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Xbox Scorpio could eliminate console generations — and that's a good thing

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The best of both worlds

Xbox Scorpio motherboard - system-on-a-chip
A glimpse of Scorpio’s guts.
Digital Foundry

Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro, which launched last November, and Microsoft’s upcoming Project Scorpio represent the first significant hardware upgrades to come in the middle of a traditional console generation. Both systems are built for 4K televisions, even though the majority of customers don’t yet own one.

The companies have had a tough time convincing consumers of the merits of these devices, but in an interview with Gamasutra, Xbox head Phil Spencer said that Scorpio isn’t just a more powerful Xbox One — it represents an overhaul of the philosophy behind Microsoft’s games business.

Microsoft’s pitch is that, yes, Scorpio will be the most powerful gaming console ever, making it the best place to play Xbox One and multiplatform titles for people who don’t own a powerful gaming computer but care about graphics and performance. The company also says that because it’s building Scorpio as an expansion of the Xbox platform, rather than a typical new console, Scorpio will enable games to live longer.

Xbox 360 E console Microsoft

Don’t look back in anger

Until now, games have generally been locked to the console on which they were released. They might run slightly better on a future device that supports them via backward compatibility, but even a feature like that usually goes back just one console generation. A new system’s launch generally means that the old one’s games, controllers and everything else are now obsolete.

There’s no reason that consumers or game makers have to forget about old games just because a new platform has arrived, except for the fact that that’s just the way things have always been done in the console world. Customers put up with that because a new console promises a major increase in power and other capabilities. But with Scorpio, Microsoft is looking to deliver that while maintaining compatibility with the past. Of course, the PS4 Pro did this to an extent last fall, but Microsoft is hoping that Scorpio’s significant power advantage will eliminate the benefit of Sony’s one-year head start.

It’s difficult to convey the benefits of a mid-cycle hardware upgrade, especially when console gamers aren’t accustomed to the idea of buying a new box so soon after an existing one debuted. But while this argument is more complicated and nuanced than “console games will look and run the best on this platform,” it’s perhaps the more important one.

“There’s some clear benefits of [the traditional console philosophy],” Spencer told Gamasutra. “I can tailor my games specifically to the hardware platform that I’m building towards. But it means you end up with this kind of land-locked content that it’s hard to go play.”

Instead, the arrival of Scorpio will bring the Xbox platform closer than ever to the PC ecosystem. These days, PC gamers can buy tons of decades-old games from services like Steam and GOG, and many of those titles can function on modern computers without too much tweaking. The Xbox One can play a growing library of Xbox 360 games, thanks to a not-insignificant engineering effort on Microsoft’s part. Meanwhile, Sony and Nintendo are happy to let you pay for old games again and again (PlayStation 2 Classics, PlayStation Now, Virtual Console).

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 - Turbine map
There are once again a lot of people playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, thanks to Xbox One backward compatibility.
Treyarch/Activision

Backward compatibility works for both game makers and consumers. The PC platform is a continuum that evolves over time, but that doesn’t preclude publishers from releasing remasters of old games. And customers who buy a game once can feel safe in the knowledge that they’ll still be able to play it years down the line, regardless of whether they have the original console lying around and still hooked up. (This could also make people more comfortable with going digital — they might not be able to trade in old games, but at least they’ll still be able to play them.)

This also ties into Microsoft’s efforts to blur the lines between Xbox and Windows. Initiatives like Xbox Play Anywhere are another way to free customers from the constraints of consoles, offering an experience that scales and syncs across Xbox One and PC. The Nintendo Switch tackles this problem from a different angle — the games are the same in your hands and on a TV — but Nintendo has a terrible track record when it comes to managing content ownership across multiple platforms and devices. Microsoft already has that part figured out.

Free your mind (from console generations)

The industry has been moving toward “games as a service” for quite some time now, and people who follow the business have already tired of that buzzphrase. But it’s more true than ever — it’s rare today for even an indie game to be released and never updated.

Game makers don’t simply put something out and forget about it, and they often design games with an eye on retaining players for long after launch. It could be a single-player title that receives a story expansion months later, or a multiplayer game augmented with map packs, or perhaps a combination of both like Destiny, which periodically receives new content in free and paid updates.

We’ve also begun to see games that go across console generations. Destiny players on PS3 and Xbox 360 can transfer their characters to PS4 or Xbox One, respectively, if they upgrade. Rock Band 4 allows people to import almost all of their previously purchased songs, and the game is compatible with last-generation instrument controllers, too. But the import process is clunky — perhaps because the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and the PS3 and PS4, weren’t designed to work together in this way.

“When we thought about our tools, I said okay, games are going to live longer than we’re used to them living on our platform,” Spencer told Gamasutra. “Which means from the service capability and monetization standpoint, we’ve got to go build tools so that they can continue to give content and services and other things to the customers.”

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston aiming revolver Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

The elimination of console generations as we know them could incentivize game developers and publishers to continue supporting ongoing and older titles. Backward compatibility could goose the sales of a beloved game, as it did last summer for Red Dead Redemption. Now that Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is playable on Xbox One, its player base has swelled to a level higher than that of 2016’s Infinite Warfare. Would a drop of new content make sense all of a sudden?

“There are advantages to the console generations, but I wanted to try to evolve our capability to kind of have the best of both,” said Spencer. “Old games that work well, new games that are innovative, and hardware platforms that could scale.”

This is the best-of-both-worlds argument that Spencer first made a year ago — before Microsoft announced Scorpio — when he told Polygon, “I look at the ecosystem that a console sits in and I think that it should have the capability of more iteration on hardware capability.” If Microsoft is indeed changing the way it thinks about the Xbox platform, and the company’s future consoles will continue to be compatible with Xbox One games, it seems like it would be a win-win situation for everyone involved.