The launch of the Xbox One was an annus horribilis for Microsoft, as the platform holder managed to throw away much of the consumer and industry goodwill it had built up over the Xbox 360's life. The reason was simple: Xbox One was conceived as a power play. The core of the concept that Microsoft announced was changing certain parts of the industry: destroying the secondhand market (which most developers and publishers would love to see), forcing players to be always-online (again, a matter of industry rather than consumer convenience), and asking players to pay through the nose for it to boot.
This was the kind of pitch that could only come from a place of supreme self-assurance, the comfy meeting halls of Redmond high on the fumes of their #360noscope #blazeit success story. With Xbox One, Microsoft adapted an old hubris-riven line from none other than its great rival Playstation: "the next generation begins when we say so." Problem with Xbox One was, no-one liked what they heard.
Despite this, a dizzyingly fast series of turnarounds accompanied by dogged work from the Xbox division over subsequent years has seen Xbox One sales climb — and the console currently sits in a respectable sales position. It's not all doom and gloom by a long shot. But Xbox's status as a whole took a serious blow with the Xbox One and the delayed reaction is Project Scorpio, announced at E3 last year and due for release later this year. Today Eurogamer unleashed a bonanza of stories on the hardware, all built around the reveal of its tech specs. Now, everyone loves a good spec and there is no arguing that Microsoft and Digital Foundry combined to give them. There is a wider question of exactly how much of this raw data the audience understands, particularly when it comes to the machine's potential, and whether conversations based on such information are meaningful or simply today's equivalent of the Mega Drive's 'blast processing' capabilities.
But the consensus is: these are great specs. Tremendous specs, the best. Project Scorpio, whatever its final name is, will be a powerhouse. The question is whether, in the modern industry and especially in the context of Xbox as a division of Microsoft, this kind of strategy makes sense anymore. The biggest surprise of the year so far for me has been how the Switch fit into my life — a feeling that many of my friends share. I don't want to overstate this, because it's anecdotal and arguably I'm not the target market for Scorpio anyway, but a feature of recent years in my gaming life has been less time, and more room for convenience over other considerations. I still love a big session on the PC and PS4, but I'm so time-poor I end up gaming a lot on smartphone and 3DS, and Switch came right in to fill that niche.
Now OK, that's my experience and it won't ring true for everyone. But the question it does raise is where is that niche for the Scorpio? Where is this console aiming at? Microsoft would say it's a premium experience aimed at customers who are prepared to pay a premium, and I'm sure the Neo Geo's ghost is nodding its head in approval (not a like-for-like comparison at all, just an amusing one). But this is putting Scorpio in the middle of a battlefield where, whatever the PR messaging says, it is far from the biggest or most important player.
Consider this blindingly-obvious fact. Nothing thirdparty that comes out on Scorpio will really be pushing the hardware for years and years, possibly ever, because any sensible developer's main focus will (rightly) be on making their game work well across current PCs and PS4 — Scorpio games may look better than a PS4 version but, fundamentally, they're not going to be doing anything wildly different. The hardware may have the potential to host games that just couldn't work on a PS4 or Xbox One, but no-one outside of a Microsoft firstparty (and even then) is going to push that and abandon the current installed bases. This is the real cost of a mid-cycle upgrade to Xbox: it may be ready to leave this generation behind, but there's a question over whether developers and players feel the same way.
Pursuing power and a premium price point is a risky strategy in this light. It's even moreso when you consider that many of Microsoft's key brands are wilting, and the last few years (despite shining lights) have seen a lack of classic exclusives, along with an enormous change of what an 'exclusive' is for Xbox. The black hole in the middle of all this tech-based Scorpio swirl is the video games. Once-huge series for Xbox like Gears of War and Halo feel stale, and even fantastic individual titles like Forza Horizon 3 don't really feel like Xbox games anymore thanks to Windows 10 cross-compatibility — I played it on PC, leaving my Xbox One still dustier than Wii U.
When you think of Scorpio with that background, this thing almost seems like it has a bit of an identity crisis. It's a reasonably powerful PC in a box, branded Xbox, where all the 'exclusive' games are going to be available on PC anyway — so if I'm a PC maven who wants premium performance and is prepared to pay premium prices, why on Earth would I buy this over a more powerful graphics card? Is that a niche? The Xbox brand remains extremely well thought-of among teenagers, as shown by Google's recent 'It's Lit' study which showed it was the 4th-coolest brand among those sampled. Is this cash-poor parent-pestering demographic the niche for a premium machine?
Scorpio won't get hardcore PC gamers playing on an Xbox, and it's hard to see how it will tempt PS4 players who have been so well-served — and continue to be — to fork over a good £400-500 (price is unconfirmed, other than that Scorpio will be more expensive than the £350 PS4 Pro). Xbox's Mike Ybarra made another case to Eurogamer, that consumer behaviour has changed a great deal:
"When you think about phones, for example, consumers are buying phones more frequently than we've ever seen. [...] Same with 4K TVs. 4K TVs are one of the biggest holiday items this past year. People are expecting this new technology faster than I've ever seen and when you think about the console business, that's kind of in conflict to that, because it's like here's a console and for the next five to seven years, you're on that physical box. And yeah the games get a little better because developers get faster and they optimise it and things start looking a little better, but really you're fixed in that box.
When we see consumers tell us they want 'the latest technology, the latest experience, the best experience more frequently' to our traditional console business that doesn't really align with that, you have to pause, you have to take some pretty big risks. What does it mean to introduce a console within the generation that provides enough difference that makes consumers appreciate and want that device?"
The smartphone argument is a curious one, because it's not like-for-like and the handset industry uses wildly different business models to get their hardware into consumer pockets. In terms of 4K TVs, you really have to ask whether the demographic buying top-end televisions has much of a crossover with the generations interested in having an Xbox — and whether these potential consumers will compare favourably between the 4K-capable PS4 Pro (which will be even cheaper by then) and its strong, extensive library plus a bespoke VR offering, or plump for this newcomer. The one thing that could change everything is a strong E3 lineup of incredible Scorpio games — even if they're not proper 'exclusives' anymore, everyone'll still be a sucker for a prestige machine with a dream slate of games ready to go. But that is far, far easier said than done given the situation the Xbox division has put itself in.
To wit: can Xbox deliver a Scorpio-showcasing lineup of gems that still run well on Xbox One and PC? It's one hell of an unusual ask, and there remains that ambiguity over where Scorpio fits within the wider Microsoft strategy. Is this really the future of Xbox? Or is it just another gamble from a division which, if it goes badly, will swiftly move on? I have bought every single Xbox console on or near release, and I do feel a little burned by Xbox One — I wonder how many long-term Xbox fans feel the same, and regard Scorpio with wariness.
Xbox is banking that, if they build it, the players will come. But I don't need another giganto-box in my life that makes Gears of War 7's nostril-pores glisten in 4K. The PC does that anyway, the PS4 feels like it has many years of active duty ahead, and the Switch has woken me up to a console experience that is built to be lived with rather than dictate. I would be into this thing regardless if it had incredible exclusives, but the modern nature of Microsoft's cross-platform releases means it can't even offer that. Today's reveal had some fascinating detail to it, but my overwhelming question with Scorpio remains what first ran through my mind last June, when I realised Xbox really was going to move on from Xbox One. Who on Earth is this thing for?