Disc-based Xbox One games and many cross-generational discs that rely on “Smart Delivery” require an online connection to play on the Xbox Series X, limiting the system’s ballyhooed backward compatibility. This limitation, which has been present since the console launched last year, was recently highlighted in a video by ModernVintageGaming and confirmed in testing by Ars Technica.
What’s happening here?
When you put an Xbox One disc in the Xbox Series X, the system copies the data off the disc and onto the internal hard drive, mirroring what happens if you put the disc into an Xbox One. But if the Series X isn’t connected to the Internet, trying to load that disc-based copy from the hard drive for the first time results in an error message: “This game isn’t ready yet. Go online to finish installing it.”
When played on an Xbox One, that same disc-based copy can be copied to the hard drive and loaded, even if the system is completely offline (provided the disc remains in the drive in all cases).
After you connect the Series X to the Internet, attempting to load the disc-based Xbox One copy from the hard drive again leads to a brief “Getting your game ready…” message and then a prompt to download any available update files. Those updates aren’t required to play the game, though; even if you refuse the download, you can then go back offline and play your Xbox One disc on the Series X without any apparent issue.
On the PS5, in contrast, offline backward compatibility works much more simply. There, disc-based PS4 games can be installed from the disc and played directly, without any need for an online connection.
Microsoft’s one-time online check is also required for many disc-based games labeled as cross-generation “Smart Delivery” titles across the Xbox One and Xbox Series X. In many (if not most) cases, the Smart Delivery disc itself simply includes the Xbox One version of the game, and the Series X upgrade requires downloading files from the Internet. If you install that Smart Delivery Xbox One game from the disc while offline, you still have to perform a one-time online check before being able to play at all, even if you don’t want to download the Series X upgrade files.
“For Smart Delivery, developers can elect to include both the Xbox One and Xbox Series X versions on a disc to play offline, but in some cases, you’ll need to be connected to the Internet to download additional content,” a Microsoft representative told Ars Technica.
Disc-based games designed exclusively for the Series X, such as Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition, seem to be the only titles that can be installed and played on a completely offline Series X. For these games, the files on the disc run without the need for an online check-in at any point.
In a way, needing an online connection for disc-based backward compatibility isn’t a new situation for Xbox owners. After all, playing compatible Xbox 360 and original Xbox games on an Xbox One or Xbox Series X requires players to download a completely new copy of the game from Microsoft’s servers that can then run through an emulation layer on the more modern hardware. In those cases, the data on the disc itself isn’t used at all, and the disc simply serves as a sort of physical “license check” proving that you own the game.
For Xbox One Games running on the Series X, though, that’s not the case. There, the raw game data is being copied from the disc itself and can be run without any explicit, user-controlled “update” downloaded from a Microsoft server. Despite that change, the system still requires an online connection before the first time the game is loaded.
An Xbox representative has yet to comment on this issue in response to a request from Ars Technica. On the ResetEra forums, though, a verified “Developer at Xbox” going by OscarK writes that the system “need[s] to be online one-time during install to download specific config files (separate from actual game patches).”
The key here, OscarK writes, is that opaque “Getting your game ready…” message that appears during the first online-connected load of an Xbox One game on the Series X. That message masks what OscarK calls a “registration step” encompassing a “multi-step process which involves decryption of the package header, download of metadata, [and] provisioning of any additional storage space that the game requires for temporary files. For Xbox One BC games on Series X|S, this is also when a one-time Internet connection is required for compatibility bits.”
It’s this hidden download of configuration files and “compatibility bits” that necessitates the online check-in for disc-based Xbox One games, according to OscarK. And if that situation seems confusing and poorly presented to you, OscarK would agree.
“My main takeaway is that we (Xbox) need to improve our on-console error messaging,” he writes. “The very generic and unclear error messaging clearly adds confusion and can lead to mistrust of the system. There is actually an effort internally to revamp licensing related error messaging, and I will ensure that this feedback is heard internally to continue driving that effort.”
Is this a big problem?
Many Xbox Series X users may never encounter this problem as a practical impediment; we certainly missed it in our initial tests of the system’s backward compatibility and subsequent use of the system. In the US, at least, the vast majority of console users have had a broadband connection for their console since at least 2010, and that number has likely only increased in the last decade. Microsoft even assumes you have an online connection to download updates when you first set up the system.
And it’s important to remember that this online check-in is a one-time requirement. Subsequent disc-based play should work just fine even if you don’t have a working Internet connection.
But that broad compatibility probably won’t last forever. At some point, years from now, Microsoft will likely decide it’s not interested in maintaining infrastructure for the aging Xbox Series X and will turn off the servers connecting the system to Xbox Live for these kinds of compatibility checks.
When that time comes, any disc-based Xbox One game—and any Smart Delivery game without native Series X code on the disc itself—will no longer work on the console (though it should still work on an Xbox One). That might sound familiar to gamers who recently found out about a similar but wider-ranging kill-switch that could eventually turn aging PS3 and PS4 hardware into useless bricks.
“Combined with its forced online setup, ALL Xbox consoles and smart delivery games will one day be obsolete,” write the self-described “preservation activists” behind the “Does it Play?” Twitter account. “Talk about caring for preservation all you want, actions speak louder than words and right now Xbox is the worst platform for preservation.”
Listing image by Sam Machkovech