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Matt Barton's picture

Backwards Compatibility: Progressive or, er, Backwards?

Acorn BBC Micro: Do you care that this machine isn't backwards compatible with your PC?Acorn BBC Micro: Do you care that this machine isn't backwards compatible with your PC?Brian Crecente of Kotaku seems upset about some comments from Peter Moore, VP of Microsoft Gaming. Moore claims that Microsoft "underpromised and over-delivered with backwards compatability, and that people just don't care enough about BC to make it worth the investment. Let me add my two cents: Moore is right: Backwards compatability IS backwards. BC is simply an ineffective and inefficient means of hedging the bets with a new platform. Everyone is better off with a clean break and a fresh start.

Why would anyone ponying up for an Xbox 360 care about running a title designed for an obsolete system? I mean, let's list the reasons why someone would buy a 360: The hot new games, the hot new tech, the hot new look of the console? Somehow, I don't see "Because I'll be able to play the original Halo on it" being a factor here.

Let's put things in perspective here. When Nintendo released the Super NES system, no one was calling the Wahhhmbulance over Duckhunt. If you loved Duckhunt enough, you either kept your old NES and/or didn't upgrade. I had plenty of respect for my friends who did precisely that: Super Mario Bros. was the best game ever, end of story, no need for a new console. But we could go further back. Did anyone buy a Colecovision just because they could buy an expensive dongle to let them play Atari 2600 titles? No. Did anyone care that the Commodore Amiga wasn't backwards compatible with the Commodore 64? Not anyone with an ounce of vision. Why would anyone want to play the Commodore 64 port of Defender of the Crown when he had the Amiga version at his disposal?

The truth is, a committment to backwards compatability is an ultimately futile committment to "the way things used to be." It's denying progress and retarding progress. Furthemore, it creates a sort of divided loyalty among developers, who will want to ensure that their new games are also "forwards compatible," meaning that the new game will also play on the old system (albeit in stripped-down mode). If I buy an Xbox 360, I want a developer focused entirely on my console's capabalities. I don't want her thinking for one minute that she has to scale something down or waste time thinking about how something will look in an old box.

This very problem has been the bane of PC gaming for decades and is one reason why we see so little progress there. Developers will go to great lengths to make their games scalable enough so that legacy hardware will run their game, even if it's at a resolution and speed that just injures the brain. It doesn't matter--even at such a crippled settings, many folks will forgo or put-off upgrading their system. It's only when it gets nearly impossible to run a new title that common folks start saving up for an upgrade.

It would be much better if everyone had to rush out and buy a brand new PC with the very latest components to run Windows Vista--and that no application or game intended for Vista would run at all on older machines. This would allow developers a "clean break" with the old and an opportunity to really spin the wheel of innovation.

But, no, we won't get that. Vista, like the other versions of Windows (and even back to DOS), will be only a "patch," a few small steps taken when a giant leap is required. Why? Backwards compatability. Bleh.

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