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Microsoft: Slim, Scorpio, and Windows 10

We take a look at three-console ecosystem of Xbox One, and the strengthening bridge between console and Windows 10 PC.

  • Text: Sam Bishop

At this year's E3 Microsoft had two very big announcements to make regarding hardware. To open their press conference Phil Spencer, the Head of Xbox, unveiled the Xbox One S, a console that had been rumoured in the weeks leading up to E3. The new console will be slimmer and sleeker, making it 40% smaller than the original model, and will also feature up to 2TB of internal HDD. Microsoft have also included an IR blaster and integrated a power supply into the console. The footage they showed at the press conference promised HDR gaming, 4K Ultra HD Video and Blu-Ray as well. The slimline console will start at £249 for the 500GB edition, with the 2TB edition rising to £349. As Xbox Games Marketing general manager Aaron Greenberg told us, Microsoft is aiming to give "people all the latest technology advances in a box that is smaller and at a great value."

Greenberg spoke in detail about the decisions made regarding the Xbox One S, saying "we wanted to think about when was the right time when there was a step-change that made sense to bring a new Box to market. And so first we wanted to reduce it in size. Secondarily, as part of that we challenged ourselves based on feedback from our fans to integrate the power brick into the box". He talked about responding to feedback from consumers, for example "the power brick causes a lot of heat, so we've now got a much more efficient box. So if people are looking for a more efficient console, significantly benefits there as well." One key change that we like, the touch sensitive panel at the front is being replaced by a more traditional power button. However, despite all the improvements, the Xbox One S will not boost game performance at all (despite initially confusing messages that indicated that it would).

Announced with the Xbox One S was a new controller, with a textured grip, Xbox wireless and Bluetooth. Later they revealed Xbox Design Lab, allowing customisation of controllers with eight million different options (in case you were wondering, it's coming to Europe next year). Xbox seem keen on producing more and more controller options for players, something that's reinforced by the release of the Elite controller last year, which offers hair trigger locks, swappable components, and button remapping. A special Gears of War 4 version of this controller was also revealed at E3 alongside a new trailer for the game.

But that wasn't all that Microsoft had to tell us about at E3. At the other end of the show they wrapped things up with the announcement of a console they called Project Scorpio. This console, they claimed, will work alongside the Xbox One and Xbox One S so "no players will be left behind", but it promises capabilities far superior to either the original or the upcoming Xbox One S. It's set to be the most powerful console ever made, having six teraflops of GPU (making it the most powerful graphics card ever put into a console), rendering at 60Hz. Not only this, but the reveal claimed that it will render true 4K gaming along with VR support, having 8 CPU cores and 200GB per second of bandwidth. A montage of developers' thoughts on the console followed the reveal, and as you might expect, all of the dev responses were overwhelmingly positive. Even if we forget for a second that it was a PR exercise, some of the soundbites were tasty as hell.

Scorpio Project, then, seems phenomenally powerful, with Spencer himself saying that it is four-and-a-half times more powerful than the Xbox One. In terms of GPU it's expected to be 40% faster than the PS4 Neo, and it has more RAM and memory bandwidth than its predecessors as well. Details aren't crystal clear yet but it seems as if the technology for Scorpio will be significantly superior to its predecessors, offering 4K gaming and a high-end VR experience that the Xbox One simply could not manage. When asked about VR specifically, Spencer said that Microsoft will be looking into their options, but he doesn't see the games industry shifting to VR entirely just yet. "We want to support VR and innovation as it happens, but really remain focused on the businesses we're in on Windows and consoles". In this light, then, Scorpio will support VR but not revolve around it, with Spencer wanting to keep the focus on VR confined to Windows, for now at least.

Xbox One S and Project Scorpio are thus both consoles worth our attention, and both show that there is an increased attention to consumers and their wants. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't some persistent issues. A lot of people, for instance, were confused by the mixed messages coming out of the Microsoft camp. On the one hand they were saying that they weren't leaving Xbox One behind with Project Scorpio, yet the Xbox One S will be old-gen before the end of next year. Surely this contradicts Aaron Greenberg's claim that "there has never been a better time to upgrade". You could say the opposite, and with the release of Project Scorpio now looming, if you're still rocking an Xbox 360 and want jump aboard the good ship current-gen, then this might actually be the worst time to upgrade in every way other than price. Other mixed messages include the fact that Phil Spencer said that users without 4K televisions won't get anything from the Scorpio while later going on to say that developers won't be forced to hit 4K on the console. If the former is correct, then users will need to invest in a 4K television if they want to get the benefit of the 4K gaming offered by Project Scorpio, an investment that will not be cheap.

The Xbox One S is a good step, showing some progression of thought in terms of pricing, however, this was hugely overshadowed by the Scorpio, raising the question: why was it announced at the same time? It surprised many, including PlayStation boss Andrew House, and we're left wondering whether it was wise considering the announcement of the Xbox One S just an hour or so before. Why would anyone buy the Xbox One S with a new console just around the corner? Perhaps the Scorpio is for the hardcore, the most dedicated Xbox gamers, and the slim is a new and affordable entry point for those coming from the Xbox 360; and while that sounds perfectly reasonable, we're still confused as to why they'd announce them at the same time. Of course the positioning of both revolves around the price point of the Scorpio, which has yet to be announced.

If we look back at the announcement of the original Xbox One, things have changed a lot for Microsoft. The Xbox One was marketed as a console "at the centre of a new generation in the living room" where "all of your entertainment comes alive in one place" - an entertainment system rather than a games console. This was a bold move but not necessarily a wise one, nor were some the features initially announced, such as locking each game to the console, something which would have effectively meant no second-hand games, as well as requiring the console to always be online. These decisions left a sour taste in the mouths of gamers from the outset and marked the beginning of an uneasy time in the life of the Xbox. This wasn't helped by the attitude of Don Mattrick, the man who revealed the Xbox One, who, among other things, dismissed criticisms of the Xbox One needing a constant internet connection by saying "we have a product for people aren't able to get some form of connectivity; it's called the Xbox 360".

The DRM and requirement to always be online were later dropped by Microsoft "as a result of feedback from the Xbox community", as they phrased it, but by then the damage was done and competitor Sony was 'winning' the generation with their PS4, in part because they simply announced that they allowed second-hand games on the console from the start, something which wasn't a new feature at all. Not only this, but the PS4 was a touch more powerful and so from a PR perspective that was also a major win. In 2014 Phil Spencer took over as head of Xbox and things started changing when he admitted that the Xbox team had made some bad decisions and that the console would now focus on being a video games system rather than an entertainment centre. You could argue that it was this change of philosophy that started them on the road to Project Scorpio, a machine moving away from the Xbox One's jack of all trades focus into a fully-fledged games machine, and a powerful one at that.

That brings us to E3 and how the company has acted in response to previous shortcomings. Microsoft are changing and making ambitious announcements in order to try and regain not only customers, but some of the reputation lost by the Xbox One and the first round of decisions made regarding its features and marketing. Spencer learned from the mistakes of his predecessor, the Xbox One S learned from the mistakes of the Xbox One. Looking further ahead, Project Scorpio is something new entirely.

It wasn't all about the hardware at E3 though, as Microsoft had another interesting reveal up its sleeve in the form of Xbox Play Anywhere. This initiative meant that games bought on Xbox One were then available on PC and vice versa, with achievements crossing over as well. Future releases in this initiative will be Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon, Halo Wars 2, Recore, Scalebound, Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2 and We Happy Few. This seems to be a move to try and further include PC gamers in Microsoft's future, and a significant number of their upcoming games are heading to PC. In fact, we can't recall a single game discussed during their E3 conference that wasn't cross-platform. Spencer recently hinted that even the next Halo game could come to PC even though Halo 5 did not. This effort to accommodate those on Windows 10 also involves pushing for progression of the Windows store (it looks like the big hitters will stay locked to Microsoft's store, although smaller titles will make their way over to Steam too).

The widening of scope to include PC makes sense. Especially when considering the move next to the three-console ecosystem of Xbox One. There's be traffic both ways, and with PC games being traditionally scaleable to suit different hardware configurations, it should make it easier for devs to build different versions of their games to accommodate Xbox One and Scorpio. This is part of a wider idea Spencer mentioned in an interview with GR, where he outlined how Xbox One and Project Scorpio will mean two tiers in terms of the visual fidelity of games. "We're basically creating two standards. All games will work across both Scorpio and Xbox One S, but so many developers, because they work on PC already, are used to scaleable hardware capability" he told us. He also responded to implications that Xbox might be spreading themselves too thin with these two projects, saying instead that they are doing "the opposite. I think we're really focused on console and PC and what people can play on 2D screens. And I think the pace of innovation and creativity there is just amazing".

Another thing Microsoft were excited to talk about was cross-play, which was part of their vision where console and PC players could play together. It's a feature that they've talked about in the past, with PC and Xbox players able to play Rocket League together as of this year. However, they want to push this further. Together with the sharing of games between platforms via Play Anywhere, they were keen to promote the connection between PC and Xbox. Although not all games in the initiative will necessarily support cross-play, Halo Wars 2 being a notable example of one that will not, there are still big titles that will support the feature, including Gears of War 4. To have such a big game in the initiative shows that Microsoft are taking it very seriously.

It is clear, then, that Microsoft wants to widen its focus across both PC and Xbox, maybe as part of the wider strategy Microsoft have for Windows 10. They do have roots in PC gaming, after all, with games past including Age of Empires. And then, when you consider the potential size of their audience, and with the improvement we've seen in terms of Windows 10 (when compared to Windows 8, an OS so flawed it made them skip the number 9 for shame), it makes perfect sense for them to eye a future where they exist across both platforms, and take aim at both with an efficiency and a level of duality we've not seen before.

Microsoft's recent releases on PC haven't been as popular as they might have been, so there is definitely room to improve there, and so it seems wise to cover both platforms and grow them in parallel. However, there's also an element of risk to that strategy, as the lack of console exclusives in the future could mean that there is less reason to buy an Xbox from Microsoft if you know that everything will be available on PC too. Once again it all comes down to the Scorpio, and how MS position and price their next console. We've more than year to wait before we find out how this scenario will play out, and we'll just have to wait and see what Microsoft does in the meantime.