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When Microsoft announced Project Scorpio at E3 2016, it marked a major shift. Unlike the slimmed down versions of baseline hardware that both Microsoft and chief rival Sony had produced for previous consoles, Scorpio promised a significant power boost over the original Xbox One.
It was a risky move, too – at the very same show, Microsoft had revealed the Xbox One S, which fell neatly into that pattern of physically smaller iterations of existing hardware. While the S had some upgrades of its own, they were more focused on the video side, packing in a 4K UHD Blu-ray drive and support for 4K streaming. Scorpio was different – it promised to be the “most powerful console ever”, potentially undercutting a machine that had literally just been announced.
Fast forward a year, and Project Scorpio is now Xbox One X. It lives up to those boasts about power, with a custom 2.3GHz octocore AMD CPU, 12GB of GDDR5 RAM, 1TB of storage and all the same video-focused upgrades as the S. It is, safe to say, a beast of a machine, but one that somehow fits into the smallest casing of any Microsoft console ever.
Following the hardware reveal, WIRED sat down with Albert Penello, senior director of product management and planning at Xbox, to discuss the development and launch of Xbox One X, how increased power can help improve gameplay experience, and how the console could change the generational cycling of games consoles.
WIRED: Now that Project Scorpio has been revealed to the world as Xbox One X, what’s your take on the public reaction to the console?
Albert Penello: I have learned in this business until I get to talk to people, the internet is not a good gauge of fan reaction. I have read the internet feedback but for me talking to the fans that are here [at E3] and getting their reaction means more. I would say generally that I think people were super excited about our announcement and obviously questioned whether or not we would be able to deliver on our promises.
I think a lot of that went away with the unveil of the technical specs, so I feel like that this year was about showing the games. We really wanted to dedicate the booth, the show floor and the briefing to 4K, and that’s the hardest part – if you don’t see it, you don’t understand. I’m kinda waiting for people to absorb all of the news and get a chance to see the games, but I think people have been pretty pumped.
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The Xbox One X costs the same as the 2013 model at launch. Do you think that the $500 price tag, without it being a new console generation, is going to attract criticism?
I don’t think so, I really don’t. I think the console business has operated a certain way for a long time. I’ve been in the business a long time – if you go back even to the Atari 2600, it’s like five-to-seven years [between generations]. The console business has worked within a certain contained environment for a long time, and now I think technology is changing.
If you look at the rate of technological change in the last 15 years, it’s probably greater than the 30 years that preceded it, and the console business is one of the ones that hasn’t evolved. In past generations, I don’t think you could have done something like this, but honestly, when I look at phones at $800 and PC graphics cards at $600 [it shows] people are willing. I’ll even use our Elite Controller – two years ago, we had the thought that nobody is going to buy a $150 controller, but then we couldn’t make enough of them.
I think the criticism might come more from a misunderstanding of what we’re trying to do than whether or not we’re going to sell this out. I believe we’re going to have more people that want it than are going to be able to get it this year. I think we’re providing incredible value.
Too many people want to go into “what are you doing to convince people to upgrade?” Well, I don’t want people to upgrade, this isn’t a generational shift, that’s not what we’re doing. The examples used are usually when it’s the only product, as if you only launched that one product at that price. We have a family of products at two different price points. What I love is that other developers now get to talk about their experiences on the systems – that’s a better validation than me telling you what I think.
Forza’s Dan Greenawalt has said that having extra power on the Xbox One X helped optimise the game for people who’ve still got a 2013 model. Were you expecting or intending developers to leverage the new hardware like that?
Yeah, that was a very tough part of this change. I actually think that the software compatibility portion of this is the least appreciated but most difficult challenge. [People assume] Xbox One X is held back by S, but that’s not actually how it works in the real world.
PCs are not held back because I might have to run on an Intel integrated graphics chip, The Witcher is somehow not lesser if you’re not on ultra settings in 4K at 60 or 120fps. On a lower spec PC, you refine your engine and all experiences get better. It was a design goal of ours to share codebase, tools and development environment so that as [developers] refine their engines, everything gets better.
Looking back, do you think the Xbox One S was a necessary product when its main visual improvements were for video not gaming? Could Microsoft have kept with the 2013 model Xbox and put more resources into the X?
No, I think again it’s one of those things that if you think about the console business, it maybe seems odd, but if you look outside, into almost any other consumer electronics product, [that iteration] happens all of the time. I’m glad we did it this way, I think we showed a commitment to Xbox One S, and nothing shows a greater commitment to the long term future of a product than introducing it and then also saying we were doing the Scorpio. You’re literally saying: “how could you imagine that I’m not going to continue?” We’d just invested energy and time in creating this new product for people and I love that we did it that way, but I would also say I love that we gave people a little bit of a heads-up that something else was coming. If we didn’t, I think people might have been frustrated with us to not have known.
Talking numbers and raw power is one thing, but aside from the increased visual fidelity and the possibility for bigger worlds, how do you see the extra power of Xbox One X actually improving gameplay?
This becomes the part where we build the canvas, but the artists have to paint. We had to have a design spec in mind. We have a more efficient CPU with a higher clock speed, much more graphics performance, much more bandwidth and a lot more memory – but now we let the developers do their magical stuff.
It’s weird because you get into a sort of philosophical debate about whether better graphics are the same as better gameplay. There’s not a right answer, it’s very subjective. It sounds like a non-answer, but right now we have a great canvas and we’ve made it really easy to tap into the power. I think that’s been super important and so now I’m really excited to see what developers do with it. I’m sure there’s going to be a developer out there that goes and builds a 1080p crazy game and loads-up the effects. I think that will be awesome.
What kind of conversations were you having with developers whilst you were planning Xbox One X about what they wanted from a more powerful console?
Well, that’s the nice thing about having guys like Turn10 and The Coalition, our first parties. For me, the most interesting part about the development of this console, and unlike any console we’ve done before, is typically you have technology and price points and geographies, all of these things, and you sort of make the best console you can at the time you decide to launch. You’re always trying to push the highest end. Then you give that to developers and you say “please make the best games that you can with the hardware that we gave you”.
This was different because and it goes back to the announcement, the specs in this came from the games, they didn’t come from us. We had a goal and then we profiled [what exists]. We actually took real game code, we did thousands and thousands of emulation runs and profiling runs, we worked with Turn10 and The Coalition to do simulations, and every spec that’s in this box is the number that’s required to hit this goal of 4K, wide colour gamut and HDR, all on existing game engines. That is a unique part of how we work and an extremely unique part of how we thought about developing this console. The developers and their real code influenced the spec that we have for the machine.
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Just a couple of years ago, the specs of Xbox One X would have been seen as a generational leap, rather than the extension of one. Having introduced this console, how long do you see this generation actually lasting?
I don’t know what the next thing is going to be, I don’t know what the future is going to hold. A lot of it has to do with when technology intersects with price, and when consumers feel that they’re stretching the limits.
I do think the idea we’re trying to introduce is that we care about the games and that the device, whether it’s a PC or an S or an Xbox One X, is just the mechanism with which you choose to experience those games. Even when we do things like Xbox 360 backwards compatibility, and now OG Xbox games, you wouldn’t necessarily say that would be the most relevant thing to do, to go that far back, but I love that we care about preserving the content.
I don’t always like to use the phone example, because there are other factors at work, but you care more about your apps than the phone they’re on now. That industry has moved to the point where you just upgrade your phone when you feel like it, when either the price or the screen or the camera got to where you want to be, and you just assume everything [software side] is going to work.
I’m not necessarily saying that [console] generations are going to go away, but thinking beyond this generation, thinking around software, is clearly where we’re trying to go. We’re trying to make sure it’s about your content rather than the device. I don’t think that console generations are necessarily going to be as much of a fit-and-start going forward. I don’t think it’s healthy for the industry, I think it’s actually not great for customers either.
Could a modular approach work – customers upgrading their consoles in chunks as needed?
It’s a good idea, it’s an interesting idea. I think we’re going to have to see how this goes, because we are introducing a pretty new idea into the console business and I want to make sure we get this right. We had to think really hard, because obviously I didn’t know the PS4 Pro existed when the team got together and started conceiving of Xbox One X, but I know what we thought about.
We’re on eight console generations since 1977 – or you can go back further to ’74 when the Magnavox Odyssey came out – and it’s always worked one way. We’re introducing a new way and we have really got to think through every part, from the developer, to the customer, to naming, to messaging and how we tell the story and make sure that we respect what’s awesome about consoles when we introduce this idea.
That’s why I like to talk about things like the ports on the back of the box – it’s a silly point but it’s a testament to how much care we put in. All the ports are in the same place [on X as on S] and use the same cables, so that if you’re going to upgrade, you just reach in back, swap cables, and I’ve upgraded. We’re not doing different packages or names and we didn’t do a new controller – those were all very thoughtful things about trying to ease customers into this new idea.
I don’t want to break consoles, I love console gaming. I don’t want to go to a new console every year system either, I don’t think anybody wants to do that, but who knows what kind of new technologies people are going to think up.
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Software emulation is usually quite a lot more demanding of system architecture than people might think – did having Xbox One X’s additional power help bring about backwards compatibility for original Xbox games?
So, you don’t need Xbox One X to emulate the original games, it’s going to run on both. But this gets into a weird 4-dimensional cube of features. We have awesome software developers, and one of the nice things about working at Microsoft is going to their lab and just watching. Did you know that system link works on the OG games? You can take an original Xbox, an Xbox 360, an S, and an X, system link them together, take four original game discs, put them in each console and do system link play. And do you know why that was done? Because the emulation engineers were like “we’re going to make this work”. They are rad.
Can you now virtualise that system link and do it over Wi-Fi?
No, because with the old box, it has to be physical. I just love the spirit of that feature. I don’t think a lot of people are going to do it, but I love the spirit behind the feature, just the fact that you can and that our guys are working overtime to do this kind of stuff.
When we did Xbox 360 backwards compatibility, you’re seeing now that [those games are running] a little bit better on Xbox One than on 360. We have some more interesting things we haven’t disclosed around how backwards compatibility is going to work. Those original Xbox games will be improved on the boxed [disc release], but it has to run on everything, it’s not particular to Xbox One X beyond 4K game DVR, upscaling, and faster load times.
There were two 1080i games. Virtual Tennis and Dragon’s Lair, but most things were maxed at 720.
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The reveal showcased Crimson Skies, bumped from 720p to 4K but it still looked great. What are you doing, in terms of engineering, to get that crispness from older games?
It’s is a complex thing, and I think it’s important to know every game has to be touched up in order for it to work. We do the work on behalf of the publishers [to get them to work]. In the case of Xbox Originals it is going to be a select number of titles and we’re going to try and pick the fan favourites that everyone wanted. As it turns out, that was a long time ago and if you look at how different the industry is today than it was then, that can make figuring out who to talk to tough. Some publishers just don’t even exist any more. So we’re not going to do the whole library, we’re going to do the ones people are asking for and we’re going to make them better on the new stuff.
One of the more surprising points about the Xbox One X is that it’s actually even smaller than Xbox one S. What went into condensing the hardware?
We wanted to exceed expectations in every dimension. That included investing in things like vapour chambers, which you hear us talk about because they’re usually only used on founders’ edition graphics cards or servers. People don’t like it when we call it liquid cooling, but there is de-ionised water that’s in a vacuum in a copper membrane and it’s super-efficient at cooling.
We need a vapour chamber to cool the box and the memory. We talked about the Hovis method – there’s actually a guy named Bill Hovis, a real guy back at the office. We needed to figure out how to be as efficient with power as possible. If you know anything about consumer electronics, you generally build one power profile that’s built to all of the components in the box. If you know about chips, some require a little bit more voltage and some require less, so depending on where you are on the curve, you could be wasting energy.
We can’t be wasting any energy to get the console this small, so every component individually and at the system level has its own unique power profile so that we’re only using as much power in the box as required to deliver the performance that we want to hit, instead of one power profile that has to hit a wide variety of chips. It’s more efficient, it’s a little more environmentally friendly – we’re a high-end gaming machine, but it is more environmentally friendly – and all of those things had to happen to shrink the box.
Could you have gone smaller?
I think for us to have gotten any smaller than this it might have compromised on noise. That’s the other variable out there, we didn’t want this thing to get significantly louder than the Xbox One S. That’s the other dimension that we have to work with in a typical living room. I think people will be impressed with the sound level – it will be a little bit louder at full tilt when you’re running really taxing games at 4K 60fps, but for every other usage case it’s as quiet as an Xbox One S.
Source: xbox one – Google News