Backwards Compatibility: Progressive or, er, Backwards?

Matt Barton's picture

Acorn BBC Micro: Do you care that this machine isn't backwards compatible with your PC?Acorn BBC Micro: Do you care that this machine isn't backwards compatible with your PC?Brian Crecente of Kotaku seems upset about some comments from Peter Moore, VP of Microsoft Gaming. Moore claims that Microsoft "underpromised and over-delivered with backwards compatability, and that people just don't care enough about BC to make it worth the investment. Let me add my two cents: Moore is right: Backwards compatability IS backwards. BC is simply an ineffective and inefficient means of hedging the bets with a new platform. Everyone is better off with a clean break and a fresh start.

Why would anyone ponying up for an Xbox 360 care about running a title designed for an obsolete system? I mean, let's list the reasons why someone would buy a 360: The hot new games, the hot new tech, the hot new look of the console? Somehow, I don't see "Because I'll be able to play the original Halo on it" being a factor here.

Let's put things in perspective here. When Nintendo released the Super NES system, no one was calling the Wahhhmbulance over Duckhunt. If you loved Duckhunt enough, you either kept your old NES and/or didn't upgrade. I had plenty of respect for my friends who did precisely that: Super Mario Bros. was the best game ever, end of story, no need for a new console. But we could go further back. Did anyone buy a Colecovision just because they could buy an expensive dongle to let them play Atari 2600 titles? No. Did anyone care that the Commodore Amiga wasn't backwards compatible with the Commodore 64? Not anyone with an ounce of vision. Why would anyone want to play the Commodore 64 port of Defender of the Crown when he had the Amiga version at his disposal?

The truth is, a committment to backwards compatability is an ultimately futile committment to "the way things used to be." It's denying progress and retarding progress. Furthemore, it creates a sort of divided loyalty among developers, who will want to ensure that their new games are also "forwards compatible," meaning that the new game will also play on the old system (albeit in stripped-down mode). If I buy an Xbox 360, I want a developer focused entirely on my console's capabalities. I don't want her thinking for one minute that she has to scale something down or waste time thinking about how something will look in an old box.

This very problem has been the bane of PC gaming for decades and is one reason why we see so little progress there. Developers will go to great lengths to make their games scalable enough so that legacy hardware will run their game, even if it's at a resolution and speed that just injures the brain. It doesn't matter--even at such a crippled settings, many folks will forgo or put-off upgrading their system. It's only when it gets nearly impossible to run a new title that common folks start saving up for an upgrade.

It would be much better if everyone had to rush out and buy a brand new PC with the very latest components to run Windows Vista--and that no application or game intended for Vista would run at all on older machines. This would allow developers a "clean break" with the old and an opportunity to really spin the wheel of innovation.

But, no, we won't get that. Vista, like the other versions of Windows (and even back to DOS), will be only a "patch," a few small steps taken when a giant leap is required. Why? Backwards compatability. Bleh.


Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
I will say that with the

I will say that with the Xbox 360, Microsoft did go the "clean" route and are only doing backwards compatibility via software engines. The 360's power was in no way compromised by the desire for backwards compatibility, and in fact it was only realized it was possible very late in the process. A good majority of Xbox 1 games are backwards compatible, but there are some notable exceptions. Resources do need to work on creating the software drivers for each game to get it to run properly.

In any case, the nice thing with backwards compatibility on the 360 is the fact that every Xbox 1 game is upscaled to 720p widescreen. The PS3 will do something similar for all PS2 and PS1 games. This makes older games MUCH more friendly on newer hi-definition widescreen televisions than playing the older games on the original consoles. The Wii doesn't support hi-def of course, but there's been talk of it doing some type of smoothing for older games.

The best argument is that even if a game is old, it doesn't make it any less fun and will allow people to maximize their investments in older stuff. This also helps the hardware makers too, as launch window line-ups are always sparse, giving people more incentive to buy the new system early if their existing libraries still work. Of course there is a downside for those companies trying to sell new software on the new system, but the reality is their new game should be compelling enough to make people want it regardless.

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[My collection -]

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor

By the way, here's Microsoft's Upgrade Advisor, which will check your current configuration and see how much you'll need to shell out to get your system up to specs for Vista. Apparently, I'm in pretty good shape, though it looks like I'll need to clear some space on my hard drive.


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