Xbox E3 2016 Project Scorpio and Xbox One S
It’s fair to say this console generation has not gone smoothly for Microsoft and the Xbox One. From the first announcements which was riddled with mixed messages and a poorly executed E3 reveal Microsoft have been on the back foot. Refocusing on games and having the best line up of AAA, indie and 3rd party titles has gone some way to undoing the initial damage but in the minds of the game playing public the PlayStation is simply the superior platform.
Looking to ram home their considerable advantage Sony wisely revealed an upgraded PS4 console codename NEO that whilst falling short of a full next-gen console would offer a worthwhile upgrade and perhaps another reason for Xbox One owners yet to make the jump to get on board the good ship Sony. Microsoft needed to respond.
A few weeks ago rumours started to hit various reddit groups of a smaller, more powerful Xbox One Console and even the Scorpio codename was being used. In typical internet fashion various theories circulated of a super powerful new console but I didn’t see Microsoft making the jump so early especially when the Xbox One was outselling the 360 so far. The timing seemed off and Microsoft had reiterated their desire to keep the Xbox One as their platform of choice for at least another 5 years. Jumping to a new console simply couldn’t happen, could it?
Xbox One S
The smaller Xbox was going to happen at some point and moving the PSU inside the console has taken far too long to engineer but the real goal for the Xbox Slim appears to be as a gateway to the wonderful world of 4k Video. The Xbox One will be the best value 4K platform on the market when it launches undercutting all but the cheapest 4k players thanks to it’s UHD Drive and access to 4k Netflix and other streaming services. The addition of HDR support will add some extra visual goodness to forthcoming titles like Gears of War that support it. For those not familiar with HDR it’s a technology used in Photography to extract far higher levels of detail from scenes so blacks are really black and whites are really white. There is of course more to it but implemented correctly HDR can add an amazing sense of drama to a scene and some even believe HDR is a bigger visual leap than 4k. Not many source support HDR yet but the major studios are on board as well as Netflix, HULU and Amazon so content is coming. You will need a HDR TV which aren’t hard to find but you may want to check the capabilities of your TV.
The other main change is the dropping of the Kinect port for people like me who use Kinect we’ll need a USB adapter that Microsoft will supply for free and the real key is the reduced price. Price is always super important for consoles and getting it below £300 represents something of a milestone for the Xbox One.
Microsoft saved the biggest till the very end although rumours had been floating about for a while it’s fair to say there was an audible gasp from the audience when Scorpio was announced. Somehow Scorpio was largely well-kept secret Microsoft somehow kept at least partially buried until the end of their presentation. Although light on detail its clear Microsoft have been badly burned by having an underpowered console this generation and no doubt spurred on by their Developer partners are really pushing the boat out with the Scorpio.
In the few days since the E3 reveal and now all the hype has dies down to something approaching normal levels some additional information on Scorpio has come from Phil Spencer. Some of it is confusing which is fair enough when it comes from an actual person not some PR robot but if you dig through it you can sort of see something resembling a plan from the Xbox team.
Scorpio and Xbox One are designed to co-exist the plan is not to have Scorpio supersede the Xbox One and push it into irrelevance and early retirement. Previous performance leaps have come at the cost of replacing the older generation. Manufacturing and development stops as the platform owner and developers move onto the latest product. This is not what Scorpio is about it isn’t designed as the successor for the Xbox One but to provide a premium way to have that experience. Consoles are routinely hammered for being down on power when compared to PC’s now Microsoft is aiming to fix this disparity with a new super powerful platform.
Backward compatibility isn’t an issue this time around as the platform isn’t changing, the architecture on Scorpio maybe radically different but the Operation System isn’t. The change from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One was so massive from a hardware standpoint it took a herculean effort from Microsoft to bring the 360 titles to Xbox One and in many cases the experience is heavily compromised in the transition. With Scorpio this won’t be an issue the games will just run as they would on the Xbox One. Initially Phil Spencer stated there would be difference between playing say Halo 5 on Xbox One S and Scorpio but now it appears that isn’t entirely correct. Games like Halo use Dynamic Resolution Scaling that adjusts the games resolution depending on GPU load keeping the frame rate at 60FPS but dropping down from 1080p. With Scorpio you will be at the maximum 60FPS due to the increased power made available.
In practice you will go to your game store or online marketplace and download your game and whatever platform you start it on you should have the same flawless experience just one may be running at a higher resolution. No mention of increased graphical details, anti-aliasing etc that in my experience can add more to a game that simple resolution bumps. That was my concern Microsoft have become so focused on this 4K target they may forget the wider experience or worse, compromise it.
Consoles really are more than the sum of their parts as developers get better at utilising the hardware results invariably improve but from day 1 both the Xbox One and the PS4 have felt like stop gaps whilst we wait for the big leap past 1080p and on towards 4k. PC’s are heading that way and crucially for a console 4K televisions are common place in stores and growing ever more affordable. Now is the perfect time for platform holders to take the leap and to see Microsoft back at the front of the pack speaks volumes for their commitment to Console gaming.
In a further interview at that man Phil Spencer put my mind at ease by confirming there is no mandatory 4k resolution being applied to Xbox Scorpio games developers are free to use all that power however they deem fit. Maybe a 1440p presentation will be the sweet spot and as a PC gamer that is one incredible experience. It may not sound like a huge leap but 1440p or 2,560 x 1440 offer close to 2 times the pixel count of 1080p and 4 times that of 720p. Factor in a huge increase in texture details, aliasing effects, draw distance and the latest GPU technology and we’re in for a jump bigger than that between the 360 and Xbox One.
The console landscape has shifted radically following the reveal of Scorpio and Sony’s NEO console. Why should they be constrained by this 8 year lifecycle when PC technology is moving so fast and especially with the Xbox platform we now have the capability of deploying a new hardware device keeping all your current experiences relevant and moving them with you. Trading in my Xbox 360 was a miserable experience because all those years of games went with it. All that investment and games gone in the name of progress was a bitter pill to swallow. I didn’t have to do it admittedly but being left behind whilst friends made the leap was never going to happen.
Now we have a choice whether we stick with the Xbox One or make the step up to Scorpio. Have a 4k TV and money to burn go and buy Scorpio for those sweet visuals. Or stick with what you have and upgrade later whatever you chose you won’t miss out. There will be no Scorpio exclusive games, you won’t be locked out of anything. Games will work just like they do on PC with the more powerful hardware running higher resolutions with higher quality. The core experience is the same one just looks better and runs faster just like the PC landscape.
This plays neatly into one of the other big reveals from Microsoft and that’s Xbox Play anywhere the play anywhere system where first party titles can be played on any Windows 10 device. Buy say Gears of War 4 for Windows 10 and you get it on Xbox One, Xbox One S and Scorpio. Your saves, content and DLC are all Synchronised and with the expanded Xbox Apps for Windows 10 you will have full access to Xbox Live on your PC including party chat and cross play. I can sit and play Gears on my Windows PC with my mates on Xbox. I may play with a keyboard and mouse at a higher resolution but we will be playing the same game, in the same party.
So far we have the following games in the Play Anywhere program
- Gears of War 4
- Forza Horizons 3
- Sea of Thieves
- Halo Wars 2
- Ark: Survival Evolved
- We happy Few
- Crackdown 3
That’s quite a diverse collection that includes 3 of Microsofts biggest exclusives in Gears 4, Halo Wars and Forza Horizon 3. This is a big push on their part and not another pointless Games for Windows experiment. Play Anywhere has been the plan for several years no doubt going back to the Xbox One Development as a way to increase the install base for Xbox. The days of Xbox being a physical console are well and truly over for Microsoft it’s all about the Xbox service and the console is just one possible endpoint. Xbox has always been Microsoft’s Trojan horse to get it into the living room connected up to your TV. It’s a tactic that has worked pretty well with millions of consoles living under our TV’s hooked up to Xbox Live delivering us great entertainment as well as some of the best gaming experiences available.
Windows 10 is where things started to change no doubt driven by the explosive growth in PC gaming as hardware costs came down allowing more players to add a PC to their gaming devices or to completely leave the console space completely. These players who left the Xbox or PlayStation are still playing on a Microsoft device and so long as it’s running Windows 10 Microsoft can target them with Play Anywhere. On a personal level the ability to play regardless of the platform is a real blessing as I have a large friend base still running on Xbox One whilst I prefer to play on the PC where possible. This would cut me off from those friends and playing great games like The Division and Destiny Solo. I would often chose the inferior console product just so I could enjoy the social elements that make Xbox Live the premier online platform. Now thanks to Play Anywhere that is no longer a concern.
You might wonder what the motivation for Microsoft is after all the Xbox One is selling incredibly well and the new Xbox One S and its price drop is going to do very well at retail. I think the brilliance of Sony has stung Microsoft into action to stop the exodus of gamers to the Sony Platform. I’ve been sceptical regarding Microsoft’s commitment to Xbox as a console device with their ever increasing drive towards Xbox as a service but going this big so early in a console cycle reinforces Microsoft’s commitment. No mistake Scorpio is a massive step forward for a games console and arguably bigger than the Original Xbox which at launch was leagues ahead of anything available in the PC space.
Taken in isolation a new console even one launching so soon after its predecessor isn’t that surprising especially when you consider how badly it’s doing against the competition but factor in the new “Play Anywhere” focus and it’s a different story. Microsoft have always invested massively in Exclusive content but at this E3 with the exception of Halo it looks Microsoft will be publishing all of its big hitters on both Windows 10 and Xbox. Gears of War, Scalebound even Rare and Sea of Thieves will hit Windows 10 and Xbox.
As shown with the recent Quantum Break the Windows 10 release was a proper mess, barely playable in places and so poorly optimised it looked like the Xbox One version after it had been thrown up a few dozen times. I’m not for a second stating that all future titles will be just as broken on Launch but it shows that path isn’t as straight forward as Microsoft may want us to believe.
This generation really seems like it may redefine the roles platform holders play and how they design and release Hardware. Nobody could have predicted just how fast the PC landscape has progressed in the past 3 years. Not just in terms of raw performance but in price and affordability we are now at a point where gamers can build a gaming PC for £500 that can rival or beat a console less than 3 years after they launched. The middle ground is where consoles always succeeded, where players didn’t want to spend upwards of £1000 when they could go buy a console, stick it under their TV and not worry about upgrading it for years to come.
A fixed platform, a known quantity and a low investment are key strengths of the console industry but they are also its biggest weakness. Gamers are flocking to the PC for gaming kicks due to a mix of accessibility, affordability and visual fidelity. Consoles can’t compete and are in danger of becoming irrelevant which has no doubt prompted both Microsoft and Sony to shift their design Philosophy and release new hardware so early this Generation. It’s more a case of their hand being forced than a genuine desire to break the mould.
If Scorpio is capable of 60 Hz true 4k gaming at a realistic price point Microsoft will have the only affordable 4k gaming device. This is certainly not possible using anything AMD have currently available in terms of Hardware at least. As a PC builder I can’t build a true 4K system for less than £1500 when you factor in the requirement for x2 1070 GPU’s for a smooth experience. So how could the Xbox Scorpio carry this of? One possibility is Microsoft of course taking a massive hit on the price of the console to keep prices down as low as possible and with AMD supplying the vast majority of the silicon. This arrangement would suit both parties with AMD’s ever shrinking PC market share consoles could be the companies’ life line.
But, and there is always a but with these reveals there is one further unknown and that is the price. Spencer referred to Scorpio as a “Premium device” and anyone familiar with Microsoft’s recent move into hardware will know when they say “premium” they mean Expensive. Other such hardware from Microsoft include the Surface tablet and the Surface Book Laptop both very well regarded devices but like the Apple products they are in competition with your really pay through the nose. Sure the ability to use your current games and peripherals may cushion the blow somewhat and for serious gamers that are currently flocking on mass towards the PC platform maybe holding off and going down the Scorpio route makes sense. Well it makes sense if Microsoft can deliver on its promise of 4k gaming and high fidelity VR & somehow manage to keep the price below £1000. Yes £1000 for a games console may sound like madness but that’s a low entry point for something packing so much gaming punch.
If we go back to what Phil Spencer said at E3 he referenced the Premium device and those who want the 4k resolution leaving the Xbox One and Xbox One S for those without 4k. This would usually worry me and I would be concerned about dividing the fan base but Spencer confirmed that not only would all hardware devices, controllers, headsets etc be 100% compatible but so would the games. Scorpio will not have any exclusive games but like the PC if you play on Scorpio you will have access to the higher resolution. Coupled with the renewed focus on “play anywhere” Scorpio seems more like a bridge between the Xbox One and PC market than a competitor. Want to go to Windows 10 PC then take your Xbox Live ID with you and share your games library. Buy Gears of War once and play it on Xbox One, Scorpio and Windows 10 PC.
The only thing that could be described as a negative is the reveal of the Xbox One S that also debuted at E3. A new Xbox One model with 4K UHD Blu-Ray drive and HDR is hardly a worthwhile upgrade your existing console and served to divert some attention away from Scorpio. It seems a little strange to me almost like Scorpio came a long at the last minute when the slim model was already in production ready for an E3 reveal. Microsoft reacting to market conditions is hardly a new thing but having 3 Xbox models on store shelves is going to be more than a little confusing for some casual buyers. It’s hard not to be excited by a new hardware device but without a proper close look at the hardware in Scorpio it’s difficult to establish it’s real world capabilities. There can be no doubting it’s clear power advantage over every other console announced so far and more importantly for Microsoft it puts them back in front. Gives them something positive to focus on, win back some trust and slow the juggernaut that is the PS4.
I said a while back Microsoft need to radically rethink this console generation and bring something massive to the table. It sure seems like they have done just that with Scorpio a potentially game changing piece of hardware. It’s hard not to look at Scorpio and to a lesser extent the Xbox One S and see a hint of desperation, a company on the back foot struggling to keep pace with it’s competition but that’s the position Microsoft are in. From day 1 Sony came out of the blocks with a clear message “This is for the players” whilst Microsoft pushed a jumbled, ill-conceived console onto us. It didn’t help that the PlayStation 4 is by a large margin the more powerful of the two consoles not only that but it was priced well.
Microsoft had to respond to Sony’s dominance and go after those early adopters. The gamers that want to play the best games, at the highest resolutions and are happy to pay for the privilege. It’s not aimed at the casual player who spend a few hours a week playing Minecraft but the dedicated hardcore players who smash hour after hour from their parents basements. Scorpio is Microsoft kicking back, taking the lead and going after 4k whilst it’s competitors spin their wheels in the dust.