Here’s why Microsoft is putting an Xbox 360 inside the Xbox One

One of the biggest announcements out of this week’s annual video game trade show, E3, came from Microsoft: the company’s Xbox One game console is adding backwards compatibility. What does that jargon-centric announcement mean?

All your old Xbox 360 games, on disc and downloaded, are going to work on Xbox One. Pretty big news!

And it took a feat of engineering to make it happen. Microsoft’s head of Xbox Phil Spencer took the reins of his current job just over one year ago. Spencer told Business Insider that one of the first things he did after taking the job was to speak with the engineering team about making backwards compatibility a reality.

“There’s some real technical challenges to be had. We didn’t know that it was gonna work,” Spencer said. The issue is one of system architecture: the Xbox 360 was based on “PowerPC” architecture, while the Xbox One is based on “x86.” The long and short is that the software underpinnings of each console is dramatically different, making it impossible to run the same games from console to console.

So, how to fix such an issue? Create a fake, software-based version of the Xbox 360 operating system that could be run on the Xbox One. “We are running the Xbox 360 operating system, and you can think of it like a virtual machine, on the Xbox one. The games that you’re playing have to be wrapped as an Xbox One game,” Spencer said. 

Put simply: the Xbox One is getting an Xbox 360, through the magic of software. That’s pretty incredible! A team at Microsoft took the physical Xbox 360 and created a virtual version of it through software alone. That’s Moore’s Law in action.

Beyond adding value to the Xbox One, the move is part of a bigger picture push from Spencer and co. toward making games available across a variety of different platforms — all within the Xbox and Windows ecosystem, of course. 

Our long term vision is we want you to be able to play the games that you own where you want to play them, whether it’s on an Oculus headset or on your TV. The ubiquitous flow of your content from screen to screen is pretty important to us in the long run.

Backwards compatibility is already available for a limited list of games to Xbox One owners who are in the console’s “preview program,” and will otherwise light up for everyone else some time this fall with at least 100 titles supported initially. Xbox is promising “hundreds” more titles each month, though don’t expect your favourite Kinect games to get supported anytime soon — due to differences in how the new version of Kinect differs from the Xbox 360 version, those games simply won’t work on Xbox One.

Produced by Ben Gilbert & Corey Protin

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