In the weeks leading up to E3, rumors swirled about potential hardware revisions for the PS4 and XB1. Reception from myself and others was mixed, to say the least. The idea of a "slim" redesign was nothing new, but a more powerful revision or expansion that actually affected gameplay performance? Every past industry attempt at this flashed before my eyes, and it looked like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Either games end up exclusive to the new hardware, games on the old hardware run like shit, or the whole thing tanks and ultimately detracts from just making quality games... right? Well Microsoft's announcement of the Scorpio changed my attitude. A lot.
The jump from PS3 to PS4 was a clean one. Outside some Cross Buy ports and upgrade promotions, none of your PS3 software carried over to PS4. Even PS Now and PS2 Classics required all new purchases. The XB1 launched much the same, though the return of BC helped mitigate this even if only a fraction of the 360 library is supported thus far. WiiU had disc BC for Wii, but dropped GameCube support even though it was technically doable. Migrating accounts and purchases was hardly smooth, and both Wii VC and WiiWare don't run natively in the WiiU OS. For all of these systems, controllers were only partially compatible or not at all.
This has been the reality of console gaming for as long as there have been consoles. While playing on PC is not without its pitfalls (and I've blogged about them before), the lack of a generational "break" has always been a selling point for the platform. Not every game works perfect on install, but just about everything can run with a good enough rig one way or another. That goes for hardware too: just about every console gamepad can be used on PCs with an adapter of some kind.
But what if consoles didn't have this problem? What if there was a way to still give devs a set hardware spec (or 2) to build on, but also let consumers upgrade on their schedule without being left out of new game releases? What if we effectively eliminated the console generation as we understand it today?
Enter Project Scorpio. Now what we know about this new hardware, which isn't launching until next Holiday, is ultimately limited. Microsoft is being very coy about some of the specifics, instead choosing to focus on the Xbox One S. So I admit I make some inferences in this blog for the sake of showing you what Scorpio could be, not what it has to or necessarily will be. Let's start with what we do know, pulling some quotes from the announcement video:
"We gave the SoC 6 teraflops of computing capability to be able to handle 4K resolution."
"The highest res, the best framerate, no compromises."
"You get 4K gaming, true 4K resolution."
"We can render at 60Hz, we can render fully uncompressed pixels, even more real, even more vibrant. It's amazing, and what we're able to do now is bring that to the console player."
"We're moving Fallout 4 to VR, and to have a console that can support that at the resolution and speed that we really want, I think it's going to be magical."
"That doesn't mean we are leaving the original Xbox One behind. Every single thing that we've done for Xbox One will continue to work."
"We add to the capabilities of the Xbox One and the Xbox One family without forcing gamers to abandon all the games and the community that they love so much."
"These two systems are part of the same family. The games will work on both, the accessories work on both."
"It's gonna have 8 CPU cores, over 320 gigabytes per second of memory bandwidth, 6 teraflops of GPU power."
Hyperbole and buzz words aside, this is a 3+ minute video about new gaming hardware with no mention of shaders, textures, particle effects, physics, AI. Literally nothing but resolution, framerate, and VR. Combined with pretty concrete statements about game and accessory compatibility, this is where I think Scorpio -- and likely the "Playstation Neo" -- have a chance to really change the console business for the better.
If -- and I admit, it's a big "if" -- MS puts strict rules into place on how devs can use Scorpio's added hardware, this could conceivably be the smoothest generational transition ever. Or more accurately, it's because there wouldn't be one at all. The same games running in the same engine with the same assets on the same OS, just scaled for either the "new" spec or the "old" spec.
Think of it like the video settings for a PC game. Devs would build the core assets, then adjust performance for resolution, framerate, anti-aliasing, etc to take full advantage of the new spec, and scale them back down for the old spec. There'd obviously be quite a bit of testing in between, but that's the basic principle. MS has already used Halo 5 as an example of how this could work for existing games. In order to keep a locked 60FPS on XB1, Halo 5 dynamically scales the resolution and draw distance at times. On Scorpio, you wouldn't need to. Hell, they could even patch the game to run natively at a resolution higher than 1080p -- even 4K.
And before the PC gamers try and tell me this is impossible, it's not. The recently released GTX 1070 can push 6.5 TFLOPs with 256GB/s of memory bandwidth. We'll need a full spec sheet on Scorpio to do a proper comparison, but from what they have said it's safe to consider this ballpark for all intents and purposes. The 1070 can't do 4K 60FPS max for the newest games, but as the benchmarks show, it is a 4K capable graphics card. And here's the kicker: PC games aren't fully optomized. With consoles, devs are targeting a single spec (in this case 2) and can get the most from the hardware. It's a damn miracle a game like Battlefield 4 could even run on the 360's circa 2005 GPU. Imagine what these guys could do with 4K capable hardware?
Now again, this goes back to the "if": will MS and Sony be vigilant about quality control here? If they do, the console gen starts when you want it to. Don't have a 4K TV? Haven't jumped on VR? Keep playing on your XB1 and PS4 then. When you're ready to upgrade, you can make that leap and bring all your shit with you. Since I can't imagine a console with a 6 TFLOP GPU costing less than $500-$600, at launch this thing will likely just be for early adopters anyway. Everyone else can wait until the console's price drops to a level they're comfortable with before they make the switch -- not ot mention the price of 4K TVs and VR headsets. No forced upgrades, no buyer's remorse and no fragmentation. This could be an unprecedented step for the industry.
And sure. Maybe 2-3 years after the Scorpio and Neo launch, when the XB1 and PS4 start waning like the 360 and PS3 have been, you can let devs do more with the GPU than just scaling, or start gradually allowing for exclusives on the new spec. But at that point, how many will have moved over already, as they would with a normal console cycle? The point is that the generational transition would be smoother than it ever could have been before. That benefits consumers, publishers, and platform holders. Everybody wins here.
Am I crazy, or could I actually be on to something here? This isn't consoles becoming PCs or smartphones, it's something entirely different that's been discussed in one form or another in this industry for a while now. We're just finally at a point technologically where it's possible... if.