Microsoft Bans Gamers Using Retail Mode Emulators on Xbox

Microsoft is pulling out all the stops to prevent emulators from being used by mainstream gamers on its Xbox series consoles. A few months ago, the Xbox team announced that emulators running in “retail mode” would no longer be legal, and banned all emulators from the Microsoft Store. However, the situation quickly escalated when a group of developers found a loophole in the system. As a result, Microsoft is now handing out 15-day suspensions to anyone desperate enough to run emulators outside of developer mode (due to the loophole).

Emulation is the defacto way to keep really old classic games, say from the PS1 era from going the way of the Dodo. With emulation, gamers can continue playing these really old games on modern computer hardware. However, due to the additional cost of running emulation, many gamers prefer to use hardware like the Xbox series consoles to play emulated games since these consoles have really powerful CPUs compared to other consoles (like the Nintendo Switch).

In fact, Microsoft’s Xbox series consoles are so powerful that they can run emulated games at higher resolutions and extra graphical options than originally intended.

Apparently Microsoft never officially disclosed why emulators were banned, but Azure developer Alyanna McKenna on Twitter shared some insider knowledge from the Xbox QA team about the ban. According to her tweet, Microsoft banned emulators due to copyright protection issues with Nintendo. Emulators published on the Microsoft Store can come pre-bundled with Nintendo games that are not legally allowed to be played by the application.

Additionally, the tweet goes on to say that these emulators can require permissions beyond the typical use case for a game or app on an Xbox console, and banning emulators altogether can close this security loophole as well. Now, it’s worth noting that this is not an official Microsoft press release, but it gives us good insight into its decision-making on the matter.

However, this did not stop developers and hackers from making a workaround to get past the ban altogether. Apparently, a few months after Microsoft put the ban in place, a group of emulation developers were able to exploit a fault in Microsoft’s software that allowed their emulator to run in an Xbox console’s normal mode or “retail mode” (more on that later). As a result, Microsoft has now added an additional 15-day suspension for anyone gutsy enough to try this workaround.

Thankfully this problem is not that serious, for some reason Microsoft still allows Xbox gamers to run emulation apps as long as the console is running in “development mode” instead of “retail mode”. A development license only costs $20 so it’s a very easy way to re-enable emulation support on an Xbox console legally. But, given how stringent Microsoft has been with its current policy, don’t be surprised if this “loophole” also gets banned in the future.