We have to say, Microsoft’s decision to reveal the specs of Scorpio, the new Xbox One hardware update exclusively to Digital Foundry, was really smart. Microsoft knew that once the machine was presented to the developers, the news could easily spread around, so it decided to anticipate everyone. Microsoft knows this enhanced console needs to win back the hearts and minds of hardcore gamers who switched to PlayStation three and a half years ago. To convince these guys, you first have to convince major communities like NeoGAF, but to convince NeoGAF, you have to convince Digital Foundry.
Of course, the success of this strategy will depend on Microsoft’s ability to put together a good machine. One of the most effective choices was to design it as a console designed exclusively for games: the most powerful and best designed machine ever, more like the original Xbox and Xbox 360 than the Xbox One multimedia product. . Another good decision was to choose late 2017 for the launch of the console, and this is because Microsoft knew that at that time there would be components that could easily reach a resolution in native 4K, at the same time, the 4K TVs are becoming the industry standard for the mass market. And this has already happened: try to buy a FullHD solution that is not small in size. On the contrary, Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro was poorly explained, confusedly conceived and very rushed, as it was launched before the chipsets, or at least the customers, were ready.
Phil Spencer will feel very satisfied after the reveal of Scorpio on the stage of E3 on Sunday, complete with real name, release date and price. You may not be inclined to buy a product that falls within the concept of mid-gen hardware, updated simply to throw out more pixels, also because that skill has yet to be demonstrated. But what we already know about Scorpio suggests that, in its own way, it will be a particularly interesting product.
But there is more. Spencer and his team have been in a positive phase for some time now, in which they have made excellent decisions and have made good projects. The Xbox 360 Backward Compatibility Program is keeping old player libraries alive, as well as enriching the content of the Xbox One offering with hundreds of great old titles that can be purchased digitally. This connects perfectly with the recently launched Xbox Game Pass, which allows you to download over 100 games for a monthly fee and which, presenting itself as a sort of “Netflix for games”, turns out to be much more convincing than some services for the most technologically complex streaming, such as PlayStation Now or OnLive. For gamers, this is certainly a good deal at a reasonable price, adding a ton of gaming content to their Xboxes.
For Microsoft, however, it’s a new revenue stream and a way to stay in the gaming industry for a while longer, something that benefits them without necessarily destroying other services. Microsoft wants this service to be long-lasting and good. The idea behind Scorpio and even extending Xbox to Windows, including PC versions of first-party games, is that console video games and their hardware no longer need to be locked in a mutually assured death cycle. Games can live on, on other machines, on other platforms and in other eras. You don’t have to go too far to understand their source of inspiration: just take a look at your Steam launcher.
Since, for the most part, Steam moves on thanks to digital purchases, perhaps this is just a sneaky way to retry the historically under-appreciated move of taking game ownership away from players. But as Steam has once again shown, if players are offered affordable and valid titles in return, giving up ownership is a sacrifice that users are ready to make. And this time, Xbox is moving the project forward with the right perspective and with valid reasons – another big decision.
All of this makes Xbox a good platform to play on, starting with smaller features like Co-Pilot – a lovely accessibility tool that lets you split controls between two gamepads. Or like the Xbox Creators Program which will open the platform to many more developers and could, perhaps, lead to a partial rebirth of that insane hinterland that was Xbox Live Indie Games on Xbox 360.
You probably guess that at this point there would be a “but”, one of the big ones.
Confronting a dominant competitor, such as PlayStation (not to mention Steam on PC), is just a big deal and a pleasant environment isn’t enough. Even the promise that Scorpio can offer the best version of their favorite games may not be enough, at least not anymore. It worked for PS4, but that was a level playing field. Instead, Scorpio must fight against the inertia generated by all PS4 games already purchased, against all friends on the PSN.
Come on, when it comes out, it might be one of the coolest racing games ever, but is it enough to sell more consoles?
There is only one weapon that can be used to fight this war, which is must-have exclusive games. Even just one would be enough, if it were good enough, if it were a Halo: Combat Evolved or a Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The important thing is that you are inclined to desire it, that it thrills you and that it is unique.
This is a point where Xbox has been struggling recently, perhaps surprisingly considering that the console division is in the hands of Spencer, once head of Microsoft Game Studios and a well-known man with a fondness for software. The titles published by Microsoft Game Studios are high-quality, polished games, but also desperately unexciting, with the exception of the fun Forza Horizon 3. Titanic gaming names like Halo and Gears of War now seem tired and uninspired after years of sequel they kept themselves safe by not daring, as if they had stepped out of the work of expert cover bands rather than original bands. A promised collaboration with Platinum Games rock stars to develop Scalebound has been canceled. Forza Motorsport 7 will be gorgeous in 4K, but it won’t turn E3 on, even remotely. Crackdown is a fan favorite, but it’s another look into the past. Finally, Rare’s Sea of Thieves is original and ambitious, but it’s easy to see a lack of confidence in the way it’s been shown so far. Where are Horizon: Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild or Xbox’s Bloodborne? Where’s that exclusive Xbox game that makes our brains splash?
I don’t know, but I want so much. The fact is that Xbox has only been half committed to first-party developers for years now, and the work that was done was risk-free. It’s definitely not a good thing within a creative industry, and the contrast with Sony’s first-party publishing system, with its willingness to postpone release, fail, and heavily fund insane vain projects, is like between night and day.
The pressure is therefore very high. With Scorpio, Xbox may fail to position itself better in the console war to recover the lost battlefield. To gain ground at E3, he needs something stronger than just making good decisions, but doing something he’s been failing at for a long time: he needs to surprise us.