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The Xbox Series X is the most-compatible next-generation console. Or, at least, Microsoft is making that claim in a new blog post today. But time will likely prove the company correct — especially when you take into account the considerable effort it continues to put into backward compatibility. And Microsoft is serious about continuing that on Xbox Series X. It is promising that its upcoming next-gen hardware will support thousands of existing games when it debuts this holiday season.
In his blog post, Xbox Series X program management director Jason Ronald explained the thinking behind Microsoft’s backward compatibility work. He pointed to his own history with picking up Final Fantasy XIII after falling in love with the game on Xbox 360. The company doesn’t want Xbox fans to have to leave those relationships they have with games behind. But backward compatibility is not as easy as flipping a switch. With that in mind, Microsoft approached the Xbox Series X from the beginning with legacy support in mind.
That strategy means that Microsoft was able to build support into the Xbox Series X at a hardware and operating-system level.
“Maintaining compatibility presents a massive technical challenge as fundamental system and chip architectures advance across generations,” writes Ronald. “Developers highly optimize their games to the unique capabilities and performance of a console to provide the best experience for their players.”
Preserving the Xbox legacy
Incorporating backward compatibility for multiple system architectures requires a lot of creativity and determination. But it’s also something that Microsoft is skilled at.
“To make the Xbox Series X our most compatible console ever required both significant innovation in the design of the custom processor as well as the unique design of the Xbox operating system and hypervisor at the heart of our next generation platform,” writes Ronald.
Hypervisor is the software that enables an operating system to create virtual machines that have near-direct access to system resources. And it’s something Microsoft has a lot of expertise in. It’s one of the reasons it was able to pull off the magic of Xbox 360 emulation on the Xbox One.
But Xbox Series X isn’t about “pulling off” magic. It’s about thoughtfully and meaningfully preserving the Xbox library. The company has already tested the Xbox Series X for more than 100,000 hours to ensure a friendly and robust experience.
“Many of us in Team Xbox play on the Xbox Series X daily as our primary console and switching between generations is seamless,” write Ronald. “By the time we launch this holiday, the team will have spent well over 200,000 hours ensuring your game library is ready for you to jump in immediately.”
How Xbox Series X improves games with backward compatibility
Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games that run on Xbox Series X could also see some performance improvements. That’s because these games can take advantage of the advanced hardware in the console.
“Backwards compatible games run natively on the Xbox Series X hardware — running with the full power of the CPU, GPU, and the SSD,” writes Ronald. “No boost mode, no down clocking, the full power of the Xbox Series X for each and every backward compatible game. This means that all titles run at the peak performance that they were originally designed for, many times even higher performance than the games saw on their original launch platform, resulting in higher and more steady framerates and rendering at their maximum resolution and visual quality.”
The SSD should also load legacy games significantly faster than previous Xbox systems. Previous Microsoft consoles loaded games off of spinning discs — whether they were DVDs or hard drives. And that is painfully outdated in an age of hyperfast NVMe drives sending data over fat PCIe 4.0 lanes.
Beyond faster processors
But Microsoft isn’t just brute forcing improvements through hardware upgrades. It is also developing more refined techniques to add to the experience. For example, the Xbox Advanced Technology Group developed an AI-powered HDR-reconstruction technique. This adds HDR to games even from the original Xbox — and it does it without impacting performance.
This is on top of techniques like the Heutchy method and anisotropic filtering. The Heutchy method stores higher-resolution game assets for older games in system memory and swaps them out on the fly. Anisotropic filtering, meanwhile, removes artifacts from oblique textures relative to the player camera. And both of those return on Xbox Series X. But Microsoft is building even more tricks into its next-gen hardware.
“The compatibility team has invented brand new techniques that enable even more titles to run at higher resolutions and image quality while still respecting the artistic intent and vision of the original creators,” writes Ronald. We are also creating whole new classes of innovations including the ability to double the frame rate of a select set of titles from 30 fps to 60 fps or 60 fps to 120 fps.”
Building a lasting library
The Xbox team’s backward compatibility work is an important part of defining Microsoft’s take on gaming. The company wants players to build a lasting relationship with their games. Ideally for Microsoft, this will mean players also build a lasting relationship with their Xbox. On that foundation, the Xbox Series X can potentially deepen that connection with services and new game releases.
If you have that connection to your Xbox, you might pick up Fortnite with your friends on the system. Or you may subscribe to Xbox Game Pass. Either way, this is a benefit to Microsoft as long as you continue coming back to its ecosystem.
And with support for thousands of games, Xbox Series X makes a strong case for respecting that relationship.
As for the chance that Microsoft could add even more games to the backward compatibility program? That’s something it’s continuing to work on.
“Resurrecting titles from history often presents a complex mix of technical and licensing challenges,” writes Ronald. “But the team is committed to doing everything we can to continue to preserve our collective gaming legacy.”
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