Taken all in one go, Microsoft’s plans for gaming are convoluted and confusing. There’s new hardware coming out right now, there’s the promise of much more powerful hardware in the future, and there’s always the looming presence of PC gaming and Xbox exclusives on Windows 10. That’s a problem, but believe it or not, Microsoft are finally getting to control the message and dictate the pace of this console generation.
The Xbox One S is a long overdue redesign of the Xbox One hardware, slimming the machine down, letting you prop it up in a vertical position, and improving certain parts of the specification where it can, with HDR and support for 4K video output. Not only that, but at £249 and with an Ultra HD Blu-Ray drive, it’s the best priced UHD box by far – however niche that market is – pulling the same trick that the PlayStation managed over the years, with cost effective CD, DVD and Blu-ray playback.
It’s also been used as an opportunity to cement Microsoft’s 180º turn after some of the disastrous decisions made when designing the original hardware. Phil Spencer said, shortly after taking over as head of Xbox, that they would focus on gaming going forward, instead of general entertainment, and you can see that in the removal of a dedicated Kinect port on the S’ hardware – there’s a USB adapter available for free to those upgrading, though.
But over the past half year, much to the chagrin of certain corners of the internet, that renewed focus on games has also meant a deemphasis on the Xbox One console itself. After well over a decade of trying, Microsoft are finally mastering the art of having Windows as a premier gaming platform to call their own. PC gaming has always been a rich and diverse market, but that stood at odds with the countless Microsoft games that remained trapped on consoles.
Now those borders are being broken down further with the Xbox Play Anywhere programme which, similar to PlayStation’s Cross-Buy, lets you buy a game once on Xbox or Windows 10 and own a copy on the other side of the fence as well. That really started with Quantum Break earlier this year, but Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, Ark: Survival Evolved and a good handful of indie games are embracing it over the coming months. Forza Horizon 3 even goes as far as to feature seamless cross-platform multiplayer.
Certainly, there’s questions over why you’d want the game on both Xbox and Windows 10, if you own a capable gaming PC that can outstrip an Xbox One, but it’s a nice and generous move from Microsoft, regardless. In some ways, it feels like it’s actually more of a workaround, and that Microsoft would love to unite Xbox and Windows gaming under a single banner and a single market place.
Perhaps that’s the goal for the future, but that future might not actually be all that far away. Project Scorpio is real, and alongside the PlayStation 4 “Neo”, it looks set to shatter the notion of fixed console hardware. Coming at the end of 2017, it’s a long way off, but it’s also a beast of a machine.
With 6 TFLOPS – trillion floating operating points per second – of processing power that will seriously ramp up the specifications of the 8 core CPU and GPU, Microsoft are going to make 4K and virtual reality gaming a possibility for the living room. The current hardware for both Xbox and PlayStation struggles, at times, to even manage 1080p, so quadrupling the resolution and doing so without compromise is a hugely ambitious goal.
To put all of that into perspective, there are only half a dozen GPUs currently on the market that have more than 6 TFLOPS of computing power, and the cheapest of those, NVidia’s GTX 1070, is $380 on its own – these GPUs, it should be said, still struggle to hit 4K at 60fps in benchmark tests. Microsoft are looking a generation of GPU hardware into the future, certainly, but this is going to be an eminently powerful games console and it’s going to have a price point to match, even accounting for the rate at which technology prices can drop.
It’s a spoiler, of sorts, for the One S announcement, though. A number of people have questioned the need for the One S and whether it will sell, but the important thing is to realise that the slimmer console is still a very attractive package and can gain traction with a strong marketing campaign – which I’m pretty sure will do little to emphasise Project Scorpio’s future existence.
Even so, why would Microsoft announce Scorpio now? Control. They are now firmly in control of the message and path of this mid-generation hardware upgrade. Sony completely and utterly failed to keep a lid on the “Neo” rumours, right down to the point where leaks have said it will be roughly 2.3x as powerful, at around 4.2 TFLOPS, and Andrew House stated at the end of last week that the console would not make an appearance at this year’s E3.
And so Microsoft have been able to set out their stall and tell us what we should expect these hardware upgrades to be able to do. Or to put it another way: Game on, Sony.