A little under a year ago at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, Microsoft teased a new, souped-up version of the Xbox One, which it called Project Scorpio. Yesterday, the specifications of Project Scorpio were revealed in detail by Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry team. If you have trouble with reading “eight custom x86 cores clocked at 2.3GHz” or “vapor chamber heat sink,” the bottom line is this: As described, Project Scorpio is a very fast, very powerful gaming console — a big step up from the Xbox One currently on the market, and possibly even more powerful than its rival, the PlayStation Pro.
Here’s where it gets a bit complicated though. Project Scorpio is not a new console generation — the way the Xbox One succeeded the original Xbox, or the PlayStation 4 succeeded the PlayStation 3. Rather, it’s more like the PlayStation 4 Pro, released last year — a performance improvement that will run the same software more capably, at a higher resolution and with greater graphical detail. Rather than sticking with the same console for years at a time before releasing a brand-new machine that requires a whole new library of games — as was the habit in the past, dividing history into discrete “generations” — video-game-hardware manufacturers are turning to incremental improvements, more like desktop computers or mobile phones. Part of this has to do with the fact that the newest consoles are, systems-architecture-wise, a lot more like PCs than past consoles, making them easier to develop for, without alienating third-party studios that feed the video-game ecosystem.
But if Microsoft is just joining Sony in the new console gradualism, it’s probably not to its benefit. The original launch of the Xbox One in 2013 was infamously hampered by a slate of draconian policies that had to be quickly reversed after fan outcry — including requirements that the console had to maintain a constant internet connection, and that even physical copies of games could not be shared between customers (in other words, no more lending your friend a game). Even after Microsoft made a quick about-face, it couldn’t shake the stigma, and the Xbox has lagged behind competitor PlayStation for the last three years — the entirety of this new console generation. That’s in terms of both sales and hype.
With Project Scorpio, which on paper is the most powerful console to hit the market, Microsoft has to convince potential new buyers that the old, cruel Xbox One is a thing of the past, while also convincing people who bought the old console that it hasn’t abandoned them. It’s a tight balancing act with even higher stakes than Sony faced when it rolled out the beefier PlayStation Pro last year. Both companies have started with a strategy of appealing to quote-unquote “core gamers” — hence the focus on Project Scorpio’s custom x86 cores — but Microsoft’s messaging has to tack more toward of “we’ve changed” rather than “it’s better.” Sony had a field day with Microsoft’s policy foibles at the start of this generation.
But as good as it might sound to have the most powerful console on the market, it means next to nothing if there aren’t any good games to play on it. The primary problem that Microsoft faces right now isn’t the relative speed or power of its console, but its anemic software library. One of the biggest lessons of the successful launch of Nintendo’s new Switch — an odd console that, in terms of computing power, is effectively just a big smartphone — is that people will happily play and discuss a good game even if the graphics aren’t running at 4K resolution at 60 frames per second. And for a great game, a best-of-the-year game, like the Switch’s launch title Legend of Zelda, people will actually go out and purchase, brand-new hardware — even if it’s awkward and relatively underpowered.
But what Zelda-like properties does Microsoft control? The lackluster Halo 5, the seventh first-person shooter in the series, failed to move the needle in 2015, and last year’s return of the Gears of War franchise was similarly competent, but didn’t stick around in the gamer Zeitgeist for more than a couple weeks. The lone software demo showed to Eurogamer was of the Forza racing series, which apparently ran flawlessly and with stunning graphical detail, but racing simulators aren’t for everyone (speaking from experience).
For a long time now, Nintendo has been talked about as the sick man of the gaming industry, a former heavyweight with some great intellectual property — the Zelda and Mario franchises in particular — but lacking the technical heft to compete with Sony and Microsoft. The Switch is still new, but it’s demonstrated as clearly as possible that ultimately, it’s that intellectual property — and smart execution on its deployment — that makes or breaks a console, far more than the vapor-chamber heat sink. Without killer software, nice hardware is just a very expensive paperweight. Scorpio shows promise, and it’s clear that Microsoft has spent a lot of time figuring out how to hit the reset button after their early Xbox One stumbles. Yesterday’s announcement sets the stage from a much broader reveal of details in two months, at the annual E3 video-game convention. There, we’ll likely find out things such as price, what the box actually looks like, and most importantly, what games are actually going to take advantage of the new specs. It’s that last part that matters far more than anything else.
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