The gap between computers and consoles has been narrowing for decades, and now Xbox Director Phil Spencer wants to eliminate it entirely. Microsoft is already taking steps to unify its Xbox One and Windows 10 experience, through features like streaming games over networks and cross-buying ability. However, upgrading the hardware is something else entirely.
However, it appears that Spencer was referring to updated hardware. “We see on other platforms, whether it’s mobile or PC, that you get continuous innovation that you rarely see on the console.” Polygon reports Spencer as saying. “The consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you outgrow the generation for about seven years, while other ecosystems get better, faster and stronger. And then you wait for the next big step function.
“When you look at the console space, I think we’ll see more hardware innovation in the console space than we’ve ever seen,” Spencer said. “Actually, you will see us come out with a new hardware capability for a generation that allows the same games to run with backward and forward compatibility because we have a Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus each and more hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.
A new console paradigm?
Before we move to the software side, let’s talk about the long-term trends in console development. The truth is that the gap between consoles and PC has been narrowing, little by little, since the Nintendo NES was released in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s, consoles adopted CD-ROM technology and DVD-ROM, even if they used custom discs and encoding schemes. Microsoft’s Xbox was the first mainstream console to use an Intel CPU and an Nvidia GPU; both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 made built-in storage standard, even if Microsoft technically sold a disk-only option. The PlayStation 3 could run Linux, until Sony patched it.
Today, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are PC in all but name. They depend on basic x86 hardware and consumer graphics cards. They’re built around low-level APIs that have a lot in common with their PC siblings like AMD’s Vulkan, DX12, and Mantle. This is a bit more obvious with the Xbox One, which literally runs a version of Windows, but there’s nothing on a hardware level stopping the PS4 from doing that as well.
The Xbox One and PS4 are PCs with highly integrated SoCs and custom operating system and software support, combined with some unique bits of hardware. That’s. From a hardware perspective, there is nothing to stop Microsoft or Sony from creating a similar ecosystem around these devices, with each iteration of the product being a superset of the previous hardware.
It’s easy to imagine what this would be like. A hypothetical Xbox Two could offer 8GB of DDR4-3200 (if Microsoft wanted to go the lower cost route) or 8GB of HBM2. The GPU could be improved substantially, from its current 768 shader cores to 1,536 or more. A 14nm node transition would facilitate AMD’s Jaguar redesign for higher clocks, putting the new chip in the 2-2.5GHz range. Fix the core’s half-speed L2 cache and boom – you’ve got a substantially faster Xbox Two built on cutting-edge 14nm tech that’s still perfectly backward compatible with the XBox One.
What about the software and sales?
Historically, this has been the main stumbling block. Conventional wisdom says that console games are as fast and competitive as they are thanks to extensive optimization for a single hardware SKU. If developers have to target multiple SKUs for optimization, the idea is that those benefits would be lost.
It is not clear if this continues. First of all, the previous consoles were completely different in each and every generation. A studio that had specialized in game design for the PlayStation 2 had to start from scratch when the PS3 shipped. If Microsoft followed an iterative update policy, there would be no need for an industry-wide reboot every 5-8 years. Backward compatibility would be ensured thanks to a combination of software engineering and intrinsic hardware capability.
The other major argument against console updates is the fact that add-ons for existing consoles tend to sell poorly or ship with too few titles. Both the Kinect and PlayStation Move fell into this trap, as did numerous peripherals from previous generations. At best, console plug-ins become niche products with added appeal in specific titles. At worst, they’re overpriced and overrated doorsteps with all the game-enhancing power of a dead manatee.
Again, however, one of the reasons developers never focused on these half steps in bulk is because they have almost always been a half-measure to extend the performance of a platform that needs updating, or a gimmick. that would work fine. on a handful of titles, at best.
With the Xbox One already standardized on Windows 10 and the DX12 API, Microsoft could define a feature level to match each version of the Xbox, with corresponding resolution, frame rate, and quality goals. While this would leave developers targeting more than one platform, it would be much simpler than today’s PC ecosystem.
One could argue that this trend towards a regular update cycle started with the PS3 and Xbox 360. Consoles have always evolved over time, but prior to the last generation, those evolutions were subtle and tended to focus on smaller form factors. Xbox 360 and PS3, by contrast, evolved significantly between launch and retirement.
Another advantage of this model would be the ability to respond more quickly to changes in consumer demand. A traditional console launch is an extremely heavy lift. Microsoft invests years of work on release lines, content creation, hardware design, marketing, partnerships, and long-term software support.
A quick update cycle would give Microsoft the flexibility to iterate through virtual reality, augmented reality, or any emerging consumer technology without asking developers to invest huge resources in hardware that they know has little staying power. Instead of building cutting-edge hardware every 5-8 years, Microsoft and Sony could repeat solid (but not outrageous) technological advancements every 2-3 years. Offer gamers guaranteed backward compatibility for both peripherals and software, and I think the fast-iterating consoles could be a win for everyone involved. If Microsoft is serious about this plan, it would explain why AMD is rumored to be already working on next-gen designs for a possible 2018 release date.
My colleague Grant Brunner is not as optimistic about this possibility as I am. He sets out his reasoning in a different article published this morning. What is your position on the concept of upgradeable consoles?