Sucks on your assmar! (and by assmar I mean partial backward compatibility)

When I was first testing out the Xbox 360, it bugged me that two of the big features didn’t come with the system. To play original Xbox games you had to download the latest emulation software through Xbox Live, and to stream music and photos from the PC you had to download a file to the computer from the 360 Web site. This goes against the whole premise of the 360 as all-in-one home entertainment box: If you’re trying to attract new gamers and nongamers, you need to give them everything from the minute they open the box. But I didn’t mention this in my review, giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. I figured if they hadn’t been rushing to meet the launch date then the emulation and PC software would have been on an included CD.

I’m not giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt anymore. The annoyance of having to download the emulation software in itself isn’t too much, but it’s a result of a conscious decision not to make the 360 fully backward compatible. That was a terrible decision, and Microsoft should be called out on it.

When I was trying to catch up on the games I had missed during the year for my holiday gift guide, I had a few Xbox games I hadn’t gotten around to playing. With only a half-working Xbox, I figured I’d be OK when the 360 review unit arrived. But no; Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, Battlefield 2, and Sid Meier’s Pirates aren’t on the backward compatibility list. I had to borrow a friend’s Xbox and as a result didn’t have time to test them all. Obviously Microsoft shouldn’t be making its decisions to make things easy for game critics, but this affects anyone who has an Xbox and a 360. Why should anyone have to keep two power-hungry systems hooked up when one can theoretically play both systems’ games? And it doesn’t make any business sense. The Xbox may have a lot of hard-core gamer fans, but it got spanked by the PS2 among general gamers; there about 25 million Xboxes sold versus more than 100 million PS2s sold. So for the millions of people who don’t have original Xboxes but will theoretically be buying the 360, Microsoft is cutting off a huge revenue stream by not letting them play a bunch of Xbox titles.

The 360 Web site has a Q and A on backward compatibility with Todd Holmdahl, the Corporate Vice President of the Xbox Product Group. And even given that it’s a PR piece, the whole thing is clearly a bunch of bollocks. Here’s some of Holmdahl’s ways of spinning the limited backward compatibility:

We’ve been working hard to certify as many original Xbox games to work on Xbox 360 as possible. This process is a detailed procedure that we’re committed to, but it means that not every game is going to be ready on day one.

We’re working hard to determine the next batch of backward compatible titles, and would love to get feedback directly from gamers as well.

We knew that our transition to the new and much more powerful CPU and GPU would make backward compatibility challenging, but many gamers told us that backward compatibility was something that was important to them for the next-generation Xbox. To make this possible, we needed to emulate the Xbox hardware including the Xbox CPU and GPU.This is a huge feat for the team and is a perfect example of how powerful the platform is because of the three-core architecture in the CPU and the powerful GPU. A software solution not only shows off the power of the platform but also demonstrates its flexibility.

Please. Microsoft is Microsoft. It can do anything. If J Allard et al wanted to make the 360 fully backward compatible, they could have. But that would have made the old system obsolete, and Microsoft wasn’t willing to do that. Of course, that logic only works if you produce enough consoles to threaten your old system. With a paltry 400,000 or fewer 360s out there, Microsoft could have safely made everyone happy by making all Xbox games playable.

— December 28, 2005

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