When we spoke with Xbox Platform Senior Manager Paul Harris during E3, the first thing he mentioned was Microsoft’s extensive library of upcoming games. The company showcased 42 games during its 2017 E3 press briefing, up from 30 games in 2016 and marking the highest tally that Microsoft has ever posted during E3. It’s an obvious and expected bit of salesmanship, but the focus of that salesmanship is worth mentioning. Hardware often makes the biggest splash at E3, but in 2017, the expo was all about the games.
Then again, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. We’re four years into the current console generation, and while the Nintendo Switch is still enjoying its belated honeymoon, the novelty has faded for the PS4 and the Xbox One. The tradeoff is that more developers have gotten their hands on the dev kits, which means that there are far more games coming through the pipeline.
“With the hardware out for four years now, there are a lot more people developing,” said Harris. “There’s a ton of great content, both from major studios but also from [Microsoft’s Independent Developer] ID@Xbox program.”
Of course, that emphasis on games would seem to be at odds with Microsoft’s biggest announcement. Microsoft formally unveiled the Xbox One X, giving the former Project Scorpio a name, a price tag, and a release date. The newest Xbox One is the most powerful version of the console, but at $500 (or $600 here in Canada) it could still be a hard sell for consumers that already have an Xbox One. To that end, Microsoft is leaning heavily on the console’s 4K capabilities.
“We wanted to make sure that the Xbox One X wasn’t an iterative play. We’re focused on 4K gaming as that rationale,” said Harris. “We didn’t want our users to wait for a new console generation to get true 4K gaming, so we took the opportunity when we have the ability to produce that content.”
The problem is that 4K is a bit of an abstract concept for those outside the tech bubble. What’s the difference between 4K and regular HD? Microsoft is confident that seeing is believing, but Harris concedes that it’s an obstacle because 4K TVs are not yet the consumer standard.
“We had to ensure that even if you don’t have a 4K TV, there is enough reason to upgrade to the Xbox One X,” he said. “It’s going to improve the frame rate. Games will offer dynamic scaling. Games will play better on the Xbox One X, even on a 1080p screen. Those lucky enough to purchase a 4K screen will have a higher fidelity experience, but we will be ready for 1080p and 4K gaming.”
That’s why E3 2017 was ultimately about content. Despite the push given to the Xbox One X, games drive the sale of hardware, and the Xbox One X was designed to have the best looking games on the market. Microsoft is hoping that that will be enough to justify the new console, and the latest crop of triple-A blockbusters will shoulder much of that burden. Harris cited Bioware’s Anthem and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins as games that are particularly well-suited to 4K.
“I went to Egypt last year, and seeing what Ubisoft is able to do is fantastic,” said Harris, before adding that Microsoft will have plenty of other games that take advantage of the new tech. “We have over 70 published titles that are going to be improved on Xbox One X, so you’ll see third party and first party games which will have an Xbox One X Enhanced logo.”
“We created the dev kit with [third party developers] in mind, ensuring that the development experience is easy and allows them to quickly iterate and improve the gameplay.”
However, Microsoft recognizes that many fans either can’t afford or simply don’t want to make the upgrade to 4K, and it doesn’t want to leave those fans behind. That’s why the E3 tally – the aforementioned 42 – is so significant. Many of those games are not designed to stretch the graphical limits of 4K. Indie standouts like Tacoma, Cuphead, and Life is Strange will be just as enjoyable on an earlier version of the Xbox One, and offer support for a wide variety of gaming audiences and experiences.
“We chose those games for the diversity that they offered. We wanted to ensure that we had shooters. We wanted to make sure that we had story, that we show the complete lineup, so that every fan is delighted,” said Harris.
“We have a huge install base of Xbox original and One S. We’re supporting both. Fun games are accessible to both players.”
Microsoft’s ongoing support for backwards compatibility – which was reaffirmed at E3 and will now include a handful of original Xbox games – is similarly motivated. It ensures that older models are still relevant, and helps consumers maintain the value of their collections.
“We wanted to make sure fans felt like they could bring their investment with them,” said Harris. “Over 50% of our community have played a backwards compatible game, so it’s been a very successful program.”
The Xbox One X debuts on November 7, and there is reason to be skeptical about its prospects. $500 is a steep asking price, especially when an earlier model is available for half the cost. At the same time, 4K probably does represent the next phase of console evolution, and Microsoft seems to be going about it in the best way possible. No matter how powerful, a good console needs to deliver entertaining gaming experiences. With the Xbox One X, Microsoft is looking towards the future without abandoning the past, and that kind of hardware and software balance will be essential moving forward.