When a gaming company releases a new console, it usually expects customers to quickly clamor for the latest and greatest and ignore its aging predecessor. However, with the $499 Xbox One X launching on November 7, Microsoft’s head of Xbox Phil Spencer says he doesn’t expect the old, $249 Xbox One S to wane in popularity any time soon.
“[Xbox One] S will be the console most people will buy,” Spencer told Ars during an interview before the E3 show. “Of course we don’t know. [the ratio]. When we designed [the One X]it’s not that we expected it to become our number one console… Xbox One S is a great console for the everyday gamer, someone who’s just looking for games.”
That said, Spencer continued, “You and I both know there is a customer who is looking for the first-class experience, the highest reliability. I don’t think [Xbox One X] has some competition in that space. The other consoles we’ve seen this generation all compete at a sub-true 4K level. The price is really determined by the capacity of the box.”
For those who might scoff at spending twice as much as an Xbox One S for a console that doesn’t have exclusive titles, Spencer points to the Xbox One Elite controller, which launched for $150. When that was announced, Spencer said. : “People asked me about the price there, ‘Hey, how can you sell a controller for that amount?’ and I said the same thing: we designed a controller for that amount… and then we sold everything we could earn during the holidays.”
The inflection point
For Spencer, the need for the Xbox One X arose from an inflection point between advances in consumer display technology and cutting-edge PC game development. “I think over the past holiday here in the US, over 50 percent of TVs sold were 4K TVs, so I think you’re starting to see consumers picking it up,” said Spencer of the display market. “I think the combination of HDR and 4K is quite a striking difference from what you see.”
However, it’s not just owners of 4K TVs that Microsoft is targeting with the X. “When we did some of our early research, about 50 percent of people who said they were interested in Xbox One X were 1080p customers,” Spencer says. “That may change as they see things, but that’s why we spent so much time supersampling and making sure it’s there because what people were saying was, ‘I want a more consistent frame rate,’ we’ll be able to do that for games that maybe lagging behind on current consoles at certain points.”
The jump to “true 4K” graphics may be a bit harder to sell than the previous jump to standard high-definition, Spencer admits. “From the original Xbox to Xbox 360, with the 4:3 to 16:9 HD, it’s so clear.” That said, “I think the 4K stuff we’re able to show… shows a clear difference between everything that’s in it.” [a] console today and what’s possible here.”
“Can any customer say it?” Spencer asked rhetorically. “Is that a resolution difference or an HDR difference, or an art difference in general?” The question went unanswered, but Spencer pointed to 4K videos like Planet Earth 2 and games like Forza Motorsport 7 as reference points that really show off the 4K difference.
Not that every consumer needs that level of detail, of course. “It was interesting for me to go back and play something like” red death [backward compatibility] of 360 on Xbox One,” he added. “It looks really good. You kind of forget… if you get close or things you can see, it’s a 360 game on Xbox One. But if you just leaned back from a casual customer? [point of view] and you’d say, ‘Wow, that looks like a great video game.'”
But on the development side, Spencer pointed out that for a lot of PC studios, “they’ve already built the 4K versions. I’ve been seeing these games on PC for a long time and there’s definitely a difference. It’s not the same difference from 4:3 to 16 :9. So is the aspect ratio… but it’s amazing what some developers can do now.”
Taking advantage of that 4K development, Spencer said, isn’t just about surpassing the PlayStation 4 or PS4 Pro, both of which are largely seen as surpassing the Xbox One S from a hardware standpoint. “I definitely want Xbox to be about power, I think it’s part of the brand promise. [But] I’m not going to enter a leapfrog contest. I’m sure something else will be announced at some point, that’s exactly what happens with hardware.”
“This was a really interesting cross-section for us with real, full-frame 4K that we can do,” he continued. “Let’s make a console for that, but make it part of the family, because not everyone will want to leave the two-, three-, four-year investment they’ve made. I do want Xbox to be power, but I want more to make it stand for great games.”
Should Xbox gamers who want a premium console expect to replace their box every four years from now on? Spencer was hesitant to predict how the Xbox line will continue to evolve after this mid-generation upgrade.
“I don’t have a set sort of timeline for hardware or when it lands,” he said. “When we played our games on PC and designed for 4K and talked to our partners, we felt…we saw this amazing intersection between what was happening with 4K on PC that none of the other consoles were aiming for…. so we said let’s go build a console for that sweet spot.
“I spend a lot of time now talking to developers asking what that next hardware spec is,” he continued. “Is it 120 frames per second, but TVs support 120 fps? Is it 8K? Not yet, that’s further out. I don’t want to use a new hardware platform to say I did it.”
While the Xbox One S and Xbox One X now use a unified set of software, Spencer acknowledged that there may be a point in the future where legacy hardware will have to be dumped from the console family. “I think about it like a PC, but at some point even in the PC room [you just have to get rid of it]… The reason we stopped producing the [Xbox] 360 were literally some of the pieces that went into that box that you just couldn’t buy anymore. It was a 12 year old piece of consumer electronics. Things like that happen.”
“Fast-forward from many, many years, consoles and where they’re going, we’re going to have to talk about something that we’re doing in space,” he continued. “We don’t have a roadmap that says Xbox One S will fall off the train [here], but I will be very open and honest with the customers as we go through the different barriers. But compatibility is very important to me, so I want to keep supporting the hardware for as long as possible.”
While virtual reality was briefly mentioned during the “Project Scorpio” announcement at last year’s E3, the feature was not mentioned during the Xbox One X rollout. Spencer said that was intentional.
“Nobody has climbed over us yet and said, ‘Hey, when can you offer a VR experience in a family room,’” he said. “I think dragging a bit of the TV and cables setup around the room is a bit difficult.”
While PlayStation VR has recently sold more than a million, Spencer says he doesn’t necessarily see that as an indication of massive demand for VR in the living room. “I survived the shipment of Kinect; I think we sold 17 million in the first year. Obviously that’s no chance on PSVR. That’s their platform, the PlayStation console, so of course they’re going to innovate there… we find the most [virtual reality] adoption on Windows, because it is an open platform that anyone can start developing for. I don’t have to go on console too to say we’re going to do it.”
And while the Switch has proven that there’s still demand for what Spencer calls a “magic” portable console experience, Microsoft doesn’t need to clamor to follow Nintendo with a portable Xbox. “I don’t know if we’re the right company to go in per se” [and make a portable console]’, he said. “We haven’t taken it off the table at all. Again, I think of experience first. I’m thinking of platform services and games and the hardware to make that possible. It seems there are a lot of good companies making wearable hardware in the gaming space, and maybe there’s an opportunity to do more with them and do their thing.”