Q&A: 360 Backward Compatibility pro Albert Penello

Microsoft's director of global platform marketing tells us why some games make the cut and others don't, and what Barbie has in common with Tommy Vercetti.

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Backward Compatibility on the Xbox 360 has been a hot topic among gamers ever since the 360 was announced. Microsoft eventually promised that the new console would be able to play some Xbox games, and launched with a backward compatible list that included more than 200 titles.

The Xbox 360's ATI GPU and IBM CPU were vastly different from its predecessor's, which housed a Nvidia GPU and Intel CPU, forcing Microsoft's engineers to rely on emulators. This technological hurdle yields a list of backward compatible games that includes Barbie Horse Adventures, but doesn't include critical darlings Psychonauts and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. In addition, some games that were once on the list have now jumped off, such as Freedom Fighters, Sid Meier's Pirates!, and Mortal Kombat: Deception.

GameSpot News talked with Albert Penello, Microsoft's director of global platform marketing for Xbox, to find out the ins and outs of backward compatibility, and why some games make the list and others don't.

GameSpot: First of all, can you give us a quick overview of what goes into making an Xbox game playable on the Xbox 360? Is each game a case-by-case basis, or do new emulators work for multiple games?

Albert Penello: In the early days of the project, we spent a great deal of engineering time trying to make a general-purpose Xbox emulator capable of playing as many different games as possible. That basic platform has become more capable in the past months, and we're now able to address individual games one at a time. Our typical process involves several weeks of active development on a set of desired titles, followed by at least an equal amount of test time validating the work and checking on the status of other games that might use similar technology.

GS: How important do you think backward compatibility (BC) is to the gaming community? It seems the resources spent adding a dozen games at a time, some of which aren't too popular, might not be worth it from a business point of view.

AP: Backward compatibility is a big issue for some in the gaming community, and it's a big issue for the Back Compat team, most of whom are Xbox gamers themselves. We get considerable feedback from consumers and we try to give their opinions weight. That includes supporting specific games requested by the community, but it also includes getting a breadth of games up and running.

The reason you're seeing certain games become available that aren't necessarily the most popular titles is because they share common features with other games we're working on. When we solve emulation issues for a game, it can unlock similar issues for other games. To give one popular example, Barbie Horse Adventures runs on the Xbox 360 because it uses technology similar to that of the [Grand Theft Auto] series. When we see a game start to work "for free," we release it. It's not our place to withhold titles that work simply because they weren't best-sellers.

GS: What decisions and factors go into deciding which games make the list and which don't?

AP: As we've said before, we prioritized the top-selling titles and games with a large Xbox Live following, along with gamers' feedback, and we're going deeper into the portfolio every day.

GS: How long does it take, on average, to make a game backward compatible?

AP: Anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Sometimes one of our developers will noodle over a completely broken game and miraculously make it work in an afternoon. Other times, games appear to work perfectly at the outset, but actually have a number of insidious problems discovered in test. Unfortunately, we've seen no relationship between the desirability of a game and its technical challenge.

GS: Is there a conscious decision to pass over series that have already made the leap to the Xbox 360? Xbox games from franchises such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour and Madden NFL (both of which are available in Xbox 360 form) aren't on the list. Being as big as they are, and with millions of copies already out there, it would seem they would be high priority for the BC team.

AP: There are no plans not to focus on certain franchises. As an example of franchises that are supported, consider [Dead or Alive] and Ghost Recon. Both exist on Xbox 360, yet previous Xbox versions are supported. Backward compatibility is all about preserving and respecting the investment made by original Xbox owners.

GS: What sort of pressure from developers and publishers do you face?

AP: We are working hand-in-hand with our third-party developers and publishers to expand the library of backward compatibility titles.

GS: Can you tell us about the prospects of the following games becoming BC? Psychonauts, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Chronicles of Riddick, Links 2004?

AP: While we can't confirm which titles we're currently working on, we can tell you that customer feedback is both read and considered. Bear in mind that there are plenty of other people out there with their own unique "Top 5" lists.

GS: What have you learned about backward compatibility since launch? Anything you would do over?

AP: Our first run of supported titles in November of 2005 was larger than we expected, and launch day loomed up ahead of us. As a result, we let some bugs slip through that we've since had to correct or are still correcting. We have learned a lot in the process of delivering the first updates and we have used this information to improve the quality of subsequent updates.

GS: At some point, making Xbox games BC is going to stop. Is that when the Xbox is fully phased out? Is it before?

AP: We're not going to forget about the console that got us where we are today. Xbox still has a very bright future with many top-tier titles coming out from the world's best developers. The bottom line is that we will care as long as our customers continue to. For that matter, we ourselves have personal favorite games that we're eager to see supported on the platform.

GS: Is it too early to start thinking about backward compatibility for the next Xbox?

AP: It's never too early to think about the future, but it is too early to talk about it.

GS: Thank you very much for your time.

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