What does it mean to own an Xbox? When that's the primary gaming console in your home, what does that say about you? This question hasn't had a good answer for a few years now, but with the so-called Project Scorpio—my uninformed money is on Xbox Elite as its final name—Microsoft has an opportunity to find one. Scorpio, due to be unveiled at E3 later this month, will play a big role in figuring out Xbox's new identity, and help determine if Microsoft can wrestle control from Sony eventually.
That last point interests me purely because video games are better, as an industry and a medium, when one company isn't lording over the other. Competition breeds risk.
E3 is just one week of the year, one that companies like Nintendo have placed less importance on, but Microsoft has ratcheted up what E3 means to the company. I haven't heard much about what's going on with Scorpio, so your guesses about what Microsoft is doing are as good as mine. We know Scorpio will be more powerful than Sony's own hardware upgrade, the PlayStation 4 Pro, but to what end, and in service of what? We're at a state of diminishing returns when it comes to leaps of graphical fidelity, so technological advances need to be in service of something more.
It won't be enough if Microsoft shows up on stage with 4K versions of Destiny 2, Call of Duty, and whatever else is coming this year and beyond. (Good luck conveying that on a pixelated stream!) I'm not arguing resolution isn't important—the bigger the better—but in establishing What Is Xbox, it's not enough.
I've long questioned the motivation to chase 4K this early on, before most have invested in a TV capable of displaying it. But aggressively supporting 4K is fine, and falls in line with Microsoft micro-targeting technology enthusiasts recently, from supporting Dolby's advanced Atmos surround sound to making sure the Xbox One S reads and displays Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. While niche, these decisions portray Microsoft as a company who wants to be on the bleeding edge. 4K backs that up.
Most people I know with 4K TVs don't understand how it works, though. They just bought a new TV that happened to include support for 4K content. The same thing happened with 3D years back. It's hard to fathom those same people, who largely own PlayStation 4s, will swap consoles over that alone.
Selfishly, because most of my gaming takes place on a 1080p projector (which isn't cheap to upgrade), my hope's always been that Microsoft would emphasize speed over image quality and try to lock down games at 60 frames-per-second. Given the emphasis on 4K, that seems like a pipedream, but look, that's what pipedreams are for. And can you imagine how many people would rightfully lose their shit if Destiny 2 was 60 FPS on Xbox, but not PlayStation?
Hardware is only part of the equation. At the end of the day, it's about games. Technical specifications are message board fodder, and not why I'm there. When I wrote about how Scorpio represented a reset moment for Microsoft back in April, I talked about the company's reliance on old and tired franchises:
More than anything, though, Microsoft fumbled the games. The biggest independent developers shifted their allegiance to Sony, and Microsoft Studios oversaw an agonizing creative rut, where the company largely doubled down on what had worked in the past—Halo, Gears of War, Forza Motorsport—and figured that'd be enough. 'Gears of War 4' was fine. 'Halo 5' was fine. Forza Motorsport continued to be great. But while Gears of War was a genuine revelation in 2006, that was 2006. Halo was exhausting itself by the time 'Halo: Reach' showed up, and despite Halo and Gears of War being handed to new studios, it largely felt like going through the motions. Microsoft wasn't taking internal risks, nor was it locking up the kinds of partnerships that helped it the last time around, like Realtime Worlds with Crackdown.
It's not like Sony is immune to reviving old franchises, but look at the new God of War. It checks similar boxes to the old games, but the altered perspective and change in tone suggest something different. It's another God of War game, yes, but not another God of War game. It seems too late for Gears of War or Halo to go in that direction, with both franchises in the middle of or ending new sets of trilogies, but maybe Microsoft can surprise me. Then again, 343 Industries has already said Halo 6 won't be at E3, and Gears of War 4 was just released.
That means it falls to different games, old and new. It's why I expect E3 to be all about Sunset Overdrive 2, the long-awaited sequel to Insomniac's deeply underrated launch game. I'm joking, of course. I'm joking because my heart is breaking and that game deserved a sequel, and I'm joking because what I'm looking for out of E3 is to be genuinely surprised, to have reasons, as a fan of games, to say "Hell yeah, that's why I'll be booting up my Xbox One soon."
The original Xbox was defined by Halo. Xbox 360 was defined by Gears of War. Both consoles benefited from Microsoft investing in forward thinking hardware and services—Xbox Live paved the way for online multiplayer as we know it—but the enduring legacy of those machines are the games that ran on them. Xbox One needs something like that. It's not a failure if that game doesn't show up at E3 this year, but you can't make shots you don't take. (RIP, Scalebound.)
That said, everyone's sleeping on how far Microsoft's services have come. I haven't used Beam, now called Mixer, their proprietary streaming platform, but I've heard good things, and it's very smart to build a service around a console. And while PlayStation Plus might have gotten an upper hand on Microsoft because they gave away a bunch of games, Sony's done little to justify that subscription since. (It's weird they haven't added cult classic Knack to the lineup, but maybe that's an E3 shocker?) PlayStation Now, which allows you to stream games by paying way too much money, has been a dud, whereas Microsoft just launched the promising Xbox Game Pass, which nets a downloadable game service for $10 per month. Not bad.
One long shot: I'd love for Microsoft to bite the bullet and announce more robust Steam support. It's fine if games have to launch first on their own storefront, but commit to releasing your upcoming library in the same place as everyone else, even if it's later, and justify the Windows Store by offering reasons it's better.
For the first time in a while, I'm not sure what Microsoft will do next. That's exciting. In a few weeks, we'll find out whether all the mystery will pay off.