NOT EXIST on the native hardware, just to get, MAYBE a few bucks once in a great while? Does that sound like a solid business strategy to you?" Part of the problem with spouting some 5% statistic is how you come up with that figure when you don't even offer the feature??? I do believe it's a minority. But I've played at least 6 games that I can immediately think of off the top of my head, simply because I read a review and decided I missed an oldie and rented it off Gamefly or bought it used and played it on PS3. I don't think 5% is accurate. In fact we've heard this same story before from Sony when they phased out BC. Ironically when they briefly brought it back in the MGS4 bundle, and sold it along side a non-BC unit, the BC unit vastly outsold the non-BC. This was at least a couple years after the original launch, so it tends to destroy the "it doesn't matter to anyone" theory. Last comment about BC. It is typically far more important early in a generation. How many people do you see deciding to wait on getting new consoles because they can, and there's not much happening on the next gen yet? BC tends to remove those hurdles. Several years later, it's usually safe to eliminate BC.
  • TPoppaPuff - November 12, 2013 6:29 p.m.

    I'd also like to point out that likely the same amount of R&D that has been put into cloud streaming BC could have been spent towards proper emulation. And it's Microsoft, the biggest software giant in the world trying to emulate RISC architecture (a 20+ year old architecture) with a relatively basic design on a significantly more powerful machine of their own that uses the same basic languages as before to get up and running on a fixed platform. It is doable, and truthfully wouldn't be that hard either. At least Sony has the excuse they are not really software engineers at all and would be trying to emulate a machine that is close to 1000x more specialized and harder to emulate through software than 360.
  • TPoppaPuff - November 12, 2013 5:58 p.m.

    I'm calling that 5% number of theirs bullshit. The most played game on 360 on XBL for its first entire year was Halo 2 by a large margin. With that out of the way, I will say this: The lack of backward compatibility removes brand loyalty. The vast majority of games I bought last gen were 360 even though I own both. After MS backtracked from E3 they could have steered me their way. They still have the superior controller (though that margin has narrowed significantly). They would have been close enough to equal footing. PS4 doesn't have BC out of the box, but neither does XB1. If XB1 did have BC, I would be buying it first this generation. Maybe it's worth it to them to tease consumers and make noncommittal statements, but when all the smoke cleared the lack of Backward Compatibility is the reason I'm buying a PS4 this holiday season and at the very least my first three purchases for next gen are going to Sony.
  • Longnuts - November 12, 2013 3:04 p.m.

    Isn't that how MetroidPrimeRib used to structure his comments? Same person?
  • BladedFalcon - November 12, 2013 10:39 a.m.

    ...So, withholding a feature that your customer wants in order to use it as a "goodwill" card later on even though you are capable of having it now... Is something that deserves to be applauded? I fail to understand the writer's logic here. I mean, even if it ends up being true that Sony might end up stumbling and having problems properly integrating backwards compatibility via streaming, I'd still say it's better to have the company TRY and work on it, rather than just not commit whatsoever and save the feature later as a publicity stunt.
  • rainn'sgaydar - November 12, 2013 11:08 a.m.

    I agree, but I wouldn't put it past any company to do something like that. You're right though. If anyone did, it shouldn't be applauded.
  • shawksta - November 12, 2013 11:15 a.m.

    This Its already usual and normal that we wont get Backwards compatible, save for a certain things, but if anything its Sony that should be applauded for trying, not Microsoft for doing what would otherwise normally happen and do nothing at all.
  • hunter-decker - November 12, 2013 2:57 p.m.

    Honestly im fine with what Microsoft is doing. The stat is right when they say that only 5 percent of people play previous gen games on new consoles. At least after a good amount of games have been released for that console anyway. so tell me this, after the first year or 2 of have your PS3 or 360 or whatever how many of your previous gen games did you play on it. Sure backwards computability is good there arent that manny games on the console ye but it is rarely used once the console is farther along in its lifecycle. So why should microsoft wait a ton of money in R&D to develop this technology when by the time its out and running there won't be a demand for it. Its bad business sense and it would just provide an obsolete service. Plus you don't HAVE to sell your old console! Microsoft is still creating new games for the 360 and you can access it with the gold membership that your xbox one has for free. so just play your old games on your old console for now. New games for the next gen are coming we just have to be patient.
  • cbrinkmann1981 - November 12, 2013 4:01 p.m.

    Well, here; maybe this will help clear things up: "The company said in May that only five per cent of customers play games for previous systems on newer ones, and Penello has previously acknowledged that enabling backwards compatibility via cloud streaming would likely prove a costly venture for Microsoft." Would it be nice to have? Yeah, it would. But would you spend untold millions on an unproven, historically sketchy, unreliable feature with a ridiculous amount of problems, any one of which could completely destroy the gaming experience, and fixing one causes 15 other games to instantly break, problems that DO NOT EXIST on the native hardware, just to get, MAYBE a few bucks once in a great while? Does that sound like a solid business strategy to you? If you want to play 360 games after the new generation is out in force, keep your 360.
  • BladedFalcon - November 12, 2013 4:24 p.m.

    Do you own a share in the stocks of Microsoft or the Xbox brand? if not, why would you, as a consumer care what they spend on it or not? If it's a feature people want, I respect more the company that tries to do it, than the one that doesn't. my interests isn't those of Microsoft or Sony, my interests are of what they can offer me. And I would THINK that's what most consumers care about, but guess brand cheerleading will do weirds things to you...

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