With Sony’s upgraded Playstation 4 ‘Neo’ all but announced, talk has since turned to what Microsoft plan to do to combat an even more powerful rival console. After all, Phil Spencer was the first to bring up the potential of upgrading gaming hardware in the middle of a generation when, speaking at a Microsoft press event in March, he said, “You’ll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible…”

As such, it was something of a surprise when rumours of PS4 Neo broke and there was not a murmur of anything similar coming from Microsoft. Well, now we have much more than murmurings, with multiple independent publications reporting that their sources have informed them of a couple of new hardware developments from the Xbox team. There’s of course news of a slim Xbox One, but far more interesting are the rumours of an upgraded console, codenamed Scorpio.

According to Polygon, Scorpio is planned to be a 6 teraflop beast of a machine, more than four times the performance of the current Xbox One (which is held to be around 1.3TF), and a decent chunk more powerful than the rumoured Neo, which apparently clocks in at a bit over 4TF. Kotaku note that they’ve also heard the machine would be in the 5-6TF region, so it seems like Scorpio will be a very capable machine. Like Neo, Scorpio is expected to be both backward- and forward-compatible, with all existing Xbox One games capable of running on the new hardware, and while it is now expected to be announced very soon – E3 is just around the corner, after all – it’s not expected to hit store shelves until later next year.

Polygon state that power is a primary concern for Microsoft this time out, as they look to end the ‘weaker console’ narrative, while Kotaku has heard that the company are looking into a deeper partnership with Oculus; the Facebook-owned HMD currently comes supplied with an Xbox One controller in the box and allows console owners to play their Xbox One games in a virtual theatre setting, but with the additional power available to Scorpio, could Microsoft be about to bring Oculus Rift to console? With Sony looking to push PlayStation VR this year, they’ll certainly need something to combat that.

While it may seem an odd decision to announce a new machine a year or more before it becomes available, with Neo apparently on track to launch this year Microsoft will likely feel they need something to combat the impression that the Xbox is slipping even further behind – Polygon reports that they were blindsided with the more recent reports of a 2016 release for Neo, as they had expected to be going head-to-head with Sony’s new machine next year. Of course, an early announcement has the potential to completely stall sales of their current console, but Microsoft may see this as a risk worth taking if it keeps them in the conversation – they aren’t likely to be happy with Sony walking away with all the headlines while they just keep on trucking with a far weaker console.

On the flipside, Microsoft may find it worthwhile to let Sony go first. Iterative consoles could prove to be a risky venture, after all, as console owners are used to buying a box that will serve them for five or six years without any further investment needed. While there is excitement around Neo at the moment, there’s also a touch of confusion and annoyance; if players don’t see a good reason to upgrade, or feel they’ve been left in the dust just three or so years into the generation, the whole endeavour could backfire. For their part, Sony have apparently told developers that games must be structurally the same on both PS4 and Neo, leaving things like resolution and framerate as the only beneficiaries of upgraded hardware – you likely won’t see Neo-exclusive gameplay features on your shiny new box, and while this is the right thing to do for those 40 million existing owners, it also leaves little incentive to upgrade for a great many people. Letting Sony go first allows Microsoft to watch the landscape and see how consumers take to it, at the risk of slipping even further behind and looking down the barrel of supporting the standard Xbox One for a year against a far more powerful rival. Either way, it’ll certainly be a difficult balancing act.

When the Neo rumours broke, I wondered if the idea was driven almost entirely by VR, and the power needed to drive it. With the rumours of Scorpio being Oculus-compatible, perhaps backed up by a new rumour from Ars Technica, there’s a good chance that it’s a strong reason behind the push for more powerful hardware. Of course, there’s also the question of what happens when the next generation comes? Let’s assume Sony wants to launch PS5 in 2019 – three years after the Neo and six after the base PS4 – will Microsoft be a year behind again? Surely they wouldn’t want to release a new gen console a mere two years after Scorpio, yet surely they also wouldn’t want to be a year behind to the new gen party?

I think what’s more likely – if Neo and Scorpio are successful at least – is that, rather than a hard reset between ‘generations’, we’ll simply see Microsoft and Sony putting out new, more powerful hardware every few years, raising the power profile but keeping compatibility for all existing games. In my recent piece about Xbox One’s backward compatibility program, I posited that it could be the first step in such a plan for Microsoft. If it all shakes out, it could mark the end of a hard separation between console generations, and the dawn of the console as an evolving platform. I could get behind that.

It seems the console landscape is on the verge of a significant step change, and it’ll be interesting to see where everything falls over the next year or so. One thing’s for sure, though – this year’s E3 is going to be absolutely bonkers.

First published on Vexoid on 31/05/16

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