Sat. Jan 28th, 2023
An upgradeable Xbox One?  Think hard about this, Microsoft

While Microsoft might have hoped that the free-to-play PC version of Forza would make headlines, the press presentation in San Francisco was much more notable due to Xbox chief Phil Spencer’s strong hint that the Xbox One hardware will be upgraded.

After neglecting the PC gaming market for several years, it seems Microsoft is now going far beyond just throwing Quantum break and Weapons of war on the platform. Microsoft may be trying to apply the whole concept of PC gaming – meaning extremely broad backward compatibility along with different hardware configurations – to the device-like console market.

“Consoles lock in the hardware and software platforms at the beginning of the generation. Then you drive the generation out for seven or so years as other ecosystems get better, faster and stronger,” Spencer said. “If you look at the console space, I think we’re going to see more hardware innovation in the console space than we’ve ever seen. You’re really going to see us coming out with new hardware capabilities over a generation that allow the same games to run backwards and forwards compatible because we have a universal Windows application that runs on top of the universal Windows platform.”

What form these console upgrades might take isn’t clear, but more powerful processing and graphics power may be in the works: “We may actually feel a little bit more like we’re seeing on PC,” said Spencer, “where I I can still go back and play my old Doom and Quake games I played years ago, but I still see the best 4K games coming out and my library is always with me.”

On the surface, this is a radical departure from the way consoles are sold. Usually Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo release a console with fixed hardware. At first developers are terrible at making games for that hardware – the PlayStation 3 suffered greatly from this problem thanks to its quirky Cell processor – but as the years go by they get better, and so do the games they produce . This only works because developers have a fixed hardware specification that they can reliably optimize for. Moving the goalposts makes this a lot more difficult.

What has changed is that both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are essentially just PCs (or more accurately, screenless laptops). They both have a very similar AMD x86 processor – which traces its origins all the way back to the late 1970s – usually seen in laptops, along with an out-of-the-box AMD GPU. The PlayStation’s large unified pool of fast GDDR5 memory differs from the Xbox One’s more traditional DDR3 configuration – not to mention their respective operating systems and programming tools – but their underlying hardware is eerily similar.

Given the struggles developers had with making games for the PS3, as well as Microsoft’s grand plan to bring Windows to everything, the move to more familiar x86 hardware was inevitable. It also has the added benefit of a strong supply of new hardware, thanks to Intel, Nvidia and AMD releasing new chips every year. And now, with its universal Windows platform and apps spanning Xbox One, PC, and mobile, Microsoft has finally given developers a way to somewhat easily throw a game onto multiple platforms at once, even if it has a few teething problems. be the market. PC side.

This combination of cross-platform programming tools and trusted hardware is key to Microsoft’s Xbox upgrade plans. After all, if you’re developing for the crazy world of mismatched PC hardware anyway, who cares if there’s an Xbox or two with a slightly better CPU or GPU? The arrival of low-level APIs like DirectX 12 – which is already on PC and coming to the Xbox One – will also help. In theory, the game scales anyway, right?

Here’s the thing: while this is all well and good in theory, the solid hardware was the console’s greatest strength for both the consumer and the developer. For the consumer, it means that it doesn’t matter where they play a particular game – at home on their own console or at a friend’s house – that game will run (I admit, the arrival of patches on day one messed that game up a bit ). ), and it looks just like it does on the back of the box. For the developer, this means that every person playing that game will have the same quality of experience, while also giving them the opportunity to really push the hardware to its limits.

Selling slightly modified versions of the Xbox One changes all that. While it is plausible for developers that games automatically scale to the hardware without the need for PC style graphics settings, for example if a new Xbox One is released with a better GPU, what about the consumer confusion that this creates? “Why does this game look worse on my Xbox One than it does on my friend’s Xbox One?!”

Not to mention the extra work developers will have to put in to make sure the game runs smoothly on all these different Xbox Ones. You only have to look at the hardware fragmentation of the Android ecosystem and Apple’s struggle to avoid the same performance gaps across all of its devices to see where the problems will arise.

If anything, Microsoft’s plan to allow for hardware upgrades seems less like the PC market and more like the mobile market. They both have fixed hardware devices and both are aimed squarely at consumers who want an easy-to-use device that just works. No doubt Microsoft would love to be able to sell everyone a new, slightly better Xbox One every year, just like the phone guys do (or did, depending on who you talk to). I have no qualms about Microsoft wanting to make sure its games are backwards compatible going forward, but there’s a huge difference between selling someone a brand new console that works with older games – see the PS2, PS3, Wii, Wii U – and sell them an incremental upgrade.

The obvious jokes about, say, Sega’s failed Mega Drive upgrades (Genesis to our American friends) have been doing the rounds since Microsoft’s press presentation. But there is some truth to these comparisons. The console market has one terrible history with upgrades ranging from the Family Computer Disk System—which added a floppy disk drive to Japan’s Nintendo Famicom—to more modern failures such as the Nintendo 64’s “64DD” drive and Sega’s 32X and Sega CD. You could even argue that despite selling millions of units, Microsoft’s Kinect is a failed upgrade. After all, who the hell makes Kinect games these days?

While consumers may be comfortable with upgrading a phone every year – and at a significant cost – I don’t think they’re ready to do the same with their console. And with the cost of game development rising and the chances of success diminishing, developers are also reluctant to spend even more of their precious budget on a different set of hardware parameters.

Microsoft’s console upgrade plan is certainly bold and potentially groundbreaking. But the gaming industry? I’m not sure if it’s ready for this yet.

Display image by Dan Adelman

By akfire1

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