Xbox boss calls for industry wide ‘legal emulation’ of older video games

Xbox Series X backwards compatibility

Backwards compatibility has its legal limits (pic: Microsoft)

Phil Spencer wants the entire games industry to co-operate in order to improve game preservation and stop titles from disappearing forever.

Despite all the work down with Xbox backwards compatibility, if we want to play our Xbox 360 copy of Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron (one of our favourite action games of that generation) on an Xbox One or Xbox Series X we can’t.

Because it involves a licence that original publisher Activision no longer owns, it cannot be sold digitally on any format and Microsoft don’t have the right to emulate it for backwards compatibility. Its online features also don’t work, because the servers have long ago been switched off.

The same is true of many games, including a number of pre-MCU Marvel titles and the Forza series, and Xbox boss Phil Spencer has called for companies to allow ‘legal emulation’ to get around the problem.

Although it’s not something publishers ever like to talk about, game perseveration has been an increasingly prominent topic in recent years, as games rely more and more on online features that are often switched off after the game is no longer popular or licences have expired.

Emulation is one answer to this problem but it’s a legal grey area and in an interview with Axios, Xbox boss Phil Spencer called for an industry wide standard to ensure old games don’t just fade out of existence.

Currently, Microsoft has to get permission to run every game that works with backwards compatibility individually, and while few publishers ever say no they can’t give their permission if they don’t own a licence from the game anymore – or if they’ve gone bust, which is common with older titles.

When Microsoft announced last week that a final 76 games would be added via backwards compatibility it said the reason for not adding more was because of ‘licensing, legal, and technical constraints’.

Spencer wants the industry to agree to an emulator standard that can keep these older games alive and not make backwards compatibility so difficult.

‘I think we can learn from the history of how we got here through the creative’, said Spencer. ‘I love it in music. I love it in movies and TV, and there’s positive reasons for gaming to want to follow’.

‘My hope (and I think I have to present it that way as of now) is as an industry we’d work on legal emulation that allowed modern hardware to run any (within reason) older executable allowing someone to play any game’, he wrote in a direct message.

There’s probably little chance of that happening though, especially when Spencer begins to talk about completely divorcing games from their original platforms. Which would not suit Sony or Nintendo, and seems slightly disingenuous given the recent furore over The Elder Scrolls 6 exclusivity on Xbox.

Nevertheless, Spencer ended by saying: ‘I think in the end, if we said, ‘Hey, anybody should be able to buy any game, or own any game and continue to play,’ that seems like a great North Star for us as an industry’.


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