Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has made comments bringing the company and the Xbox platform one step closer to something I’ve been talking about ever since “Codename: Durango” was unveiled. From what I’m seeing it has some people scared, as if the whole world is changing. I’m going to try to go over, as succinctly as I can, why I think this is a good thing and why it’s not an apocalypse for Xbox.
Spencer’s messaging is a bit muddled but from reading stories and bits of interviews what I surmise Microsoft is thinking about doing is this:
–The Xbox console will eventually become not a platform in itself, but simply one portal to Windows 10 software (and games), possibly making all Xbox games potentially cross-platform between Windows devices, just like Windows apps.
–We might get incrementally upgraded versions of the Xbox console at a faster pace than we currently get new consoles. The idea of a “console generation” may in fact disappear in favor of a gradual upward climb of the architecture and OS.
At least that’s what I think is happening if Microsoft is smart. I’d be surprised if we actually see pieces of hardware you simple bolt onto your Xbox like an N64 expansion pack or a 32x. I think it makes more sense to do something like phones where you have incremental hardware revisions every 18-24 months that all run the same operating system and games but with new functionality. The mention of this makes people very defensive of the way consoles have been done for decades and I think there’s one underlying fear behind that. It’s a fear that their box will no longer be the best box on which to play games on the platform, that developers will no longer optimize for it, and they’ll have to keep upgrading like PCs. The underlying guarantee of consoles compared to PCs is that games “just work.” There are some notions I think console users need to let go of in today’s world, and I don’t think this is as fundamental a shift as many others seem to.
First, fundamentally the difference between say, iOS devices, and a game console isn’t that massive. They are both walled gardens where one company controls both the hardware and the licensing of all software. The main differences between them are the input method and the fact that Apple controls software licensing much more loosely. Their main difference from PC is that on PC the company controlling the operating system doesn’t control the hardware or software. Even if you have more Xboxes or more devices that run all that software, Microsoft is still going to control all that software and a lot of the hardware too (excluding PCs running Windows 10). You still won’t have to worry about GPUs and memory, you won’t have to worry about updating drivers, you probably won’t have to mess with graphics settings. If Microsoft does this like phones, then games will still “just work.” They may simply work differently depending on the Microsoft device. You’ll still be able to buy an Xbox and relatively immediately play games on it. You just might have some more hardware options for playing those games. Think about cross-generation games but with smaller differences between versions. Now imagine they were cross-buy.
I think on some level consoles need to do this because the previous generation was proof that they advance too slowly. In the middle of the Xbox 360’s lifespan the entire gaming world changed around it. It launched in a world without free-to-play, without iOS and mobile gaming, without Minecraft, without Early Access. Entire new sectors exploded with faster growth than consoles before Sony and Microsoft could react. While consumers everywhere moved on to the idea of software ecosystems, the consoles were stuck on the idea of software being stuck to individual devices.
A lot of console users can’t let go of that idea — that an Xbox game is made for that Xbox console and only that Xbox console, that the piece of hardware is the entire platform. That idea was almost always pretty unique to console video games, and it looks like it might be disappearing.
One aspect of that system is that it allowed console consumers to be secure in the idea that their simple box was delivering games in the most high-end way possible for that platform. This was especially true in the era when exotic console architecture and the games built around it provided demonstrable advantages. What people need to let go of is that need to have the most high-end thing. In other sectors most consumers don’t care about that. All PC gamers don’t strive to have the most high-end system. I play The Witcher 3 at 30 frames per second on my PC because that’s what fits my hardware, and the fact that some people are playing it at 60fps on 980Tis doesn’t bother me. I have an iPhone 6 Plus, the fact that some people are getting more features on an iPhone 6s doesn’t bother me. Through the 3DS’s entire lifespan I’ve stuck with the original model and am fine with that. People out there are still perfectly fine with an iPhone 5. If an upgraded Xbox One comes out people will be fine with the base model Xbox One. The fact that mass market consumers aren’t overly confused by all the different iPhone and iPad models is proof enough that multiple console models shouldn’t confuse them any more if Microsoft doesn’t screw up the marketing message.
I understand the fear that games might end up running like crap on the base console model because developers optimized the for newer devices, but look at the phone software environment again (and even PC gaming). I don’t think we’re going to see games that run at 15fps on the base Xbox One. Developers usually optimize iOS software around the most popular models, and then add functionality for users with newer hardware. That’s why you see iOS games with descriptions that say they support like three different hardware models. On PC, developers optimize games around the most popular setups. That are no games that require a Titan X graphics card, only games that run better on a Titan X.
When it comes down to it, the only thing that’s going to change if Microsoft goes through with this is that people will have more options within the Windows/Xbox platform. Those options will allow the platform to evolve faster than any singe device could.
- Interesting-looking little game: http://warpdoor.com/2016/03/02/demons-sword-cannibal-cat-software/
- Wadjet Eye’s latest game has a demo now: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/03/02/shardlight-demo/
- Ghost Song update: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1192311215/ghost-song-a-journey-of-hope/posts/1505084