Why Modern Consoles Can’t Just “Run Any … Old Executable” [Updated]

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Historically, when big game companies talked about emulation, they listed the technology primarily as a way for gamers to steal their IP through hacking. Now, however, Xbox chief Phil Spencer is urging the industry to embrace legal emulation as a way to preserve the legacy and greater availability of older games.

“My hope (and I think I have to frame it that way from now on) is that as an industry we would be working on some legal emulation that would allow modern hardware to run any older executable. (within reason) allowing someone to play any game. ”Spencer says Axios in a recent interview. “I think at the end of the day if we were to say, ‘Hey, anyone should be able to buy any game, or own any game and keep playing,’ that seems like a big star in the game. North for us as an industry. “

That’s an admirable goal and an important statement of intent from a great console executive going forward. But in the real world, legal emulation of older games faces practical licensing issues that make it difficult to achieve Spencer’s ideal of “running any … old executable.”

The state of legal emulation

Despite the implication of Spencer’s statement, Sony and Nintendo haven’t exactly ignored official legal emulation options on their hardware. Nintendo used emulators to recreate classic games even before the creation of the Wii Virtual Console, which adopted the concept of legal emulation in 2006. And Sony has used emulators in everything from HD remasters to PS1 downloads on the PSP to its classic PlayStation Hardware (which licensed the work of the open source emulator community).

Only a small subset of N64 games are available on the Switch through an online subscription.
Enlarge / Only a small subset of N64 games are available on the Switch through an online subscription.

On recent consoles, however, Sony and Nintendo for the most part have limited “official” options for older games to various subscription service packages: Nintendo through its slowly growing Switch Online collection and Sony through its huge library of. PlayStation Now cloud streaming / download.

It is a different approach from that of Microsoft, which uses an emulation layer to allow many older Xbox and Xbox 360 discs to run on newer hardware. Microsoft even sells digital copies of decades-old games individually and / or make them available through its Game Pass subscription, including some with enhancements such as HDR and increased frame rate on Xbox One and Series S / X hardware.

Licenses and legal constraints

Spencer’s statement encouraging “legal emulation” options comes the same week Microsoft announced that 70 more original Xbox and Xbox 360 games are now playable on later Xbox hardware. But alongside this announcement, Microsoft also said that “we have reached the limit of our ability to bring new games from the past to the catalog. due to licensing, legal and technical constraints [emphasis added]. “

This means that Xbox users will officially only be able to play just over 600 of the over 2,000 Xbox 360 games on current hardware and only 63 of the nearly 1,000 original Xbox games. While these proportions include some of the best-selling and best-known games on these classic consoles, the list is still pale compared to the wide range of playable games. compatible with unofficial emulators.

This is because the limiting factor is not technology, in most cases, but rights issues. “Some of the challenges are technical, but more often than not they are licensing,” Jason Ronald, director of Xbox Program Management. says Reverse last year regarding why more old Xbox games are not compatible with new Xbox hardware. “In some cases the developer or publisher no longer exists. Even locating who we need approvals can be very, very difficult.”

Modern Xbox hardware can play many legacy Xbox titles, but not all ...
Enlarge / Modern Xbox hardware can play many legacy Xbox titles, but not all …

Why does Microsoft need individual licenses to emulate games for the consoles it created in the first place? The answer apparently has to do with how the original licenses were written.

“Typically, when you have a development or publishing contract, it indicates the publishing rights you are granting / licensing,” the Michigan attorney and Virtual legality host Richard Hoeg told Ars. These contracts usually state explicitly on which specific platforms the game can be released, meaning that “running on ‘virtual 360’ software on an Xbox One, for example, won’t necessarily be allowed,” Hoeg said. .

For any game with such a contract, Microsoft would have to negotiate a new license with the publisher to emulate it on a new platform. It’s also why Nintendo couldn’t just cite their original publishing deals to launch every NES game on the Wii Virtual Console, for example; subsequent platforms were not covered by the original agreement. Even Xbox 360 games on disc would need a new license to cover new emulated versions running on the Xbox One (which involves downloading a new version of the game in an emulation wrapper).

And as Ronald mentioned above, finding the right companies to negotiate this new license with isn’t always easy, especially if licensed music or middleware comes into play. ” [a video] decoder was built into the operating system rather than the game itself, “said the lawyer and Blogger on the law of the game Mark Methenitis told Ars. “Depending on the original license, they may need a new license for the emulator, and if they could no longer do so, it could mean that they cannot emulate games that used [the decoder]. They just wouldn’t work. “


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