The Case for Xbox One X
Xbox’s upcoming powerhouse gaming console, the Xbox One X, is slated to debut this November, and if you’ve been listening to me this summer you know I’m a bit of a skeptic. To show off some of the titles optimized for the new piece of hardware and perhaps to convince me it’s worth giving it a shot, Xbox invited me to attend their showcase in San Francisco.
While there I chatted with Albert Penello, Senior Director of Xbox Console Marketing. He began by walking me through a presentation about 4K technology itself, complete with images demonstrating the difference between different visual fidelity tiers. This helped lay the foundation for his pitch on why the Xbox One X is the machine for gamers looking for a cross between a high-fidelity, PC experience and the plug and play accessibility of a console.
But I came armed with questions – why were Microsoft and Xbox pushing a console upgrade at this point in the generation? What exactly is so great about the Xbox One X? And, ultimately, is it time for me to purchase a 4K TV?
AP: “We don’t jump on every media format change. We were not a Blu-Ray player early. We were not a 3D player early. But, we are big believers in 4K. I think it’s hard because until people actually see it running it is just a theoretical discussion of 8 million pixels versus 2 million pixels…like HDR you kind of have to see it, and supersampling you have to see it.”
The technology inside the Xbox One X is still foreign to most consumers, including me. I asked Albert to break it down.
AP: “Supersampling means that all of the data and information in the 4K image is there, it is just not displayed…when you have the 4K data you’re still seeing all the enhancements you’re getting with the Xbox One X, it’s just not displayed natively.”
I admitted I was still a bit confused at the practical implications.
AP: “We’re going to call out 3 things on packaging for customers. We’re going to call out 4K, HDR, and Xbox One X Enhanced. Two of those are features, and one of those you think about it like 4K versus Blu-Ray…it’s a platform identification. So 4K is straightforward, the game is rendering a 4K image, could be checkerboarded, could be dynamic, could be native but the game is outputting in 4K. There will be games that won’t output in 4K that will be upscaled, they won’t get a 4K badge. So if you see 4K on the box, the game is going to output in 4K.
AR: “So it’s not upscaled?”
AP: “It’s not upscaled, or it doesn’t get the 4K badge. HDR is pretty straightforward, the games supports HDR or it doesn’t. So those will be very clear distinguishers for customers.”
“Xbox One X Enhanced basically says the developer has gone back or has done work to take advantage of all the power available. But we don’t determine necessarily what that is because we’re not telling the game developers precisely what they have to do to take advantage of the box. Many enhanced games will be 4K, many enhanced will be HDR, but that’s not a requirement.”
With over 100 titles coming to the Enhanced program, each developer will be able to tailor their game to the power the hardware provides. He used Studio Wildcard as an example.
AP: “ARK [Survival: Evolved] what they are going to do, they are going to stay 1080p, they are going to take the ultra high-res PC textures, we’re going to go to 60 fps, but we are going to stay 1080p. That is an Xbox One X Enhanced game, it is different from the Xbox One S version. If you look at a game like Forza [Motorsport 7] that game is going to be HDR or 4K Native/60 fps, versus 1080 native/60 it will also be Xbox One X Enhanced.”
All the numbers and letters are enough to make your head spin if you’re a layman like me. So I decided to dig a little further.
AR: “To get in the weeds just a little bit, one of the big things when you launched Xbox One S was HDR support and 4K as well. So what is the difference between what Xbox One S is doing and what Xbox One X is doing?”
AP: “It’s a good question. I think people that are familiar with PCs or even phones kind of get the idea that, “I can buy more performance.” It’s new to the console gaming business. We get a lot of questions that make a ton of sense if you look at the generational way things have happened. Where it’s like I move from A to B, this is going to be more nuanced. Both consoles support 4K. In the case of Xbox One S, it’s got a 4K Blu-Ray player. It does 4K streaming, but it doesn’t have enough performance to drive 4K games. In the case of Xbox One X it has 4K Blu-Ray, 4K streaming, but it has enough performance to drive 4K games.”
AR: “Maybe I was confused that the Xbox One S was capable of doing upscaling for games…”
AP: “It does upscale!”
AR: “But not true or native 4K?”
AP: “…not native 4K games. To use the PC example, one of these has the killer, kick-ass high end graphics card, and one has the mid-range graphics card. So the settings on that one are not going to get turned up as high as the settings on the other one. Same games, same engine, same developer tools, same accessories, same [Xbox] Live, same Dashboard, everything’s the same – one 900p/1080p, the other 4K in terms of the game engine. I have to sort of talk about it in these obscure terms because every game is going to do something a little different.”
“You look at a game like [Rise of the] Tomb Raider that was 1080p/30fps, they’re going to have a native 4K mode, they’re going to have a 4K checkerboard enriched mode, and they’re going to have a 1080p/60fps mode.”
AR: “Are those going to be selectable options in the menu?”
AP: “Yes, and you can see all the differences and you don’t have to restart the game, you can do it in real time. You can actually switch back and forth. That’s why it’s unfortunate that up until now we’ve had to describe Xbox One X Enhanced in very broad terms.”
After Xbox’s E3 2017 Showcase I publicly commented that their messaging was confusing, even going as far as to score their press conference below Playstation and Nintendo. I confessed to Penello I was a bit lost in what they were trying to market.
AR: “Which games were Enhanced, which weren’t, what Enhanced means, and there were so many titles. It was a lot to parse!”
AP: “Yeah, we had developers saying we are totally committed, we are going to do something, we are signed up for Enhanced. We’re not sure what we’re going to do yet, but the good news is…we built the box to be able to deliver 4K games. The specs are not arbitrary. When we announced it at E3 2016 you remember there was a lot of skepticism about saying that’s not enough, or how do they know it’s going to get to 4K?”
“When we broke it with Digital Foundry what we went into was that we actually did tens of thousands of emulation runs on existing code, which has never been done before. You never do that in a console because you’re always on new tech. But we took the engines that existed and we said, ‘If you’re a 900p or 1080p title on Xbox One we want you in 4K on the new box.’ Every number in our box was derived from what it was taken to do that, and that’s why you’re hearing the stories from us and now from other, ‘I’m getting my game up and running in 4K.’”
“It was nice to see our theoretical tests actually pan out for real developers. But then what happens is the developers say, ‘Ok I got my game up and running in 4K. Is that what I want to do? Is that what I want to do with the power? Do I want to add a tons of effects? Do I want to add lighting? Do I want to add detail?’”
“That’s why at E3 we were not really able to tell you specifically it meant ‘always this.’ By the way we announced 30 [Xbox One X Enhanced games] at E3, we had 100 just a few weeks later, and there will be more by the time we launch. It’s making more sense as the games are able to say, ‘this is what we’re doing,’ like Tomb Raider for example.”
Penello’s explanation was beginning to pull Xbox’s previously fuzzy messaging into sharper focus, not unlike the images Xbox One X was shooting onto the screens in front of us. But we hadn’t yet directly touched on their #1 competition, the Playstation 4 Pro, or addressed consumer concerns about a new piece of hardware so early in the generation cycle.
AP: “For us, when we were envisioning Project Scorpio, I didn’t know about the [PS4] Pro. I had no idea what [Playstation] were doing. I thought it was super interesting we both kind of arrived at a similar idea, even if the execution was a little bit different. This idea that that like console generations are really super great for the industry, that people love it, it generates a lot of excitement, but really, it’s really disruptive. It’s hard on developers. It’s hard on customers. It’s hard on retailers. There always the, ‘Do I upgrade? Do I stay? Where are my friends? When are they coming? How many games are there?’”
“Of course we get through it otherwise we’d still be on the [Atari] 2600. But the whole idea was can we have all the excitement and energy of a console launch without the disruption? What would that actually mean? The best part, the reason I like to talk so much about it, is we asked ourselves a lot of these questions early on. Like, if we are going to do this we have to do it right and what does that mean? It means we had to shed a lot of traditional thinking about generations. We talk about it and it seems silly but like, the ports are all in the same location, the power cable is the same, and the reason is because people don’t like to get behind their TVs.
AR: “No it’s the worst!” (We both laugh.)
AP: “It is the worst! By the way it is a huge barrier, as it turns out, to upgrading stuff in your entertainment center. You can literally take an Xbox One X, everything is in the same spot, you pull the old one out, you turn it on and it works. We just announced the hard drive upgrade. Another thing we’ve experience is there’s a lot of ‘out of box’ time, a lot of updates, got to download my games. So we’re basically doing a backup and restore. In this new UI you can bulk transfer your games and transfer your settings. So when I unplug that hard drive and plug it in, I don’t have to re-download anything. I’ll take an update, I’ll sign in, done, console’s mine, and we’ll shave hours of the out of box experience.”
Xbox is also keenly aware the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X could be confusing for non-gaming parents, family, or friends trying to buy gaming gifts this holiday. Penello said their team made sure to consider this.
AP: “How do I make grandma not have to figure out what game to buy? No one should feel dumb in this transition. Buy a game that says Xbox One on it, and it doesn’t matter what console, it’s 100% compatible. Buy an accessory that says Xbox One, it’s going to work.”
“These were all questions we had to wrestle with which meant we had to shed a lot of traditional console generation thinking. But it also brings up questions like, ‘Do you want everyone to upgrade? Who is this for? Why should I buy it?’”
“Which are great questions, but it’s like, why do I have the phone with this size screen and you have the phone with that size screen? That’s what you wanted, there was something about that, that you wanted…it’s just choice.”
AR: “We get questions from listeners saying, ‘where is this new console at in the cycle, in the generation? Is the generation going to get shorter and shorter as we go along? Is this a half-step? Is it a full step?’ What should we tell them?”
AP: “It’s its own thing! It’s a new thing. That’s what I think is cool about it. If you step outside the console, people are faced with choice on literally everything in life. Why is there a 4 cylinder, a 6 cylinder, and an 8 cylinder if you’re a car guy? Why are there 2 washing machines? Why are there phones that are a different sizes? Most people figure out what their value is for what they want to spend. It’s only consoles that have lived in this very fixed, singular consumer electronics mode, and that’s why I don’t think it’s going to be as confusing for people as the industry is making it out to be. I think people will be able to figure out where they care about tech, where they are with price, and what is important to them with gaming. They’re going to be able to make a decision.”
“Our job was to then make it super simple after that, for games, for Xbox Live, and for upgrading.”
After listening to his pitch it was clear the Xbox One X is aiming to establish itself as the premiere console offering while bridging the gap between a traditional couch console experience and the power that a high-end PC gaming rig can offer. After playing several games on it, it’s clear they’ve hit the technical mark and brought the form factor and price into an attainable range.
What remains to be seen is what developers will do with this horsepower. While the games I saw, such as Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, looked amazing, Xbox’s content offering from dedicated first party studios still feels lacking during the X’s launch window. However, even without first party firing on all cylinders, the underlying technology and their partner title lineup looks convincing enough that it looks like I’ll be purchasing a 4K TV this November for my Xbox One X.
*You can hear extended impressions on several games played on the new hardware including Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Forza Motorsport 7, Cuphead, and the ever growing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in What’s Good Games podcast episodes 18 and 19.
Written by Andrea Rene