Video game consoles are a weird business these days.
Microsoft started the generation off with a horror show proposition, asking us to lock ourselves into a DRM-laden digital nightmare where we would need to authenticate our games with constant Internet connections and forgo used games entirely without getting much in return. Sony was met with ridiculous praise for doing nothing more than maintaining the status quo. Nintendo, as Nintendo does, has been entirely on its own path without much regard for the rest of the industry. We went from questioning whether or not consumers were even willing to buy another console at the beginning of this cycle to now on the backs of two of the fastest-selling consoles ever, questioning whether or not it’s time for the single most dramatic change to the standard console cycle in decades.
I’m referring, of course, to Microsoft’s announced mid-cycle refresh: “Project Scorpio.”
Project Scorpio is said to be a behemoth built to support all the latest gaming trends, catch-alls and buzzwords: Virtual reality. 4K gaming. HDR rendering. It’s hard to keep up with it all. We’ve seen important-sounding numbers bandied about: “8-core processor.” “Six teraflops peak shader throughput.” It’s dizzying to most people, and on paper, it sounds incredible, like Project Scorpio will be such a wild step up from the current Xbox One that it’s ostensibly a next generation console rather than the mere half measure it supposedly represents. Microsoft says it will be “the most powerful console ever built.”
It’s all very impressive, but I can’t shake the feeling that Microsoft is also trying its hardest to dissuade you from ever buying an Xbox again.
On one hand, Microsoft’s move here makes complete sense. In walking back ex-Xbox head Don Mattrick’s ill-fated push for an all-digital console, Microsoft played a too-conservative hand with the Xbox One. It’s underpowered, falling behind the PlayStation 4 and well behind the PC. It made the mistake of launching the Xbox One after the PlayStation 4, with all sorts of baggage in tow and not enough killer, exclusive games to make up for it. The Xbox One is in a distant second place and Microsoft needs to do something to claw itself back up the chain.
In comes Project Scorpio to right the wrongs of the Xbox One. Project Scorpio is built to look ahead and behind at the same time, supporting backwards compatibility with the Xbox One and Xbox 360 right out of the gate while also bringing a shot of much-needed power into the fold to keep up with the times. If the rumored specs for Sony’s similar refresh, the PlayStation “Neo,” are to be believed, then Project Scorpio will easily be the most powerful console on the market when it launches.
But here’s the thing: there’s zero reason to buy into Project Scorpio.
Microsoft is making a big gamble here, and I don’t understand how the company imagines it’ll pay off. First, if Sony stays on the rumored trajectory, its Neo refresh will launch this year. It won’t be as powerful as Project Scorpio, but if Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 taught us anything, it’s that it doesn’t need to be; a year’s lead in the market is much more valuable. The enthusiast crowd that these mid-cycle refreshes are targeting aren’t going to want to wait a full year for a promised console with nothing tangible to show for itself when they could instead buy a much better version of the current most popular console on the market now. Once they buy a Neo, most consumers simply won’t care enough (or be able to afford) to buy another console a year later.
Of course, that point hinges on Sony’s ability to launch Neo this year when the company has still so far barely even been willing to recognize its existence publicly and just passed on the opportunity to show it off during the single biggest annual event in the games industry. Still, this point doesn’t really matter when compared to the next.
Microsoft is making a massive strategic mistake with its Xbox Play Anywhere program.
XPA is Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s Cross-Play promotion where one purchase of an eligible game available on multiple PlayStation platforms gets you all versions of the game at no additional charge. Without paying anything extra, you could buy a game on your PlayStation 4 and get the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions for free, be able to share save files seamlessly and potentially even play multiplayer across all platforms. It’s a generous, pro-consumer decision, and likewise, so is XPA. Buying the Xbox One version of Gears of War 4, for instance, will net you the PC version for free and players of either can play multiplayer against each other in one shared community. Microsoft is promising that all its first-party games will be available on both console and PC from now on and will support XPA.
The company is trying to tear down the walls separating console and PC, and in doing so, it’s destroying any reason to buy a Project Scorpio.
Project Scorpio is not going to fundamentally solve the problems with consoles: it is still a closed platform, it is still locked to the same hardware for a number of years, it will still prevent you from upgrading parts over time to save money. In short: it’s not a PC. If Microsoft is then going to decouple itself from the idea of “console exclusives,” why would a person ever buy Project Scorpio? One of the arguments against the PC has always been that you’d be missing out on console exclusives, but if you can play all future Gears of War, Forza and Halo games on the PC from now on, why not just build a PC instead so you can upgrade it over time rather than buying a completely new box every few years?
You might be wondering why I’ve been focusing entirely on Microsoft’s Project Scorpio without much mention of Sony’s PlayStation Neo. If Project Scorpio is flawed, shouldn’t Neo be as well? Actually, no, not at all.
The difference here between Microsoft and Sony is all about the exclusives: Sony has them. Microsoft won’t. With Microsoft’s new XPA strategy, you’ll be able to play the next Gears, Halo and Quantum Break on PC. But you know what you won’t be able to play on PC? God of War. Horizon: Zero Dawn. Days Gone. The Last Guardian. Insomniac’s Spider-Man. And so on. You’ll need either a PlayStation 4 or Neo to play those games, period. That’s not even to mention any games exclusive to Sony’s upcoming PlayStation VR, which is increasingly looking like the only virtual reality headset with any chance of mainstream success. You’re going to want a PlayStation 4 or Neo because you’re going to want at least one of Sony’s exclusive games and there’s no other place to play it. It’s the same reason anyone bothers to buy a Nintendo console these days: it’s the only place Nintendo’s games are available. If you could play them anywhere else, you would.
On Giant Bomb’s E3 live show, current Xbox boss Phil Spencer addressed this point in passing, saying that it isn’t an issue where players are buying Microsoft’s games so long as they’re buying them. But that’s only true on a small scale. Microsoft is not a third-party game developer. It invests significant time, energy and resources into building consoles, maintaining those platforms, curating developer relationships, securing exclusives, marketing, etc. Microsoft absolutely cares if players opt to ditch the Xbox platform in favor of the PC because even if all those players continue buying Microsoft’s games, they aren’t buying Microsoft hardware or giving Microsoft royalties for third-party game purchases through Valve’s dominant Steam store. If only a few players make the jump, Spencer’s right; it’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world, either. But if a significant percentage of the current Xbox One audience decides to build a PC rather than buy a Project Scorpio, that’s a problem for Microsoft.
To be clear, Xbox Play Anywhere is a fantastic idea — from a consumer standpoint. It’s more bang for your buck and helps bridge the gap between console and PC in a meaningful way. But it also means there’s very little reason to buy into Project Scorpio. I’ve never been a person motivated to build a PC because it seems like a lot of hassle when the vast majority of games I want are available on my PlayStation 4, but if I can also snag all the Xbox-exclusive franchises I’ve been missing, a PC suddenly becomes much more attractive and a new Xbox much less so. The smart play, even for Xbox diehards, will be to pick up a PlayStation Neo and a great PC to get the best of both worlds.
But Project Scorpio? No thanks.