One of the hot questions about the Xbox 360 (or whatever Microsoft ends up calling the new Xbox) is will it be able to play games from the original Xbox. The new system is rumored to be really different from the old system (multiple PowerPC CPUs instead of one Intel CPU, ATI graphics instead of nVidia, no standard hard drive), and Microsoft has been unwilling to commit to any sort of compatibility between the two systems. Everyone believes that MS would like people to be able to play Xbox 1 games on the Xbox 360, but it’s not clear that they’ll be able to get the emulation software to work well enough.

A number of sources have mentioned a recent Xbox Live poll, suggesting that it’s the first clear evidence that the Xbox 360 will include Xbox compatibility. Here’s the text that everyone’s talking about:

Xbox Live is an online gaming service that works across both the current Xbox system and the future Xbox 2. You will be able to play online and compete against others across both consoles. If you are playing an Xbox game on Live you will be able to compete against people playing that same game on Xbox 2.

I read this a bit differently–to me, it says that if you have a game that’s available natively for both the Xbox 1 and Xbox 2360, then you’ll be able to compete online against users on either platform. This is similar to games that are available for both the PC and the Mac–some games allow mixed-platform network games, some don’t. Since we know that at least two Xbox 1 titles will be available natively on the Xbox 360 (Project Gotham Racing 2 and Halo 2), this is a perfectly reasonable statement for Microsoft to make.

I’m still hoping that they’ll be able to make the compatibility layer work well enough to ship, but I’m not holding my breath. I suspect that it works well enough with most games, but there are a handful that Just Don’t Work, and they’ll probably get less bad press over the lack of backwards compatibility then they would if they released a flaky emulation layer.

One interesting approach that they could take with this–if there are only a small number of broken games, they could pre-load the Xbox 360’s (optional, but required for Xbox 1 compatibility) hard drive with patches (or even complete replacements) for the games that don’t work. Or, they could make the emulator refuse to load the broken games, and then allow emulator updates via Xbox Live. This way, they could push the blame for broken games off to the games’ publishers–“I’m sorry that only Microsoft games work with the Xbox 360, go complain to your game’s vendor.”