Project Scorpio: Microsoft’s Fast, Fun, and Futuristic Failure

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.

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John Cal McCormick April 11, 2017 at 8:24 am

Apologies for the huge comment, but I’m in the office, so I have to pass the time somehow.

First up, some housekeeping:

“The original Xbox dominated both the PS2 and GameCube in performance, yet the PS2’s backwards compatibility and trusted name was worth more to consumers”

It didn’t – Gamecube and Xbox were comparable in terms of power. And while the PlayStation name and backwards compatibility undoubtedly helped the PS2 get off to a strong start, it was probably other factors that made it a success. First, it went up against the Dreamcast, which failed spectacularly. Then it spent over six months on sale completely unopposed. By the time the Xbox and Gamecube launched the PS2 had been on sale for eighteen months without any genuine competition and had racked up a fairly insurmountable lead. These sales made the console more attractive to third party developers than the competition.

Second, the PS2 had a built in DVD player and was cheaper than a standalone DVD player was at the time, making it a very attractive option for teen/young adult gamers that couldn’t get their parents to pony up the dough for a games console AND a DVD player for Christmas. Gamecube had no DVD support and Xbox got some later via a crummy adaptor. The importance of that can’t be overstated.

Awesome sales led to more third party support. More third party support led to better sales. Look at the third party exclusives PS2 had. It’s outrageous.

The PS2 might have been the weakest in terms of raw power out of the big three that generation, but it was the strongest console in practically every other regard, and dominated as a result, as well as having the advantage of being the only game in town for what amounts to an age in the video game industry.

“the PS3 towered above the humble Wii in power, yet was utterly crushed 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.”

No, it wasn’t crushed, and the PS3 and Xbox 360 didn’t fail to capture significant market share at all. Both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 managed sizeable market share in that generation. You even linked to a Wikipedia article that demonstrated as much. I’m no big city mathematician, but according to the thirty seconds I just spent punching numbers into a calculator, the PS3 attained around 31% market share in a three horse race. Similar numbers apply to the Xbox 360 – although that’s slightly less impressive since it was on sale for roughly a year and a half longer than either other console.

Regardless, both PS3 and Xbox 360 did major sales (looking at the best selling consoles of all time list will highlight that both of them appear near the top) and the success of the Wii has been frequently overstated. If you look at a sales breakdown by year for each of the consoles you’ll see that the Wii had a very prosperous period and then basically died, while both the PS3 and Xbox 360 remained relevant. Software sales for each console are equally telling.

The Wii was a flash in the pan, and while the numbers can’t be argued with – it “won” the generation in raw hardware sales – in terms of mindshare it was forgotten about well before the generation was over. Wii’s were packed away in attics around the world while the PS3 and 360 were still going strong. That generation is a real anomaly when looking at the history of video game sales, and yet another example of why looking purely at hardware sales rarely gives you the whole picture.

I’d actually go further than that and say that not only is the Wii’s success overstated, but that the console was actually massively detrimental to Nintendo long-term, and contributed directly to the failure of the Wii U. That’s a conversation for another time, though.

Regarding the meat of the article, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Generally, I of course agree with the sentiment behind this article in that power doesn’t equal success but then I’d also argue that it’s kinda irrelevant when discussing the Scorpio. Unless Microsoft are out of their trees, they know that, and that’s not what this console is built for. Microsoft told us what the Scorpio was nearly a year ago. I don’t know why people are surprised now that it isn’t the generational leap they were for some reason expecting. Scorpio has always been part of the Xbox One family, it was announced as such, and it’s always been touted as a premium console for more discerning gamers.

That’s how they announced it. They’re not daft. They’re not expecting this console to come out and then suddenly win the console war. It’s a mid-generational upgrade to make games look prettier for people who want that. Cutting ties to the original Xbox One and not allowing those games to be played on Scorpio, a console that will probably cost 500 dollars, would be suicide on a level we haven’t seen since that last time Microsoft launched a console.

We can’t have our cake and eat it. If it’s a niche console going after a small but important demographic then it can’t be a cheap and cheerful console expected to sell in huge numbers to casual gamers. That’s not what this is about, and that’s what Microsoft told us when they announced it.

Scorpio won’t change anything, at least not in the short term. This generation is done and dusted. PS4 has killed it, and it’s no longer a question of which console will come out on top, but rather one of how big the PS4’s lead will be by the time the next generation starts.Whether that means you consider Scorpio a failure or not depends entirely upon what you’re expecting it to do.

Izsak “Khane” Barnette April 11, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Thanks for your comment, John. I appreciate the thoughtful manner in which you made your arguments.

My main point is that it doesn’t make much sense for a premium console, such as the Scorpio, (whose price will most likely be $500) to launch in the middle of a generation. By launching in the middle of a generation, Microsoft is essentially forcing developers to use the same engine across both the Xbox One and the Scorpio, neutering the sort of jump in graphical fidelity we would expect to see across generations.

If they had issued a clean break with the Scorpio, aimed it as the second console of the ninth generation, and made it clear that it was going to be the successor to the Xbox One, I think the situation would be much less murky.

As it stands now, however, I think Microsoft is trying to bale out water on an already sunken boat, the Xbox One brand. While they have recovered miraculously since their inept unveiling nearly four years ago, a fresh start with the Scorpio would have enabled them to claim the PS4 as already outdated, the PS4 Pro as a cash-grab,and simultaneously push their console as a true next-generation system. There would be a reason for non-4K gamers to have interest in the console.

Again, thanks for commenting!

John Cal McCormick April 11, 2017 at 6:21 pm

This is a tricky argument and one in which there’s no real historical evidence to tell us which way the chips would likely fall since this hasn’t really been done before.

Theoretically, there shouldn’t be much of an issue in making a game that can take advantage of the extra horsepower Scorpio has while still working with Xbox One, since PC games have been doing this for years and the architecture in modern consoles is basically the same. PC games let the user tailor the graphical output of their games using sliders depending on what spec they’ve got, and Microsoft can surely do the same. This will let the Scorpio have incredible looking games for those who care, while also not locking them out of standard Xbox games. Who would make Scorpio games, when there’s over fifty million PS4s out there and nearly thirty million Xbox Ones, knowing the price of the console, and knowing that Microsoft put all their exclusives on PC too? Microsoft, and that’s about it.

They’ve already got a Halo, Gears and Forza machine. The last thing they need is another one that’s twice the price.

Edonus April 14, 2017 at 12:15 am

The 2 major flaws in your main point

“My main point is that it doesn’t make much sense for a premium console, such as the Scorpio, to launch in the middle of a generation. By launching in the middle of a generation, Microsoft is essentially forcing developers to use the same engine across both the Xbox One and the Scorpio, neutering the sort of jump in graphical fidelity we would expect to see across generations”

Is that 1) The game developers have been using the same engines from last gen this entire gen. That is actually one of the reasons the Xbox One was hindered….. its design was made to use techniques that it was projected devs would move in to (like tiled resources).

2) the Xbox One original is not some weak incapable machine it really just needed optimizing and even still it delivers game in an acceptable range of performance….. but the point here is the Xbox Scorpio actually optimizes the games for the regular Xbox One. Devs will make game on the Scorpio and by design of the UWP it will scale those games down optimized for the regular X1.

KashIsKlay April 12, 2017 at 2:44 pm

Gamecube and the og xbox were not comparable in terms of power. But again it comes down to the software and devs. Chronicles of riddick , Ninja Gaiden and Doom 3 would never run on gamecube. Gamecube had some nice looking games but lets not kid ourselves.

John Cal McCormick April 12, 2017 at 5:17 pm

Comparable, not the same. Xbox was more powerful than GameCube and GameCube was more powerful than PS2, but Xbox certainly didn’t “dominate” both other consoles which is what I was replying to.

Izsak “Khane” Barnette April 12, 2017 at 6:37 pm

Poor choice of verbage on my part. Article has been updated to fix that.

clyde April 12, 2017 at 11:20 pm

good points

KashIsKlay April 12, 2017 at 2:37 pm

You need to read the Q&A and hardware interview Gamesutra just put up because you are clearly off base. When has Phil said they are purely focusing on higher graphic fidelity, he constantly preaches it all about the games. It was all the media and fanboys this gen who constantly drug the xbox name through the mud because games ran better on Ps4. This is the console that should of been xbox one in the first place before Mattrick and co almost ruined the division. Engines are now scalable and even Naughty dog will tell you that they did not start completely over when they moved their engine over to the Ps4. There is a market for this a company does not put out a new product without research. Myself and plenty others plan on buying this just as I bought a ps4 pro which Microsoft is learning from. All xbox one games will look better and run better by default without a boost mode. If these devs have 4k assets they can simply load them up. Devs are able to port there existing stuff over within a day or so. So essentially that means they can focus on adding more effects and graphic detail. Phil said there will be a clear difference between an xbox one game and scorpio. So you think about it in the pc space. Xbox is minimum spec and scorpio is recommended spec. Even with the recommended specs (4K) with “zero” optimization it’s no where close to maxing out the hardware.

Scorpio is a new start. I can’t believe you had the nerve to write this article without doing your research.

Izsak “Khane” Barnette April 12, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Thanks for commenting! I appreciate the feedback!

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