When is a hardware generation not a hardware generation? When people keep on launching new hardware in the middle of it. The new Xbox has been discussed by everyone, Microsoft included, for some time now, but the revealing of the final design, name and price at E3 drove home that this is a console generation like no other.
We sat down with Dave McCarthy, head of Xbox operations, to talk about the upcoming console and the company’s exclusive line-up for the rest of 2017 – and with an Xbox One X positioned casually on the table between us, it’s an obvious place to start.
X MARKS THE SPOT
We talk about the name first. It’s a good name, but it’s a tricky balancing act between making sure it feels part of the current ‘Xbox One’ generation, while still differentiating it significantly from the current Xbox One S. We even suggest the Scorpio code name was so popular it might just outlast its planned usefulness.
“There was a real appeal to going back to our roots as an ‘X’ box team. That original Xbox was founded on a principle of real technical innovation, opening up some new avenues for games developers, and gamers overall. So it didn’t take us long to land on the X name,” McCarthy explains. “It spoke to us, it meant something in our history. So, as a team, we gravitated to the name pretty quickly. But I like Scorpio as a project code name as well.”
It spoke to us, it meant something in our history. So we gravitated to the name pretty quickly.
Dave McCarthy, Xbox
The new console’s black exterior is certainly reminiscent of the original Xbox – black says powerful and serious to us, far more so than the friendlier finishes of the Xbox 360 or the Xbox One S. We ask whether the colour scheme was planned all the way back to when the One S launched in white.
“Were we that purposeful?” McCarthy muses. “At the launch of the original Xbox One, we did a ‘we made this’ white version of the console for our employees. So we had white in mind, it was actually pretty awesome, people like the design of it in their rooms. And obviously putting together the Xbox One S was a pretty special design moment for us.
“Did I know that we were going to land back on black specifically? That might be a bit of a stretch, but it was definitely a journey we went on from launch with that special edition. We also did a special edition of the original Xbox One in white that sold very well.”
Purposeful or not, it’s a clearly visible difference between two products that are separated by only a single letter – and around £200 in price, of course. The Xbox One X being smaller than the S also came as a pleasant surprise, though it doesn’t help tell a visual story, with bigger often being equated with more powerful – something that’s obvious at a glance with the triple-tiered PS4 Pro.
“We put the challenge of ‘could you do it even smaller?’ because we got such good feedback on Xbox One S,” McCarthy explains, adding that it did require “some special engineering methods” to achieve, referencing the high-end vapour-cooling system that lets the console hardware run faster than most thought possible.
“We have done something surprising this time, to be able to introduce 40 per cent more processing power, and to really be at the forefront of defining what true 4K is. It’s not just eight million pixels – it’s high dynamic range, it’s wide colour gamut, it’s spatial audio. That felt like it was really getting back to our roots overall.”
I think a family of devices is a familiar concept. You can’t go wrong wherever you want to enter the Xbox family.
Dave McCarthy, Xbox
That’s a tickbox list of pretty much everything you could want from a high-end games console. Of course, there will be those who don’t want all that stuff, particularly at that price, but choice is certainly a good thing, and McCarthy agrees.
“I think a family of devices is a familiar concept, so I think you start with this premise. You can’t go wrong wherever you want to enter the Xbox family. Your accessories are going to work across the line-up, your games are going to work across the line-up.”
We posit that there’s no bad choice, then, just two good choices? “Honestly, I don’t think there is a bad choice. Xbox One S is a great device right now with HDR gaming, 4K video streaming and 4K Blu-ray support. Alongside Xbox One X, it’s the only console that supports 4K Blu-ray.”
McCarthy may be bullish about the One S, but the PS4 is widely accepted to be the more powerful console when it comes to the base version of each machine. With the Pro and the X, though, the situation is clearly reversed.
“If you really place a premium on true 4K, the power and performance at that price, I can’t think of anything else in the market that comes close to it overall,” says McCarthy, agreeing with our sentiment despite not being drawn into a direct comparison.
Of course, he’s one of the few people to have actually spent time with the console: “I’ve had the prototype kit now for a couple of months, and this may sound silly, but I brought it home, unpacked it, pulled the cables out of the S, plugged them into the X, synced my controller and I was literally playing in under five minutes.”
No problems there, then. “And it’s no joke, those games load faster, the frame rate is smoother, and a lot of those titles use dynamic resolution, and so they look better, too. I had my son with me, playing side-by-side and he said, ‘how is Battlefield 1 better, how is Halo 5 better?’ This is the magic of the box.”
If that box is powerful enough to lengthen the Xbox One generation, could it go on for as long as the Xbox 360 did then? McCarthy remains tight-lipped on such long-term speculation: “I don’t know if I’d speculate on the length of the cycle. We’re going to continue to listen to our developers and where they’re going with the experiences. That’s what led us to this box.”
PC GONE MAD?
Traditionally, the most determined gamers have often shifted toward the PC space, either periodically or permanently, in order to play on the best hardware. With Microsoft being the only gaming brand to have a significant footprint on both sides of the divide, we wonder just how much PC gaming informed the Xbox One X?
“If you felt as a console gamer that you had to compromise and you looked longingly at that PC space and said, ‘I want those top-end things’ – well, now you can get them,” McCarthy states emphatically.
“The way we look at it, choice feels like the right principle right now. There are consumers that really want to balance price against capabilities. But there will always be customers in your segment of gamers that want the best of the best, and I think that up until now the PC space was really the only place they could go to get that. They now have the ability to get that in the console space.”
Many gamers have cited higher frame rates, namely 60fps, as a priority over more pixels, but McCarthy believes that’s a decision the studios need to make.
If you felt as a console gamer that you had to compromise and you looked longingly at that PC space and said, ‘I want those top-end things’ – well, now you can get them
Dave McCarthy, Xbox
“We’re all about the developer choice there overall. Different developers are going to choose to do different things for different game formats. But the good news is that the Xbox One SDK that everyone writes to will be able to handle that variation. You don’t need a unique version for Xbox One X. It’s just going to know if I’m running a One X, will take advantage of it and going to feel like a premium PC experience overall.”
We would argue that a ‘premium PC experience’ would include 60fps gameplay, but while McCarthy won’t commit to it across the board, the One X is certainly a step in the right direction: “It’s been very, very straightforward for developers to get stuff up-and-running in a day or two on Xbox One X. And what’s exciting about that, for us, is that it leaves them the headroom to do what they want, whether that’s to take advantage of a 2,160 frame buffer, or push their frame rate to the absolute max.”
IS HE THE ONE?
Strong competition in console hardware has always benefitted the games industry. No one wants to see a single dominant platform, with all the potential abuses of power that such a monopoly might bring, and while the PlayStation 4 has undoubtedly taken the lead in the current generation, there’s no denying that the Xbox One has still sold well overall – putting in numbers that exceed the previous generation of hardware to avoid any such complacency on Sony’s part.
With the Xbox One X, Microsoft looks to be utilising its considerable PC gaming know-how in order to produce what looks to be a practically-perfect console upgrade. After the missteps of the early Xbox One days, the confidence it has in its new hardware is palpable by comparison. The price is high and the big question remains about whether Brexit-struck consumers will part with £450 for the new device – but there’s always been a hardcore of consumers who are happy to pay up for the best device, and the Xbox One X is certainly that.
A console without games is a like a gun without bullets, however, so we also question McCarthy on the line-up Microsoft showcased at E3, which will be key to building up the desirability of the One X.
The graphical posterboy to date has been Forza Motorsport 7 – no great surprise there, as racing games have long been used as tech demos for new hardware. We got to see the game running in 4K and HDR and the results are stunning.
“I think that for a racing simulation, like Forza Motorsport 7, it takes it to a whole new level. You [can almost] feel the heat coming off the cars and the weather effects are frighteningly real.”
Beyond that, though, Microsoft’s line-up for the next year is one of strength-in-depth. “You saw [that] in the diversity of game types we showed,” McCarthy says. “We showed community games, indie games, triple-A games, games from around the globe. There are all these different types of games for different types of gamers now. It has never been more diverse.
“I think that choice is becoming more and more critical to a gamer’s everyday life, because they do flex across these different experiences, and we have to be able to keep up with that,” McCarthy explains, before going on to run down the company’s E3 showing.
We ask whether this year’s showcase was primarily designed to appeal as broad an audience as possible. McCarthy replies:
“It was a really conscious experience for us to say we want something that speaks to every type of gamer on our stage. And I can’t say we’ve consciously done that every other year before. It was a principle for the briefing overall that we wanted every type of game for every type of gamer.
“You noticed that there were fewer speakers on stage this year. We had too many games overall, it would have been a disaster [to have them all up there] and I like the format of Phil being able to tell the story throughout the show,” McCarthy says.
“Of those 42 titles we showed, 22 of them are console exclusive, 18 of those are PC titles as well. Your ability with first party titles from Microsoft – and a lot of the ID@Xbox ones, too – to do things like Xbox Play Anywhere where your license roams, right across those devices, is going to apply to whole first-party line-up. Forza MotorSport 7, Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2, Sea of Thieves – they’re all going to do that.”
That line-up defines a clear difference between Sony and Microsoft this year, with Microsoft concentrating on games-as-a-service-type titles with co-operative and community elements, while Sony focuses on single player, narrative-driven titles.
The Xbox offering is closely aligned to its PC gaming titles, too, which hasn’t always been the case. We reckon the announcement of the hugely-successful PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as a console exclusive was the cherry on that particular cake.
“I’m so glad you brought that up,” says McCarthy. “I don’t think console players realise how special that game really is, and if you think about Xbox Live and the ability to bring people together, and then exploit the unique capabilities of the world’s most powerful console then that’s a great combo for us,” he enthuses.
We agree, saying the game should be as big as Grand Theft Auto in terms of online players, given its Twitch success to date: “For some console gamers, [our E3 showcase] was their first exposure [to the game], and they’re going to be surprised – it’s going to be huge.”
BLACK IS BACK
So with powerful new hardware on its way later in the year and a game line-up that is radically differentiated from its main competitor – both in terms of release dates and its underlying business model – Xbox looks to have founds its stride again. There’s something distinct about the brand, too, which allows it to differentiate itself from the competition.
That’s great news for the industry. Bringing more of these PC-like experiences to more convenient console hardware will undoubtedly expand the console space, and, more importantly, it will do it without cannibalising what Sony, or Nintendo, for that matter, are trying to achieve elsewhere. It’s great to see the company not simply trying to claw back what it lost in the last hardware refresh, but rather strike out in a direction that’s more suited to the company as a whole.
As for the next hardware generation, who knows what that will bring – or whether it will ever truly come to an end in the way we’ve become so used to in the past. Whenever and however it happens, Xbox looks to be viewing the future with more optimism than we’ve seen from the company in many years.