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Can the Xbox Survive as a Cheaper PC?

Alessio Palumbo
Posted Mar 21, 2016
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Head of Xbox Division Phil Spencer came out with very interesting comments regarding the future of Microsoft’s console recently. Through the Universal Windows Platform, it seems like Microsoft intends to release new, enhanced console hardware that will remain compatible with all games thanks to backward and forward compatibility.

Spencer said as much to reporters during the Spring showcase event. Here’s the original quote (originally reported by Polygon):

We see on other platforms whether it be mobile or PC that you get a continuous innovation that you rarely see on console. Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger. And then you wait for the next big step function.

When you look at the console space, I believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we’ve ever seen. You’ll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible because we have a Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus more and more on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.

We look at these other ecosystems out there like mobile, tablet and PC and we see that they have a very continuous evolution cycle in hardware, whereas between console generations most of the evolution is making it cheaper and potentially making it smaller.

Both are meaningful but don’t make the games play any better. If you look at PC specifically and see the evolution that happens there, there’s no reason why console can’t ride that same curve.

I look at the ecosystem that a console sits in and I think that it should have the capability of more iteration on hardware capability. Sony is doing this with VR and adding VR capabilities mid-cycle to the PlayStation 4 and they are doing that by adding another box. I don’t mean that as a negative. But it’s not changing what the core console is about.

For consoles in general it’s more important now than it’s ever been, because you have so many of these other platforms that are around. It used to be that when you bought your console you were way ahead of the price performance curve by so much, relative to a PC. But now PCs are inexpensive and your phones are getting more and more capable.

Indeed, this makes a lot of sense with Microsoft’s growing push towards the Universal Windows Platform and keeping the games library, just like on PC, would certainly be a nice perk for console gamers. Moreover, the Xbox One is without a doubt the weakest main platform on the market in terms of hardware and it could use an upgrade of its specifications.

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Sony isn’t resting on its laurels either, anyway, if Kotaku’s rumor about a PlayStation 4.5 is to be believed. According to Kotaku’s sources, Sony will include an upgraded GPU that may allow support for 4K resolution.

These would be bold and almost unprecedented initiatives in the console market. Historically, consoles have been defined by two main characteristics: fixed hardware and exclusive first party games. If both Sony and Microsoft moved forward with upgrading the hardware of their consoles, the first point would be effectively gone, making PlayStation and Xbox a lot more similar to a PC with all of the pros and cons attached.

But Sony (and Nintendo, for that matter) have never allowed their exclusive games on any other competing platform. Everyone knows that to play Uncharted, Gran Turismo, God of War and the rest of the games developed by Sony Worldwide Studios the only way is to own a PlayStation platform. On the other hand, Microsoft recently made a swift turn in its policies when it comes to first party output: now, the vast majority of its lineup is scheduled for Windows 10 PC as well as Xbox One.

That includes titles like Quantum Break, ReCore, Sea of Thieves, Halo Wars 2 and Forza. Even Gears of War 4 has been severely hinted at least a couple of times already, while Scalebound has been found in a list of Windows Store Game IDs. Right now, the only major Xbox One first party game which has not been at least rumored to launch on PC is Crackdown 3.

With fixed hardware possibly gone for good and most (if not all) first party games made by Microsoft Studios coming to both Xbox and Windows, Microsoft’s console brand might be at severe risk. It would be basically a cheap PC with none of the usual console appeal deriving from truly exclusive titles.

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This new Xbox would mostly be appealing for gamers who enjoy Microsoft Game Studios’ first party output, but for some reason can’t or won’t spend more for a PC gaming rig. However, it could be way too narrow of a market segment for Xbox to be as successful as Microsoft would like to.

This could be a short blanket syndrome type of issue. Microsoft is striving to improve its support of PC gaming, but in the process it could very well be leaving the Xbox unprepared to survive amidst the strong winds of competition in the console market.

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