Xbox head Phil Spencer on Project Scarlett, xCloud and why console gaming won’t be totally replaced by the cloud
Holistic probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you consider the gaming industry. It’s a world notorious for going after the hot new thing, discarding the past, and constantly chasing thrills. Yet when it comes to the next generation of Xbox, this may be the best way to describe Microsoft’s approach.
The successor to Xbox One, currently codenamed Project Scarlett, was first teased at E3 2018 and revealed in greater detail – including a holiday 2020 release date – at this year’s show. While the full specs are still under wraps, what little we do know – a custom processor co-developed by Microsoft and ARM, GDDR6 RAM, an SSD hard drive which can also double as virtual RAM, 8K output at up to 120fps, capable of ray-tracing effects, and a claim it will be four times as powerful as Xbox One X – paints a picture of an absolute beast, designed to drive the future of console gaming.
Yet Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of Xbox, isn’t just looking at the future. Legacy is a key word. For him, Project Scarlett is a way to unite four generations of Xbox gaming on one console, and with a variety of play options. “If you look at our history, at least this generation, we went back and did original Xbox-backwards compatibility, Xbox 360-back compatibility,” Spencer says. “We used to say ‘all great things came from Quake‘ – if you don’t understand what these games are, I think you miss a bit of the creativity in the art form that we see today, and what its history is.”
Spencer confirms that Scarlett will play original Xbox and 360 games that are compatible with Xbox One, as well as Xbox One games: “So we’re going to have a generation that’s playing four generations of content on one [console], and I think that’s a real preservation of the art form.”
While Project Scarlett will be a boon for long-term players with collections spanning back decades (Spencer also confirms the new console will retain an optical disc drive), it also needs to set the stage for the next half-decade, at least, of gaming. Despite its enviable specs, Spencer sees Scarlett as a toolset for developers to build with, rather than a mandate to push every game to photo-realistic limits.
“I’m not dictating anything to a developer – we give them the canvas, they paint,” he says. “We’re not dictating to people that you have to go ship 8K versions of their games. I don’t think we should look at this next wave and say, ‘Oh, all of a sudden everything’s gone from 4K to 8K’. Is there some need for us right now, as an industry, to go from 1080p to 4K to 8K in really, like, five years? No.”
Empowering developers to create 8K experiences but not making it a platform standard is a wise choice on Microsoft’s part. Even 4K screens are still far from universal, and the rollout of 8K screens has barely begun. Those that are on the market are still absurdly expensive, putting the resolution standard beyond most people’s reach. Yet even with games that don’t hit 8K, Spencer still expects Scarlett experiences to wow users.
“The amount of pixels that you’re pushing in those 8K scenarios, [Scarlett] is capable of it, the output is capable of it. We’ve got the specs in place to make sure that if you want to go deliver that experience you can,” Spencer says. “On Scarlett, you’re going to see a lot of 4K games, frame rates up to 120hz, but also the variable refresh rate that we’ve been doing already on our consoles and bringing that to Project Scarlett. The game loop can literally run at the same speed as your refresh rate, which really gives you low latency input and control, which is why we’re focusing on feel as much as how games look.”
It’s difficult to gauge how striking a difference Project Scarlett may make to games. Currently, only one title is known for the console – 343 Industries’ Halo Infinite, set to launch alongside Project Scarlett next year. Yet with more titles sure to be announced for launch in the next 18 months, and backwards compatibility stretching back to the dawn of Xbox, players won’t be lacking for content.
Spencer isn’t betting Xbox’s future entirely on a super-powerful console hooked up to your living room TV, though – the company is also evolving Xbox into a service environment, encompassing subscription gaming and streaming. The Xbox Game Pass subscription has now expanded to PC as well as console, with the new Game Pass Ultimate package offering a curated selection of full games to play on both platforms, along with Xbox Live Gold. The new combo deal is something of an experiment, one that Spencer says led to a record day in terms of signups and access after its E3 2019 announcement, but also one “we’ll kind of watch over time”.
The main reason for this is the inclusion of Xbox Live Gold. Traditionally, this allows multiplayer online gaming, ostensibly covering server costs but also offering two-to-three free games per month. There’s clear overlap with the Game Pass offering there, but given Gold can currently still be purchased separately, the value of those free games is diminished in comparison. Could we see Game Pass Ultimate become the default subscription offering from Microsoft, covering online play and a wider library, resulting in the removal of its other current subscription services?
“I do think it’s an area for us to look at in terms of making sure that we’re bringing value,” Spencer says. “[With Ultimate], when you get over 100 games on console, over 100 games on PC, and Gold included, I think that seems to be the one that people are just gravitating towards.”
Xbox’s biggest shift may be away from hardware and downloads entirely, and towards a streaming model. Microsoft’s long-gestating streaming service, currently codenamed Project xCloudwas also detailed at this year’s E3, with the first rollout beginning in October with the addition of ‘Console Streaming’ functionality to Xbox One consoles. That will allow users to turn their own Xbox One into a server, streaming their digital game library to their screens elsewhere.
This free service will be followed by an entirely cloud-based offering, where users won’t need to own a physical Xbox One at all. This latter option has yet to be fully unveiled, however, leading to some confusion from players over just what xCloud is. “We haven’t told you the business model for xCloud. I apologise if there’s confusion,” says Spencer. “I would say the answer is we’re going to tell you how you would actually use our Xbox in the cloud, as opposed to using your Xbox in your home, and what the business model looks like for access to a console that you don’t own – we haven’t done that yet.”
While there’s no firm date or details on the all-streaming xCloud offering, Spencer sees it as a way to bring Xbox to new players and expand an already-booming industry into new markets.
“Last month, I was in Africa, and you [start to] think about ‘Hmm, is this going to be a place where we’re going to come in and all of a sudden they’re going to adopt consoles as another device, or should I meet them on the device that they have?’” he says. “Probably meet them on the device that they have, which is an Android phone. I think streaming is going to be a market-expanding way to allow you to get access to your games more often and for different people on the planet, who aren’t going to go buy a gaming console or a high-end gaming PC to play games.”
Traditionalists need not fear, though. Ultimately, the goal is to have streaming sitting alongside digital downloads or disc-based games on Scarlett, not to supplant the latter categories entirely. “I’m not trying to say to you today, ‘Go sell your consoles and sell your gaming PC and all the gaming that you’d ever want to do should come from the cloud,'” Spencer says. “We really look at xCloud as an option for you – it definitely gives you something to do on the go. But we see it it as additive to the experience and giving our customers choice about how they want to play.”
Yet with a soft launch of Xbox Console Streaming in October, and Google set to launch its own cloud gaming service Stadia in November, is Microsoft biding its time to see what the wider market actually wants from game streaming?
“I wouldn’t call it biding our time, I think what we’re doing is we’re building a strategy that tries to match what the customer demand is,” Spencer says. “We know that millions upon millions of people love to play on their TV with a game console, so we said we’re going to go do Project Scarlett. But as we’re designing Project Scarlett, we also know we’re likely to end up with millions of those motherboards in cloud servers. So we designed it from the beginning with the idea that cloud will be a way that people can get games distributed to them.”
That approach could help game developers too, who have been able to experiment with streaming since the spring, when Microsoft added the streaming API to the Xbox software development kit, building towards what will eventually be a back-end uniformity of Xbox development. This in turn means creators won’t have to navigate different ways of delivering their games to players. “The fact that it’s literally the same platform that you build [on] for the home [and] for the cloud gives you, as a developer, the broadest audience you can reach with the content that you’re building,” says Spencer.
Already, the future of Xbox looks much broader than its pure console roots, and by the time Project Scarlett launches at the end of 2020 – after a year of Console Streaming and whatever mutations xCloud may undergo in that time – it may look even more strikingly different. Yet by embracing console, PC and cloud gaming, and carefully ensuring no one factor overshadows another, Xbox is shaping up to be more well-rounded and approachable than the brand has seemed for a long time.
The holistic approach, with every kind of future for video games as a medium coupled to deep respect for the hardware family’s past, stands to make Xbox the most versatile platform for the next generation.