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With Scorpio, Maybe Xbox Can Find Its Way Back

Corporate interests and misguided goals have hurt the Xbox One for years. Scorpio is, hopefully, hitting the reset button.

by Patrick Klepek
Apr 10 2017, 9:08pm

It's been a long couple of years for Xbox One. In both sales and mindshare, Sony's eaten their lunch. Project Scorpio, Microsoft's take on the mid-generation refresh, is more than just an upgraded Xbox. It's an attempt to reset the chess board, an acknowledgement that Sony won the last round. The positive response to the machine's specs, revealed to Digital Foundry last week in an exhaustive and methodical technical breakdown, suggest they may get that reset. The question, then, is whether Microsoft is actually prepared to do anything with the chance.

Last generation, I played almost everything on my Xbox 360. I'd swap over to a PlayStation 3 when an exclusive rolled around, like a new Uncharted game, but by and large, my gaming time was spent on a Microsoft console. It was part comfort, part because the Xbox 360 had the games I wanted to play. Fast forward a few years later, though, and everything is flipped; my primary console is a PlayStation 4, while my Xbox One has largely been collecting dust.

I don't think I'm alone there, either, and it's a bummer. Not because of any particular corporate allegiance—if I could play all of my games on a PC, I'd do that—but disappointment at how fast and hard Microsoft managed to extinguish a fire that created such loyalty in the first place.

When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One at a splashy event in Redmond, Washington in 2013, the company had a clear vision: an all-in-one entertainment box for your TV, movies, and games. Media convergence wasn't just a feature, it was the beating heart of Xbox One. Here's the event in question:

"We're going to take all that we learned in more than 30 years of innovation and use it to change everything," said an executive in a video that kicked off the event, setting the tone for what was to come. "For the first time, you and your TV are going to have a relationship."

Nobody disputes having Netflix on your console isn't rad, and it's great that you can load up a Spotify playlist while shooting aliens in Destiny. But Microsoft's vision was much bolder, and it suggested games were no longer the primary reason to own an Xbox. It sat alongside media. To whit, it was 27 minutes into Microsoft's hour-long event before a single game was shown. Worse, it was a sizzle reel from Electronic Arts with target renders of upcoming releases.

(To be fair to Microsoft, it was 22 minutes into Sony's two-hour PlayStation 4 reveal before they showed off a single game, and the game they chose to debut first was, uh, Knack.)

It would be 35 minutes later until they showed off something resembling a real game, Forza Motorsport, and the closing act was a story trailer for Call of Duty: Ghosts with no gameplay.

Most of the time was taken up by executives discussing initiatives better meant for a press release, like Xbox Entertainment Studios, an internal TV and movie studio that no longer exists, or goofy skits with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to hype an NFL app. It was easy to handwave the clumsy mixed messaging; Microsoft's big bets in online and new game franchises helped them dominate with Xbox 360. Maybe this was nothing more than a bad event, the kind of thing that gets away from a company when tens of millions are involved.

But as it turns out, it was a harbinger of the future, a clear and present sign Microsoft wanted to be a media company, with gaming taking a seat at the table—no longer in the driver's seat. To make matters worse, Microsoft did everything to chip away at the goodwill it'd built up with Xbox and Xbox 360. There was the DRM debacle, the fact that Xbox One was less powerful yet more expensive than PlayStation 4, and an enormous focus on Kinect, a peripheral that'd long worn out its welcome. (To this day, I still like using Kinect for its voice functions, though.)

And remember when Xbox One was being pitched as an online-only device, and Microsoft's answer to soldiers deployed oversees without an Internet connection was to buy an Xbox 360?

"Well, if you have zero access to the internet, that is an offline device," said Xbox executive Don Mattrick at the time. "I mean seriously, when I read the blogs and thought about who was really the most impacted there was a person who said 'Hey, I'm on a nuclear sub' and I don't even know what it means to be on a nuclear sub but I've got to imagine that it's not easy to get an Internet connection. Hey, I can empathize. If I was on a sub, I'd be disappointed."

Mattrick, part of the Xbox division since 2007 and one of the core people behind the original development of the Kinect, left Microsoft a few months later.

Tone-deaf and out of touch, it characterized the early months of Xbox One. It stuck.

Even when Microsoft axed Kinect and achieved price parity, the sins of the past continued to haunt them. Every time a new third-party game was released, the discussion wasn't over the merits, it was how much worse the Xbox One version ran compared to the PlayStation 4, with endless and exhaustive message boards fights over the merits of 900p vs. 1080p. Regardless of whether the resolution difference bothered you—I don't want to read another post about whether the human eye can or cannot tell the difference—it meant the Xbox One was always discussed in the negative, in direct comparison to its closest competitor. It was a horrible cycle.

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, but 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 tasking internal risks, nor was it locking up the kinds of partnerships that helped it the last time around, like Realtime Worlds with Crackdown.

Even if Xbox One's design was built with a flawed premise—people want more Kinect, and sacrificing gaming horsepower for it ultimately won't matter all that much—Microsoft Studios did them no favors. The two worked hand-in-hand. It explains why people flipped out when Microsoft cancelled Scalebound, an ambitious action game from Platinum Games, earlier this year. Who knows how Scalebound might have turned out, but it was, at least, new and risky.

(I've quite liked some of Microsoft's games, though. Ori & The Blind Forest was brilliant.)

These missteps lead to swaths of players switching alliances, and establishing PlayStation 4 as their primary gaming console. This had catastrophic ripple effects on the company, too.

When Square Enix and Microsoft announced Rise of the Tomb Raider would be a timed exclusive on Xbox One for a whole year, people were up in arms. Though some were, no doubt, upset at the very concept of third-party exclusives for games that'd previously been multi-platform, much of the scorn seemed to come from people pissed it wouldn't be landing on PlayStation 4. If the roles had been reversed, if Sony had snatched up the exclusivity rights, I don't know that people would be applauding Sony's business acumen, but the uproar would have been much quieter. It's moments like these that exposed how much Microsoft had lost.

Moving a corporate ship takes time. The elevation of Phil Spencer to the head of Xbox was a step in the right direction and more than public relations. Behind the scenes, developers have told me that having Spencer at the helm meant they felt better represented amongst the many corporate interests driving a company like Microsoft. Since stepping into the role in early 2014, he's done a good job at talking the talk—he quickly iterated the company needed to begin focusing exclusively on games again—but it's finally time for Microsoft to start walking, too.

The shifts have been subtle over time. The launch of Xbox One S signaled what was to come. Not only was it a sleeker looking console, but it supported 4K video playback and upscaling, HDR, and playback for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. That last one became one of the first times in years that Microsoft was able to push back on Sony on a hardware level, as the PlayStation 4 Pro didn't support Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Is that an incredibly niche market? Yes, but it shows an attention to detail for enthusiasts, the hardcore—the very people Microsoft was bleeding.

This trend continued when Microsoft announced Scorpio last year. The teaser trailer didn't focus on what Hollywood production company would be partnering with Microsoft on adapting a franchise, but on how Microsoft was committed to making a best-in-class console.

A year later, with Microsoft close to releasing that supposedly best-in-class console, it went to the Internet's agreed upon source for technical analysis: Digital Foundry. Is it possible Digital Foundry had gotten its hands on Scorpio's final technical specifications, told Microsoft about it, and Microsoft decided to flip that into an exclusive reveal? Maybe. But even if that's true, it shows a shrewdness on Microsoft's part. If Digital Foundry is impressed, others will be, too:

Performance is remarkable. We saw a Forza Motorsport demo running on the machine at native 4K and Xbox One equivalent settings, and it hit 60 frames per second with a substantial performance overhead—suggesting Scorpio will hit its native 4K target across a range of content, with power to spare to spend on other visual improvements. And while 4K is the target, Microsoft is paying attention to 1080p users, promising that all modes will be available to them.

Let's assume that from a hardware perspective, Scorpio nails it. The most advanced hardware doesn't mean much if there aren't games to come along with it, and on that front, Microsoft has been suspiciously quiet for a while now. We know another Halo is in development, and that Rare continues to pluck away at Sea of Thieves. There's more Forza Motorsport coming, of course, and recent teases suggest Crackdown 3 hasn't been secretly canned. Updating cult classics like Phantom Dust and Voodoo Vince are easy and worthwhile, too.

What else does Microsoft have up its sleeve? Scorpio is a big hardware bet, but it needs one for games, too. One way or the other, Xbox has been due for a big shakeup. Gaming's better when everyone's firing on all cylinders. Fingers crossed.

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