Xbox Chief Phil Spencer Talks Project Scorpio, VR, and Those Magical 6 Teraflops
At E3 this week, Microsoft is trying to change the way we think about game consoles. If you bought an Xbox 360 at launch, you spent a long time—eight years!—without any sort of graphical upgrade. That’s not the case this generation: If you want HDR-enhanced game graphics and 4K Blu-ray playback, you can buy the Xbox One S this year. You could also hold off until the 2017 holiday season in order to buy what’s currently code-named “Project Scorpio,” a more powerful version of the console that’s designed to melt your eyeballs with 4K gaming as well as high-end VR.
But what if you’re not ready to upgrade at all? Still fine, says the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer: “We’re going to have versions of those games that will work on Xbox One and Xbox One S, as well as supporting Scorpio.” Microsoft may be speeding up the console cycle, but it’s also making it okay to upgrade on your own time. WIRED spoke with Spencer following the Xbox E3 briefing on Monday afternoon to find out more about Xbox’s plans for Project Scorpio and beyond, and where VR fits into the picture.
While consoles have traditionally never chased the ever-iterating world of PC gaming, Scorpio is a step in that direction: Delivering 4K graphics, to match what high-end gaming PCs can already deliver, is the new box’s raison d’ere. After all, Spencer says, developers are usually building a PC version of any given game alongside the Xbox version—and increasingly, that means a 4K version. “When we started looking at Scorpio,” he says, “we asked the partners, ‘in order to build a true high-fidelity 4K game, what capabilities do you need?’ That’s what we designed Scorpio around. It’s kind of like a [GeForce GTX] 980 card on the PC. I get the capability that I need as a developer to deliver a high-fidelity 4K game. ”
Since developers are already used to creating PC games that run on machines with vastly different hardware specs, Spencer doesn’t anticipate that it will be an issue to get them to create Xbox games that run across differently-powered consoles. “The capability to build a game that actually takes advantage of different hardware capabilities is part of any third-party dev ecosystem, or anybody who’s targeting Windows and console at the same time,” he says.
But just because Microsoft is pushing ahead with a new console so soon doesn’t mean it plans to release them at a faster pace forever. “Consumer expectation is that, if you wanted to, you could go buy a new cell phone every year. I don’t want to get into that mode with a console,” Spencer says. “I see the next inflection point as 4K, and I want to make sure we have a console there to support that, and Scorpio will do that. We’re not on a hardware tick-tock that says I need to put out a console every two years or every one year to get people to upgrade. That’s not the console model.”
On stage at the Xbox briefing, Spencer called out VR as another big feature of Scorpio, but gave no details as to how you’d jump into virtual reality through your Xbox. (Bethesda’s creative director Todd Howard, however, did appear in a video to say that the VR version of Fallout 4 that his company is developing would come to Project Scorpio.)
“When we went out and talked to VR developers,” Spencer says, “the capability and the hardware spec that they need to deliver a console-like experience to VR was a requirement of 6 teraflops, which clearly, today’s consoles—PlayStation 4 and Xbox One—don’t have.” This is something of a shot across the bow at Xbox’s chief rival, whose forthcoming Playstation VR headset will work with its standard PlayStation 4.
Spencer maintains, though, that the VR experiences on today’s consoles won’t look as good as standard games. “The truth is, a console that can run a 2-D version of Doom or Fallout today, which a PS4 and Xbox One can, is not going to be able to do a stereoscopic, high-framerate version of those games,” he says. “We don’t want to force VR into a middle ground between the scale that we see in mobile, and what our customers [expect].” So even though future Xbox games will be compatible with all the Xbox One systems, the VR games will likely be Scorpio-exclusive.
“The best place for VR innovation is the PC,” Spencer says. “I think developers should still go focus on the PC, because I think that’s a great place to innovate. What we’re doing… is we’re able to take some of the PC innovation that we see… and bring it to the console space, to enable those magical experiences on Scorpio when it launches.”
But when you do play VR on Project Scorpio, what exactly will you be putting on your head? Spencer isn’t saying, but it won’t be made by Microsoft. “Right now we are not focused on a first-party VR hardware device,” he says. He didn’t call out any particular headset that might plug into Scorpio, but noted that Microsoft hoped to “enable many hardware manufacturers to make progress there.” So it might be a BYOHMD situation. Maybe you even already own your Xbox VR headset.
Ultimately, though, Spencer is hopeful that the old console paradigm, of always having to give up the old to move on with the new, is over. “Consoles created generations that effectively take your library back to zero; we’re trying to think beyond generations and say, how do you bring all the content that you purchased and love from this generation and move it forward with you?” he says. Microsoft has been working hard to make more and more Xbox 360 games backward compatible with Xbox One — Spencer calls out the 360-exclusive Japanese role-playing games Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey as his most-wanted games, and says the team is working on getting them running on Xbox One as we speak — and those backward compatible games, too, will work on Scorpio.
“I’ve talked about a desire to do the original Xbox backward compatibility,” he says—he’s wearing a shirt with the original Bill Gates-era Xbox logo on it. “We’re not working on that right now, but it’s theoretically very possible. On the CPU side, we could figure it out. I think people should have access to the games that they love,” he says. “I was an Atari Jaguar owner. Why can’t I play Tempest 2000 anymore?”