Phil Spencer, the worldwide head of Xbox at Microsoft, has some big plans. Some of them, like the Xbox One X’s name, didn’t come together until halfway through this year. Some of them have been cooking since the original Xbox was launched over 15 years ago.
The team at Xbox is unashamedly using the term true 4K as they talk about the new One X. Not just a 4K resolution for its display output, but 4K rendering at a rock solid 60 frames per second, for the devs that want it. With immersive audio, and HDR, and a wide colour gamut. “The fundamental thing that we designed this console to be capable of was a native 4K frame buffer, to render at the frame rate that the developer wanted to render at. Whether it’s 60 frames per second like you see in Forza Motorsport 7 or 30 frames that other games will go choose.
“We know devs will make other choices like checkerboarding and we’ll support all that, but at the base level we wanted to have a 4K native buffer. But you’re also bringing up things like HDR support; we think HDR’s incredibly important, things like wide colour gamut to make sure people make use of the full colour that’s there.
“Even things like Dolby Atmos, while maybe not 4K in the way that you see it but in the way you experience the game itself — you get a sense of how things look and how things sound, and that contributes to the complete experience. But we designed Xbox One X to really deliver true 4K gaming across all aspects.”
I call Phil out on the fact that once or twice during our interview so far, he’s mentioned the Scorpio name unconsciously while talking about the console he’s been overseeing the development of for several years — long before it was publicly teased at E3 last year. It’s understandable. But when did the new name get locked in?
“Probably about a month and a half ago? We knew Scorpio couldn’t be the name. You can’t get a trademark for Scorpio. And while it seems like it’s in the vernacular now, in three years when this thing is on the shelves, you’re going to be like ‘Scorpio? What’s that?’
“Now, everybody has it in their head because we announced last year and that’s what it is. I love the passion around Scorpio, and how fans have embraced that — and I want to memorialise that somehow as we go through to launch, and we’ll make sure we find a way to go do that. We always knew we were going to get a name, we actually didn’t know what it was yet — we went through some choices.
“‘There’s no greater power than the power of X’ was a core motto back on the original Xbox, so the X thing kinda fit; I’m from our OG Xbox and Xbox 360, so maybe I live in the past too much. But I think of gaming as something where we have past, present and future. We’re always in the present in the future, and sometimes we forget about the past — I don’t know how many times I see a great game announced and the first piece of mail is ‘when’s the sequel’? We should appreciate, support, and applaud [the past].
“So I liked bringing X into the name because it’s a nod back to the original founders and how we built the original Xbox. But also, making sure that it fit in the family of consoles, with the One S. And we’ll sell more Ses than we do Xes, no doubt about that, but the person that plays a lot is looking for the best experience, and we wanted to deliver that.”
The name itself was actually decided on back in around January, Phil goes on to say. Approval processes, trademark checks, due diligence, all of that. It’s not as simple as just ticking one off from a list. “We just went through renaming [Microsoft’s livestreaming platform,] Beam to Mixer — and we’ve said, it’s because we can’t get the worldwide rights for Beam. And we get it — gaming is a worldwide service.”
As a nod to the past that Phil Spencer is fond of, backwards compatibility for original Xbox titles is one of Microsoft’s big hooks for E3 this year. Crimson Skies, a much-loved title from the OG Xbox, will be playable on all Xbox platforms in the near future. The announcement had a great reception. But was it necessary, in this time where everyone has their eyes on the latest and greatest and what’s coming next?
“I don’t think we had to do it. I don’t think we had to do 360 back compat. Other platforms have chosen not to, and it’s not like they’re failing. I do think it’s important. At the launch of the Xbox One, we made this pitch around the digital capabilities of the platform, but we didn’t respect the digital content you’d purchased from us on 360.
“There was this end where we said ‘you should buy into this always-connected, always-on box where the rights live in the cloud’, but everything you purchased from us — sorry, that’s not going to… and that always felt wrong to me. And I advocated for 360 back compat at the launch of Xbox One, because you have to respect where you’ve come from.
“But when I look at Xbox One X, there are going to be a lot of people buying it that have already bought an S, or an Xbox One. I want to make the commitment that the games you’ve purchased from us, they’re going to run on this box, and they’re going to run better “So 360 back compat, same way — I love the fact that running 360 games on your S, and soon your X, is the definitive way to play them. They play better on the newest consoles.”
Spencer lets slip that, on an upcoming broadcast of The Daily Show in the US, they’ll be showing off an original Xbox hardwired to an Xbox 360, hardwired to an Xbox One S, hardwired to an Xbox One S — all playing Crimson Skies through System Link.
“We’re seeing the same thing with the original Xbox — we showed Crimson [Skies], and Crimson runs great. I will be honest, it was easier doing OG Xbox because you’re going from an x86 chip to an x86 chip; the disc was a little more work because the format is different. We’re not going to get to do as many original games, just because some of those developers and publishers just don’t exist any more.”
“With things like Game Pass, maybe there’s an opportunity for those games to find a new audience. There’s not too many copies of Crimson Skies on disc still out there. Something like Game Pass, where you’re paying $US10 a month and getting access to 100 games, if there were some original Xbox games in there, people would check them out. We see that when Red Dead came to 360 backwards compatibility.”
The Enhanced For Xbox One X program is Microsoft’s other big hook for existing Xbox owners and fans of existing franchises, too. Five games were announced during the Xbox E3 event — Gears of War 4, Killer Instinct, Minecraft, Forza Horizon 3 and Halo Wars 2 — but dozens more are on the way. It’s another way that Phil Spencer sees as both rewarding existing gamers and giving new buyers a reason to jump straight to Scorpio.
“The strategy is not to immediately flip all the S customers to X. Even from a business perspective, we don’t make money selling the hardware itself — so if I get you to go from an S to an X, it’s not like somehow the business gets better. The business is getting a console that you’re comfortable with. And what I know that for people that play games casually — it’s part of their life, but it’s not this whole thing that they go do — then S is a great console.
“There’s a lot of people who play a lot of hours of games, who want the very premium experience, and I want make sure I have a console I know is going to catch a lot of their gameplay time. I want them to say, look, this is the best version of all the games, on Xbox One X.
“The real proof point for me on whether it’s working was the developer feedback we’ve received. Some of it’s even come out on the show floor, where devs have talked about how quickly they’ve been able to get a native 4K version of their game onto Xbox One X, and how they’ve used the headroom above that to do even more.
“When we’re looking long term, you look at [EA and Bioware exec] Patrick Söderlund up on stage introducing Anthem, which looks so good, really good. It’s important to see that — to see developers finding interesting things about the platform that they can bring to life in their games.”
How does it feel to have the brand new Xbox One X announced — a name locked in, a price locked in, a huge swathe of games and exclusives confirmed — but with a full five months still until the console itself is launched? “E3 always happens at this great time to really check your ability to launch — whether you’re coming in the fall [in the US, spring in Australia] or early in the next year.
“Because we have to say: can we make a level, or a demo, that feels like what we want the whole game to look like, since the whole game’s probably not done at this point? In a way, us getting ready for the Xbox One X unveiling and launch is kinda similar.
“We wanted to have a bunch of games playable here, that are on dev kits, and people can get a feel for what a 4K — true 4K — game feels like, we want to make sure is the ID ready — can you hit the button and it turns on, and so on. I’ve had one of these at home for a month and a half that I’ve been using as my primary console and it’s fine, so we know and we feel pretty good about it.
“But we still have to finish. It’s the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, however you think about it, and it motivates the team. You see the energy in the arena. It’s totally motivating.”
Gizmodo travelled to E3 as a guest of Xbox.