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Comment: Xbox 360 looks backward to move forward

We don't mean to go on like a stuck record about Microsoft's plans for Xbox 360 backwards compatibility - in fact, in ways we almost feel guilty about raising this issue again, since in most other respects the company is doing a fine job with its next-gen console. The design, the media functionality, the developer support and most other factors look great. It would be easy, as many of the more vocal and hardcore consumers on internet forums have done, to dismiss the question of whether the system will play aging Xbox titles as unimportant.

However, it is important to a lot of consumers, and Microsoft itself must recognise that - since it's reversed its initial stance on the matter and shoehorned a degree of backwards compatibility into the design of Xbox 360 in a matter of only months. The U-turn has been dramatic, from senior Xbox execs privately telling analysts last year that backwards compatibility was completely unimportant - citing some research which suggested that few PS2 owners ever played PSone games - to Peter Moore taking the stage ahead of E3 to announce, with great fanfare, compatibility with top-selling Xbox games.

Microsoft has undoubtedly spent a lot of time and money cracking backwards compatibility - the simple fact is that if it was easy to do, they would have done it in the original specification. The firm has had to invest in technology to provide some degree of emulation for the Intel CPU in the Xbox, it has had to create a team dedicated to engineering and testing compatibility patches for old Xbox games, and as we discovered this week, it has had to pay an undoubtedly hefty license fee to NVIDIA to allow it to emulate the firm's GeForce chipset on the Xbox 360's ATI graphics part.

The feature truly is an important one, simply because those consumers who already own an Xbox will want to consign it to the loft or to eBay after they buy a new console, while consumers who have never owned an Xbox will view the ability to play games like Halo, Forza Motorsport, Ninja Gaiden and Jade Empire as strong incentives to buy the new box when next-gen software is comparatively thin on the ground. With Xbox, backward compatibility is even more important than it was with PS2, because people play games like Halo 2 extensively online; should they be forced to keep the old system under their televisions just in order to continue enjoying that experience? Of course not.

That's why we feel somewhat justified in raising more questions about backwards compatibility, just as we originally raised the question of whether the system would be backwards compatible at all. Microsoft is definitely committed to making backwards compatibility work, and that's great - but the company still has many questions to answer about how playing old Xbox games will work from a consumer's perspective.

For example, we still don't know which - or indeed how many - games will be supported out of the box by pre-loaded "emulation profiles". We don't know how quickly the firm plans to release emulation profiles for other titles, or how it plans to measure demand and establish an order in which to create them. Crucially, we don't know if there's going to be any way for users without Xbox Live - representing some 90 per cent of Xbox users, remember, even if Microsoft hopes to shrink that percentage on Xbox 360 - to acquire new emulation profiles. And ultimately, we don't know what will happen if user puts in a game that isn't yet supported by the emulation feature.

Hopefully, Microsoft will move to confirm the details of the feature and reassure potential customers before the launch of the console, as up until now the slightly suspect double-speak the company has used to describe its backwards compatibility efforts have left us with more questions than answers. Our concern is simple; botched backwards compatibility could be worse than not supporting it at all. A customer who buys a console to play certain games and then discovers they don't work will feel cheated and lied to. It's not the impression that Microsoft, or the games industry as a whole, wants to give the early pioneers of next-generation gaming who stand in line for their Xbox 360s this Christmas.

Rob Fahey is the editor of, and can be reached at [].

This editorial originally appeared in the News Digest, a free email news bulletin which is distributed to subscribers every day of the week and features a round-up of the key headlines of the day, the latest major share movements from industry companies, and the day's new job postings. Each Thursday afternoon, this digest is presented in a special omnibus form with the week's game charts and an editorial focus piece.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.