One Console, Four Generations: The Past and Future of Backwards Compatibility on Xbox

The Past

Time is the enemy of video games. There comes a time in every gamer’s life when they sit back and remember a game they played years ago and think “Wow! That was a really great game. I wish I could play that again.” Such moments don’t linger long with movies or music. In a few clicks, you can find virtually any song or movie online. 

But with video games, you often can’t play your old games unless you keep your old console. Backwards compatibility has been a feature often requested by consumers but inconsistently delivered by game companies, presumably due to the significant hardware differences introduced in each generational leap. Those who do play older titles increasingly have more and more consoles cluttering their entertainment centers. Or, worse, they are forced to pay money for a digital copy of a disc they already own but their shiny new console can’t read.  

Ever since the second Xbox console, the Xbox 360, Microsoft has been delivering backwards compatibility for its customers. In 2005, Microsoft introduced software emulation that Xbox 360 owners downloaded to their consoles allowing 212 original Xbox games to be played. Over time, that number doubled to 461 titles, about half of all original Xbox games. 

Then came the dark years. At launch, the Xbox One did not support backwards compatibility. Xbox was focusing increasingly on digital sales, and it seemed considering prohibiting the use of used games on the Xbox One. Sony capitalized on Xbox’s messaging fiasco with devastating effect. Fortunately, Xbox later fully committed to supporting the use of used and shared discs on Xbox One.

Sony mocks Xbox’s messaging about not supporting used/shared game discs.

At E3 2015, Microsoft announced their backwards compatibility program for the Xbox One which was met with widespread approval. The program brought over 600 Xbox and Xbox 360 titles to Xbox One. Even better: certain titles run at higher resolutions and at higher frame rates than when initially released. Gamers can now enjoy classic titles from The Elder Scrolls, Star Wars, Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed, and so many more on the Xbox One X in beautiful 4K. You can find the full list here.

The Future

At the 2019 Game Awards, Microsoft revealed the future of Xbox: the Xbox Series X. Xbox has promised “thousands of your favorite games across four generations of gaming” to be available on Series X at launch. This commitment demonstrates Xbox’s belief that gamers increasingly demand continuity across console generations. At the end of 2019, Phil Spencer described Xbox as “One Console, Four Generations of Gaming.” Spencer’s statement went on to say: “Thanks to backward compatibility, you can expect your gaming legacy, thousands of your favorite games across four generations of gaming, all your Xbox One gaming accessories, and industry-leading services like Xbox Game Pass to be available when you power on your Xbox Series X in Holiday 2020.” It seems Xbox is doing as much as it can to make the generational transition less disruptive.

Gaming has changed profoundly since the days of the Atari and NES. An industry that was once thought of as toys for children is now enjoyed by millions of adults. If you’re reading this, you probably grew up with video games and will continue gaming for many years to come. In the 90’s, Mom and Dad didn’t care if little Tommy wouldn’t be able to play his copy of Super Mario World in 30 years. But now Tommy is a sophisticated consumer with hundreds or thousands of dollars invested in a gaming ecosystem, and he’s not going to accept being forced to buy the same game over and over again every console generation. 

Xbox’s commitment to backwards compatibility is a natural consequence of its increasingly platform-neutral strategy. This strategy took shape in 2016, when the Xbox Play Anywhere program was rolled out, gamers could buy certain games on Xbox or Windows 10 and be able to play the game on either platform, with save data and DLC transferred seamlessly over Xbox Live. This strategy evolved further with Project Xcloud, bringing Xbox games to tablets and phones via streaming. 

Project xCloud allows players access to more than 50 Xbox titles on their Android phones and tablets streamed directly from the cloud.

Xbox is painting a future where you can come back decades later on a new device and finish a saved game you weren’t able to beat before–and the game will look and play better than ever. It’s a future where your gaming legacy isn’t erased every time you play your games in a new way. Of course, from a business perspective, this likely means greater investment in the Xbox ecosystem over time. If gamers have to start from zero each console generation, why not switch over? But if one console lets you bring all your games, save files, friends, achievements, and controllers, that one has a big advantage. 

The internet is also buzzing lately about forwards compatibility on Xbox Series X. Forwards Compatibility refers to the ability for a previous generation console, such as the Xbox One, to run a next generation game, like Halo Infinite. Back in January, Matt Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios, had this to say: “As our content comes out over the next year, two years, all of our games, sort of like PC, will play up and down that family of devices . . . . We want to make sure that if someone invests in Xbox between now and [Series X] that they feel that they made a good investment and that we’re committed to them with content.”

However, Xbox seems to have walked back this strong commitment a bit, Aaron Greenberg, Xbox’s head of marketing, tweeted that the Xbox’s individual first party game studios will decide whether their game will also be coming to Xbox One. The Xbox website seems to confirm this: the pages for upcoming Avowed, Everwild, and The Medium, only indicate that these titles are coming to Xbox Series X, unlike Halo Infinite which specifically says it’s coming to the Xbox One as well.

The Medium is an upcoming horror game for Xbox Series X and Windows 10 that features a unique dual-reality gameplay system

While having these games on Xbox One certainly fits Xbox’s platform-neutral strategy, game developers aren’t miracle workers. For example, it may simply be impossible to get The Medium running on an Xbox One. A review of the Steam minimum requirements for The Medium indicates that an NVIDIA GTX 1060 is capable of running the game. That GPU is roughly the equivalent of the GPU in the Xbox One X according to PC Gamer. It seems doubtful that The Medium could run on original Xbox One hardware, at least without massive compromises. Perhaps certain next-gen games could come only to Xbox One X, but is the install base large enough to warrant developing such a port? Xbox may still be in the process of determining what’s possible, but based on their content-neutral strategy, it seems likely that Xbox will bring as many next-gen games to Xbox One as is technologically feasible.

Everything that we’ve been hearing from Xbox lately seems to indicate that Microsoft is trying to revolutionize the way people access their games. Xbox is using Backwards compatibility, along with xCloud, forward compatibility, and play anywhere, to remove the barriers presented by specific platforms, and allow players to access their games and game data directly. If properly executed, Xbox can ensure that the future of gaming doesn’t erase your gaming legacy.

For all the latest, stay with Generation Xbox.


  1. I’d like to see Microsoft bring even more original Xbox and 360 titles to their marketplace. For me, that’s one of the strongest selling points of the Series X to those like myself, who’ve never purchased an Xbox.

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