There’s something dangerous in the air—something that infects every game publisher that so much as looks at it: the high-definition remake.
HD remakes aren’t inherently bad, but they’ve become all too common, with just about any game that received a game of the year award from anyone ever getting repackaged later and sold again for a premium price.
What I believe will be the cure for this is as simple as the problem, and luckily for gamers, Microsoft is already on top of it. It’s called “backward compatibility,” and it will let the latest Xbox console, the Xbox One, play games that were released on the last one, the Xbox 360.
It may not seem like it at first glance, but this is a really, really big deal.
Microsoft is adding backward compatibility to the Xbox One’s constantly expanding list of features this fall. It remains to be seen just how well it will work, and not just technically—I’m not terribly worried about that—but from a business standpoint. The potential effects are huge.
Backward compatibility is a pretty minor feature in the big picture, but what it does do is help gamers transition from one console to the next—when new game consoles come out they often launch with relatively few games, and it helps to be able to play old games on the new hardware.
With a botched launch and underperforming hardware, Microsoft found themselves looking for an advantage in their ongoing competition with Sony when the Xbox One came out in 2013. The PS4 has been beating the XB1 ever since, which turned out to be a good thing for Xbox fans—I’d bet that without the huge gap that currently exists between the two, it’s unlikely Microsoft would’ve even considered spending the time and money to implement backward compatibility, which—don’t forget—lets players play old games on their new systems, presenting zero opportunity for money-making.
And the way they’re doing it could end up being good for gamers and publishers alike, and help to end, or at least slow, the onslaught of HD remake announcements. The system works like this: every game already works with the Xbox One’s backward compatibility. It’s not like the Xbox 360’s compatibility with games from the original Xbox generation, where code had to be built for each game individually. Every game just works.
But there are licensing issues. Because the compatibility is not built into the hardware, the publisher of each title needs to give the go-ahead, it seems. This isn’t as good for the consumer as total compatibility would be at the beginning, but it’s going to have some interesting effects.
We’re already seeing publishers use old titles as pre-order and early purchase bonuses. Gears of War is accompanied by all four games in the series if you buy it in the next few months. Rainbow Six: Siege pre-orders on Xbox One are accompanied by Rainbow Six: Vegas and Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. Pre-orders of Fallout 4 on Xbox One will come with a code for Fallout 3, as will Just Cause 3 with Just Cause 2.
Pre-order bonuses, by which customers who put down money to reserve copies of upcoming games and get exclusive items in return, are bad for everyone. They split up content across different retail outlets, make it all but impossible to get all of the content for a given game, and punish players for waiting to see whether a game is actually good before spending money on it.
This bonus, on the other hand, benefits everyone. If you pre-order the game in question, you get a free code for its predecessors. But for that to happen, the title has to get added to the Xbox One’s compatibility list, meaning that anyone else who already owns the game will be able to enjoy it as well. And this is a bonus that is basically free to the publisher. They don’t have to do any work aside from hitting the big red button, but they get to send out a press release and promote their product while offering an incentive that doesn’t cost them any extra development time.
REMEMBERING THE GREATS (AND OTHERS)
In a way, Microsoft’s method of implementation is superior to total backward compatibility. Yes, there’s no guarantee that obscure game X or niche cult hit Y is going to be added. But the addition of releases over time, through pre-order bonuses or otherwise, will let publishers promote older titles. This brings potential new digital sales for the publisher, but it also highlights old games individually.
When the whole back catalog gets dumped onto us all at once, what do we remember? The big ones, like Halo, Gears of War, Red Dead Redemption, etc. When we get them in batches, though, we get reminders of some of the interesting, fun titles we might otherwise have forgotten about. Burnout Paradise, one of the best racing games of the last generation, has gotten some great press in recent weeks thanks to this.
The introduction of backward compatibility should benefit PlayStation gamers, too. With Microsoft adding old games one by one, bringing new money into publishers’ pockets and letting gamers play their old games for free, the subscription model of PlayStation Now, the Sony service that lets subscribers play old games by streaming them over the internet to their consoles, might start to look less appealing. Many gamers have piles of Xbox 360 games sitting in retirement right now that are suddenly going to be looking a little shinier. Why should Sony users pay monthly fees for access to a game you already own when the other guy is letting people play it for free?
Ideally, this should help drive the cost of PS Now down to make it more competitive. PS Now is, ultimately, the future of backward compatibility, because it’s not tied to a single system or even a disc, but right now it’s expensive and takes a heavyweight internet connection. Sony won’t be adding Microsoft’s style of backward compatibility to their system, as it would gut PS Now. But Sony might be driven to make it more appealing to compete with Microsoft.
Finally, backward compatibility gives gamers some real leverage against publishers’ desire to re-monetize old titles with those HD remakes. Sure, it’s possible that publishers might hold back the backward compatibility access in favor of releasing one of those remakes, but it’s just as likely that they’ll see it as a cheap, zero-risk way to get some new players on their old games and win points with fans in the process.
Microsoft’s approach to backward compatibility is a weird one, but it’s one that has the potential to benefit gamers and publishers alike, and finally put a stop to the onslaught of pointless remakes.
Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since. He takes a multifaceted approach to gaming news and reviews, mixing business analysis, cultural studies, tech and design. Eric has written for outlets like Playboy.com, TechnoBuffalo.com, TabTimes.com, and Kombo.com. In his free time, he perfects his napping technique and pursues the elusive perfect cheeseburger.
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