Microsoft pulled off a tremendous trick when it made the unprecedented move of announcing two new Xbox One consoles. The first being the Xbox One S, a slimmer version of the existing console releasing in August with features that include HDR gaming 4K video support. The second, and more surprising, announcement was the early reveal of Project Scorpio. Expected to launch during the 2017 holiday season, Scorpio promises to the “the most powerful console ever,” with emphasis on high-end features such as virtual reality and 4K gaming.
Taken together with the Xbox Play Anywhere program, and the fact that Sony is working on its own incremental PlayStation 4 upgrade—PlayStation Neo—and we can see the beginning of a major shift in the video game console industry. The eventual launch of Scorpio and Neo will signal the end of 5 or 6-year console cycles. Instead, we may see considerably shorter upgrade cycles, similar to that of mobile devices, which is a monumental shift for a console gaming market that has been long accustomed to having to completely give up old hardware for the new generation of consoles.
Microsoft’s statement in 2013 about the Xbox One cycle would last (conservatively) 10 years may seem like a distant memory, and a statement that didn’t account for the accelerated pace of technological development, but the truth is that Scorpio represents a major move toward reaching that goal. The important point to keep in mind is, as Phil Spencer (head of Xbox) indicated at the end of the Microsoft pre-E3 press conference, gamers will not be left behind as technology moves ahead. Although there are benefits to upgrading, all games and accessories will work on the original Xbox, Xbox One S and Project Scorpio. That way, there isn’t necessarily any pressure to upgrade, nor will players have to choose between buying a new console or staying with the communities established with the previous one.
This is great news for major game publishers, including Electronic Arts (EA), Ubisoft and Take-Two support this approach, and see the both Scorpio and Neo as a “positive evolution.” EA’s global publishing chief, Laura Miele, told GamesIndustry.biz in an interview that, “I actually see it more as an incredibly positive evolution of the business strategy for players and for our industry and definitely for EA. The idea that we would potentially not have an end of cycle and a beginning of cycle I think is a positive place for our industry to be and for all of the commercial partners as well as players.”
Meanwhile, Alain Corre, head of Ubisoft EMEA, stated:
“The beautiful thing is it will not split the communities. And I think it’s important that when you’ve been playing a game for a lot of years and invested a lot of time that you can carry on without having to start over completely again. I think with the evolution of technology it’s better than what we had to do before, doing a game for next-gen and a different game from scratch for the former hardware.”
With incremental hardware updates and universal compatibility, a console’s lifespan can almost go on indefinitely. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 won’t be left behind technologically, and technology won’t leave gamers behind. Take-Two’s CEO, Strauss Zelnick, believes that an ongoing platform would be good for the industry. “The same way that when you make a television show you don’t ask yourself ‘what monitor is this going to play on?’ It could play on a 1964 color television or it could play on a brand-new 4K television, but you’re still going to make a good television show.” Zelnick also added: “We will get to the point where the hardware becomes a backdrop.”
As Xbox’s head of operations, Dave McCarthy, told GameSpot, Microsoft’s goal is “reach ‘the whole canvas of gamers.'” In a separate interview, McCarthy stated that Microsoft is achieving hardware innovation while ensuring compatibility. “That term of an upgrade is gone. We are wiping out those generational boundaries. As a gamer, it’s pretty cool. Because then I know the games I buy and play today and the controllers I use today are going to work on that machine of tomorrow. And that’s the real major step-change.”
Some analysts believe that the early announcement of Scorpio may interfere with Xbox One S sales, but Phil Spencer sets the record straight in a different interview with GI.biz, stating, “..our model’s not really built around selling you a new console every one or two years. The model is almost the exact opposite. If I can keep you with the console you have, keep you engaged in buying and playing games, that’s a good business.”
Although Microsoft does need to sell units, the consoles themselves are almost becoming incidental. The emphasis is on growing a strong community of players that will purchase and engage with games, whether it’s on a Xbox One console or PC, for the long term. As to whether original Xbox One owners may feel that they’re getting a “watered-down” experience, Spencer explains, “There’s no developer out there today, except for in maybe a first party, that’s only focused on one platform. Some are still going PS3, 360, PS4, Xbox One, and PC. When you say PC, there’s probably a minimum [spec], a recommended [spec], and then an uber-config that they’re focused on.” Spencer went on to say: “We’re continuing to grow the capability of the Universal Windows Platform to literally allow you to build one game that would run on console and on PC. So that’s an enabler. You still have a scenario of whether the different configs [and resolutions is something you’ll support] and I think that will all be part of install base size.”
McCarthy echoes the sentiment by stating: “[Developers] will always want to write to specific capabilities and devices,” he explained. “Giving our developers some choice in what they choose to leverage as they do that is key to our whole philosophy moving forward. They’ve responded well to it as we’ve shared the plans with them.”
The ultimate goal is maintaining long-term player engagement while continuing to innovate technologically. Although Sony has not yet revealed its plans for Neo, the shift toward giving console systems incremental upgrades with broad compatibility is already underway. Microsoft has already stated its intention to unify the Windows 10 PC and Xbox One with Xbox One Play Anywhere, which allows players to purchase games for both platforms with one price. Some of these games, including Gears of War 4, will feature cross-platform multiplayer. In the long run, publishers and marketers may soon be able to appeal to one large gaming audience instead putting so much emphasis on a console platform.