Xbox Series X and Series S are looking forward by looking back.
Game preservation and backward compatibility have been foundational pillars of Xbox's next-gen plans since the project began more than five years ago. It's a refreshing, consumer-friendly approach in an industry that traditionally hasn't batted an eye at the prospect of making players buy multiple copies of the same title — or flat-out abandoning classic games in an attempt to further the adoption of new hardware.
"There's no other medium — like music or movies or whatnot — where if you choose to buy a new device, your catalog doesn't come forward with you," Xbox Director of Program Management Jason Ronald tells Inverse. "We want that same kind of experience with games. When people choose to invest into our ecosystem with their time or their money, we want to respect that investment."
"It's not about selling more copies," he adds. "It's about preserving the art form that we know and love."
Ahead of the launch of Microsoft's new consoles, Inverse spoke with Ronald about Xbox's ambitious backward compatibility program, the challenges of bringing older games to Game Pass, and all those Netflix comparisons.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You recently tweeted that bringing older games to Series X / S required 500,000 hours of testing. Could you take us through that project?
We started on day one of the program. We've been working on the Xbox Series X and Series S since 2016. Before we even had silicon, we would take performance captures of existing games and run them on a simulator of the next-generation chip. That allowed us to identify potential issues in the silicon before it was even produced. With every iteration, we tested to make sure games continued to run. Then we would look at how to enhance some of these titles. That's where techniques like Auto HDR came from.
We've gone through test passes for about the last year, which can take 16 to 24 hours for a single game. We had an army of testers, approximately 500 of them, who went through all of them based on a priority order. If they found issues, our backwards compatibility team would fix that, with no work by developers. The onus is on us to make sure that these games continue to work.
What challenges does native backward compatibility pose from a hardware standpoint? Why isn't this more common?
One of the big challenges with backward compatibility for the Xbox One was making new hardware operate like old hardware. That was a massive amount of software engineering work. With Series X and Series S, we knew from day one that this was going to be critical.
Historically, the game industry has been very device-centric. We started this program with the goal of being player-centric, as opposed to device-centric. When you're buying into Xbox, you're buying into an ecosystem — your friends, your game library, even your accessories come with you. We made deliberate decisions so that your existing Xbox One controllers will work with these consoles. If somebody goes out and buys a high-end flight stick or steering wheel, you shouldn't have to buy a new one just because you choose to upgrade your console. That fundamental belief shaped a number of the decisions we made.
What are the advantages for a player to run an older game natively instead of using an emulator?
When you have all this extra processing power, it results in a much better gameplay experience. Then you put on top of it the enhancements we apply at the platform level. Auto HDR was incubated by the Xbox Advanced Technology Group — it's basically a machine-learning approach where we take a game's original non-HDR assets and calculate an HDR image. It's done at the platform level and doesn't take any CPU or GPU resources, but the game runs better than you've ever seen it before. For us, it really comes down to that game preservation idea.
I look at a game like Geometry Wars from the Xbox 360, which looks and plays so much better on this hardware. That game would have been an ideal candidate for HDR, but the technology didn't even exist when the game was written. In some cases, it almost feels like a remaster, even though the developer didn't have to do any work.
Xbox One's approach to DRM prompted a lot of blowback. Did that shape your approach this time around?
I don't think so. It comes down to being player-centric and listening to feedback from the community. No other media does what games historically have done. I don't think there was anything specific about the ideas we had around the Xbox One generation, it's more about listening to what the players want and figuring out new ways — technically, as well as on the business model side — to enable that.
Are there any plans for more original Xbox and 360 games to come to Game Pass?
Yeah, it's definitely something we're looking into. Some of the challenges are technical, but more often than not it comes down to licensing. In some cases, the developer or publisher doesn't exist anymore. Even tracking down who we need approvals from can be very, very difficult.
Xbox has drawn a lot of comparisons to Netflix in recent months. Do you think it's an apt analogy?
To be compared to somebody like Netflix is flattering, but we think about it differently. It really comes down to how can we find new ways to get more people to enjoy the art form that we all love. Plenty of people prefer physical media, and we support that with Xbox Series X. Then you look at something like Game Pass, which gets people trying and playing more games. Maybe you're new to a franchise, or have limited funds to devote to entertainment. With Game Pass, we eliminate that barrier. That's what we're really focused on — how do we reduce barriers so more people can find and play games they love?
If you knew what 2020 would be like, how would you have approached next-gen differently?
None of us anticipated having a global pandemic the year that we're launching our most ambitious consoles ever. It's caused us to rethink how we build hardware, how we build the operating system — even with backward compatibility. How are we going to test thousands of games when we can't go into labs, or don't have access to all of these tools? I could not be more proud of how the team stepped up and challenged themselves to think differently about solving these problems.
Looking ahead, do you still see a place for in-person events like E3?
Personally, I do miss E3, Gamescom, TGS, and major events like that. We have to recognize the state of the world, but I'd like to believe that we can come up with ways to do that safely. Gaming is an interactive medium. We can all watch trailers and stuff like that, but you want to know how a game feels and plays. We've done a really good job of pivoting on the communication and marketing side, but it would have been great to have had people get hands-on with the consoles earlier than we were able to.
Xbox Series X and Series S launch on November 10.