In his two and a half years as head of Xbox, Phil Spencer has overseen a dramatic change in direction for the Xbox One, going a long way towards restoring goodwill amongst the gaming community. Many of the unpopular decisions that saw the console quickly fall into second place behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 – the inability to trade and share games, a heavy emphasis on Kinect and non-gaming content, and the always-online requirements of the console – have been overturned.
Spencer has brought Xbox’s focus back to its core audience, gamers, implementing numerous popular policies like backward compatibility and the new Play Anywhere program. At this year’s EB Expo, I spoke with Spencer about the future of Xbox, his legacy, and what Project Scorpio means for the wider gaming landscape and traditional console cycles.
At E3 2016 you used the phrase “gaming beyond generations” when you revealed Project Scorpio. Does this mean that in the future, console gamers will need to buy hardware more regularly if they want to play the best possible version of a game?
It’s hard to tell. Clearly in the case of Xbox One, Xbox One S and Scorpio, the answer would be, I don’t know if it’s more regularly, but you’re going to want Scorpio to run the game at the highest resolution or framerate – whatever the developers decide to do with that game.
As for the “more regularly” part, to be completely honest, I don’t know what the next console is past Scorpio. We’re thinking about it. We’re looking at consumer trends and what the right performance spec and price would be, and [asking ourselves], “Can we hit something that has a meaningful performance characteristic that a gamer would care about?”
I don’t have this desire to every two years have a new console on the shelf; that’s not part of the console business model, and it doesn’t actually help us. The best customer I have is somebody who buys the original Xbox and just buys all the games. That’s the best customer for us in terms of the pure financials of it. I don’t have a need to get you to go buy the newest console, or I don’t have the need to create an artificial loop of, “Here’s a new console every two years,” in order to get you to go buy.
The reason I hesitate to say yes to your question in terms of the future is, I don’t know what the next thing is past Scorpio right now… I’m not trying to turn consoles into the graphics card market where every so often Nvidia or AMD come out with a new card, and if I want a little bit more performance I’m going to go buy that new card. I think for consoles it’s different. I think you have to hit a spec that actually means something in an ecosystem of televisions and games.
One of the reasons that people choose consoles over PC is because they don’t like that feeling of missing out on the best possible version on their platform. Is there a danger that you’re introducing that into the console space with Xbox Scorpio?
The best-looking version of Battlefield is going to be PC. Somebody’s going to be able to throw enough hardware at Battlefield to get it to outperform what any of the consoles on the market are going to do. I guess you could say, as a console person, that you feel like you don’t get to play the best version of Battlefield so somehow you’re disappointed.
I would say at the broadest sense that I don’t think most of the console players think about it that way. It’s just, “I get to play Battlefield. It’s fun and I’m having a good time playing it on my television.”
Just to be clear, if you really wanted the best version, you’re going to need something beyond the resolution and refresh rate of your TV. This is why for us, with Xbox Play Anywhere – to flip it back in a skilled PR way to something that’s about us [laughs] – we’re saying, “You should play the game where you want to, and you don’t have to buy it twice.”
Take Gears of War, because I’ve seen Gears of War on a high-end PC rig and it’s crazy. I’ve also seen it in HDR on Xbox One S and it looks amazing on my television. I don’t have to go buy it twice, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on something, I just get to choose where I want to play it. I can play with my same friends whether they’re on PC or Xbox and I don’t have to buy the game twice. My controller can work in both scenarios; I can play keyboard and mouse on PC if I want to.
I understand the feeling of, “I miss out because there’s somebody else that can play at a higher resolution,” but I’m not sure the common player out there has less fun because of that. I hope not.
Microsoft is fairly selective about the technologies it backs. It didn’t jump into the 3D television trend quite astutely, but you’re embracing 4K and HDR wholeheartedly. Is that truly the next big leap in video gaming technology?
Big leap is an interesting one… I’ve been around Xbox since the original Xbox and I remember the shift from SD to HD. I remember seeing Gears of War 1, which for us was the first game that I saw on pre-release 360 hardware, and I went, “Wow, that just looks like something new…” The first time you saw a sporting event on live TV in HD, you went, “Okay, that is something different.”
One of the challenges for the generation we’re in now is the jump from 360 to Xbox One, or frankly PS3 to PS4, is visible on screen but not at that same level. It’s not a 2D to 3D transition or an SD to HD transition. You have to be closer to understanding the content and appreciating the content, because those late-gen 360 games look pretty good.
When I see 4K games, they look demonstrably better, but it’s not the same difference that we saw from SD to HD, or from 2D to 3D when gaming went that direction. HDR is the same way: I love the way movies and games look in HDR, but I don’t think it’s that same transformative thing that we saw with [earlier leaps].
Editor’s Note: The article first appeared in Game Informer Australia and is written by David Milner. You can follow him on Twitter here.