If you've been keeping abreast of current Xbox events, you might be wondering what drugs Microsoft has been smoking. At E3 2016, the company officially announced not one, but two brand new consoles: the slimline Xbox One S and the roided-up Project Scorpio. It also plans to keep making the Xbox One, which means it will soon have three different current-gen machines jostling for space on store shelves.
This is completely unheard of. It looks and sounds like gibbering, balls-out insanity. Just who the hell is going to buy an Xbox One S when Project Scorpio (a self-proclaimed "monster" and "the most powerful console ever created") is just around the corner? We asked Microsoft Studios's head of publishing Shannon Loftis to explain what the hell is going on. Her frank and honest responses were pretty surprising. In short, Xbox is actively trying to emulate the PC upgrade philosophy-- and Project Scorpio is just the beginning.
"Backward and forward compatibility."
This is the new mantra of Microsoft's Xbox division as it attempts to reinvent itself as a purveyor of interconnected consoles that cater to different types of gamers. The downside of this is a much faster upgrade cycle -- but it also means games and accessories will continue to work on every system, possibly for many years to come.
When you look at how gaming PCs work, Xbox's bold new direction doesn't look like such a crazy gamble. Over the past decade, Microsoft has been closely watching the PC games industry -- taking note of what works and what doesn't. It has concluded that giving consumers more choice in the hardware they buy is the way forward. It's basically taking the concept of a graphics card series and applying it to consoles: they all play the same games and offer a similar experience, but some are more capable than others.
We probably should have seen this coming. The Xbox brand has always been more closely aligned with PCs than its rivals. The company is bringing all first-party Xbox games to PC. It's introducing Play Anywhere support for Windows 10 gamers and is also bringing Cortana to the Xbox One. A PC-style refresh cycle is the next logical step in this progression.
Nobody gets left behind
This isn't just conjecture on our part. Shannon Loftis pretty much admitted it during a one-on-one interview at E3:
"The PC gaming market over the past twenty years has been our focus test [for Scorpio]. These customers don't wait with held breath for a new PC release so they can experience the next games. Instead, it's been a rolling innovation and there's been compatibility moving forward. Nobody is getting left behind."
For those who haven't heard the name, Shannon Loftis has been a key player at Microsoft Studios since the launch of the original Xbox. She helped to make online multiplayer mainstream, led the team who brought us Kinect and briefly managed Xbox Entertainment Studios. Having been directly involved in some of Xbox's biggest highs and lows, she is certainly no stranger to high-risk business strategies.
The launch of Xbox One S and Project Scorpio is going to be a bit of a tough sell -- at least to begin with. A five-to-seven year life cycle isn't just expected for consoles; it's an industry standard that consumers demand. If things aren't handled properly, non-gamers are going to be confused by all the similar-sounding options and existing Xbox One owners will be openly resentful. It's a situation that isn't lost on Loftis.
"I've actually had a couple of people come up to me already and say: "that's a whole lot of stuff! What am I supposed to make of all this?" Well, what we want people to realise is that it's all about giving gamers choice -- choice of which game they want to play today and where they want to be in the Xbox console family.
"The nice thing about this hardware innovation chain we're starting is that we're committed to compatibility. So if current Xbox One gamers decide they want to move to Scorpio, their games, their friends and their accessories all move with them. We're making a promise of continued innovation without disrupting gamer's experiences."
Loftis said that Microsoft would be relying on its retail partners and marketers to get the message across to mainstream consumers. The price point and packaging of each system should also help to clue in Xbox newbies.
The main thing to remember is that they all play the same games and everything just works. Or as Loftis puts it: "People are going to come into stores with a specific experience in mind and there will be an Xbox there for them."
Life after Scorpio
We asked Loftis to sum up exactly how this new business model benefits consumers compared to what we're used to. Here's what she said:
"It's the guarantee of a stable community, as much choice as you can possibly want and a forward-compatibility so the investments you make today with games and accessories will pay off over years to come."
Years to come? Does this mean we can expect a sequel to Project Scorpio in another few years' time? And then another? And another? Loftis played it coy, but hinted that this was indeed the case:
"Watch this space! Let's see how this first step goes."
Hmm. We're of two minds about this sped-up manufacturing cycle. On the one hand, it's going to destroy the simple, unified nature of consoles. Sure, the games might work on every machine but some people will be getting a better experience than others. How this will affect multiplayer titles in anyone's guess. Then there's the need to blow hundreds of bucks on a minor console upgrade every few years. For cash-strapped gamers, that's a bitter pill to swallow.
On the other hand, it will probably work out cheaper than a PC GPU upgrade and will enable the Xbox platform to keep up with PCs on a technical level. Crucially, new release games will continue to work if you decide to stick with what you've got. So nobody is being forced into anything.
Is this good for console gaming? Is it terrible? Gah, we just don't know any more!
Kotaku flew to E3 as a guest of Microsoft.