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Should the next gen Xbox offer backwards compatibility?

A deal-breaker or a luxury? Craig Owens ponders

With rumours chasing after and mutually annihilating one another like polarised subatomic particles being fired down a large hadron collidor, now seems as good a time as many to ponder whether the next Xbox should - let alone will - offer backwards compatibility. Obviously it would be very nice if your expensive new game machine was compatible with your library of existing games. But is it a realistic expectation, or a foolish na´ve hope?

Much depends on the next Xbox's innards. Since backwards compatibility is all about getting software to run on machines for which it wasn't originally designed, it helps if the chips inside the new console are similar to the old ones. What, then, is the rumour mill telling us about what Microsoft's new console might be hiding beneath its case?

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The most recent rumours suggest that the new Xbox hardware will be using a system-on-chip manufactured by AMD, using the firm's "Jaguar" tech. This uses the x86 architecture ubiquitous in modern PCs, which has the obvious advantage of making it easier to port games across platforms (indeed, a certain other next-gen console is confirmed to be using x86 architecture, which should hopefully mean more games for everyone). What this means, however, is that games created for the IBM-designed Power PC tech found in Xbox 360s won't run on the new machine.

(It's worth noting, at this point, that some very recent rumours have suggested that the next Xbox will literally contain 360 architecture in the form of a system-on-a-chip, but this source is dubious at best.)

In truth, you can in fact code software to make old games run on new machines, but this takes time and effort - and it's how the Xbox 360's limited backwards compatibility was achieved, since the current Microsoft console also suffered from some irreconcilable technical differences with its predecessor. Games needed "emulation profiles" to run. In fact, the 360 came with emulation profiles for Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 straight out of the box - they were deemed that important to the Xbox brand.

Of course, the history of 360 backwards compatibility is a embarrassing trickle of games being slowly added to confirmed-as-BC list, some major titles never even turning up, and plenty of titles that did make it on there still suffering from glitches or slowdown. Microsoft officially stopped adding to the list of backwards compatible games in 2007, and we suspect the firm is unlikely to want to repeat the farce with its new machine.

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That would probably be the right call. With the 360, Microsoft made a promise they weren't able to keep - and the outcome was months and years of uncertainty. More importantly, if we find out now that Xbox 720 (or whatever it's called) will angrily spit out 360 discs like a toddler who's just been spoon-fed vegetables we'll at least know we ought to keep our old consoles around - or dump the collections entirely on some poor, gaming deprived cousin, if we're feeling generous.

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