The Super Nintendo did not play NES games. The Sega Dreamcast did not play Sega Saturn games. The PlayStation 4 does not play PlayStation 3 games. In the history of modern video game consoles, backward compatibility has been the exception, not the rule. And when it does happen, it's often fleeting and limited to a single generation. For example, later models of the PS3 dropped compatibility with PlayStation 2 games.
With the just-announced Xbox One X—the official name of the console previously known by the code-name Project Scorpio—Microsoft is starting to change the game. It's a huge leap in power over the Xbox One, but it's not a new generation of console. It's just another, way more powerful Xbox One.
Coming in at $499 (double the $249 price of the current Xbox One S), the One X can safely lay claim to the "most powerful console ever" title. The 6 teraflop graphics chip is 50 percent more powerful than that in the PS4 Pro, and it's got 50 percent more memory bandwidth, too. It's got a faster hard drive, a faster processor, and 12 gigs of RAM. Microsoft went out of its way to promise true 4K gaming, which it defines as a full 2160p resolution with HDR and higher-resolution textures and models. It's a knock at the less-than 4K resolutions common to the PS4 Pro, as well as its lack of a 4K Blu-ray drive.
Sony pitched the PS4 Pro as simply a more powerful PS4, and Microsoft is doing the same with the Xbox One X. All your Xbox One games will work, and run better. Future games may take extra advantage of the Xbox One X, but will still work on current consoles. Games will be made for the "Xbox One family." But Microsoft's messaging is slightly, and crucially, different. Sony seems uninterested in letting you play your old PlayStation games, and has made no indication that the next Playstation will work with today's games.
Consider your iPhone. When Apple releases a new version of iOS, it is available for every iPhone model made in the last five years or so. They all get the new interface and major new features, except for those that require the newer hardware (as when 3D Touch or Apple Pay was added). When you download an app, there's a single app in a single store that works on years worth of iPhones, It just runs better on the newer ones, and might have an extra feature or two. When you replace your old iPhone with a newer one, all your content and apps come with you.
That's the future Microsoft is wants to bring to consoles. It already did the hard work to enable almost 400 Xbox 360 games to work on Xbox One, and it just announced it's doing the same for original Xbox games. Now, four years after the Xbox One's release, it's releasing a new vastly more powerful console that isn't just "backward compatible," it's just "compatible." It literally supports all the same apps and games, and new apps and games will keep running on the old model. Just as an iPhone 7 and iPhone 5S support all the same apps and games.
Earlier this year, Engadget spoke to Xbox boss Phil Spencer, and his intentions are clear. Just as you can replace your 4-year old PC with a new PC and still run all the same apps and games, only way better, your Xbox should do the same. Only without the PC's multitudes of configuration options and driver hassles. There will be stuff the old box simply can't do, like VR. Just as your new gaming PC might be powerful enough for an Oculus headset while your old one wasn't, or your new iPhone 7 Plus has Portrait Mode.
Nobody expects Microsoft to release a new console every year as Apple does iPhones, but one can easily imagine this week's new console announcement repeating itself in three or four years. The Xbox One X is down to $249, the Xbox One S is perhaps gone from shelves, and a new Xbox is released. It's got a 20-teraflop graphics chip, 24 gigs of RAM, and a way better CPU. And your game library? It all just works. Old Xbox games, Xbox 360 games, games you bought in 2014 when the Xbox One was the hot new thing. Over time, your ever-growing Xbox library could be the console's greatest asset. You could buy the new Playstation 6, or Nintendo's new thing, but what about all your games?
Of course, changing the course of console history to eliminate incompatible "generations" is meaningless if people don't buy the consoles and games to begin with. So before Microsoft can make replace the console with the platform, it has to convince gamers that Xbox One is the place to play.
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