Today, Microsoft revealed the final specs for Project Scorpio, the planned upgrade to the Xbox One releasing this holiday. The numbers outline a system that outperforms the PlayStation 4 Pro and actually ends up ahead of previous speculation. When it releases, Xbox Project Scorpio will be the most powerful home console by a good margin.
The problem is you need more than power to come from behind in a console generation. Microsoft still has an uphill battle just to reach parity with Sony's PlayStation 4 platform. Let's look at why.
Games, Games, Games
Yeah, this may shock you, but a game console needs games in order to succeed. This remains Microsoft's biggest problem area and the slate of upcoming exclusives isn't looking too hot. For 2017, the company has already released Halo Wars 2 and it still has Crackdown 3, Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, and the Phantom Dust re-release scheduled for potential release. Beyond that, Microsoft has also picked up a few indies, like Cuphead, Below, Tacoma, and Pit People.
The issue is interested players can pick up many of those on PC. Second of all, that's not a list that inspires any real confidence. There's also little indication that Microsoft's first- and second-party studios will be able to deliver anything stunning when E3 rolls around.
343 Industries is all Halo, all the time, but Halo 5: Guardians didn't set the world of fire when it released, instead coming in as a safe update of the formula. Even if Halo 6 is coming this year, I'm not seeing an excessive amount of hype for it. The Coalition did Gears of War 4 last year, so they need time to build something new, even if it's just a Gears sequel. Rare is working on Sea of Thieves. Turn 10 Studios will probably offer Forza Motorsport 7 this year given the franchise release cadence.
Microsoft lacks the studios to offer much new beyond that. Their major studios are stuck propping up the major pillars of the Xbox platform and the death of studios like Lionhead means there's little space for the company to potentially innovate on first-party AAA. And some of the hopeful releases in the Xbox One slate have been delayed (Crackdown, Below) or outright cancelled (Scalebound, Fable Legends, Phantom Dust).
I wrote about this way back in 2015, but on the games side Microsoft is losing to Sony in a major way. Largely because they've ceded Japan, but also because Sony has room to let its studios breath a bit. This year has kicked off Nioh, Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier Automata, and Persona 5, all exclusive to PlayStation 4. Only two those are from Sony directly, but being able to lean on Japanese partners means Sony doesn't need to fill out its schedule all by itself. On its own, Sony still has Gran Turismo Sport, WipEout Omega Collection, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Spider-Man, Days Gone, and God of War.
Even Nintendo, whose overall game lineup could use some polishing, has The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on shelves, with Splatoon 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and Super Mario Odyssey in the pipeline. Microsoft is woefully behind right now.
The Lack of Compelling Need For a 4K Console
In our interview with Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter, he confirmed that Project Scorpio probably won't be cheap.
"Well, it's going to be more expensive than Pro. That much is obvious," Leadbetter told me. "The physical size of the chip - pretty much the most expensive single component - is larger, meaning it costs more. The extra four gigs of RAM will add to the cost, as will the UHD Blu-ray drive. The hard drive is pricier, the cooling assembly too. I wasn't told anything about price, but reclaiming performance leadership in the console sector with the ambition Microsoft is showing isn't going to come for free."
Even if we peg the system at $449 at the minimum - and $499 is more likely - that puts the Scorpio above the $399 asking price for the PlayStation 4 Pro. I already think the Pro is an edge case of a purchase, because the spot between "casual console player" and "enthusiast who owns a high-end PC" is a niche. I like the Pro, but I don't see it as a system for everyone, and the same is true of Scorpio. There's a very specific user for it: player who owns a 4K TV and has a good deal of disposable income.
PlayStation 4 already has the market lead with 53.4 million consoles sold, while Microsoft has stopped giving Xbox One sales numbers completely. A SuperData Research report on the Nintendo Switch estimates the Xbox One market at half of the PS4's, coming in at around 26 million systems.
So if you're one of the few who is going to pick up a Pro or a Scorpio in 2017 and 2018, which one do you pick up? I have a hard time seeing the average consumer deciding to pick up the more expensive system with a smaller game library. If you're already in the PS4 ecosystem, the choice is already made, you'll go for PS4 Pro. Sure, the Scorpio's graphics might be the business, but that deep caring about image quality is the purview of a specific type of user. The need for these upgraded consoles is already slight, but Pro has the edge here.
It'd be one thing if the Project Scorpio and the PlayStation 4 Pro were the beginning of this generation, but they're not. Microsoft is working against entrenched consumer perception, a lack of foundation in Japan, and a smaller install base. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on Project Scorpio and the enhanced games, but I'm just one guy and my preferences don't reflect those of the larger audience. And that's who's going to judge Project Scorpio when it releases this year.
We'll see what Microsoft offers this year at E3.