“We’ve worked on this since 2012, and we finally get to talk about it… I tell people to take a step back and think about this E3: what a moment, you don’t release new consoles, the most powerful console ever, that often. We’re releasing significant hardware. It’s Christmas for me.”
Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Xbox and Windows gaming, Mike Ybarra, is obviously pretty happy that he gets to talk shop about his baby, Project Scorpio, the new Xbox One X.
Hardware changes throughout the development life cycle of a console fundamentally change over the years before it’s finally released. Ybarra can talk broadly about that process, and the fact that it’s not easy: “[It happens] fairly often; if you create something for the future, you’re going pretty wide. You push your engineering schedule as far as you can until you have to make choices.
“What kind of GPU do we need? How much RAM do we need — what will developers want? What special optimisation do we need to do to get performance? It’s always hard, and the hardest part of engineering is deciding when to stop. We have a world-class engineering organisation that I’m incredibly proud of; they’re machines.”
Making the Xbox One X smaller — the smallest Xbox ever, and definitely small overall considering the amount of power it has been a challenge, but one that had an actual reason for being. “It’s funny; we started out to make this box, we challenged the hardware team to make a box that’s true 4K — that’s more than 8 million pixels on the screen, that’s high dynamic range, that’s spatial audio, all of that together — with a faster hard drive and more memory.
“And I said ‘I want it smaller than anything we’ve made before.’ The power management system and also the cooling, we leveraged, and we worked with the Windows server team — who are usually a few years ahead of consumer — to see what we could pull in.”
“Because some people put it behind a closed door in the living room, but most people have it sitting out; hardcore gamers, they love looking at that box, so it’s sitting out there. And we wanted to have something that was very premium, when you touch and feel this it shows the craftsmanship. That was really the goal behind that, and we hit it. It’s awesome to see that… and next time we’ll go even smaller.”
The Xbox One X looks identical to the previous iteration, and there’s a rationale behind that, even if it’s a disappointing one for anyone looking for something new and flashy. “For us, compatibility was one of the pillars of what we wanted to deliver. So from a design standpoint, of course our designers are like ‘give me free will, I want to create the most crazy thing in the world!’, and I love that too, but compatibility was super important.
“This is a family of products that runs all the same games, all the same hardware, all the same components that plug into your TV. So even when you see the back of the Xbox One X, those things are laid out exactly the way it is on the Xbox One S. It’s so important to consumers that told us — I may not be ready for X, but I love my S. When I want to upgrade, all this needs to come with me. So we made that a pillar.”
But Ybarra definitely thinks that the One X is a console for buyers that want the best from their gaming machine, whether it’s a PC or a console or anything in between on that spectrum. “It’s for the gamer that wants the best experience that they can get. They want the latest technology, they want 4K in the living room, and you see these games that look phenomenal — so it’s a gamer that wants the technology that can do that for them.”
The same kind of customer, Mike agrees, might also have a 4K gaming PC, but wants an experience on a larger TV. Those customers might want familiar peripherals, too — keyboard and mouse Keyboard and mouse is coming to Xbox, but there’s still no precise timeframe for that. “We have data that shows a good portion of our players play in a two-foot scenario, using a computer monitor because of the latency of TVs.
“And we’re going to listen to customers and make sure developers have the choices they want. For example, in a highly competitive game, you probably don’t want a keyboard and mouse player playing against a controller player. Or maybe you’re so good with either that you don’t care. We have to be mindful how we do this. It’s something that I personally would love to see happen.”
Cross-platform play is one of those things that keeps traditionalist PC gamers away from consoles — you always have an insular group of friends that play the same games as you, and that rarely crosses platforms. That’s going to stay the case for a while longer, with competitive games at least. “From a network standpoint, we’d love to see a single game played no matter what glass you’re on. We think about the games, not the platform. Minecraft is one of those — I can invite you on your Switch, we can be playing, that is true freedom.
“I apply that same same logic to PC and console, and we just have to be smart about things like input. For the competitive gamer, you and I will be like, there’s a lot of what ifs here. From a latency standpoint, from an input standpoint, an FOV standpoint; we’ve gotta go look at that and make that sense. At a broad sense, I think you’re almost there. Look at Minecraft.
“There’s two categories we have to be super mindful of, and as platform holders we have to make sure we know about those and talk to core gamers to be mindful of that. But the vision we have, or at least I have, is I don’t care what device you’re on — those games can, through the power of the cloud, with synchronisation, you can play on any platform you want, anyone you want, anywhere you want.”
Mike Ybarra is a massive PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds fan, too, and was instrumental in bringing that title to the Xbox One in the near future. “When Phil [Spencer] alluded on stage to a lot of Team Xbox playing [PUBG]… he’s talking about me. I’m addicted to that game. I broadcast it nearly every night, and I felt, like, it’s a hit.
If there’s one game that Ybarra clearly wants more than any other on the Xbox, it’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. “I went to [Phil] and said ‘look, we’ve gotta call Brendan [Greene, creator of the game], because this game is hot. I can’t even stop, I’m at E3 and I’m having withdrawals because I’m not playing PUBG, that’s how bad it is. We have to choose which games to go big on, and for me, PUBG is [one of those] — what a creative, what an awesome game. Bringing that to the console’s going to be awesome.”
Ybarra clearly doesn’t have any trouble keeping himself hyped, despite the fact he’s had an Xbox One X at home for a while, and there’s been a constant drip-feed of info about the console for the last year. “It’s hard — as engineers, we create something, and there comes a moment where you’re like, gamers are going to like this — and we want to talk about it earlier! But we have great PR people who build this strategy, and we’ve done it many times, and we’re trained.
“I love it when leaks don’t happen, so the story gets told a different way, or it gets confusing — but it’s not easy. I’ve been using One X for months, and I’ve always want to tweet out ‘Hey, look what I’m doing!'”
The one thing Ybarra does have trouble with is remembering the new console’s name, after stumbling once on ‘Xbox One X’: “It’s not something you get used to overnight. It’s been Scorpio for five years”.
Gizmodo travelled to E3 as a guest of Xbox.