Analysing E3 2016: Microsoft – If you can’t win, change the rules

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E3 2016 Analysis: Electronic Arts | Bethesda | Microsoft | Ubisoft | Sony

Microsoft has been attempting to shift the focus of this generation’s console war for 12 months now, from refusing the release hardware sales figures to the launch of the Universal Windows Platform, Windows 10 Xbox App and Store, and launching previously Xbox exclusive games such as Quantum Break and Forza Motorsport 6 on PC. At E3 2016 The Xbox One and all associated with it simply became Xbox, a platform that encompasses console, PC and mobile.

Following the Microsoft presentation, gamers already in possession of a beefy PC will be wondering why they should purchase an Xbox One at all, or why they already have one. In moving to a constantly evolving, incremental hardware platform Microsoft is effectively conceding the Xbox One-PS4 battle to Sony, a decision it would feel perfectly comfortable with following the Sony press conference hours later. That battle is lost and to keep fighting would be foolish, now the best they can hope for is to be better prepared for the next fight.

Not that the Xbox One is cooked just yet. The upcoming games lineup Microsoft presented is strong, it is just you won’t exclusively need an Xbox One to play any of them. Sea of Thieves continues to intrigue, people seem ready for a new Gears of War, an Australian based Forza Horizon 3 has me ludicrously excited and even a subpar demonstration of Scalebound hasn’t dampened me on that one too much. The games are still coming, but they are also coming to Windows 10. 

For those still inclined to consoles the Xbox One S is a perfectly fine slim model and rumoured to offer a slight performance boost on the original Xbox One, but it will remain a tough sell with new hardware on the horizon for holiday 2017. For PC owners there is little excuse for jumping into the Xbox console game now, perhaps Project Scorpio will provide a performance boost that their PC cannot match but again, that is 18 months away and until that time your PC will also be hosting all of these Xbox One “exclusives”.

Project Scorpio scares me. Incremental hardware updates are an unknown to consoles and undoubtedly there will be growing pains. Microsoft promised several times to “leave no gamer behind” but whether that means more than continued backwards compatibility and the long overdue death of console specific peripherals remains to be seen. I don’t fear being left behind so much as I fear a slowdown in technical advancement. When will Microsoft let developers create Scorpio exclusive games? When will developers deem it worthwhile to do so? What will Scorpio exclusive features look like before then?

The modern drivers for increased hardware performance are 4K graphics and virtual reality, two technologies that have not proven themselves one way or another. Virtual reality appears here to stay but even in 18 months time it is unlikely the hardware is at an accessible price and thus games will not be much more beyond proof of concept novelties or shoehorned into existing first person games. 4K is such a huge jump in both performance and development costs to support that kind of fidelity that it too feels years away from the mainstream: I bought a 4K TV six months ago but have yet to find any content for it beyond the built-in demonstrations.

Without exclusive games and considering the steep outlays required for virtual reality, what will Project Scorpio offer that makes it an irresistible purchase? What will it do to change the huge lead Sony has in sales, mindshare and goodwill? What is the point of changing the narrative that Sony has the more powerful hardware if the benefits of that performance cannot be truly harnessed for several years? Microsoft could be playing the long, long game here but even a marathon is tough to win when spotting your competitors a mile head start.

It is probably too early for such negativity towards Microsoft’s new direction but it clearly wanted to get out in front of Sony with this hardware announcement, with Sony confirming they wouldn’t be talking Neo at E3 Microsoft had a free kick on the hardware front. An announcement simply isn’t enough. Microsoft wanted to put the knife into Sony and twist with Scorpio but so far its stab hasn’t even drawn blood.