After rampant speculation since E3 2016, Microsoft finally lifted the technical curtain on their anticipated new console; Project Scorpio. Packing an unprecedented level of power, the newest addition to the Xbox family will easily out-muscle its competition upon its release later this year. Eurogamer’s Oli Welsh put it nicely in his “Scorpio made simple” rundown of the monster machine. “It’s a far cry from Xbox One, Kinect and TVTVTV. It reminds us of the original Xbox and Xbox 360 – this is Microsoft throwing its considerable engineering resources at making the best possible games-playing machine. Xbox is back.”
That is a bold claim, and one that I desperately hope is true. Gaming needs competition to ensure the best consumer experience possible, and we saw what happened the last time Sony was top dog ($599 U.S. dollars anyone?). A strong Microsoft is the easiest way to guarantee that console gaming continues to push into the future. But does Scorpio play the right cards to take the trick? If power is the name of the game; yes. But power isn’t the only battle to win, which is where Microsoft’s strategy gives me pause.
Since it’s announcement, the message fueling Scorpio has been its muscle. It was revealed to hit 6 Teraflops as the most powerful gaming console ever created. Hell, even the images we received were of the GPU. This message has only been enhanced with the reveal, as it was a full strip-down of Scorpio’s nooks and crannies (accompanied by more shots of that glorious GPU) performed by Digital Foundry, the media leader in technical specifications. Microsoft’s point has been taken, loud and clear – Project Scorpio is damn powerful. But is it enough?
This is a difficult question to unpack, but it is important to note that Project Scorpio, as an idea, is completely necessary. Consoles are shifting toward iteration while the Xbox brand is still paying the price for 2013’s launch debacle. PS4 is comfortably in the lead, and Nintendo Switch has come from left field to be a salient player in both the market and general discussion. Not only are these competitors excelling in hardware, but the (slightly hyperbolic) “Early 2017 is the Best Period for Games in History” narrative has completely bypassed Microsoft, as the season’s most disappointing title was the only one to release on Xbox One (Mass Effect Andromeda). So not only are Sony and Nintendo selling units, they are doing so on the backs of fantastic software. When the only topic of conversation around a brand is its current irrelevance, something has to be done.
In a move similar to Nintendo’s initial announcement of NX, Microsoft announced Scorpio a year and a half out from its release. As the gap between Xbox and PlayStation continued to widen, Microsoft needed something to make a splash and catapult them back into gaming relevance. To do that, they created the most powerful console in existence; one that will put Sony’s upgraded PS4 Pro to shame. But when has having the most power actually mattered?
Other than the PS4, the most powerful console in each generation has not, as we say, “won” the generation. Genesis beat SNES, N64 beat PS1, GameCube and Xbox beat PS2, PS3 beat Wii. In terms of power, yes. In terms of sales, no. This trend makes it puzzling why Microsoft would take the power route, as it can’t be expected to truly turn the ship around.
This isn’t the only questionable decision being made with Scorpio. Positioning the machine as an upgrade to the current Xbox One brings with it a slew of additional problems. In the simplest of terms, I believe that the Xbox One is something of a tainted machine. It came out of the gate with a novel new direction that nobody was interested in taking, leaving the door wide open for Sony to hammer a “For the Gamers” message into the stratosphere. Microsoft backpedaled, to be sure, and even released a lineup of first-party exclusives that were inarguably more impressive than what Sony had offered up until the past year. None of it mattered. Hardcore fans leapt from Xbox to PlayStation and never looked back. More casual fans without tight franchise allegiances followed, snowballing PS4 to record success worldwide. Despite being an excellent machine, Xbox One never truly recovered. So when Scorpio is messaged like a sequel rather than a reboot, it is valid to question why.
With the way that early marketing has touted Scorpio, I find myself pondering who its audience will be. Console players have always chosen convenience over power, and those who think differently are indoctrinated into PC culture. I highly doubt Scorpio will pull them away, especially as the Xbox Play Anywhere campaign puts exclusives onto PC. PS4 owners can get similar, albeit inferior, results from a PS4 Pro purchase that will probably be cheaper than Scorpio. And why would a player in the thriving PS4 ecosystem bail now? With quality exclusives coming at a now-steady clip, the reality is that they won’t. Switch is successful because of its unique functionality and promise of Nintendo’s fantastic first-party software, so its success does not guarantee a lively market for Scorpio. A more apt comparison is the PS4 Pro, which is only described in terms of sales as being “… stronger than that of Slim, as we see it.” If that machine was taking names, we would know.
So that leaves the current Xbox One audience as the Scorpio’s target, which, again, is fair to question. In fact, it is easily smaller than that of the One, as Scorpio is described by Microsoft as being a premium product, which inherently limits its appeal to the base. While it can greatly improve performance of all games on any TV, the investment is made better with a 4K TV, which are just now beginning to truly proliferate the market. So Microsoft’s big splash is to market a premium console to its existing base that also serves as an upgrade to a console with an extraordinary amount of perceived baggage. They will undoubtedly make money, but it seems like an incredibly safe move for a company that is striving for relevance. In fact, the whole thing seems like a reaction to the Xbox One launch, which outlined an all-in-one entertainment initiative and was incredibly risky. The decision to market a premium console to the hardcore (through Digital Foundry no less) just feels vanilla by comparison.
There is undoubtedly a plan in the works, and with the technical specifications out of the way, the road ahead is sure to be rife with game announcements and additional features. But unless Microsoft blows the doors off of E3 in June with their upcoming games lineup (or how they look), it will be tough to convince many to care. Scorpio seems like a safe play in a time when Microsoft themselves are experimenting with exciting initiatives and tech. Xbox Game Pass, cloud computing and the hands-down, best online service in the business make Xbox, as a platform, intriguing. But Scorpio is vanilla soft serve. Ham and cheese. Boring. Exactly the opposite of what the brand needs. While its competitors are launching must-have games and delightful new hardware, Microsoft is unveiling a muscular box that does what its current machine does, only better.
That seems like a easy way to make some money, but not to reassert confidence in a vision for the industry. E3 will reveal all, and hopefully my gut is proven wrong. But as it currently stands, Project Scorpio has done little to inspire confidence in Xbox’s continued relevance. Kickstarting the next generation would have been a gut-punch to a Sony that is content to wait it out, but the sear marks of the Xbox One reveal are still fresh for Microsoft. So Scorpio is relegated to an inconsequential bet; a safe play when a risk could pay massive dividends.
What do they have to lose?
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who is giddy with anticipation for E3’s twists and turns. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.