A few months ago, I authored an optimistic post regarding the then-newly announced Xbox Scorpio. I wrote then about how it seemed as if the Scorpio was going to usher in a new era of modular console upgrades and of increased graphical fidelity for video games of all genres. With a spec-sheet impressive enough to make even a dyed-in-the-wool PC enthusiast swoon, the Scorpio now seems poised to launch the home console industry firmly into an era of native 4k, 60fps gaming. It’s unfortunate, however, that the Scorpio is doomed to fail.
We’ve seen this same show play out before. With the PS4 as the bold exception, consoles that push the limits of what the industry is capable of rarely if ever, succeed in “winning” the console wars. The original Xbox outperformed both the PS2 and GameCube in performance, yet the PS2’s backwards compatibility and trusted name was worth more to consumers; the PS3 towered above the humble Wii in power, yet was beaten, initially, by the latter’s unbeatable price and unrivaled accessibility. The PS3 and the original Xbox didn’t fail to capture significant market share simply because consumers were brand loyalists or hated new technology. No, it was simply that they lacked the right price and innovation.
The Scorpio’s main weakness, exacerbated by remaining backwards compatible with the original Xbox One, is the same thing I praised it for nearly a year ago: it’s awkward place in the transition between console generations. By not signaling a clear break between their third and fourth consoles, Microsoft is taking a dangerous bet on consumers’ willingness to upgrade. With most consumers simply not ready to pony up the cash necessary to fully adopt a 4K ecosystem, the Scorpio is resting dangerously on its own laurels as a 4K entertainment device. If, as Dave Thier mentions in his article for Forbes, the Scorpio cannot offer the same leap expected from generation-to-generation including improved load times, improved detail, etc., then it serves only to cater to a 4K-hungry consumer who, for the most part, doesn’t exist right now; and that’s a problem for Microsoft.
That isn’t to trivialize 4K or suggest that it isn’t the future in entertainment because it is. However, the truth remains, unless they force consumers to upgrade from Xbox One using power as an excuse or offer more incentives beyond simple resolution and framerate bumps, the Scorpio doesn’t have anything that sets it apart from it’s older brother. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most recent game to light the gaming industry on fire and, yet, by the technical criteria for a AAA game in 2017, it falls woefully short, running at 900p, 30fps on a console less powerful than the computer that I am writing this on. If there’s one trait that consumers have demonstrated time after time, it’s that graphics aren’t everything. They weren’t when the Wii was released and they aren’t now. Nintendo is making a bet on that with the Switch, and it seems to be paying off, their focus on low price and innovation making them once again the talk of the industry.
Microsoft, in contrast, is betting that the exact opposite is going to be true, that, in the end, raw graphical horsepower coupled with a new Halo designed for the Scorpio will convince consumers to upgrade. However, that isn’t true. While Halo is by far Microsoft’s most well-known and beloved first party franchise, they have very little else to offer consumers as incentive to upgrade, save third party experiences that will be available on PS4, PS4 Pro, Xbox One, and possibly Switch without the need to upgrade. By not clearly breaking off compatibility and depending on raw, graphical fidelity, Microsoft risks cannibalizing their own sales.
That isn’t to say that the Xbox Scorpio is an unimpressive cash-grab. For a console, its specs are truly mind-boggling. It has more bandwidth than Nvidia’s $499 GTX 1080 graphics card and, with closer, bare-to-the-metal control of the hardware, is sure to efficiently use every ounce of that power to generate experiences that look amazing in crystal clear 4K. It will significantly outperform not only the PS4, but also the PS4 Pro in pure pixel-pushing power, becoming the most powerful console to ever exist in the process.
In an era when the industry is focusing less and less on power, when indie games are as popular as ever, and when the most popular game of the day runs on a glorified tablet’s system-on-a-chip, Microsoft’s focus on graphical fidelity seems not only unnecessary but also naive. Microsoft should understand that, in a world dominated by low-fidelity mobile gaming and standard HD screens, framerate and resolution matter little without new titles to sell consumers on the hardware. The success of a product, as well as of a business, is built off of how well the consumer understands their need for it. By not making clear the disconnect between the Xbox One and the Scorpio and by emphasizing graphical fidelity during a time period where it may well be the least important marker of a game’s success, Microsoft is setting up the Scorpio to be a fast, fun, and futuristic failure; a console designed for a consumer base that simply doesn’t exist.