For those of you who have followed this year’s E3 so far, Project Scorpio, Microsoft’s “new and improved” version of the Xbox 1, is a familiar phrase. Promising 4k visuals, and a whole heap of teraflops, Project Scorpio is, at the very least, a perfect combination of buzzwords.
If Project Scorpio confuses you—what it is, what it does, and how it is better than the standard Xbox 1—don’t worry, Microsoft is confused too. Based on press releases and other reports, it’s some sort of “Xbox 1.5″—a “better” version of the standard edition that will be supported alongside the original. In light of the confirmation that Sony will follow suit with its Playstation Neo, many gamers wonder if these incremental upgrades will become the new normal for the console gaming world; that consoles will soon become like the smartphones; something bought every few years.
This concerns me.
It’s worth noting that, like many gamers, I have zero faith in the integrity of this industry. This is the industry that took DLC and turned it into a dirty word. This is the industry that has consistently lied to our faces in a manner that borders on litigious. This is the industry that wants its products to be considered art, but constantly stifles creativity in the name of focus groups, budget-cuts, and out-of-touch investors. So, color me skeptical when the industry tells me this will be good for the consumer.
So what’s the downside of Project Scorpio? Are consoles really becoming like mobile phones? How will the consumers react?
Well, let’s take a look!
The issues surrounding Project Scorpio can be narrowed down to three major points.
This is probably the most obvious and immediate concern. How can the industry expect us to afford these constant upgrades? As of now, the public doesn’t know the price of Project Scorpio, Playstation Neo, or any of these upgraded consoles. However, if we’re expected to buy a new one every two to three years, then anything over $300 quickly becomes a burden on the average American’s wallet. If Scorpio is planning on releasing at the price of a new console ($400-$500), then this strategy is already dead in the water.
One emerging argument is that this new console cycle will be similar in nature to how people buy smartphones. After all, consumers have proven themselves more than willing to buy the new iPhone every year or so.
The problem here is that you’re probably not paying $500 for your iPhone. When you buy a new smartphone, you’re rarely paying the full price at all. The final price is often subsidized by your phone plan and many contracts include cheap upgrades every few years. Unless I’m getting a free Scorpio with my Xbox Live account, I’m not interested.
It’s also worth noting that Apple took something consumers already felt they needed and enticed us by making it better. A gaming console is not an essential utility; it’s going to take a lot to convince the public they need a new one every few years.
If Project Scorpio—and all subsequent upgrades— are not cheaper than the average console, I don’t see how this model can work. The industry can’t sell us full-priced consoles every two to three years. They can’t have their cake and eat it too. Either adopt the smartphone strategy fully, giving us low-cost consoles at a higher pace, or don’t do it at all.
I’ve always been more of a PC gamer than anything else. I’m willing to buy parts, mess with .ini files, and download mods to enhance my gaming experience. But not everyone is willing to do that, which is fine.
One of the major selling points for consoles is that they’re simple. You plug it in, you play it, wait about seven years, and do it again. That’s it.
But how is the average consumer going to react to a new, slightly improved console, every few years? It’s already a big enough deal to choose between the Xbox or the Playstation. Consumers are confronted with the Xbox 1, the Xbox 1 S, the Xbox Scorpio, the Playstation 4, and Playstation Neo; all of which presumably have different specs, prices, and selling points.
And that’s just the beginning.
If the industry is really moving toward a business model where several versions of a console are being marketed at once, then it’s only a matter of time until we get a Scorpio 1S, or a Neo 2.0, or a an Xbox Super-Slim 2S Set-Top-Box Plus version 37.
And that’s to say nothing about what the developers are supposed to do. Say you’re a game designer. On one hand you want access to the most powerful technology, so you can make the game you want with less restrictions. On the other hand, you want to optimize your game for the weakest console, so more people can play it. Will developers be forced to make several different versions of the same game for each type of console? Or will they make one version that works for everyone, thereby making the more powerful consoles useless? We don’t know, and it doesn’t seem like the industry has worked that out either.
At the end of the day, the average console gamer just wants to play games. Dividing the playerbase, confusing developers, and overcrowding the market will just push people away.
Throughout all of the confusion, Xbox head Phil Spencer has promised that every version of the Xbox 1 will be able to play the same games. “No one gets left behind,” Spencer said during the hardware reveal.
Quite frankly, I don’t believe him. I have no reason to.
Even if gamers ignore the industry’s long history of bait-and-switch tactics, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have a coherent plan for the Xbox’s future.
There have been several conflicting statements on whether or not “Scorpio-exclusive” games are even a possibility. Microsoft’s plans on adopting a “mobile-phone” strategy for their consoles are also unknown.
In an interview with Wired, Spencer claimed they weren’t aiming for the continuous upgrades seen in the mobile phone industry. “Consumer expectation is that, if you wanted to, you could go buy a new cell phone every year,” Spencer said. “I don’t want to get into that mode with a console…We’re not on a hardware tick-tock that says I need to put out a console every two years or every one year to get people to upgrade. That’s not the console model.”
That would be comforting if not for the conflicting information given within a single day.
Jeff Rivait, marketing manager for Xbox Canada, told Xbox Enthusiast that,“When gamers get to carry forward their games, and they’re not losing the value invested in the ecosystem, in addition to getting more frequent and more powerful hardware, is looking at things like the mobile industry and how they’ve innovated. Yes, if you want to stay on top of things you may be buying consoles more frequently, but you’re also getting better looking and more powerful gaming experiences sooner than you would be getting in previous [generations].”
So, we were told that we wouldn’t have to worry about a new console every few years…only to be told that this would definitely be the case. With all the mixed signals we’re getting, we honestly have no idea what’s going on.
Even from a business perspective, Spencer’s promise to “leave no man behind” makes no sense. What incentive does anyone have to buy an Xbox Scorpio if it’s going to play the exact same games without a noticeable difference in performance? 4K visuals can’t sell a console alone, especially when few people own a 4K television in the first place. So, we’re left with two outcomes: either Project Scorpio will be useless for the average console gamer, or eventually we’re going to reach a point where games are optimized for the Scorpio, and won’t run as well on your standard Xbox 1.
One of the main reasons people buy consoles is so they can play the vast majority of video games for the next five to eight years. Project Scorpio, and the entire business model behind it, is killing the console market with its very existence.
I’m not automatically averse to the “smartphonification” of the console market, but I don’t trust Microsoft and Sony to handle this well. Even if there’s a way to do this right, history has told us that the industry will almost certainly get it wrong. Until we get some clear information on their long-term goals, I don’t think we should trust that they have our best interests in mind.