Microsoft has had a very strange E3 this year. It’s fair to say that their presentation on Monday evening was solid. They had a range of good games to show off, some really exciting announcements regarding their future integration of Xbox and Windows, and they generally didn’t really put a foot wrong. Ever since then, however, the messaging coming out of the Xbox camp has been downright confusing, with quotes and statements conflicting with each other so much it’s hard to know where they, or we, truly stand any more.
Truth be told this started at the conference itself. Towards the beginning of the show they revealed the Xbox One S – a slimline version of the Xbox One that looks neater, is more visually pleasing than its predecessor and comes at a very reasonable price. Roughly one hour later they were closing their show out by telling us they were ditching the Xbox One in favour of their next console – Project Scorpio.
Now, I know that this almost runs counter to what was actually said (almost). “No-one left behind” is the key marketing message to take away from the reveal. Scorpio will become a part of the Xbox One family. All the games and peripherals will be backwards and forwards compatible, so you’ll still be able to play all the games on either console. There will be no Scorpio exclusives.
So then, it’s worth asking the question, what’s the point of it? Is it purely just to make games run in 4K? Maybe it’s to make sure all the pixels on the screen are high quality and uncompressed (which is probably the most embarrassing quote I’ve read in a long while). “The only thing that Scorpio will be good for is to run games in 4K.” said Phil Spencer in one breath, then with the next declaring that, “Developers will be able to make use of the extra horsepower however they see fit.”
Which is it? It can’t be both, since those statements are mutually exclusive.
If the first statement is true then Scorpio is an expensive waste of time. The only person who will find it useful in any way will be a resolution snob who already owns an expensive 4K TV. That makes the console more or less redundant, whether the pixels are uncompressed or not.
If the second statement is true, then it’s fair to argue that Microsoft is in fact leaving the Xbox One behind. Not least of which because we have been told that there could in fact be Scorpio exclusive games. Except there definitely won’t. Let’s set aside the fact that Microsoft can’t decide whether there will or won’t be Scorpio-exclusive games for the moment and carry on with the original point.
At what point does an Xbox One game become an inferior product? When it runs at a lower resolution and/or framerate than its Scorpio equivalent? No, of course not. Improved graphics don’t make a game better or worse, they just make it nicer to look at.
But what if that’s not enough to get the game running on Xbox One? What if a developer has taken full advantage of the extra power found in Scorpio and lowering the resolution and framerate (and re-compressing the pixels) doesn’t get the game running well? Do they remove features? That’s got to be the next logical step. Where do you draw the line at “not being left behind”?
If you think that sounds absurd, it really isn’t. Consider for a moment all of the promises made at the end of Microsoft’s press conference on Monday. For Scorpio to be able to fulfill them all, it’s hardware specifications would need to be leaps and bounds ahead of Xbox One. For starters, they’re promising 4K gaming, which means that Scorpio will need to support resolutions four times greater than Xbox One. More than four times, since Xbox One games regularly don’t even run at 1080p anyway.
The projected spec analysis required to pull that one off is through the roof. And if Phil Spencer’s second statement is correct, then even after the games are rendered in 4K resolutions, there’s going to be power to spare.
If Scorpio is going to do the things that Microsoft says it will (mostly) there’s no way it won’t leave the Xbox One behind. If Scorpio is that much more powerful than the Xbox One, the question suddenly becomes “what’s the point of Xbox One?”
Because there’s another side to this coin – Xbox Play Anywhere. Not only is Xbox One about to be dwarfed by a far superior model, but it doesn’t have a single exclusive title. Every “exclusive” title will be available on Windows 10. Microsoft seem to have forgotten what the word exclusive actually means.
Between Scorpio and PC cross-play, buying an Xbox One right now seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world. But Microsoft are doing themselves no favours in the way they’re putting the messaging out. They’ve basically told us that they’re not abandoning Xbox One, but they’re bringing out a new console, only it’s not the next console, it’s a complimentary piece of hardware, because no-one is left behind.
Imagine if they’d gone with that messaging when launching the Xbox One after the Xbox 360. Or the 360 after the original Xbox.
The way this has been handled makes me think it’s 2013 all over again – when the Xbox One needed to be always online to function correctly, when the Kinect was a required piece of hardware to make the machine run and it would be supported with a vast library of software. Until none of that was true.
It’s fair to point out that Sony will need to answer all of these questions when they reveal the Playstation Neo. They’ve only sidestepped the issue for now, but they’ve made a lot of the same noises that Microsoft have about their next console that isn’t really their next console.
Hopefully they’ll at least be able to ensure that all of their pixels are uncompressed.