Normally, the unveiling of new hardware is one of the most exciting events in the gaming industry. Hardware evolution carries with it the promise of new experiences, and those experiences ultimately serve as the motivation for consumers to purchase new consoles. When Microsoft revealed Project Scorpio at its E3 2016 press conference, it painted a rosy picture of a future filled with limitless power and 4K gaming – but in the following days, none of Microsoft’s spokespeople were on the same page when it came to articulating the system’s key features or its benefits. If Microsoft doesn’t have a clear vision for what Project Scorpio represents, how are gamers and developers supposed to get excited?
Let’s start by looking at the tentpole feature: 4K gaming. According to the reveal, Project Scorpio’s 6 teraflops of power will make it the most powerful console ever, and can be used to generate visual fidelity unlike any system before it. True 4K gaming sounds great, but what if you don’t have a 4K-capable TV? Xbox head Phil Spencer explained to Xbox Live’s Major Nelson that all of the processing power doesn’t necessarily need to be applied to 4K, and developers could use it in other ways, apparently providing value for gamers without state-of-the-art televisions.
That makes sense so far, but Spencer seemed to contradict himself in a later interview with Eurogamer. When referring to gamers who own a standard 1080p television, Spencer said, “Then you should buy [the Xbox One S], because Scorpio is not going to do anything for you. Scorpio is designed as a 4K console, and if you don't have a 4K TV, the benefit we've designed for, you're not going to see. Clearly, you can buy Scorpio, and if and when you decide you want to buy a 4K television to take advantage of the increased performance, obviously the console will be ready for you.” When you’re revealing a brand new console that won’t be out for another year and a half, it probably isn’t wise to tell a large portion of your consumers that they don’t need to buy it.
Apart from 4K gaming, what other advantages do games on Project Scorpio have? The video shown at Microsoft’s press conference has one person describing the system as “the highest res, the best framerate, no compromises.” Gamers like when their games perform smoothly, so the prospect of a guaranteed framerate increase would be attractive to many. The problem is that it’s not happening. When we asked Microsoft Studios general manager Shannon Loftis about the possibility of framerate superiority on Project Scorpio versus the game on other Xbox hardware, she replied, “No, there wouldn't be a frame rate difference, because typically the frame rate is determined by the game developer and what's right for the gameplay mechanic. You don't necessarily want to create two different mechanics for two different configurations." So though you might get a better resolution when playing in 4K, you may not be getting to jump in performance you’d expect from this supposed powerhouse of a system.
Casting even further doubt on the importance of upgrading is the fact that the Xbox One, Xbox One S, and Project Scorpio will be able to play the same games. “No one gets left behind,” Spencer said during the hardware reveal. In other words, though games on Project Scorpio can use the additional power, they can’t be exclusive to the new hardware; they need to work on Xbox One and Xbox One S, too. That seems pretty straightforward, but when Geoff Keighley asked Loftis about the possibility of Scorpio exclusives, she said, “I don't know about that. We'll see. It's up to the game development community.” This apparently opened the door for Scorpio-only games, though she later tweeted a clarification that she had made a mistake, and that all games would play on all Xbox systems.
Lastly, Microsoft seemed to anticipate the resistance some gamers would have to buying a new console at this point in the generation. In an interview with Wired, Spencer clarified that the company is not aiming for the continuous upgrades seen in the mobile phone industry. “Consumer expectation is that, if you wanted to, you could go buy a new cell phone every year,” Spencer said. “I don’t want to get into that mode with a console…We’re not on a hardware tick-tock that says I need to put out a console every two years or every one year to get people to upgrade. That’s not the console model.”
That’s reassuring. But according to Jeff Rivait, the Xbox platform marketing manager for Xbox Canada, that may not be the case. In an interview with Xbox Enthusiast, Rivait said, “When gamers get to carry forward their games, and they’re not losing the value invested in the ecosystem, in addition to getting more frequent and more powerful hardware, is looking at things like the mobile industry and how they’ve innovated. Yes, if you want to stay on top of things you may be buying consoles more frequently, but you’re also getting better looking and more powerful gaming experiences sooner than you would be getting in previous [generations].”
This implies that we might even see more incremental upgrade consoles, which would support Spencer’s on-stage claims about gaming “beyond generations” and creating a continuous platform service – though it also goes directly against his claims of this kind of cycle not being the console model. Since we can’t take the statements at face value, only time will tell which side of this issue Microsoft ultimately lands on.
I know this all sounds pretty harsh, but to be clear: I am not trying condemn Project Scorpio itself. This all comes down to Microsoft and its inability to deliver a clear, consistent message about what the system is and why we should care about it. If Microsoft can answer those questions between now and holiday 2017, I’ll be lining up to pick up my Scorpio on release day with everyone else. But as an unveiling, this E3 went badly for Project Scorpio thanks to all of the mixed messages. What was undoubtedly meant as a triumphant reveal failed to energize fans, and made Sony look smarter for focusing on games rather than pulling back the curtain on its confirmed “PlayStation Neo.” At least if you don’t say anything about a new system, you don’t run the risk of contradicting yourself and creating more confusion than hype.