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The Time for Backwards Compatibility Was Yesterday

10 Years Ago This Month: Microsoft learns a lesson about playing old games, and Activision doesn't see digital distribution as the next big thing

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, will run a monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Bill Gates Steps Down... Eventually

With E3 2006 taking place in May, June was a noticeably slower month for gaming sites. The biggest news came from Microsoft chairman, chief software architect and co-founder Bill Gates, who announced that he would spend the next two years transitioning out of his full-time role with the company to focus more on philanthropic endeavors.

This is not to be confused with him stepping down as CEO in 2000, or him stepping down as chairman in 2014. Or him eventually stepping down from his current roles as a board member and a technology advisor for the company. (It seems appropriate that the founder of Microsoft would treat leaving the company as an iterative process.)

The (sort of) post-Gates era did not get off to a glowing start, and there have been other blunders along the way, but generally speaking the company has made tremendous gains in the past decade. Its stock price has soared from about $18 at the time of Gates' announcement to over $52 this week.

The Time for Backwards Compatibility is Yesterday

In June of 2006, the Xbox 360 was all of seven months old. The traditional post-launch drought of new releases had started to let up, and gamers were already enjoying Hitman: Blood Money, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. So it shouldn't have been tremendously surprising when then-Xbox exec Peter Moore told UK-based Kikizo, "Nobody is concerned anymore about backwards compatibility."

Regardless, there was backlash from the fans in light of Microsoft having previously stated that its goal was to have all original Xbox games work on Xbox 360. It was enough that Moore did an interview later in the month with co-worker Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb to straighten the record on backward compatibility and throw some shade at Kikizo and other UK-based press, including at least one sister-site.

"I do enjoy the UK sites, because those Brits are never shy about saying what they think," Moore said. "And I do go on there, and particularly the Eurogamer threads seem to have deep threads which go hundreds deep very, very quickly... I do like to go particularly on the UK sites where the vitriolic, acerbic wit and sarcasm that's there just takes me back to my high school days."

Moore was right, too. Not about Eurogamer (of course), but about backward compatibility. The Xbox 360 launched with software backwards compatibility that worked with hundreds of games. There were still a number of titles with devoted fans who clamored for their favorites to be added to the list (Lego Star Wars, Psychonauts), but Microsoft had done right by their customers to have backwards compatibility for a bunch of games at launch, and from here on out, most games people were going to want to play on the 360 were Xbox 360 games anyway.

It's a shame Microsoft flipped that pattern this generation. Before the Xbox One launch, Microsoft Interactive Entertainment president Don Mattrick dismissed the idea that people would still want to play Xbox 360 games, saying, "If you're backwards compatible, you're really backwards." Backwards compatibility would have given the Xbox One at least one compelling edge on the PlayStation 4 at launch, and might have made the choice between the systems at least a little tougher for early adopters. Instead, Sony jumped out to a commanding lead, and Microsoft only got around to adding that feature two years after the Xbox One launched, when everyone was too busy playing The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5 to worry about old Halo and Gears of War titles that had already been re-sold to them in remastered versions anyway.


One might think a paucity of imagination would be a hindrance in a creative field like video games. Apparently not, as 10 years ago this month, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick dismissed any concerns for the health of physical game distribution.

"The idea of full downloadable games is so far in the future that it's almost incomprehensible as an opportunity."

He rightly identified bandwidth and hard drive limitations as bottlenecks for digital distribution at the time, but didn't foresee exactly how quickly those hindrances would fade, saying "When I look at the next 10 years as compared to the past 10 years, I just see better prospects."

Last month, Kotick's Activision Blizzard posted record first quarter earnings. Only 7 percent of the company's quarterly revenue came from retail channels.

Rapid Fire

  • Sony CEO Howard Stringer actually tried to justify the exorbitant cost of the PS3 saying "you're paying for potential," which seems like a pretty dumb thing to pay for. Especially considering that by the time the system reached that potential, it would almost certainly be hundreds of dollars less expensive.
  • Long before Braid, Microsoft was promoting Xbox Live as "the Sundance Film Festival of Games." That was when there were only 21 games on the service and after Geometry Wars, the catalog highlights were basically Bejeweled 2, Uno, and Gauntlet.
  • Sony legend Ken Kutaragi explained why the PlayStation Network would be free on PS3, saying, "You can't charge money for network matching and other basic services. These things are just taken for granted on the PC." Those are all still taken for granted on the PC, but somehow Sony is charging for them on the PS4 anyway.
  • Happy 10th anniversary to Ubisoft Sofia! The studio has worked on Prince of Persia Trilogy HD, 3DS launch title Ghost Recon Shadow Wars, and a slew of Assassin's Creed games, including the excellent Black Flag.

For more news blasts from the past, follow the 10 Years Ago Twitter account, a continuous feed of what was happening in the industry exactly a decade ago, now with the added benefit of hindsight!

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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