Microsoft this week announced not just one but two new consoles in development. The firm unveiled the Xbox One S — a 4K-compatible, slimmed-down version of the Xbox One that's coming in August. But at the same time, the company also announced the Xbox One S's successor, a souped-up console called Project Scorpio that supports both 4K gaming and high-quality virtual reality, slated for the holidays in 2017.
All of this raises a critical question: Why would anyone who knows a better Xbox is coming out later buy an Xbox One S this August?
I asked Dave McCarthy, general manager of Xbox Services, that question — well, not quite so bluntly.
While not that informative on its face, McCarthy's answer hinted at a shift in the way consoles are developed and marketed. "That's hard to answer," he said. "Different people have different things that may appeal to them." Microsoft's watchword heading into the releases of its consoles, he said, is "choice."
The Xbox One S may be good for people who are on the fence or those looking to upgrade from the Xbox 360. Anyone who's fine with being a little behind the bleeding edge (and who will appreciate a more budget-friendly option -- the price being at $300 rather than $350) might opt for the new console. Those more interested in powerful gaming will have to decide whether to upgrade to the Scorpio to replace consoles they might have bought just three years ago.
Choice is no revolutionary concept in the wider consumer tech world, but it would actually be kind of a big deal in the console market.
It used to be that companies dictated the full rhythm of when gamers bought consoles. Every five to seven years, the big hardware firms would come down from on high with new consoles and say, "Thou shalt all buy a new machine." You picked your allegiance — Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo — and were set for the next several years.
With the advent of the Xbox One S coming just three years after its predecessor, Microsoft's Project Scorpio coming a year after that, and the mysterious but definitely forthcoming PlayStation Neo, it seems times are a-changin' — and may be cutting the old cycle in half. Some say this points to a more smartphone-like cycle for consoles — though, maybe not every year.
McCarthy said that, while he's not sure that the firm will keep up quite the pace it's setting at this E3, the firm is starting to realize that consumer demand and technological advances are accelerating. As this mode of entertainment takes on new forms — mobile, virtual reality, augmented reality, streaming, social, multiplayer — consoles may have to become more iterative, less revolutionary and more responsive to trends. Companies can't just sit on their hands and build a super-console every few years anymore. If PCs can already support virtual-reality headsets, for example, then console makers will have to answer. And fast.
This is particularly crucial for Microsoft which needed something fresh to help make up ground against Sony, which got an early lead in sales in the last generation of consoles.
"But it's a risky proposition," cautioned Ben Howard, vice president of programming for GameSpot. "They [Microsoft and Sony] could alienate people who spent money on the previous consoles by bringing out another so soon."
Keep in mind, too, that Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo aren't just competing with each other. They're also competing with a host of products from Apple, Amazon, Google and more that are trying to make all-in-one entertainment machines, such as the Apple TV.
Sure, gaming consoles may be on a far end of a spectrum of devices, but the cheaper, less powerful entertainment boxes have all touted a certain amount of casual gaming as a selling point.
"Hopefully, this shows that they can compete on the price — maybe even go below $200," Howard said. That, he said, would definitely help make the newer, more frequent consoles hold their own against an onslaught of competitors. "They're all competing for eyeballs," he said.
It could be a rocky transition to the new release pace. It may not work at all, really, as people continue to predict the death of the console as PC gaming sees a resurgence and mobile gaming continues to grow like crazy. Microsoft is hedging its bets a bit, too, pouring a lot of investment into making sure that PC games work on the Xbox and vice versa. Microsoft even built its Cortana voice assistant — a main feature of Windows 10 — into the new Xbox software.
But it is clear that if consoles are going to survive and thrive, they have to shake things up a bit.