Is the future of backwards compatibility in streaming?

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Game streaming has been around for some time, but it feels like the technology is really starting to come into its own now, especially for backwards compatibility. This is especially apparent with Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming technology, which enables users the ability to stream games to Android devices. There are more than 150 Xbox One and Xbox Series S and X titles available on the service, which is available as part of the wider Xbox Game Ultimate subscription. 

In the past week, Microsoft added 16 backwards compatible titles from the Xbox 360 and Xbox consoles. The release of titles included The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Viva Pinata and even Fallout: New Vegas. It isn’t the biggest selection of titles, but it does point towards a promising future for backwards compatibility gaming via streaming services. 

Microsoft has even added touch screen controls for a number of games, including both Viva Pinata titles. Retroactively adding features to titles in this way is actually quite impressive. Especially when you consider that in the same week, Sony announced it will close three different store fronts. Resulting in hundreds of games vanishing from availability. 

The rise in streaming technology, mixed with Microsoft’s intent to keep old games alive points towards an interesting future for backwards compatibility. It’s one that doesn’t necessarily have to lie with hardware, which is one of the biggest barriers to preserving obscure and digital titles. 

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Hardware-less

For many, the biggest barrier to enjoying older games is hardware. When a new console comes out, many people either trade their current console in, pass it on to a friend or relative or leave it on a shelf somewhere. I’ve got an N64, a Gamecube, a Dreamcast and a PlayStation One, but I honestly could not tell you where any of them are or if I have the right wires. That’s even before you get on to ensuring that your TV is compatible with them (remember scart cables?)

In the future, services like Microsoft Cloud Streaming could provide a simple solution to the hardware issues of older machines. Instead of having to set everything up, you could simply open an app on your phone, TV or even your console. Boot up the cloud streaming service of your choice and get stuck into some classic games.

Backwards compatability streaming Antstream arcade 1
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Anstream Arcade Credit: Exertis Group

There are already services like this available on the internet. Antstream Arcade is a British-based streaming service which lets players play classic games through a browser, on Android and even via an Amazon Fire Stick. The service is free at the point of use thanks to adverts, but there is a premium package available. The availability of streaming software like this could make accessing retro and previous generation games much easier in the future. 

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Simpler Development 

Porting games is not a simple process. PS3 games were notoriously difficult to run on the PS4 because the consoles both ran on completely different architecture, which is why Sony just didn’t even try. To do so, it would have needed to include the PS3 CPU in each PS4, which would have driven costs up considerably. Offering these games via streaming completely removes that issue. This is why Sony pushed PS Now as its backwards compatibility offering, although the quality of the service remains one of its biggest problems. 

It’s also a lot easier for developers. Rather than porting older games and spending time and money in the process, allowing the likes of Sony and Microsoft to stream your titles is much simpler. This is especially prevalent in the mobile gaming space, where ports for games can sometimes take years after the initial console release. Last year’s XCOM 2 port for iOS and Android arrived four years after console releases. Mobile streaming like this could allow mobile gamers to enjoy big releases on the same day as everyone else. A bit like Stadia, but without the subscription price and full RRP at the same time.

There’s an argument to be had that the future of mobile gaming could lie with streaming of this nature. While mobile phone performance has increased massively in the past few years, the devices still struggle to keep up with PC and console experiences. Services like Microsoft Cloud Gaming bridge the gap, enabling users to experience current and backwards compatible titles of console quality. 

Accessibility 

Buying the hardware to run games can be expensive. Whether it's picking up an old console which is rare, or buying a phone with the power to run games, for some people, that just isn’t a possibility. Cloud streaming opens up those barriers, providing a simple and cost-effective solution to playing retro and backwards-compatible titles. 

Read More: How much longer will the PS4 last?