During the Xbox Spring Showcase, Phil Spencer and the Microsoft team laid out their plans for the future of the Xbox One and how it relates to the the future of Windows 10 and PC gaming.
One particular news story stood out to us and had us trying to figure out how all of this might actually work - The Xbox One may support hardware upgrades in the future.
Coleman Monroe - What the fuck is going on in the console space? It’s getting nuts.
Justin Gifford - Yeah, the hardware upgrades thing kind of was shocking.
Justin Lacey - Shocking is a bit much, but it’s a nice shift. I do dig the ability to digitally buy 360 games on Xbox One though.
JG - Shocking is too strong of a word. I guess I'm just trying to figure out how they're going to actually make it moddable from a hardware perspective. But yes, the backwards compatibility part is good
JL - Yeah, I don’t know how they will do it with the current consoles. I can see them making a different version of the Xbox One that supports the upgrades. But that’ll be shitty, too, to original owners that is. But I think they know there isn’t going to be another traditional hardware cycle.
JG - Yeah. I mean, if it becomes a "open the case, pull out the old plugged in X, put in the new one" that's cool; I just don't know whether that's doable? Having just rebuilt my computer, that is - how much can you make it so that you just pull out the integrated stuff and pop a new thing in?
JL - That’s basically what those Steam Machines are. They just kind of box up components so you slide them in and out of place like cartridges. If you have to hook up cables, they’ve failed.
JG - Okay, I kind of figured that was doable, but i didn't know if it had been done.
JL - I’m sure it can be done better than the Steam machines, but that was their selling point beyond the price - upgradeable components. But still.
JG - But yeah, hinge the case and make everything...shit, what's the word...interchangeable isn't the right word
JL - Making it so CoD guy isn’t intimidated. He’s a dumbass. And he’s gon' be pissed when his console doesn’t run next years CoD.
JG - Oh, boy, I can't wait until the conspiracy crazies come out about that.
Break Out Those Sega Jokes
Our conversation was just beginning. Naturally, as with any major Microsoft announcement, it didn't take long for the internet to form its own opinions. Memes and Twitter jokes are fine, but Justin Gifford struck a nerve with Justin Lacey when a reputable site wrote an article reacting to the upgradable Xbox One - "An upgradable Xbox One? Think this one through, Microsoft"
JL - …
JG - You hate Ars Technica, don't you?
JL - They’ve been a lot less compelling since Kuchera left, haven’t found a writer to attach myself to.
Comparing the Xbone announcements to Sega is going the wrong way though. Telling us why it’s going to be better/different than PC upgrades is more of the focus of the upgrades. I* thought it was the most progressive Microsoft has been yet, and REALLY like what Phil Spencer has done since being made the face of the Xbone.* That thing could have been a dumpster fire. He’s been scratching and clawing out small victories to keep it relevant. Which is more remarkable given the obvious restrictions Microsoft puts on the Xbox team.
Ryan Billingsley - If MS did an annual hardware upgrade that you could buy and it was only a first-party upgrade, that doesn’t seem like that much of a development struggle. It's nowhere near the hodgepodge of PC hardware they have to deal with, which by the way, they are already dealing with.
JL - This console generation was the first one to start out behind mid-range PCs as far as power and that gap is only going to get wider. There’s totally a block of gamers and Xbox fans that would do regular hardware upgrades. Everyone is trained at this point to know that your 2-3 year old Android and iPhone won’t run the latest shit.
JG - That's a good point, Ryan. Justin, you know just because I post a link doesn't necessarily mean I endorse the author's view, right? I think it's an interesting counterpoint to what was a kind of cool, if optimistic, announcement from him the other day.
JL - Haha. I wasn’t sure cuz it was Sega :) But I wasn’t blowing up at you, I just thought the Sega comparison missed the point and laughed that it was Ars trying to get attention with a clever photoshop image.
I’m pretty much against destructive conversations in the gaming press that I feel are either 1) just filling their article quota or 2) being contrarian just for the sake of it (or for clicks).
I'm also just against dumb comparisons :) And sentences without emojis :)
JG - I still think you need to have the conversation, "Okay, that's cool, I kind of like the sound of that, but practically, what are we talking about? You've had some huge successes, but you also had things like the Always On debacle. Historically, this thing hasn't worked well." And as we talked about, it has to be dude-bro compatible.
Everyone is trained at this point to know that your 2-3 year old Android and iPhone won’t run the latest shit.
JL - That’s fair, but that was just the announcement on a day of announcements to build momentum for the Xbox. The last Xbox team sucked. But under Phil they’ve been much more transparent and followed through on the things they’ve talked about. He can’t be held to the previous team’s dumb plans and promises.
JG - Well, yes and no. Just because you're the new team doesn't mean you get a clean slate. And I was picking the always-on not because I was batshit insane about it, or that it was a horrible idea, but because they talked about without really explaining much. And yes, i know it was just a press conference.
JL - Yeah, they definitely haven’t earned anyone’s trust with those high level promises, and most people don’t notice the change in teams like that. But that’s where good game journalism comes in. I don’t get pissed if a gamer expresses something like that article, but that’s where the press fails.
JG - It was definitely one-note on the historical part; it didn't address other specific concerns like our dudebro discussion or Ryan's, "Yeah, but PC games already deal with that - so what if there's a yearly first-party known-quantity hardware upgrade?" But the historical was something that made me kind of go, "Hrm." Although, I'm not 100% convinced that we're going to see an exodus of people leaving for PC because of that below-mid-range performance at launch issue.
JL - Yeah, that’s the funny part about that argument, because those people will never leave consoles, they will just go do something else.
(Editor's Note - Oh look, Penny Arcade made the same Sega joke in their web comic.) Apparently, Penny Arcade and Ars Technica share the same creative staff, Gifford.)
More questions arise around the familiar lines of PC vs console gaming. Do console gamers want to upgrade their consoles on a regular basis? What advantages will that have (if any) over maintaining your own custom PC?
RB - I just think the article is out of touch with what is my perception of high level, AAA gaming right now. When you see article after article about how good the PC version of a game looks, you know that grinds MS and Sony’s gears. As someone who doesn’t have a gaming PC, I would love to be able to keep bumping up the performance of a console so that I can stretch its life.
Also, when you have VR headsets coming out with ridiculous GPU requirements, you have to wonder what consoles do in that case.
JG - I built a gaming PC and FML does it look good. Like, there's no comparison. I'm sure you're right about that, Ryan.
RB - I really wish that GPUs for both PCs, consoles, even mobile would all move external like the dream IBM sold when Thunderbolt first premiered.
I also thought the comparisons to previous attempts was an odd one. Most of those were add-ons that changed the functionality of the device, either playing a new media (floppies) or adding a new game play mechanic (Kinect). This is a performance improvement, so nothing changes as far as what you are playing, no one has to make specific software for it, no one has to manufacture a new media format for it. Again, ask any PC gamer who drops a new video card in their machine.
JL - Haha, I never thought to compare Kinect to Sega CD and 32X but thank you for that. Nice new video card. what’s that? you need a new CPU, too? Aww shucks.
RB - Ha, yea.
JL - Your outlook is also interesting, Ryan, because you held off on a new console for a while and stuck to Mac gaming. So somewhere in there the gaming PC didn’t make sense for you, yet you recognize the current console limitations. It’s also weird to agree that IBM apparently has a better outlook for gaming than Sony and Microsoft right now.
RB - I was a PC gamer all through high school and college, but at some point I just couldn’t keep up with upgrading my stuff and that steady of a clip and wanted something a bit more stable. When I bought my first Xbox that was pretty much the end of my PC gaming days.
JG - That was what happened to me, too, until these yahoos convinced me to jump back in.
I also thought the comparisons to previous attempts was an odd one. Most of those were add-ons that changed the functionality of the device, either playing a new media (floppies) or adding a new gameplay mechanic (Kinect).
JL - This is all Josh’s fault, Gifford. I was perfectly content being an Xbox 360 fanboy and never going back to my PC. Because prior to my 360, my last PC that I built, kinda choked on itself. And I was just over the endless upgrade cycles, until the 360/PS3 started getting stale. All it takes is one great looking PC game to get you hooked though, and you want more. I definitely bought GTAV on PC just to make my PC flex.
Maybe my standards are lowered, but I was just really glad to see Microsoft looking forward for once and speaking about it without an absolute solution. They realize that the rest of this console cycle and whatever the next consoles are, aren’t going to be in lines with what we traditionally expect. And that dream of a unified Windows ecosystem still appeals to me if it doesn’t get in my way. If there’s no difference between gaming on any of those devices (impossible), it sounds pretty nice.
JG - Agree 100% there.
Bringing It All Together May Not Be Tolerated
Microsoft was starting to look a bit more progressively at the Xbox One hardware and that starts to blur the lines between consoles and PC's even more. There is one more piece to the Microsoft puzzle though, since Xbox is only one piece of their business. It turns out that Microsoft is once again going after bringing together the entire Windows family. The Universal Windows Platform (UWP) is Microsoft's solution to allowing Windows apps to run on all Windows devices from tablets to Windows 10 to the Xbox One.
JG - I just read something about Epic's CEO losing his fucking shit over UWP. Seemed a little...i dunno, over-wrought?
JL - Lol on Ars :)
JG - The irony did not escape me, but it was originally on the Guardian.
JL - There you go, that's better. Anyway, I dunno why Epic thinks this is any different than it has been. If it's bad, like Windows Live it will fail, again. Each ecosystem has its limits.
JG - I kind of felt like he was raging at the storm. Like, "Okay, you don't like it. That's nice."
JL - Valve tried to make Linux gaming a thing. No one helped them out.
JG - Yes, that occurred to me while I was reading. "Okay, what's your alternative, dude?"
JL - He's in a position to do something about it, too. So quityerbitchin' and do something.
JG - I mean, I don't really think MS is going to totally lock out Steam and Origin and (ohgod) Uplay. Maybe it was just an opening negotiating tactic.
Coop - Bah, that article is stupid. Let Microsoft do what they want to do. You don't have to make your games for it.
JG - I honestly kind of thought that and then chuckled and thought, "Good luck storming the castle!"
C - I mean, I fully support the idea of Microsoft launching this platform to bring the Xbox and PC community together. Let me play Xbox exclusives on my PC or let me play a game with an Xbox user from my PC.
JG - That part, I really like.
C - It's really no different than Origin. I can't buy EA games on Steam. Which is kind of annoying, but whatever. We got pissed for a while, and now we just stopped buying EA games ;)
JG - For the most part, yes.
C - Unless we have to.
JG - Right.
C - So yeah, Microsoft won't shut down Steam. They know what will happen if they try. So if you're a Steam developer, be a Steam developer, and don't get mad about what they're doing.
JG - Microsoft isn't going to invest the kind of capitol needed to, you know, buy all the game developers everywhere and bring them in house or however you would structure it (I've been thinking about corporate structure all week; my brain is tired), that would be stupid. So talking about 'killing' Steam seemed a little disingenuous. Like, "Hey! We're going to create a closed ecosystem, but there won't be any games. It'll work as well for us as Blackberry!"
Since our conversation there has been a bit more back and forth between Epic and Microsoft:
I like the sound of this, and look forward to thorough technical details on UWP's planned openness at //build. https://t.co/9oitPe3DuM— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) March 4, 2016
After taking time initially to smooth over the launch issues of the Xbox One, Microsoft was due to make some changes and announcements about the future of the platform. This is a Microsoft that is looking toward building toward an iterative future versus forcing one on its audience before it was ready. It's hard to bet on the promises of MS at this point which makes it easy to distrust and pick a part the logic of those promises. However, it seems MS has stopped the negative momentum of Xbox and is taking action to turn things around. If it works out Xbox owners and PC owners will have a much more cohesive experience no matter where they choose to play their games. If it doesn't work out, perhaps a third party will step up to define the future of gaming on and around console platforms.