Microsoft’s big reveal this week of the Xbox One X, the high end of its Xbox line and a competitor to Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro, has set the stage for a new conversation about the future of the console industry. This debate isn’t simply about comparing the two devices, deeming one superior, and predicting which will win out. It’s also about the very nature and purpose of a game console in 2017.
We heard a lot about the Xbox One X being “the most powerful console” ever created, and Microsoft dropped frame rate and memory metrics and the phrase “4K” to hammer home the point that it’s built a more capable piece of hardware. But absent from the conversation was Windows 10, arguably Microsoft’s one key advantage that Sony will never be able to replicate.
By not trying to explicitly tie the Xbox to Windows 10, as some rumor watchers predicted the company might try, Microsoft ended up recommitting itself to the idea that PCs and consoles should stay separate — at least for now. In many ways, it feels like Microsoft introduced a stopgap device, indicating that the Xbox’s core identity still remains somewhat in flux as the company figures out how to best merge the idea of a console with that of a PC.
It helps to imagine a starkly different press conference, one in which Microsoft abandoned the idea of a standalone game console as we know it and unveiled a new, unified platform. This theoretical device would have married the best of the PC — upgradability, universal cross-platform play, and premium performance — with the benefits of a console, which lets developers better optimize software around known hardware standards and offers customers plug-and-play accessibility. This new device could have been called the Xbox 10 S, to indicate it runs on the new lightweight Windows 10 S that Microsoft announced back in May.
As my colleague Chris Plante pointed out last week, a console like that would help Microsoft finally realize its dream of an all-in-one entertainment machine — a dream it’s been toying with since Windows Media Center in the early aughts. It would be capable of playing games at the performance level of a gaming PC while also serving as the media hub of the living room. It could incorporate voice and motion control by resurrecting the Kinect and a hands-free digital assistant by tacking on Cortana. It could let you browse the web and download games with optional mice and keyboard input and, best of all, play every possible game regardless of which platform it was primarily developed for.
It would be the dream machine for many: a true living room PC that at last erodes the division between the console space and the Windows ecosystem. Arguments around exclusive titles, developer support, and even price would all be rendered moot if Microsoft could achieve what Valve, with its Steam machine philosophy, couldn’t — all in a package far cheaper than your standard gaming PC. It wouldn’t matter how large Sony’s install base is if Microsoft were able to redefine the entire idea of a game console.
But Microsoft didn’t do any of that. In fact, it followed Sony almost to the tee, save the Xbox One X’s power boost over the PS4 Pro and the requisite $100 higher price tag. The One X is, simply put, a more graphically capable Xbox. It doesn’t run any special software or bridge the console and the PC any better than before. It just plays Xbox One games better than before, so long as you have a 4K TV capable of HDR. (In some cases, Microsoft says the console will deliver performance and resolution benefits even on 1080p sets, thanks to techniques like supersampling). It’s perplexing, because it means Microsoft is yet again competing with cheaper PlayStation hardware while also trying to sell gamers on an experience that remains inferior to a desktop.
There are a few reasons why Microsoft may have felt compelled to take this route, instead of trying (and potentially miserably failing) to make a living room PC. The dream machine I described above sounds fantastic, but it’s also unrealistic.
For one, Microsoft might have trouble convincing gamers to use an Xbox running Windows so long as Steam exists as the primary distribution platform for PC titles. The company could try sidestepping Valve and urging developers to use the Universal Windows App architecture for any and all games in the future. That way, games could be distributed through both Steam and the Windows Store, ensuring they’re playable on every PC and the Xbox One X. However, it’s unlikely Microsoft could convince developers and consumers to abandon Steam or prioritize another platform over it. Big game publishers have tried and failed at that, EA with Origin and Ubisoft with UPlay most prominently.
Another big issue would involve the splitting of its player base. As it stands now, developers will be able to optimize for the Xbox One X if they so choose, but no game will ever be released exclusively for that pricier product. At this point, Microsoft is saying that every Xbox game released from now until the next big generational leap (if one ever comes) will play across the entire Xbox family, and that’s the only way Microsoft and Sony have been able to get away with selling these mid-generation console updates.
Had Microsoft decided to turn Project Scorpio into a Windows machine, it would have risked irreversibly splitting its user base. In that scenario, some games could conceivably be developed to run only on Windows, with developers knowing that Scorpio games could be downloaded via the Windows Store. Going even further, whole feature sets, accessories, and platform perks would have to developed and geared toward the subset of Microsoft customers who buy into the new vision. The idea that, just four years into a console generation, players would feel forced into buying a new device to stay current would likely not sit well, especially not with a community just now forgetting the Xbox One launch debacle of 2013.
The truth is that it seems we’re not quite ready for a do-everything gaming device. The industry is bifurcated between PC and console for a reason: some people want the ease of a TV, couch, and controller, while others are willing to pay extra for performance and more hardware freedom. Not to mention that Microsoft would be effectively bowing out of the console race had it decided to try and change that equation. It appears much safer for the company to steadily build its bridge — with cross play, “play anywhere,” and the Windows 10 Xbox app — rather than take a radical jump off the cliff.
The silver lining here is that it’s clear where Microsoft is headed. Xbox chief Phil Spencer sits on the Windows 10 board for a reason. Every year at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the company makes an effort to show just how much work it’s putting into joining its console with its pervasive desktop OS. So it’s only a matter of time before Microsoft makes the leap and the division between console and a computer falls away.
Maybe it will happen with the next generational leap. The Xbox Two, or whatever silly name Microsoft ends up tacking on, could be the true living room PC we’ve all been waiting for. It could perhaps even be modular and upgradable, ending the need for generational console updates for good. But that’s years away. Right now, we have to settle for faster GPUs and more teraflops packed into the same familiar boxes. It’s far from a dream machine, but it’s good enough for now.