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Project Scorpio: Can Microsoft bring the fight back to Sony's doorstep?

Praise for Scorpio's specs is universal, but in many ways that's the easiest part of this journey; MS must now start answering the truly tough questions

As the dust settled on last week's reveal of Scorpio specifications, reactions fell into two possible camps. On one side, you had those who were tremendously excited about the specifications of the console - which is unquestionably the most technically impressive games console ever created, and will easily leapfrog Sony's PS4 Pro in terms of graphical prowess. On the other side, more negatively but almost certainly more realistically, you had those asking the important question; okay, but what about all the other stuff?

There's overlap between those camps, and I find myself with a foot in each. Scorpio is hugely technically impressive; the very choice to do the reveal via Digital Foundry, which was not kind to the relative technical failings of Xbox One, shows Microsoft's well-placed confidence in the hardware they've crafted. Yet at the same time, nobody should lose sight of the fact that great console hardware - even outright superb console hardware - isn't the triumphant flourish of a full house to end the game and take home the prize. On the contrary, for Scorpio's technical prowess to be superb is the buy-in. It's the most basic test the company had to pass. That it has passed it with flying colours is good, of course, but it's the beginning of the conversation about Scorpio, not its end.

There are those who disagree, pointing to the technical advantage Scorpio enjoys over PS4 and PS4 Pro, but this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the console market. If you believe that Scorpio's technical advantage over PS4 will deliver it commercial victory, then presumably you also believe that the PS4's present market dominance is simply a result of its technical advantages over Xbox One - but this is a vast oversimplification of a complex outcome that was born of a great many factors, of which technical capabilities were only a minor one at best. Yes, PS4 was technically superior to Xbox One, but beyond the realms of a fraction of the core market who obsess over such things, this was unimportant and, indeed, not even very widely known. Far more important were other areas where Sony simply outplayed their rivals in Redmond; software, of course, but also branding, positioning and marketing of their system.

"The decision to reveal Scorpio's technical details well ahead of E3 speaks not to the perceived importance of the specification, but to their perceived unimportance"

My fear with regard to Scorpio has always been that Microsoft, stung by the misplaced gambles it made on Xbox One's hardware which left it lagging behind Sony's system in performance, would obsess over technical specifications, ascribing them far more than their due importance in the grand list of reasons why Sony is dominating this console generation. Their response, then, would be to break the traditional console business model, dramatically shortening the life cycle of a system with a large installed base in the name of simply leap-frogging its rival in technical specifications term. (One thing that's clear from the Scorpio reveal, incidentally, is that the gap between Xbox One and Scorpio is far greater than the PS4 to PS4 Pro gap; Scorpio really is more like a whole new console generation, where PS4 Pro is simply a tweaked, 4K-capable edition that can sit comfortably on the market alongside PS4.)

If that were all that Scorpio is, it would - ultimately - be a failure. It might enjoy healthy sales to begin with, since Xbox retains a very loyal fanbase in some quarters, but it would ultimately be a device which would push Microsoft's gaming efforts closer and closer to the fate which Nintendo has so often brushed up against; consigned to relying on the support of core fans and often struggling to break out beyond the few tens of millions of hardware sales they amount to. Microsoft could iterate over and over upon improving its hardware performance, delighting its core audience but not swaying a single consumer beyond that base. To go beyond the audience that Xbox One has enjoyed, other, more fundamental changes are needed to the Xbox strategy, and the early focus on Scorpio's muscular specifications has not, thus far, implied that the company is girding itself to make those changes.

The bright ray of light in this - what has convinced me that Xbox' strategy runs far deeper and more thoughtfully than a half-cocked "make it faster, and they will come" - is Xbox boss Phil Spencer's interview with Gamasutra this week, which lays out a far more nuanced view of the console market and Xbox' place within it. Reading between the lines slightly, Spencer ends up downplaying the importance of system specifications - noting that the huge spec bump at the outset of this generation was in no way as impactful as the leap from Xbox/PS2 to Xbox 360 / PS3, and essentially accepting the narrative that technical advancements have been delivering diminishing returns for some time (after all, there is never again going to be a technical leap as dramatic as SNES to PlayStation 1, nor one as dramatic as PS1 to PS2 afterwards). Moreover, Spencer speaks frankly about the nature of the console business being one of longer life-cycles, and the damage faster refresh cycles for hardware would do to the industry's bottom line.

Forza is great, but much more software will be needed to showcase Scorpio

In short, Spencer is refuting some of the assumptions one could easily make about Scorpio; that it's all about shortening the console life-cycle in order to get a technical leap on Sony. His comments imply strongly that Microsoft sees Scorpio as a one-time gambit, not a new paradigm for the business, and that its objective isn't just to achieve technical superiority but rather to gain an opportunity to relaunch Xbox, bringing it out from under the shadow of PS4 and starting to rebuild its position in the market. While details remain thin on the ground, Spencer quite rightly seems to view the technical prowess of Scorpio as a means, not an end in itself.

Perhaps, then, the decision to reveal Scorpio's technical details well ahead of E3 speaks not to the perceived importance of the specification, but to their perceived unimportance; to a desire to get the specs conversation out of the way as quickly as possible. Thus, when the big event rolls around, Microsoft can talk about games and start working on positioning and branding, rather than devoting its energies to discussions of RAM and GPU types which are meaningless to most consumers, and largely uninteresting to even more. What people actually need to see isn't how Scorpio stacks up against PS4/Pro; it's what's going to be different about Scorpio, more beautifully rendered polygons aside, that will make those who didn't bother with an Xbox One feel like this is a console they actually need.

How Microsoft achieves that goal is a big, big question - a big set of questions, in fact. There's definitely a software challenge; the gap in volume and quality of exclusive titles between the PS4 and the Xbox One in the past couple of years has become increasingly embarrassing, to the extent that it's put question marks over Microsoft's entire commitment to the console sector. Best case scenario, that's all down to a huge focus on Scorpio software and all will be revealed at E3. That would be a little upsetting for existing Xbox One fans (again, it's actually sold pretty well and deserves more software attention than it's been receiving) but it's far better than the alternative.

"After watching Scorpio's technical specifications be lauded by the experts, Microsoft is now starting to position itself in a way that suggests that it knows that was the easy part of this"

Moreover, though, there's also a branding challenge. The Xbox brand exists in an unusual and not entirely secure position, with a core group of genuine fans supplemented, in the last generation, by a very large audience who loved the Xbox 360 console but clearly didn't find themselves particularly in love with the brand as a whole. Look at how dramatically quickly PlayStation was able to regain the ground it lost during the Xbox 360 era; especially outside the United States (but also within the US to a large degree), PlayStation was still clearly seen as being the premium game console brand, a stark reminder of how much of Xbox 360's success was down to Sony's dropping of the ball with the PS3.

That's primarily down to the very carefully balanced work Sony has done with the PlayStation brand itself over the past two decades. Where Xbox has found a comfort zone - American males, 15 to 30 - and stuck firmly within its borders for the most part, Sony has managed to turn PlayStation into a brand that's playful, approachable and even whimsical, without eroding its appeal to that core audience in the process. Playing up the "Japaneseness" of the brand has no doubt helped - that's an arrow Microsoft doesn't have in its quiver - but it's far from being the whole story.

The sheer amount of effort and intelligence Sony has put into making PlayStation into a brand that balances widespread appeal against niche credibility is remarkable; it's an effort that spans not just marketing and advertising but the whole console operation, from industrial design to software publishing all the way through to its (recently vastly improved) stage management of big conference events. Microsoft has never quite had the same confident command of the Xbox brand, the same willingness to step beyond its comfort zone and engage other audiences; that's a confidence it will have to learn, and learn fast, if it's going to make a real success of Scorpio.

The difference between last week and this week is that, after watching Scorpio's technical specifications be lauded by the experts, Microsoft is now starting to position itself in a way that suggests that it knows that was the easy part of this. It's got a great piece of hardware on the way; but a great piece of hardware, on its own, is just silicon and plastic. A game console platform is so much more, and in the coming months Microsoft needs to show the world that it understands what else it needs to do to bring this fight back to Sony's doorstep.

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Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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