Xbox boss Phil Spencer wants the whole industry in on emulation

Eric Abent - Nov 18, 2021, 2:21pm CST
Xbox boss Phil Spencer wants the whole industry in on emulation

Game preservation has become something of a big topic in recent years. As time goes on, some people are worried about old physical media and hardware wearing out, coupled with those who would like to play classic games on modern platforms without breaking the bank. While backward compatibility helps with some of that a little bit and has become an increasing area of focus for some platform holders, we haven’t seen a holistic approach to game preservation. That’s where Xbox boss Phil Spencer thinks that a major push for emulation could help.

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A big voice sounds off on a controversial topic

In a recent interview with Axios, Xbox chief Phil Spencer said he would like to see a larger push for legal emulation from the industry’s biggest players. Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony have all supported emulation to some extent on modern consoles and consoles of the past, but there’s never been a unified, focused effort to make sure that games of the past aren’t lost as we transition to newer platforms.

“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,” Spencer told Axios. It’s a big hope, but it could ultimately be a good thing for the industry to strive for from the perspectives of both consumer happiness and game preservation.

“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,” Spencer added. But, of course, pursuing such a goal is not without its issues, as Axios points out. Not only would platform holders need to build this support into their platforms, but rights holders to the games in question need to be willing to play ball as well.

Legal emulation could be a game-changer for retro gaming

Still, emulation could be the best bet at preserving past games and allowing modern customers to play old games affordably. Emulation is a popular way to play old games, but it isn’t strictly legal from a copyright standpoint. However, if Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, developers, and publishers worked together to come up with some sort of approved emulation that allows old games to run on modern platforms, it could be a win-win for everyone involved.

Emulation is even more attractive these days as the cost of retro games seems to be skyrocketing. Unfortunately, as time goes on and cartridges and CDs become worn out, destroyed, or otherwise lost, the cost of existing copies will increase even further. Getting into retro gaming with legitimate hardware and physical copies of old games is already cost-prohibitive for some, and I personally worry that as time goes on, it’ll keep getting cost-prohibitive for an increasing number of people.

While modern Xbox consoles use emulation for backward compatible Xbox and Xbox 360 games, Nintendo was at one point the king of emulation through its Virtual Console service on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. Sadly, the Virtual Console vanished with the transition to the Switch, and in its place, Nintendo now offers retro game collections to Switch Online subscribers. With all three major platform holders tapping emulation at various points in the past, Spencer might be onto something here.

At the very least, it’s nice to have a voice as impactful as Spencer’s going to bat for legal, approved software emulation, but for now, he can only control what Xbox does and hope for more in the future. Hopefully, Sony and Nintendo will give serious consideration to his suggestion, because it would be great to see as many old titles as possible playable on modern hardware.


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