Why modern consoles can’t just “run any… older executable”

The legal issues getting in the way of “legal emulation”

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Historically, when major game companies have talked about emulation, they’ve pigeonholed the technology primarily as a way for players to steal their IP through piracy. Now, though, Xbox chief Phil Spencer is urging the industry to embrace legal emulation as a way to preserve the legacy and wider availability of older games.

“My hope (and I think I have to present it that way as of now) is as an industry we’d work on legal emulation that allowed modern hardware to run any (within reason) older executable allowing someone to play any game,” Spencer told Axios in a recent interview. “I think in the end, if we said, ‘Hey, anybody should be able to buy any game, or own any game and continue to play,’ that seems like a great North Star for us as an industry.”

That’s an admirable goal and an important statement of intent from a major console executive going forward. But in the real world, legal emulation of older games runs into some practical licensing problems that make it hard to achieve Spencer’s “run any… older executable” ideal.

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