Anyone who followed Microsoft’s gaming plans in 2013 knows how much the company’s confusing policies and public reversals regarding “always on” Internet connection and used game restrictions on the Xbox One damaged the company’s image.
Now it sounds like the turmoil surrounding that launch also delayed the rollout of Xbox 360 backward compatibility on the system. This resulted in pushing a planned launch-day feature to its actual late 2015 debut.
That nugget comes from a wide-ranging behind-the-scenes look at Microsoft’s backward compatibility efforts posted on IGN this morning. Amid quotes from an array of Microsoft employees involved in the backward-compatibility development and rollout, writer Ryan McCaffrey includes this tidbit (emphasis added):
The fan-first feature has evolved from an experiment conducted by two separate Microsoft Research teams into a service planned for Xbox One’s launch—complete with hardware hooks baked into the Durango silicon—until the well-publicized changes to the Xbox One policies (namely, stripping out the always-online requirement for the console) forced it to be pushed to the back burner.
The piece doesn’t go into much detail on the decision to delay what was apparently a planned launch-day feature for the Xbox One, but it does mention that the project wasn’t revived until after the departure of Xbox President Don Mattrick in 2013 and the installation of current head of Xbox Phil Spencer in early 2014.
It’s not all that shocking that the chaos surrounding Microsoft’s Xbox One plans had a knock-on effect on the development of other planned features for the console. Microsoft’s Director of Product Planning Albert Penello told Ars in 2013 what the late shuffling of features meant:
We had to go back and redo a lot of work that we weren’t anticipating at this point in the program. It’s actually extremely difficult [to change]. It’s a totally different purchase flow, it’s a totally different UI. We have to think about security differently, permitting the customers when they can be offline and have to be online—it’s actually pretty complex.
And earlier this year, former Xbox Chief Marketing Officer Yusuf Mehdi reflected in a LinkedIn post how “it required great technical work” to change course and reverse “a few key decisions regarding connectivity requirements and how games would be purchased that didn’t land well with fans.”
That kind of “great technical work” isn’t free in terms of time or worker attention, and IGN’s reporting suggests that Xbox 360 backward compatibility was an initial victim of that change in focus.
From concept to execution
The rest of IGN’s piece goes into detail on how Microsoft’s backward compatibility plans evolved, starting with work on a virtual GPU emulator based on the Xbox 360 way back in 2007. As the Xbox One design finalized, the team considered putting in what Xbox core platform-group program-manager Kevin Gammill called a “sock.” That’s a kind of system-on-a-chip that would enable Xbox 360 games much like the “Emotion Engine” hardware that let early PS3 systems play PS2 games.
While some unspecified hardware ended up in the Xbox One design to aid future backward-compatibility efforts, the idea of a full 360 “sock” was apparently regarded as too expensive and limiting for what the team had in mind. “If we’d have gone with the 360 sock, we likely would’ve landed at just parity,” Gammill told IGN. “The goal was never just parity.”
By the time that audience-pleasing, backward-compatibility announcement arrived at E3 2015, the team only had a small batch of the promised initial batch of 100 backward-compatible games working on the Xbox One. Other titles were running at speeds as low as 1fps until the team fixed an inconsistency between the CPU schedulers on the different hardware.
The whole piece is worth a read as Microsoft prepares to launch emulation of select original Xbox games on Xbox One hardware as soon as tomorrow. But we can’t help but wonder how the Xbox One’s fate would be different had the system launched with support for Xbox 360 games out of the gate.