On December 12, 2019, Microsoft announced the Xbox Series X, its next-generation game console. One of the major features of this new console is full backward-compatibility with the previous generation. Your titles will transfer. Xbox One controllers will work with the Xbox Series X, and Series X controllers will work with the Xbox One. All of this will arrive on Day 1, out of the box.
With that announcement, Microsoft bridged the last fundamental gap between PC and console gaming. On the PC, we don’t talk about “generations” the same way that the console market does. The closest thing to a generation in the PC space is a Direct3D version, but the two have never been equivalent — modern PC games use a variety of APIs, including DirectX 11, DirectX 12, and Vulkan. Instead, we use touchstones like when a game came out relative to when a person bought their PC or graphics card. The reason we don’t talk about “generations” is that PCs have remained more-or-less backward-compatible with decades of software. The majority of PC titles from the past 15 years will still run on modern systems, but that same time period refers to at least three different console generations.
Going forward, with the Series family, Microsoft will have one kind of game — an “Xbox” game. If you own a Series system, you’ll have full access to the company’s library of past and present titles. From the way Microsoft is talking, it intends to make this a standard feature going forward. If cloud streaming services like Project XCloud ever get off the ground, Microsoft could theoretically use game streaming to provide forward compatibility, allowing, say, an Xbox One S to stream and play titles that were intended to run natively on an Xbox Series X.
Up until now, this kind of nearly-seamless backwards compatibility was still largely unique to the PC market. Yes, backward compatibility has existed on consoles before, but it existed in a distinctly limited form. If you were a Sony gamer, backward compatibility was something you got early in the PS3 generation or not at all (as far as the PS4 emulating the PS3). Microsoft has done much more to support backward compatibility on the Xbox One, but it’s still a feature that the company added and expanded over time, not something that was baked-in guaranteed on Day One, and it’s been announced game-by-game. What Microsoft is describing for the Xbox Series X is something much more akin to what PC users have historically enjoyed. When you consider how PC-like consoles now are internally, the differences between the two platforms have all-but vanished — at least, as far as their intrinsic capabilities are concerned.
Towards a Common Platform
If you look back across the decades, PCs and consoles have been inching closer to each other for a very long time. In the SNES era, consoles had specialized audio and video capabilities adapted to their function that dwarfed the generic capabilities of an equivalent IBM-compatible PC. Even after the PlayStation adopted CD-ROMs, the PS1 didn’t run anything like the operating system you would have found on a Windows 95 machine of equivalent vintage. There were arcade game ports for PC from the dawn of gaming, but it wasn’t until the combined advent of 3D graphics cards and CD-ROM drives that we started to see serious efforts to port console games to PC or vice-versa. It also wasn’t unusual for these ports to be unplayable unless you owned an extremely specific combination of hardware (ask anyone who tried running the original PC version of Final Fantasy VII on anything but a 3dfx card how much fun they had with it).
Over time, console capabilities expanded as well. Both the PS2 and PS3 could run Linux. While the Xbox 360 and PS3 were both IBM projects derived in part from PowerPC, Sony and Microsoft now use the x86 architecture, just like a PC. The graphics chips inside both upcoming consoles are built by AMD and based on the RDNA architecture. The Xbox uses a special variant of Windows 10 and it supports keyboard and mouse input on compatible games. At the OS level, the Xbox One is a PC that happens to use a controller and can only run a restricted set of applications. Meanwhile, you can stream Xbox One games to a PC, use an Xbox controller on a PC, or hook PC peripherals up to an Xbox One for gaming.
What About Upgrading?
Upgradability used to be a major distinguishing factor between consoles and PCs, but the last few years have seen the collapse of this onetime bulwark. The value of upgradability isn’t simply the ability to purchase faster hardware — it’s knowing that all of the software you previously purchased will work at least as well or better than it did before. Offering the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X as upgrades to the PS4 and Xbox One made those consoles upgradeable from within their own generation, but that wasn’t enough to match PCs — after all, I can play games I literally bought 20 years ago off their original installation media, if I have a mind to and the discs still work.
But if future versions of Xbox are guaranteed to be compatible with past versions of Xbox, Microsoft just locked in the upgradability angle. It’s not literally the same type of modular component replacement you can do with a PC, but an Xbox One S owner today can look forward to playing all of the games they own right now at higher detail and quality levels on an Xbox X Series they plan to purchase in 2020. If we can talk about “upgrading” an iPhone, we can now talk about “upgrading” a console, and another major distinction between the PC and console ecosystems just disappeared.
Consoles and PCs Now Differ Solely by Degree, Not Type
I am not arguing that the Xbox Series X has literally eliminated all differences between PCs and console gaming. Console games have their own unique design tendencies, some of which are rooted in old physical distinctions between the two platforms. Computer games, for example, integrated the idea of “Save early, save often” from the very beginning because they were distributed on rewritable media. Gamers were encouraged to keep more than one save file to guard against data corruption or accidentally overwriting the only copy.
Console games added the ability to save more slowly and often restricted the player to one save slot per playthrough. While modern games use a wide range of save styles, checkpoints and limited save slots are still associated more with console games. There’s no reason for this to be true — modern consoles have enough storage to allow for as much saving as the player wants — but it is. Similarly, modern PCs support controllers, but most PC gamers still use mouse and keyboard.
But when I started gaming, nearly 33 years ago, there were games on consoles that PCs could not match and games on PCs that consoles literally could not run. Today, those gaps have been eliminated. 30 years ago, you couldn’t use an NES controller on an IBM PC even if you wanted to. Today there are console games with mouse and keyboard support and PC titles with controller support.
It’s no accident that Microsoft is bending over backward to allow game streaming from game console to PC and vice-versa. As far as Microsoft’s concerned, “PC” and “console” are two different methods people have of enjoying the same fundamental types of content. If streaming services take off, even the question of forwards compatibility becomes less important — the Xbox Series X you buy in 2020 may be capable of playing games intended for its successor, eight years later, via whatever Project XCloud turns into. That’s conjecture on my part, but it’s not crazy, the entire point of game streaming services is to turn low-end hardware into gaming Nirvana provided you’ve got an appropriately fast connection. Whether this will actually happen is an open question, but it’s clearly where Microsoft is trying to go. Even advanced features like Adaptive Sync are now baked-in on consoles.
The Xbox Series X didn’t “win” the PC-console war in the traditional sense. The Xbox Series X is the end result of decades of PC-console convergence.