The Xbox One X is (probably) not the console you’re looking for

by | Sep 3, 2017 | Feature

The Xbox One X is (probably) not the console you’re looking for

by | Sep 3, 2017

Microsoft’s high-powered console offers a next gen price without the next gen experience.


It’s been four years since Microsoft released the Xbox One, and one year since the slimmed down and refined Xbox One S. Now, the significantly more powerful Xbox One X is on the horizon. It runs the same games as any other Xbox One, but developers can utilize its extra resources to pump their games out at 4K resolution or up the visual fidelity as they see fit. It is not, therefore, a new console generation — but at $500, it is certainly priced like one. This is a problem.

The time between console generations is increasing

The original Xbox saw just four years of service before the introduction of the Xbox 360. (I had to double-check the dates because it felt longer — but I was much younger then.) The 360 had a grander dynasty, spanning eight years from 2005 until the Xbox One finally arrived in 2013. The Xbox 360 saw me graduate from college, move four times, get married, and get divorced. The iPhone was invented and went through five iterations in that same period. Eight years is an eternity in the world of tech, but for gaming consoles, this is likely the new norm.

The problem with waiting so long between generations is that console gamers, particularly early adopters, get antsy. They see the advancements being made every year on the PC side with better graphics, fasters frame rates, and higher resolutions. If you’ve been living with an Xbox One since it launched, you’re ready for an upgrade.

But developing, releasing, and marketing a next generation console is not the same as releasing a new PC with beefed-up specifications. A brand new console isn’t just a piece of a hardware; it’s an entire ecosystem. Backwards compatibility, for example, is not a given in the console world (it took two years for it to come to the Xbox One, and it’s still not compatible with every 360 game; the PlayStation 4 lacks the feature entirely).

Along with each new console comes a redesigned controller and often other accessories. Ushering in a new generation means convincing gamers to make a hard switch, to buy both new hardware and new software.

However, even with initially high prices, manufacturers lose money on each console sold, and this remains true of the Xbox One X. A longer generation lifespan allows manufacturers more time to recoup losses and turn a profit through game and accessory sales, which have much better margins.

This also benefits gamers, as costs fall over time and more and more players are able to buy into new systems, increasing the size of the player base. In turn, this makes the ecosystem more profitable, and therefore more attractive, for game developers. Developers also benefit from long generation times as it allows them to focus their efforts on a single piece of hardware, rather than designing for the hundreds of different spec sheets that exist in the PC world.

But eight years is still a long time to wait for new hardware.

Eight years is a long time to wait for new hardware.

So how do you tide gamers over?

The Xbox One X, I think, is an attempt to bridge the long gap between the beginning and end of this generation, while giving gamers a little bit of the best of both worlds: a more powerful console and full compatibility with existing accessories and games. It also allows developers to keep doing what they were already doing, with the option of optimizing their games for the Xbox One X.

But make no mistake: the Xbox One X is about money. I think it’s fair to assume that the research and development budget for the X was far less than what it would have been for an entirely new console, so while Microsoft may still lose money on each sale, it is likely much less than they would have on a next generation machine — and probably less than they did on the Xbox One, originally. If it draws in a few PS4 owners, it will also boost software sales.

This seems like a good way to keep the system relevant as it ages and, at least in theory, I wouldn’t be against this kind of practice. I’d prefer some sort of upgradeable console over an outright new box, but the basic idea of an incremental upgrade in the middle of a generation cycle is appealing.

The problem with the Xbox One X is that Microsoft put all the focus on achieving 4K resolution, a thing that most people won’t even notice in normal conditions. Furthermore, 4K TV sales still lag behind 1080p sets, so people who even have the technical capability to display 4K content are in a minority.

To be fair, I do think resolution is more important to gaming than it is to passive entertainment like watching Blu-rays or Netflix. Personally, I sit much closer to my TV when I play games, and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who is that way. Even so, I have never noticed a lack of detail that was the result of limited pixel density. Far more often, the detail simply isn’t there — in the textures, polygon counts, and what have you.

Games render objects at different levels of detail depending on how far away they are (and other conditions, such as the number of characters on screen, amount of effects going off at once, etc.). This makes sense, and is an intelligent way to use a console’s limited resources. But it’s also responsible for a much more noticeable difference in detail than the jump from 1080p to 4K. Halo 3 on the Xbox 360 was infamous for having far-off objects — including characters — vanish completely past a certain distance. Halo 5 on the Xbox One has a similar problem, with character animations dropping to a much slower frame rate when a few meters away from the player, even in multiplayer. 4K would not fix these issues.

If you’ve ever been struck by the difference in image quality between an “in-engine” cinematic and actual gameplay, then you know there is plenty of room to fit more detail into 1080p. I’d much prefer developers focus on this. While Microsoft has said developers are free to use the processing power of the Xbox One X as they see fit, programming your game to run in two different resolutions is probably the path of least resistance to earning the coveted “Xbox One X Enhanced” badge.

Detail aside, the thing that would really benefit gamers is higher frame rates, but this, too, may not be something the X can handle. While it is nearly six times as powerful as the standard Xbox One, the vast majority of that power is in the GPU. That means CPU-intensive tasks, from network code to physics to AI, won’t see as much of a benefit. If frame rate is constrained by these factors, it is unlikely the X will be able to double a 30fps game to 60fps. This is the same reason that Bungie is on record saying the PlayStation 4 Pro won’t run Destiny 2 at 60fps.

 

If manufacturers truly want to entice gamers into a mid-cycle upgrade, then they should focus on a box that brings tangible benefits to every player, and price it for what it is: an upgrade, not a new generation.

I’d still be okay with all of this, except for the price

If I had to pay an extra $100 for the privilege of 4K, that would be one thing. (I still wouldn’t, as I don’t own a 4K TV.) But at $500, the Xbox One X is asking me to pay next generation prices without giving me a next generation experience. Yes, I can keep using my same games and controllers, but that’s not really what I want in a $500 console. I want the ability to play an entirely new type of game, the way the Xbox gave us Halo or the PlayStation 3 gave us The Last of Us.

The Xbox One X gives us what we already know, just with more pixels. For some, maybe that’s enough. For the rest of us, it looks like we’ll be waiting another four years. If manufacturers truly want to entice gamers into a mid-cycle upgrade, then they should focus on a box that brings tangible benefits to every player, and price it for what it is: an upgrade, not a new generation.