Inside Xbox’s backward compatibility journey with Series X development chief, Jason Ronald

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When Microsoft rejected backward compatibility during the launch of the Xbox One in 2013, it seemed par for the course.

At the time, consumers were generally expected to start their gaming collections from scratch, holding onto the necessary hardware whenever a new console came out and in case they ever wanted to play older games again. Were.

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There was also a general consensus in the industry that people probably didn’t want to play last-gen titles, which Microsoft has vehemently denied.

In an interview with TRG, we spoke with Jason Ronald, Xbox’s director of program management, about the team’s backward compatibility journey, the challenges they face along the way, and the importance of game preservation in the future.

power your dreams

Jason Ronald, director of program management at Xbox.
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In 2015, Microsoft rocked E3 with a seismic announcement: backwards compatibility was coming to the Xbox One. Fans can look forward to playing Xbox 360 and original Xbox games again, and even access original discs, play on Xbox Live, and access their old saved files if They have been uploaded to the cloud.

The raucous cheers that erupted throughout Microsoft theaters that day finally cemented one thing: people still wanted to play these old games that had been cherished by the gaming community.

Jason Ronald, director of program management at Xbox, still remembers those cheers today, and how they helped solidify the team behind Microsoft’s ambitious project.

“When we announced it – it was probably the biggest reaction we’ve ever had at a press conference,” Ronald smiles.

“It really gave the team confidence. Like, we’re on the right track. We’re listening to the fans, we’re listening to the community, and they love what they’re doing. And it’s really been the whole backward since then.” Operates the compatibility program.”

“We didn’t know what kind of challenges we would face, whether they were technical or legal or licensing.”

But how did Microsoft overcome the impossible technical challenges preventing backwards compatibility on Xbox One in the first place? Ronald stressed that, once again, it was the community that initially prompted the team at Xbox to focus on making backwards compatibility work.

“We had seen feedback from the community that backwards compatibility was one of the top requested features to try to add to the Xbox One program. But to be completely honest, we didn’t really know if it was going to be possible. It is,” explains Ronald.

“If you look at the architecture of the Xbox 360 versus the Xbox One, they’re fundamentally different architectures. And we didn’t know if we’d be able to emulate some of these games, or what kind of problems we’d face. .

Unfazed by the prospect, Ronald and a group of his associates hit a dead end, and Ronald sets out to tackle the great challenge posed to him.

“We built a small team of some of our top engineers and we turned them away,” recalls Ronald.

“We said, ‘Hey, give us a year. Let’s see if we can actually make this work.’ And I remember the first time I saw an Xbox 360 game in play – it was the moment when, all of a sudden, you believed it was possible.”

As Ronald reiterates, the team at Xbox didn’t really know if backwards compatibility would even work, nor could they predict the other obstacles they’d face along the way.

“We didn’t know what kind of challenges we would face, be it technical or legal or licensing. So it was a complete journey. In that year, we had all these really amazing milestones where we started to instill more and more confidence in the team and our ability to do it,” says Ronald, clearly filled with pride.

level up

The Xbox One X was powerful enough to play some Xbox 360 titles at native 4K.

“We’re kind of pushing these games further than we’ve ever been before.”

The team’s belief led to a number of innovations that could modernize some backward compatible games, and it all started with the Xbox One X enhancements. Using the Xbox One X’s extra graphical horsepower, Microsoft was able to bring 4K resolution to 720p games like Red Dead Redemption and Final Fantasy XIII, among many others.

On the latest Xbox Series X and S generation consoles, things went even further. Microsoft introduced FPS Boost and Auto HDR, which could double and even quadruple the frame rates of older titles, as well as add higher dynamic range to games released before HDR was invented.

Not only did these technical improvements help make original Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games feel like new again—something that was usually reserved only for full-price remakes or remasters—but these updates were completely free. Were.

So will we see any more FPS boost titles in the future? Ronald refused to rule it out, but also explained why it’s not so easy to flick the switch.

“To be honest, we don’t really know yet,” says Ronald bluntly.

“One of the challenges we have with some of the enhancements and capabilities is that we do all this with no code changes to the actual original game. So, as we identify new technologies to enhance and optimize titles, often, we Know that this won’t work on all games. And I think FPS Boost is a great example of this, where we’re dodging games to run at very high frame rates.

“And some games it works really well. But there are other games that look and play amazing 99% of the games. But then we discover a really game-breaking bug that happens 80% of the way out.” Or 90% of the way through,” says Ronald. “And a lot of the time, we try to come up with solutions, and we see if we can work through those issues. But since we see it as a black box, we don’t have the ability to directly change the game code.

“It’s one of those challenges. But we’re pushing these sports further than ever. And unfortunately, some techniques don’t work in all sports.”

digging into the past

FPS Boost has revived countless old games.

“I would say that every game is a unique challenge. And that’s one of the hard things for the community.”

As is human nature, the success of the backwards compatibility program has eventually led to a familiar question: Why isn’t every game backwards compatible on the Xbox Series X and S? Like FPS Boost, it’s not as straightforward as you might think.

Ronald acknowledged that part of the challenge was that Microsoft and the video game industry had not really designed games with future generations in mind, leading to a number of unforeseen problems.

“A lot of games in the original Xbox generation or Xbox 360 generation, at the time, the idea of ​​forward compatibility – and thinking about how these games would live – were not part of the industry’s DNA,” says Ronald.

“There will be titles we’ll be working on, and we’ll get them working technically. But then all of a sudden, we realize all the different approvals we’ll need: whether it’s a publisher or a developer or a licensee.

“And it really created a lot of work and a lot of challenges,” Ronald explained. “In some cases, when you think about consolidating companies, or buying IP, it is sometimes even more difficult to figure out who you need approval from!

“But I would say that every sport is a unique challenge. And it’s one of the hardest things for the community to reach. Because people are like, ‘Oh, well, you did this game, you should do that game.’ Sport comes with a unique set of challenges and this is where a lot of work really goes into bringing the game forward.”

barriers to entry

Sonic Generations now runs at 4K/60fps on Xbox Series X.

“It’s a labor of love and in some cases, it takes years to be able to bring these games forward.”

Problems with licenses, publishers, and technical quirks would mean that Ronald’s team could often start over with a list of hundreds of games they wanted to add to the Xbox Backward Compatibility Program, but with the understanding they didn’t know. How many will you cut or how long will it take? Some titles, as Ronald shares, have taken years to be added to the program because of the above issues.

“When we started this last patch [over 70 back-compat titles were added on November 20, 2021]”We actually started with a list of hundreds of games that we were going to try,” says Ronald. “And we didn’t know we were going to get five.” [titles], if we 10 . were going to get [titles], or if we have 20 . going to get [titles],

“And to be honest, there are some games in the program that I never thought we would be able to bring forward. It’s a labor of love and in some cases, it takes years to be able to bring these games forward, but the team is always committed to doing everything we can for the fans.

remember the ogee

Xbox Game Pass now includes Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76.

“He is now experiencing the games that I loved as a child.”

Basically, it’s Xbox fans, young and old, who have benefited the most from the backward compatibility program. But has it been worth it for Microsoft as a whole? Ronald refers to his own personal experience for an answer.

“Obviously, we are really happy with the response to the program. And we have seen a lot of new players coming into the franchise that they have never played before,” says Ronald. “My son, he is 13 years old. His first fall was actually Fallout 4, and he’s come to really love the world and universe he’s created.

“For him to be able to go back and play Fallout 3, or play Fallout: New Vegas. He’s now…

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