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Scorpio is a beast, but Microsoft needs to explain it better

The company needs to find a coherent party line about Scorpio, One S and Windows 10, and stick to it

Several days after the announcement and having read just about every interview done by a Microsoft executive in the interim, I must confess; I'm still confused by what exactly the company intended with its decision to unveil both a redesigned Xbox One and its heir apparent, Scorpio, at the same press conference. While Scorpio is clearly designed as some kind of a "spoiler" for Sony's ambitions with PS4 Neo ("ah, but there's a much more powerful Xbox coming next year" is the nugget of uncertainty they hope to plant in consumers' minds), and Xbox One S is a logical set of evolutionary improvements over the existing hardware, it's their interaction and coexistence that's outright confusing. The simple question that lacks any equally simple answer is this; why would I buy an Xbox One S this year, when there'll be a sort-of-next-gen system next year that plays all the same games, but better?

The whole picture of what's going on with Xbox only becomes more confused and complex when you add in the slightly tortuous messaging around Xbox Live that Microsoft executives have clearly been trained to use. Microsoft really, really wants you to know that Xbox isn't just about, well, Xboxes; it's really about Xbox Live, which is a service offering that covers PCs, and tablets, and mobiles, and pretty much anything you might ever dream of playing a game on, as well as those who've actually gone out and bought physical Xbox hardware. That's a great thing, of course - the potential for a fully featured gaming service that stays with you no matter what device you're using is enormous and hugely exciting - but the messaging around it is nothing short of obtuse, finding its most bizarre expression in the company' decision to stop talking about selling Xbox hardware and speak instead in statistical riddles about how many hours people are spending on Xbox Live.

Part of the problem with that is that it leaves otherwise extremely credible, well-intentioned and sincere people like Phil Spencer dancing around in disingenuous doublespeak - well, that and the obvious desire to dangle passing Microsoft execs over nearby cliffs until they just. speak. bloody. English. Spencer and Microsoft's other representatives have found themselves on the one hand trying to actively talk down the importance of Xbox hardware in order to justify aspects of their focus on the Windows 10 platform (which, honestly, doesn't really call for all that much justification; was anger at Xbox titles appearing on Windows truly that widespread?). On the other hand, they want you to be very excited about Scorpio and Xbox One S. Hyping up new hardware while simultaneously downplaying the importance of hardware to your business is a tough bit of verbal gymnastics to pull off.

"Spencer and Microsoft's other representatives have found themselves on the one hand trying to actively talk down the importance of Xbox hardware in order to justify aspects of their focus on the Windows 10 platform"

It's to the credit of Spencer, in particular, that he doesn't come across as personally disingenuous when he says these things; the company's slightly confused back and forth of statements and retractions during E3 week didn't play terribly well (and it's got alarming echoes of the firm's failure to control its own messaging after the original Xbox One reveal), but Spencer himself is a much more firm, reliable and trustworthy figurehead for the organisation through periods of uncertainty like this. He's someone who cares quite deeply about the Xbox division and the studios it works with, and you get the sense that the problems with Xbox' messaging and strategy at the moment aren't coming from Spencer or his team, but rather from their struggling to balance the contradictory demands being placed upon them from higher up the Microsoft corporate ladder.

I say that because it's fairly clear that the bargain struck to keep the Xbox division within the somewhat ill-fitting fold of Satya Nadella's more business-and-services focused Microsoft is that it's going to be primarily responsible for providing the firm with a gaming (and media, to some degree) network service that will be universal to all of Microsoft's offerings. Completely aside from its genuine potential, much of the reason for the focus on Xbox Live is because it's what the division exports to the rest of Microsoft; the raison d'etre of Xbox, from the perspective of some much larger and more politically important divisions within the company, is the gaming offering it provides to Windows 10 across a variety of devices. Xbox hardware is just another Windows 10 platform; the notion of there being games that you can play on Windows 10 on Xbox, but not play on Windows 10 on an equivalently or more powerful PC, is anathema to Microsoft's platform vision.

"Shorn of its console hardware, Xbox Live would just be the new Games for Windows, and the value of its continued existence would probably come into question"

At the same time, though, Xbox hardware is still an important part of the business of the division. Shorn of its console hardware, Xbox Live would just be the new Games for Windows, and the value of its continued existence would probably come into question a while down the line. Moreover, Xbox attracts a disproportionate amount of press and attention - and that's the other blade of the scissors cutting Xbox' messaging and strategy to ribbons right now. Much of Microsoft wants the division to focus on Xbox Live and on making a major contribution to Windows 10; but other parts of the company, no doubt, are deeply concerned at the widely accepted narrative that Microsoft is "losing" to Sony in the consumer space, a perception which, if it becomes embedded in consumers' minds, could be far more damaging than any actual gulf in unit sales. So the contradictory demands are placed on Xbox; focus on Windows 10, but make damned sure you don't let Sony get the march on us long-term.

It shouldn't need to be pointed out that confused messaging about Scorpio, in particular, doesn't mean it won't be a technologically impressive device with huge market potential. Everything the company has said about Scorpio so far is rock-solid; it's the broader context that's worrying. It's the notion of Xbox One, a console actually outperforming Xbox 360 in launch-aligned sales, being kind-of, sort-of, left to a Wii U style fate, where everyone knows something better is coming so nobody wants to buy. It's also the question of what the Xbox faithful will make of this twist; not the handful of noisy Internet fanboys who are already declaring Scorpio to be the second coming, but the solid, devoted Xbox players who bought into Xbox One relatively recently and now find their console being superseded far sooner than expected.

"This is a problem Sony will face with Neo to some extent as well, and while allowing Neo information to dribble out before E3 did a great job of keeping it off the agenda, I still think the company faces an uphill battle"

This is a problem Sony will face with Neo to some extent as well, and while allowing Neo information to dribble out before E3 did a great job of keeping it off the agenda, I still think the company faces an uphill battle to convince its existing PS4 installed base that the launch of Neo isn't going to screw them over. However, in contrast to the challenge of Scorpio - which is for all intents and purposes just a brand new console - PS4 Neo looks like a walk in the park. Already Microsoft is tying itself up in knots as to whether there'll be Scorpio-exclusive titles or whether everything will run on an Xbox One as well; in reality, neither path is entirely appealing, since the performance gulf between the consoles is so great that forcing developers to optimise for both will amount to creating two different games, making Scorpio titles that are just moderately upgraded Xbox One titles will leave Scorpio owners deeply dissatisfied, and making games that only work on Scorpio will essentially be two fingers up at the Xbox One installed base. I don't envy those at Microsoft charged with making the judgement call on that front.

History, of course, may judge Microsoft to be making the right call in this instance. They'll be first to market with a "native" 4K console, and may be the first to have a console that can drive AR experiences (or perhaps certain kinds of VR). In the process, though, they'll split their installed base and give Sony an extra year or more of almost unchallenged dominance of the market for PS4, as potential Xbox buyers hold on for the new device. Great, innovative platforms have been sunk by less. If Microsoft doesn't want to join the ranks of noble failures, the first step would be ensuring that their message about what they're actually doing stays coherent and relatable.

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Latest comments (15)

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
Already Microsoft is tying itself up in knots as to whether there'll be Scorpio-exclusive titles or whether everything will run on an Xbox One as well; in reality, neither path is entirely appealing, since the performance gulf between the consoles is so great that forcing developers to optimise for both will amount to creating two different games,
Something that confuses me about this message is that it's theoretically simple to iron-out: Tell developers to pretend they're writing for PC (which consoles essentially are, now), and include options for resolution, frame-limit and V-Sync in the XBox releases. Most third-party games are already getting PC releases anyway, and it seems that it's a simple "fix". Maybe they're worried about the user creating an artificially poor experience by fiddling with options that make it run worse? Then have an auto-config/benchmarking program run on first-start and automatically adjust settings to Recommended based on detected hardware. Got a One S? The game'll prioritise running at 900/30. Got a Scorpio? It'll prioritise running at 1080/60 or 4k/sub-30 (user-choice).

No doubt its mechanically harder to do than I'm making out, but developers aiming for PC and Xbox (and Neo) are already aiming for multiple hardware configs - the only real difference would be that the XBox release is forked-but-not really, since develop high (like Ultra-settings-on-PC high), and allow for less graphical flourishes and variable frame-rate so that the One S can cope.

And by god, even if it's mechanically harder to do, it's a vastly easier way to manage your message to the consumer.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 17th June 2016 9:57am

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, AzoomeeA year ago
The Scorpio looks set to use architecture two generations ahead of the Xbox One, asides from the increase in raw power and bandwidth. It would seem like a waste not to include special graphical features and optimisations for it, beyond just higher resolutions.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
Mmmm, but the base API will still be DX12, and beyond a certain point, "features and optimisations" are just higher levels of standard flourishes - SSAO/HBAO, MSAA/FXAA, 2/4/6/8/16 Anisotropic filtering, Shadow Resolution, Texture Quality... All of which can be raised/lowered depending upon detected hardware spec. :)

(my thanks to the new Hitman's options page for the technical details above. :D )
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Show all comments (15)
Keldon Alleyne Developer, leader, writer, Avasopht LtdA year ago
I want to see ray tracing in the next generation. Check out the demos from PowerVR (link | link)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 17th June 2016 4:06pm

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Will Ormerod Programmer A year ago
as a strategy I thought it was clear.. build a machine that will delivers the best gaming experience possible.

Come next year it'll be clearer if VR has any chance of becoming mainstream. If it does then MS will partner up with oculus and start selling oculus accessories and games. Win win for both companies.

I'd buy it just for the 4k/HDR gaming, 4k blurays are a bonus.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Will Ormerod on 18th June 2016 9:18am

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as a strategy I thought it was clear.. build a machine that will delivers the best gaming experience possible.
Takes more than that, ask colecovision, neo geo, amiga, jaguar, 3DO, Saturn,etc etc to name a few. Software just as important if not more so.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 17th June 2016 5:20pm

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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing A year ago
@todd I think that's the big thing they're counting on. Not having to re-invent the wheel every console. The OS stays the same, only the hardware moves beyond its natural organic evolution.
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Jordan Lund Columnist A year ago
I mentioned this in another post, but it seems relevant here as well...

Every game during the E3 conference was mentioned as being on Windows 10 as well.

If all the games are on Windows 10, what's the incentive to buy an Xbox One S or Scorpio at all? Why not just sink the money into a gaming rig PC? Same games, same Xbox Live, same achievements. Plus you get an ungradeable platform.
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If all the games are on Windows 10, what's the incentive to buy an Xbox One S or Scorpio at all? Why not just sink the money into a gaming rig PC? Same games, same Xbox Live, same achievements. Plus you get an ungradeable platform.
I agree, why wouldnt Microsoft just push Steam machines and so forth as their consoles, and get out of the Xbox business. Its not like Xbox hardware has made them much if anything. Microsoft was founded and made all its money understanding that the money is in the software not the hardware.
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Craig Stevenson Game Designer, MedStar SiTELA year ago
I agree that the logical decision is to just build a gaming machine as the console / prebuilt computer line gets thinner. However, some customers still just don't want to have to do that. They like being able to walk into a store and deal with a dedicated machine for games, one that's separate from whatever they do on a computer. Not to mention, non-gamer purchasers (Queue flashbacks of trying to get computer parts correctly delivered from Santa).

If Microsoft starts to standardize PCs they start getting closer to Apple's confined ecosystem. If they have trouble navigating the marketing and PR of game consoles, I can't fathom how easily that would be for them to misstep.
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This just feels like that SNK Neo-Geo moment - having the most powerful platform on the block, while at the same time realizing that you may have come too late to the party!

I think people are having problems with the terminology used is that MS were trying to reveal a new system, but also avoid saying they lost the initial phase of the battle with the XBONE. The level of embarrassment within Redmond-towers over the whole management failure over XBONE is going to shape Project Scorpio.

Sony may have been very clever in avoiding being caught up in a comparison war at E3 - and held off from crashing MS' uncomfortable moment!
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing A year ago
Neo Geo was never meant to be a mass market platform

It was an arcade platform, designed to save operators gobs of money, and was very successful doing that. They could put a new game in, and multiple games in the same cabinet for a few hundred dollars after the initial investment. The home version of NeoGeo was strictly for the ultra hardcore market, and only feasible becomes of the arcade business. The NeoCD tried to change that by using affordable media, but SNK games were never popular enough to justify the investment outside the audience that values arcade perfect play.
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@Jeff RE: The Neo Geo. So true but my God, was it a beautiful machine ^^
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing A year ago
@Barry it was.

When I was 17 years old, I was running around Microsoft with the son of an employee who was best friends with my cousin. We entered the Microsodt library, and in the back of that library was a small room. Inside that room were two guys surrounded by every game system known to man making great money playing every console game known to man and writing up reports on them. That was the one and only place I actually touched a NeoGeo cartridge system before the age of thirty. I can't say for sure, but in willing to put money down I stumbled across the original Xbox division batcave ;) At the time I was a lot more interested in the free mini marts, the vintage arcade machines and getting Windows 95 at a price I could afford ;)
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@Jeff - as one that actually worked in the arcade scene, and supported the Neo-Geo (AES and MVS) platforms at launch (and still with links to SNK and past execs), you will forgive me in having a slightly more seasoned view of the aspirations behind that system.

I would advise that mixing the Asia and Western reactions to the machine together into a single overarching assumption may show a limitation of knowledge of what was going on. Especially ignoring the 'Rental' dynamic that impacted the Japanese sales and collapsed when considered for Western deployment.

You have to understand that the AES component of the Neo-Geo was successful over both the Asian and Western deployment, but the SNK business model needed the MVS element to help spearhead the companies aspirations in the market and as they crumbled so they pulled the house of wax down (the Neo-GeoCD an elaborate suicide note)!

My use of the Neo-Geo MVS as analogy of the MS proposed Project Scorpio is of the failure of a powerful platform to be viable from a position of confused market understanding. The Neo-Geo becoming the 'strictly for the ultra hardcore market' device was not the intention, and never became a true reality.
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