Microsoft has been talking for months about the increase in brute force coming to consoles thanks to the Xbox Series X. At the same time, Microsoft is encouraging internal and third-party studios to make Series X games that will last for seven years – including old Xbox One hardware.
“As our content comes out in the next year, two years, all of our games, sort of like PC, will play up and down that family of devices,” Xbox Game Studios head Matt Booty said in a January interview with MCV. “We want to make sure that if anyone between now and… [Series X] that they feel they have made a good investment and that we are committed to them with content.”
Does this mean developers should hold back on their truly “next-generation” ideas to accommodate players with outdated consoles? Microsoft’s head of Xbox Phil Spencer thinks not. In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz last week, Spencer also referred to the PC gaming ecosystem as an analogy to explain how support for the Xbox One would continue to work:
I only watch Windows. It is almost certain that if the developer builds a Windows version of their game, the most powerful and reliable version will be the PC version. You can even see that with some of our first-party console games coming to PC, even from our competitors, the richest version is the PC version. Still, when you think of the CPUs and GPUs from years ago out there, the PC ecosystem is the most diverse when it comes to hardware.
Is the Xbox One related to a 2013 PC?
For PC gamers, there’s some inherent comfort in the idea of the Xbox One as the new “minimum spec” target for developers in the console space. But that idea got us thinking: Would seven-year-old hardware still be considered minimally acceptable in the PC gaming world?
To test that theory, we took a trip down memory lane and revisited our November 2013 Ars System Guide, which gave our best recommendations for low, medium, and high-end PC builds at the time. For our relative Xbox One comparison, we used the midrange “Hot Rod” box, which had a Radeon R9 280X GPU and 8GB of RAM. That system cost about $1,400 at the end of 2013, or closer to $1,000 without the monitor, speakers, mouse, and keyboard.
To see if that system would hold up today, we compared it to the minimum and recommended specs for a variety of recent and upcoming high-end PC games. To make relative comparisons between our build and today’s developers suggested specs, we compared the clock speed and number of cores for the CPUs and used 3DMark’s “Fire Strike” benchmark scores for the GPUs. For RAM, we simply compared the amounts directly.
Minimum specs for modern games vs. 2013 Ars “Hot Rod” Build
|Ars 2013 System||i5-4570||3.2GHz||4||R9 280X||8221||8GB|
|Resident Evil 3||i5-4460||3.2GHz||4||R7 260X||3481||8GB|
|Eternal doom||i5||3.3GHz||4||R9 280/290/470||7325||8GB|
|Ori and the Will of the Strings||i5-4460||3.2GHz||4||R7 370||8053||8GB|
|Death Stranding||i5-3470||3.2GHz||4||RX 560||6522||8GB|
|COD: War Zone||i3-4340||3.6GHz||2||HD7950||7349||8GB|
|Horizon Zero Dawn||i5-2500K||3.3GHz||4||R9 290||11156||8GB|
|Half-life Alyx||i5-5700||2.6Ghz||4||RX 580||10570||12GB|
The results of this quick-and-dirty analysis show that Spencer is more or less right; PC developers are still tuning their games to midrange hardware as of 2013, when it comes to “minimal” specs. games by Eternal doom until Horizon Zero Dawn require only the 8GB RAM and i5 CPU class we recommended for our build at the time. As far as GPUs go, our recommended R9 280X gets a score of 8221 from 3dMark’s Fire Strike, which matches or exceeds the 3DMark scores of the “minimal” GPUs needed for the games we reviewed.
The one major exception to this general rule is virtual reality. A high-end VR game like Half-life Alyx requires a full 12GB of RAM and a Radeon RX 580, both of which easily outperform our mid-range 2013 build. But if you’re investing in connected virtual reality these days, you probably won’t be happy with a circa-2013 PC tower after all.
Recommended specs for modern games vs. 2013 Ars “Hot Rod” Build
|Ars 2013 System||i5-4570||3.2GHz||4||R9 280X||8221||8GB|
|Resident Evil 3||i7-3770||3.4GHz||4||RX480||11353||8GB|
|Ori and the Will of the Strings||i5-6600K||3.5GHz||4||RX 570||13194||8GB|
|Death Stranding||i7-3770||3.4GHz||4||RX 590||14037||8GB|
|COD: War Zone||i7-9700K||3.6GHz||8||R9 390 / 580||10420||16GB|
|F1 2020||i5-9600K||3.7GHz||6||RX 590||14037||16GB|
|Horizon Zero Dawn||i7-4770K||3.5GHz||4||RX 580||10570||16GB|
While our seven-year-old system is still minimally acceptable for PC gaming, it’s well below the “recommended” standard most developers set for modern titles. For example, four of the eight games we’ve reviewed now suggest 16GB of RAM as the recommended spec, rather than the 8GB that was sufficient in 2013. And the i5 processor in our old build is a little underpowered compared to the i7 processors recommended these days (although that difference may not be very noticeable for games that aren’t CPU-limited).
That 8221 3DMark score for our R9 280X doesn’t look too great these days either. High-end games today recommend GPUs that generally score in the 10,000 to 14,000 range on that benchmark. Trying to get even midrange performance from our seven-year-old GPU on today’s titles is going to be a struggle to say the least.
What it means for Xbox
Just as a seven-year-old “average” PC can still cross the bar for “minimal” modern PC gaming, an Xbox One should still serve as a minimal console gaming solution for now. And while Xbox One versions of new titles won’t be able to take advantage of developments like Series X’s Velocity Architecture, developers should be able to focus on the older hardware for now.
The question then is what the future will bring. Our 2013 gaming rig will almost certainly fail to meet developers’ minimum specs for years to come. Likewise, at some point in the near future, supporting the legacy Xbox One hardware is going to seem like a pretty silly idea to console game developers, no matter how much Microsoft encourages intergenerational compatibility.
Spencer acknowledged this to some extent in his recent interview with GI.biz:
Yes, any developer will find a line and say this is the hardware I’m going to support, but the diversity of hardware choice on PC hasn’t held back the most reliable PC games on the market. The most reliable PC games rival anything anyone has ever seen in video games. So this idea that developers don’t know how to build games, or game engines, or ecosystems, that run on a set of hardware…there’s evidence in the PC that shows that’s not the case.
Of course, once our 2013 PC is more or less “outdated” for gaming, the owner can just add more RAM or a new GPU for a relatively inexpensive service upgrade that can last for years. In the case of the Xbox One, gamers will have to start over with a relatively high-end new Series X instead. The Xbox One X might serve as a cheaper stopgap, but Microsoft’s recent discontinuation of that mid-generation hardware suggests it doesn’t want customers to consider that upgrade option for long.
All things considered, the console upgrade cycle has always worked something like this, with older hardware slowly being phased out over a few years in favor of a new de facto standard. However, with the extreme cross-generational focus in the current Xbox family, the analogies to the multi-level PC gaming space are becoming more and more explicit.