In general, it's hard to argue that Microsoft's E3 press event for 2016 was a lot better than previous years. For the most part, they focused on their upcoming games, but the conference opened by debuting the redesigned Xbox One S, and closed with the reveal of "Project Scorpio," a much beefier piece of hardware with the highest quality, uncompressed pixels available. It's unsurprising that Microsoft is looking to revise their hardware; when plans for a disc-less, cloud-based, Kinect controlled console fell through just before they system's launch three years ago, they had to scramble to turn what had been planned into the console we have today. Unfortunately, this led to compromises that the engineers, to their credit, have tried valiantly to work around. Still, the Xbox One has consistently performed worse in head-to-head comparisons with Sony's Playstation 4, which has to have hurt some egos in Seattle.
I'm curious as to why anyone would buy an Xbox One right now, though.
Let's begin by saying that I am the target audience for the new, slimmed-down Xbox One S. I enjoyed my time with the Xbox 360, and in fact still play on it from time to time. I haven't yet purchased either of the current-gen consoles, and had been considering buying one within the next year or so. What I've seen from Microsoft recently, however, makes me less inclined to buy an Xbox One than before.
I'll freely admit that I'm a bargain hunter when it comes to playing video games. I don't usually preorder anything, and I rarely buy a game at launch, preferring to let others take the first hit of depreciation. I'm not quite this far behind, but the philosophy makes a lot of sense to me. I've never felt like I was missing out by not owning the newest and shiniest console. So I'm not exactly thrilled with the prospect of upgrading hardware twice in two years. I don't want to buy my consoles like we buy phones. I don't even like buying phones that way.
It's seeming like Microsoft is attempting to create a tiered family of Xbox One consoles, with the base model at the low end and Scorpio at the top, a premium product for a greater cost. We've already seen them do this with controllers; the basic Xbox One gamepad works great, but they also offer the Elite series for more than twice the cost of the standard controller. I understand that some people are willing to shell out more money for enhanced audio and visuals, and I don't necessarily have a problem with that. I am a little concerned that this will eventually price out all but the most dedicated game fans. Additionally, one of the previous benefits of a console was that a developer knew exactly what hardware their audience would be using, so they don't have to create multiple versions of the game for different versions of the console. With the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), that's no longer the case. Either developers will have to optimize their game for multiple hardware versions plus Windows 10, or they'll be constrained to the lowest supported version of the hardware in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Microsoft is also extending an olive brach to PC gamers, offering cross-play and a free PC copy of any games purchased for Xbox through the Microsoft Store. I can't count the number of times I saw "Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive" during their press conference. Ben Kuchera wrote at Polygon that this seems like a way for Microsoft to limit the more open development space that the PC offers. While it's likely that this is what they have in mind, it's my opinion that this will backfire. You can already hook up an Xbox One controller to your PC, and it seems as though Microsoft's exclusive games will all become available on the UWP. Those that aren't can usually be found on Steam, as third-party publishers simply can't afford to pass up other sources of revenue. As such, there seems to be very little reason to own a dedicated console that can't be upgraded, is more expensive to replace, and will very clearly be obsolete in less than a year. Why would anyone spend $400 annually to play the most recent games on a console, when the option exists to play those games on a system where you can upgrade individual components as they become outdated?
Interestingly, while the PC may be becoming more like an Xbox One, it seems as though the reverse is also true. Though it wasn't mentioned in their main E3 presentation, Phil Spencer confirmed that mouse and keyboard support is upcoming in a future Xbox update. It's great to have additional options, but this is going to take a lot of the fun out of online FPS matches for anyone who only plays with a controller. Anyone who tried to play Shadowrun on the Xbox 360 knows that there's a reason developers balance console and PC versions of games separately. I can only imagine how frustrating it will be in a few months to shell out for one of those $150 elite controllers and then get reamed by a kid with a $10 mouse and keyboard combo from Best Buy. Maybe these games won't have cross platform multiplayer, but if they don't, it seems like they're cutting their playerbase in half before anyone even logs in. And while I appreciate the effort by Microsoft, I also remember how awful trying to get Gears of War or Bioshock to run on my PC was under Games For Windows live.
I really don't mean to dump all over Microsoft. I think there were some great things shown at their conference, and I'm definitely interested in learning more about We Happy Few and the latest Dead Rising. I know that they had to make a hard pivot when the world roundly rejected their vision of the future, and they've been scrambling ever since. I'm just not sure that what they've announced so far is the right way to get things back on track.
The only Scorpio I intend to worry about, for the time being.