- Mar 3, 2020
Specs go a long way. But in exclusive interviews with WIRED, the Xbox team explains why they're thinking outside the teraflops.
Specs go a long way. But in exclusive interviews with WIRED, the Xbox team explains why they're thinking outside the teraflops.
“Performance” is an Xbox word. So is “power.” When Microsoft wants you to think about Xbox—specifically, buying an Xbox—it has a lexicon well-honed over nearly two decades to connect two ideas: big daddy hardware and big-number performance. Microsoft could talk about teraflops and terabytes all day, but it traditionally both shows and tells.
An Xbox 360 ad shows a confused teen drop his phone and pick up a sword lodged in the city street. He’s in a game; the copy reads “Jump in.” To promote the Xbox One, phrases like “Ultimate precision” and “Games that feel like real life” underline porny hardware footage. For the Xbox One X, intricate computer chips and glowing circuit boards metastasize into the lines of a human iris. Even for its lower-tech sister, the Xbox One S, the ad opens with “4k Ultra HD Video.” The message is clear: Xbox tech will make your game look so good you’ll be swimming in it.
The above is not just a history of Xbox’s marketing strategy; it’s a commentary on its whole schtick. The Xbox has traditionally been a luxury item designed to shove as many pixels into our eyeholes as modern tech will let it. And traditionally, compared to the PlayStation or Nintendo devices, Xbox has leaned hard on horsepower as a sales pitch. But seven years after its last console generation launched, the Xbox Series S and Series X will soon arrive in a modern gaming climate with entirely modern expectations—and not necessarily for the most baroque hardware specs.
In 2020, the ever-expanding gaming population is in the spirit of making trade-offs. Resolution for cross-device gaming. A better price point for a less powerful GPU. Exclusives for subscription services. Everybody is a gamer now, and not everybody’s life can accommodate a $500 immersion box stapled to the living room TV stand.
In interviews with WIRED, Xbox executives detailed a more holistic strategy going into their splashy November launches. As with the previous generation, Microsoft will offer a high-octane Xbox and a stripped-down alternative: the Xbox Series X and Series S. But Xbox’s two-console launch is just the superscript. “So much of my experience as a gamer 10, 20 years ago was dictated by what device I played on,” Xbox head Phil Spencer tells WIRED. Today, he says, he’s pushing for a reality in which “the device doesn’t dictate to me what I can do—I’m going to want to bring my experience to any device, whether it’s a PC, my phone, or a great console.”
Xbox has spent years architecting a digital terrarium for its new machines. Its unholy-good Game Pass subscription plan provides a sort of “Netflix for video games,” while its cloud gaming service powers its presence on Android devices. The foundation for this live ecosystem is a new, more democratic ideology toward gaming—one that decenters performance from the console gaming experience.
It began with some retrospection. “We looked at the current Xbox One and PS4 generation. And clearly we had a box that was out of balance,” says Spencer. The Xbox One’s graphical power was off the charts when it launched in 2013. But the brain of the console, the CPU, is underpowered relative to the GPU, he says. In 2018, Xbox added a prescient bit of tech popularized by PC gaming called “variable refresh rate,” an update that Spencer says gave him confidence that “focus on CPU and frame rate this gen would be important.” Variable refresh rate enhanced the Xbox’s display options by matching monitors’ refresh rates—how often the screen shows a new image—to the Xbox’s output rate of in-game frames. The alignment meant less input lag or “screen tearing,” when several animated frames appear stacked on top of each other.
Watching Xbox One, PC, and Game Pass players modulate their settings on 2019’s Gears 5 or the Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Spencer noticed that while some adjusted for the best possible fidelity (even if a 30-frames-per-second frame rate woodchipped their gameplay), a lot optimized for feel. They’d easily sacrifice a couple of luminescent sunbeams for more reactive shooter mechanics. The critical question for the Xbox team: Why was that compromise so attractive?
“It was a pivot,” says Liz Hamren, head of gaming engineering at Xbox, of Xbox’s dual-console, next-gen strategy. “The truth is that the CPU and I/O performance is roughly equivalent between these two products. It’s really around the resolution.” The $500 Series X falls in line with Xbox’s machismo hardware traditions, while the $300 Series S mirrors a more contemporary understanding of gamers—people less likely to stand open-mouthed in the “4K TV” aisles of Best Buy, and more likely to unwind after a tough shift with 30 minutes of brain candy wherever they park their body. While both consoles have essentially the same CPU, the Series S has no disc drive, less storage, and sacrifices the Series X’s tricked-out 8K graphical capabilities. If you’re in the business of comparing teraflops, a measure of a console’s graphical power, the Xbox Series S has three times fewer than the Series X. But it’s still a next-gen console; it will enhance some older Xbox games to a maximum of 1440p. (2017’s Xbox One X supports 4K resolution.)
“There was a lot of debate. Should it have a disc drive or not? Is this next-gen performance? What does next-gen performance mean and how do we measure it?” says Hamren. Accessibility is one way; Hamren says the $300 price point for the Series S was an early objective. She also wanted people to feel comfortable gaming for just 20 minute sittings, perhaps a habit built off mobile and popular online games’ pick-up-put-down designs. Xbox’s new Quick Resume technology, available on both consoles, lets players suspend action in their Outer Worlds games and immediately resume wherever they left off in Yakuza 0. “I can walk into my house, maybe I have an Alexa or a Google Home, and I'm like, ‘Turn on my Xbox.’ I can sit down, I can play, and then I can go off and do something else, versus psychologically feeling like I need more time,” she says.
At the same time, there will always be gamers who gather every snack in their house around a plush sofa for hours-straight grind-throughs of Assassin's Creed Odyssey. And when Xbox has pitched them, “immersion” has been inexorably wrapped up with “performance.” As countless retro-style indie games have proven, graphics aren’t the most reliable measure of emotional investment. A lot of things do this other than teraflops: voice chat with friends, great writing, suspense, loot boxes. Hamren says performance and resolution are “necessary but not sufficient” for a great gaming experience, and “not the core of what we talk about 80 percent of the time.”
“I think we're really good at the melting-into-the-couch,” she says. “I think we've nailed that. We'll continue to be great at that. We're never gonna abandon it. But also, I do want us to feel like no matter how you play—deep melting into the couch or casual—we support it.”
Technological breakthroughs can also fall flat, especially when they’re over-hyped. Ray tracing was the last game-tech buzzword, a years-long obsession for GPU producers. It calculates how light would bounce off digital objects in real life, an unfathomably big-brained algorithm that helps GPUs render game environments particle by particle. Flashy. And a feature in both of Xbox’s upcoming consoles. But as a recent PC Gamer article put it, “Ray tracing has failed to deliver on its promise.” Few if any games have significantly benefited from the tech. Nobody’s going to love or hate a game because you can see a ceiling lamp shining off a bullet as it whips by, or a really convincing alleyway puddle.
When WIRED read PC Gamer’s headline to Spencer, he said he thought it was “probably right.” “When I think about games where ray-tracing has had a dramatic impact on my experience as a player,” he says, “it’s kind of spotty.” And while both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 both technically support 8K resolution, don’t expect that to mean much in practice. “I think 8K is aspirational technology,” Spencer says. “The display capabilities of devices are not really there yet. I think we’re years away from 8K being—if it ever is—standard in video games.” (One tech advance with immediate, tangible benefits is a 120-Hz refresh rate, which Spencer says is “absolutely there for people to use.”)
“There’s a little bit of buzzword bingo that starts happening,” says Spencer.
Referring to data her team collects, Hamren suggests that not as many people have 4K TVs as AAA publishers might think. Nintendo hasn’t even touched 4K, and the company still stole gamers’ hearts with the cartoony The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Increasingly, and inevitably, lists of 2020’s best 8K TVs are cropping up ahead of the next-gen PlayStation and Xbox launches. IGN’s pick is $8,000.
“The leap in generations is less big than it has been in the past,” says Tom Wijman, who leads gaming research company NewZoo’s games analytics division. “I think the importance of top-of-the-line specifications has been more important in the past.” What will drive people’s holiday console decisions, he says, isn’t a slight difference in resolution or processing power, topics typically discussed when a console is announced. “In the end, what will drive people’s decision is their social surroundings, if people play on Xbox around them, their past purchasing behavior, and exclusive games that come out for a system.”
This time around, to participate in the next-gen Xbox launch, you don’t even need to buy a console. Wrapped around the arrival of the Series X and S is Xbox’s new network of play: its revamped Game Pass subscription service and its (beta) cloud gaming service for Android devices. For $15 a month, you can play a rotating roster of games, which has included Resident Evil 7, The Outer Worlds, Minecraft Dungeons, Dishonored 2, No Man’s Sky, Crackdown 3, Dead Cells, Ark: Survival Evolved, three Age of Empires games, 11 Halo games, and hundreds of other titles in the well-curated Game Pass library. And you can play a lot of them across old Xbox, new Xbox, Android, and PC. (It helps that Microsoft makes Windows.)
Xbox is jockeying for a limited number of consumer subscription dollars, already claimed by Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and other gaming offerings. It’s a safe bet, though. In April, Game Pass had 10 million subscribers. Its latest incarnation, which adds the Ultimate option encompassing xCloud and Xbox Live Gold, has helped attract millions more for a total of 15 million. Within the content microcosm of gaming, “service” means more than easy access to content. Factors outside of commercial gaming products can create strong gravitational pull over time. Take Fortnite. Instead of the traditional $60, Fortnite is free. And instead of moving on after a month or two, unrelenting content updates—including in-game items and events or out-of-game esports leagues—might entice you to play for another three years. If you play Fortnite on PC, you can link up with buddies on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, or smartphones. And you want to hang out with your friends, right? This is what Microsoft is attempting with Xbox as a whole, on as many platforms as it can.
“They’re deemphasizing themselves as the center of the living room and more emphasizing getting people into the ecosystem,” says Joost van Dreunen, cofounder of game analytics company SuperData and author of One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games. Pointing out that the PlayStation 4 sold twice as much as the Xbox One, van Dreunen says that Sony’s exclusive games proved more attractive than the Xbox’s performance spectacles. “Historically, they’ve really emphasized hardware and hardware capability. Now, it’s about the availability of content.” Unless you’re a mega-fan of a particular franchise or two, Xbox’s Game Pass and cross-platform ideology easily outmaneuvers Sony’s walled-garden approach to exclusives.
It is a euphoric experience to scroll through the Game Pass library and know that it will instantly delete any FOMO you had from missing a big game launch. Hearing weeks of hype around the strategy kingdom simulator Crusader Kings 3, I impulsively downloaded the $50 game, quickly became confused by its menus, got bored reading so much text, and put it down forever. What luxury. Likewise, I picked up my PC Ori and the Will of the Wisps save on my Android phone through xCloud’s beta; Xbox still counts me as a user, although my Xbox One sits dusty in the living room.
Sarah Bond, who heads up Xbox’s gaming ecosystem division, says the company has learned a lot from how players interacted with Game Pass on the Xbox One. “We see that people actually spend 20 percent more time playing games, try 30 percent more genres, and play 40 percent more total games, including outside the subscription,” she says. “We have seen the highest levels of engagement ever on our own games and growth in the playerbase.” After landing on Game Pass, she says, Grounded reached a million players in 48 hours. Microsoft-owned Minecraft’s user base has ballooned to 132 million.
Game Pass is a ridiculous thing to exist. And it only exists because Microsoft is very big. Microsoft owns Xbox Game Studios, an amalgamation of over a dozen developers including Obsidian (The Outer Worlds, Pillars of Eternity), Mojang (Minecraft), Double Fine (Psychonauts), and 343 (Halo, duh). Earlier this month, Microsoft made a massive acquisition: ZeniMax Media, the Bethesda Softworks parent company, for $7.5 billion. What does Bethesda make? Elder Scrolls (Skyrim), Fallout, Wolfenstein, Dishonored and Doom. Xbox declined to say how the acquisition would impact Game Pass, but last week, Xbox announced that Doom Eternal would land on Game Pass soon.
Some of Bethesda’s games will also come to PlayStation. And so as a fun quirk of late-stage capitalism, you don’t need an Xbox console, or to have anything to do with Xbox, to participate in its growth.
The approach does have its limits. Microsoft can put its own games on its Xbox apps, design those apps for its Windows operating system, and create cross-play opportunities between PC and Xbox owners. In its Pinky and the Brain world-domination quest, Microsoft has designed its own stage for Xbox and set it, too. But by betting big on software like xCloud and Game Pass, Xbox is inherently reliant on other people’s platforms. After a trial run on iOS, xCloud has been effectively shut out by Apple, which says each individual game would need to be submitted as a separate app. (Non-gaming streaming services like Netflix have no such restrictions.) Even though Spencer says that he eventually wants to see Game Pass “on all platforms,” it’s not likely to happen soon. As he said in an interview with GameStar, "The other competitive platforms really aren't interested in having a full Xbox experience on their hardware. But for us, we want to be where gamers want to be and that's the path that we're on."
Rather than “power” or “performance,” Xbox’s big word this time around is “choice.” Audiophiles and cinema geeks can enjoy music and film wherever they go; gaming is making that transition, too. Xbox head Spencer says that now more than ever the company sees customers on PC who they never see on Xbox. “We don’t look at them as lesser because they didn’t go buy one of our consoles,” he says. “At some point, we’re going to have Xbox customers who only know us on their phone, and that’s also fine.”
The living room console is still Xbox’s flagship experience. It’s still the sun around which its world turns. But today everything can be a console, if Fortnite’s explosive success across platforms says anything. Phones are the most popular way to game. On that theme, in a June interview with WIRED, Spencer said, “In the long run, to me, it’s a question about the viability of the television.”
Gaming, though, has always been an identity as much as it’s been a hobby. Gamers like things—expensive, hype, lit-up, decked-out. Having is being. Picking apart next-gen consoles’ specs and pledging allegiance to Company X is communion with your community; it’s not foreplay to a cold consumer decision. Xbox is betting that how we play won’t always define who we are. Hopefully, it’s right.