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What Microsoft, Xbox and Scorpio need to succeed at E3 and beyond

Microsoft has finally had a coming out party of sorts for the as-yet-unnamed new Xbox One, codenamed Scorpio. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to be called, but we do know that the platform holder has kept its promises — it’s a very powerful piece of hardware that appears to be capable of running current games at 4K with plenty of room to spare for additional graphical effects. As other Polygon writers have pointed out, the messaging so far is very clear, especially for Microsoft: it’s an extremely powerful system that should just work, both on games that you already have, and the games yet to come.

It’s a good start, but Microsoft has a lot more to do, and a lot more to prove, if it wants to reset the conversation in the console space. And these are the things I think they should start with at this year’s E3 — even if I doubt most of them will happen.

Show games running on Scorpio

Ok, this one will definitely happen. But the question is whether or not Microsoft can pull off the hardest part of this year’s E3 for everyone making the big technological leap.

Scorpio needs to show games that are clearly better looking on a 1080p livestream on Twitch and Youtube.

An almost comical refrain when Microsoft finally confirmed Scorpio’s hardware specs last week was “where are the games?”

Of course, that’s not what last week’s stories were for — they were aimed at showing people what the hardware is. But the desire is clearly there. People want to know what exactly they’re going to get from buying new hardware, and “it’s in 4K now” isn’t enough.

We do have examples of Xbox One games running on more powerful hardware, thanks to Xbox Play Anywhere releases like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 and Digital Foundry’s deep dive comparisons. But this is on PC, and people want to see these results on Scorpio.

More specifically, people want to see this kind of thing on Scorpio, and they want to see it on games they haven’t bought yet. A lot of the appeal of a thing like Scorpio is knowing that the games you’re looking forward to will look that much better on it. Microsoft needs to have games that look absolutely stunning on stage this year, running on Scorpio, to why they need it — and HDR, wide color gamut, and 4K resolution aren’t going to cut it. People need to be able to see it in a browser on their laptop, on an app on their phones or TVs.

I know how demanding 4K is, how much power it requires of a game engine and of console hardware. But 4K doesn’t demo well in a large theater, or in streaming video. The mixed reaction to Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro event livestream last fall is all the evidence Microsoft should need to plan for a lower common denominator.

Of everything in this list, this should be the easiest. Microsoft has been building games with PC in mind for a few years now. Now it’s time to show it all off.

Make multiplayer free.

You can already play Xbox One games with other Xbox One players on Xbox Live without paying for Xbox Live.

The catch? You have to play them on PC.

This isn’t a hypothetical. Right now, if you buy Gears of War 4 or Forza Horizon 3 or Halo Wars 2 and play them on PC, you can play them with Xbox One players like there was no difference between the two. Hell, The Coalition is adding the option for PC players and console players in Gears 4 to play in ranked multiplayer matchmaking against each other. And disregarding the arguments over keyboard and mouse versus gamepad, the biggest difference between the two is that the PC players are getting the best looking version of the game and don’t have to pay a yearly fee to do it online.

This is ridiculous.

It’s easy to understand how we got here — Microsoft was a pioneer in setting the expectation that you’d have to pay to play online on a console, and they massively fumbled in their attempts to make a case for PC players needing the same kind of service . To attempt to reintroduce a PC gaming initiative with any semblance of payment-gated online play would have been so laughably stupid even the Don Mattrick-era of Xbox would have had second thoughts. Meanwhile, console players don’t have a choice — the holdouts from last generation on console online play are now both charging for the privilege.

But as Xbox Play Anywhere becomes more and more of a thing — and it appears to be, with high profile participants like January’s Resident Evil 7 and August’s Middle-earth: Shadow of War joining the program, among others — and Microsoft blurs the line between PCs and the console upgrade cycle, it’s looking more and more like console players are getting screwed.

Microsoft makes a lot of money from Xbox Live, to be sure, but multiplayer isn’t the only reason to charge for an online service. There are plenty of social features that players are finding use out of, like clubs and groups. Then of course there’s Games With Gold, with Microsoft giving out multiple free games per month. This is a great opportunity for Scorpio — Microsoft has insisted that every Xbox One game will benefit from the massive boost in power the new system includes, and that it should be easy for developers to provide a 4K boost to existing games. GWG would be a prime means of surfacing 4K-upgraded titles on the platform, in addition to the existing discounts Gold membership gives on game purchases.

But there’s another good reason for Microsoft to make Xbox Live free. As this console generation has worn on, more and more players have had to decide whether or not to renew their Live memberships in lieu of PSN. This creates a barrier to entry to bring those players back to the platform, in addition to the basic snowball effect of the wider audience clearly existing on PS4, right now. Making multiplayer free would remove a lot of the friction for the players Microsoft is almost certainly hoping to bring back into the fold with Scorpio’s soft relaunch of the platform.

As importantly, removing multiplayer from behind a paywall would be a colossally positive show of good will to the fanbase, and strategically, it would make things pretty uncomfortable for the competition.

Release Scorpio in August

If Scorpio is out in time for all the Fall games to look better in 4K as they release, that may be all the messaging the console needs.

The PlayStation 4 Pro is a great piece of hardware with an extremely competitive price that was undercut by unfortunate timing. The biggest challenge for mid-cycle consoles like the PS4 Pro and Scorpio is justifying why they exist — and the best way for them to do that is software. In the case of the PS4 Pro, which launched in November, almost all of the big software of the fall had already released by the time the console came to stores. Players had already spent time with showpiece games, and regardless of whether those releases got patches or included support for the PS4 Pro on day one, the window to make the case with those titles had closed.

It’s unlikely that this cost Sony any third-party sales, but it did rob them of a narrative: all the holiday’s biggest games would look the best on the PS4 Pro right away.

This is exactly the narrative that Microsoft needs this fall if it wants to reestablish Xbox as the premiere platform for third-party games — which it clearly wants to do. And the only way to make sure this is the case is by releasing the system before the fall deluge hits, before Destiny 2 and Call of Duty and the new Assassin’s Creed arrive. Microsoft needs these games, every game, to be the best on Scorpio when those games launch, and not at some indeterminate point after.

There’s another good reason for Microsoft to release Scorpio in August. New hardware invariably has an impact on software sales, and this is especially rough on third parties. In a perfect world, Microsoft would get Scorpio out in the market and give buyers’ wallets enough time to recover and actually buy some of those high profile games that should shine the most on the system.

Oh, and one of the biggest games of the Fall, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, is out in August as a Play Anywhere title. That would be a nice launch feather for Scorpio’s cap.

The question then is whether Microsoft can pull off an August release. The company’s engineers have said Scorpio hardware is final and that retail kits should be with third parties now, and the insinuation has been that things may even be ahead of schedule. Microsoft has a history of releasing refreshed hardware during the summer — they did it with the Xbox 360 Slim in June of 2010, and the Xbox One S released last August.

Also, Phil Spencer said he’s using one at home, right now.

Price Scorpio at $400

Scorpio sounds like expensive hardware, and I’d understand why the system would sell for a lot. But there are a few reasons why it be a smart move to price the system at $400, instead of the $500 people expect.

First, cheaper is always better. But more specifically, $400 is a price that’s, well, kind of exciting. It feels like a deal for what you’re getting — that you’re getting more than you paid for, in fact.

People may pay $500. In fact, some almost certainly will, as the Xbox One sold reasonably well. But nobody is going to be excited to pay that much for a console. And Xbox One as a platform could desperately use some price-oriented excitement.

When the Xbox One price was announced at E3 in 2013, there was, at best, grudging acceptance. $500 “made sense” — it was a new system, and Kinect was in there. But when Sony just hours later ate Microsoft’s lunch with a $400 price point for more powerful hardware, the Xbox One found itself out on a precarious limb. To put Scorpio on stage this June next to a $500 price point is to remind everyone of the Xbox One’s initial, disastrous first six months. But to price it at $400 does the inverse — it makes a clean break with that history with an aggressive, consumer-friendly cost that will likely force a reaction from Sony almost immediately.

This is the ground Microsoft purports to want to stake its claim on, with comments like “the most powerful console ever made” and “true 4K.” Scorpio feels like Microsoft picking a fight, and forcing a reaction from the competition seems like a smart way to do it.

Oh, and while Microsoft is at it, it should lower the price on the Xbox One S — now the entry level Xbox One console — to $200, officially. In fact I’d even say it should go lower, but it launched less than a year ago for $300, so in an editorial full of unlikely things, that almost sounds the least plausible.

The other stuff

It’s not like there’s other stuff we wouldn’t like to see. The Kinect has largely been deprecated, but many users love Xbox One’s voice command support. That’s led to voice commands being supported via a headset microphone as well, and that raises the question: where are other microphone options? Google has the Echo, and Amazon has Alexa — why can’t the Xbox One get a more dedicated piece of hardware designed specifically around voice recognition? Kinect had a great mic four years ago, but the world has moved forward. I’d even love to see a media remote with a microphone, a la Comcast’s X1 platform, or a built in mic in a new controller.

I and others also still have some original Xbox software that’s never seen a re-release or remaster, and probably never will — games like MechAssault, Ninja Gaiden Black and others. An additional backwards compatibility initiative running concurrently with Microsoft’s efforts to get 360 games running on Xbox One is asking a lot, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it.

Also: where the hell are the 4K/HDR movies in Microsoft’s own video storefront? It’s been eight months since the Xbox One S launched. And where are IPTV/streaming apps from companies like Xfinity and Time Warner?

These would be nice to have, for sure. There are always lots of things a console could benefit from that it will never get. But if Microsoft wants to win, to take back the ground it lost with an era of bad decisions that started when the original Kinect launched in 2010, it needs to deliver more than just the most powerful console hardware ever created.

Microsoft needs to get people excited. And these are all ways to do that.

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