When the wonky phrase “backward compatibility” spilled from the mouth of Xbox boss Phil Spencer at Microsoft’s E3 press conference this week, it worked like a magical incantation. Aside from the over-amplified sounds of virtual guns that fired during a few of the trailers, the loudest sound in Microsoft’s press conference on Monday was the thunderous cheer from thousands of attendees—faces glowing green from pulsating light-up Xbox necklaces—who had just learned they’d be able to play decade-old Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One.
It was an ironic moment considering that we’re at E3—gaming’s annual pow-wow devoted to the trailers, the teasers, the hints of what’s coming to a GameStop near you. Devoted to the future. Yet this full-throated roar celebrated the return to the past. Xbox’s pithy slogan right now is “jump ahead,” but perhaps it should have been “look behind.”
Who’s winning E3? It’s not Microsoft, nor Sony or Nintendo. It’s the fan culture—the “hardcore gamer”—whatever you want to call the folks who consider video games an essential part of their identity, an identity that demands to be preserved even while the technology around it evolves. There was a time in the recent past when Xbox executives appeared ready to move on from pleasing these fans. When Microsoft first announced the Xbox One two years ago, the stage presenters pushed games to the background in order to position their next generation system as a mass market, do-it-all appliance—a smartphone for the living room.
It made sense for Microsoft to cater to a more general audience, but paired with proposed policies that would have restricted used games and required an always-on internet connection to play, fans felt marginalized, and they protested vociferously. They were ready to bolt to PlayStation 4, which Sony shrewdly pitched as a “games-first” device.
The consumer revolt worked, and Microsoft changed its tune. The company scaled back its emphasis on integrated television and fantasy football, and it eased the console’s draconian technological restrictions. The Xbox chieftains also lowered the price of the system and, at last year’s E3, acted the part of guilt-ridden sinners confessing to the high priests of the video game church. For their part, players appear to have shown mercy on the wayward corporation. Xbox One sales are way up—last month saw an 81 percent increase from May 2014, a Microsoft marketing executive told VentureBeat—even if the One is still being outsold by the PlayStation 4.
So for this year’s E3 press conference, Microsoft turned up the volume of its acquiescence to the core. “We put fans and gamers at the center of whatever we do,” pledged Spencer, solemnly, as he played the role of a blazer-and-T-shirt-wearing Santa Claus fulfilling players’ long wish lists. You want to play old 360 games on the Xbox One? You got it! How about early access to games in beta? Done! Cross-platform play with Windows 10 PCs? Sure thing.
And again, not a word was mentioned about the Kinect peripheral—once pushed by Microsoft as the Future Of Video Games. That mantle has been passed to the Hololens—a nifty high-tech visor that lets you perceive game graphics projected onto the real world. (Microsoft calls it “mixed reality,” which is a little spooky.) The Xbox presenters also pulled back the curtain on a partnership with Oculus Rift, the Facebook-owned virtual reality device that—unlike the Hololens—offers full unreality: The unwieldy helmet overwhelms players’ vision and hearing, shutting out the rest of the world.
In some ways, Microsoft was doing the same thing with their press conference—overwhelming the senses with sights and sounds—forcing you to reckon with their vision of the future. That future looks like a high-definition update of the glory days. There was a portion of the conference set aside to preview some intriguing-looking games from small studios (including a beautiful game about a blind girl), but Microsoft centered its presentation around five aging tentpole gaming series.
Spencer et al. kicked things off with an extended look at the newest title in the Halo saga and ended it with another entry in another popular shooter series. “This year, we’re taking you back to where it all began,” said Rod Fergusson, before announcing a re-release of the original, 9-year-old Gears of War and a peek at another Gears sequel.
Many of these sequels and reboots looked spectacular. My breath caught a few times watching Lara Croft scale a snow-covered mountain during an avalanche in an extended look at the new Tomb Raider. And I wanted to stand up and applaud for a trailer promoting Star Wars: Battlefront, a game which takes the gritty, cheesy aesthetic of George Lucas’ original trilogy and grafts it onto an engrossing online multiplayer shooter.
But as I heard the familiar John Williams score wash nostalgia over me all over again, I couldn’t help thinking of what actor Simon Pegg said recently about his trouble with mainstream nerd culture. “Suddenly, here was an entire generation crying out for an evolved version of the things they were consuming as children,” Pegg wrote. “This demographic is now well and truly serviced in all facets of entertainment, and the first and second childhoods have merged into a mainstream phenomenon.”
Pegg might as well have been commenting on this E3 press conference. Microsoft is feeding a new generation of adults exactly what we want—glossy, expensive, and exquisitely well-crafted versions of the things we enjoyed as children and teenagers. Shouldn’t we demand more than backward compatibility with the past?