12 min read

Q&A: How Microsoft is pitching the Xbox One X to devs (and consumers)

Microsoft’s senior director of product management and planning for Xbox, Albert Penello, told Gamasutra about how the company is positioning the Xbox One X hardware to both developers and consumers.

With Microsoft’s focus on the Xbox One X at E3, Gamasutra has been performing a series of interviews on the system.

Following a discussion with Microsoft's corporate vice president for Xbox and the Windows game platforms Mike Ybarra on Friday about the “how” of porting games to Xbox One X and competition with Windows as a platform, today we talk to Microsoft’s senior director of product management and planning for Xbox Albert Penello, asking about the way the company is positioning the hardware to both developers and consumers.

What’s the pitch to developers for Xbox One X?

Penello: When we announced Project Scorpio last year, we talked about building this console. What people didn’t know is we were actually building two consoles [in one]. We were building the one for our customers, but we were also building a bespoke unit specifically for developers, which we had a nice article with Gamasutra on a few months back.

I think the developer was as much in mind in how we built this machine as the consumer was. Because we knew we were introducing a new concept of doing a mid-generation console leap in performance, which hadn’t been done before—at least, when we were conceiving of it we didn’t know of the PS4 Pro. We needed to figure out how to make that process really easy for developers.

So from the get-go we knew that we wanted to be able to take the existing engines that they were working on on Xbox One and get those engines up and running in 4K. And we knew we wanted the high resolution textures and assets that they were building for 4K PCs and give them a place to run in the living room.

I think the pitch is actually quite easy for developers, particularly ones that are making games on PC, which is: If you built an Xbox One game, the code, your dev tools, your systems, your profiling tools, everything you’ve done for Xbox One is going to work immediately out of the box. 

I think the number of 4K televisions is going to grow exponentially in the next couple of years. I think it’s a great developer story that the effort and energy that you’re putting into 4K on the PC is going to have even more customers available on console now with Xbox One X. So I think it’s a great pitch: Really easy to develop for. Those 4K assets now can leave the monitor and go to the TV. And we’ve seen developers getting games up and running in hours. We’re hearing stories of two hours to get it up and running. 

Obviously you have your big studios who are prepped to go 4K. But there’s a wide spectrum of developers, right? You’re not just talking about AAA, there’s also your mid-size developers and then you go all the way down to your tiny indies. What is going to make those developers say that they want to get involved in this mid-generation leap over and above the 4K aspect?

"Developers like power. They’ll find other ways to use that power."

Well, sure. I mean, I think this industry, if you go back to the Atari 2600, more power always enables more creativity. So certainly a developer like the Ori guys are going to choose to use HDR and lighting effects and frame rate and use that performance in ways that makes sense for their artistic vision.

So they’re going to find interesting ways to use it even if resolution isn’t necessarily the thing that’s going to drive their artistry. Developers like power. They’ll find other ways to use that power. That’s what’s exciting about building a canvas like this platform.

The mindset is developers are going to make things for Xbox One X, but they’re also going to make sure that what they’re making is compatible with the previous generation… can you call the Xbox One a previous generation?

Ori and the Will of the Wisps debuted at E3 last week

I think in the console business it’s hard because that’s worked a certain way. So everybody’s mindset is locked into this generational concept. The fact is, if you step out: phones, PCs, all kinds of technology these days just evolve and customers are used to having multiple performance levels at different price points.

I mean the PC is the most scalable platform in the world. So to go from one spec to two specs in this day and age for a developer, is a lot easier for them to comprehend than, I think, people who follow the console business.

Of course, they’re already building their engines to scale to dual 1080 SLI core i7 overclocked processors from Intel integrated graphics chips. They already have to figure out how to make their game engines work. So the idea to go from an Xbox One S to an Xbox One X is very easy. And, again, we focused on making that super simple for them from a development perspective.

How are you making sure that developers want to make that leap? Because the price point, $499, is a big jump up from Xbox One S. When I only have so many resources available to me, am I that bothered about making the jump when there’s still a big Xbox user base already?

"If developers were only incentivized by install base, we never would get out of a generation. The previous generation is always the largest install base."

Oh yeah, totally. 100%. And I mean, again, it goes back to ease.  When you talk about install base, if developers were only incentivized by install base, we never would get out of a generation. The previous generation is always the largest install base.

But again, even though the install base for integrated graphics is significantly higher than the install base for high-end PC graphics cards, developers still push the envelope there. So it comes down to ease of use.

Assets are already built because they’ve already built 4K stuff on PC. We’ve made it super easy to take that engine and get those textures and assets there. So I don’t think we have to incentivize them. I think we’ve made it easy. I think the assets exists; I think they’re going to want to take advantage of the power. 

So let’s take a step back and take a look at the consumer then. We’re talking 4K, but it’s hard to see what the value proposition is exactly if I haven’t already made that leap. How do you see this user base of the Xbox One X growing, and what’s going to bring those consumers into buying into a 4K television? 

"If you look at the projections, they’re saying that something like 60& to 80% of TVs sold this year are going to be 4K sets."

Well, I think we can agree, over the next few years 4K is going to start to take over. Just like from SD to HD there’s always an inflection point. I think it kind of started really last year. If you look at any of the projections for TVs, they’re saying something like 60-80% of TVs sold this year are going to be 4K sets.

Of course, there are hundreds of millions of households and it takes a long time for that to come over. But I think we can agree, in the next few years 4K is going to dominate.

So if you’re thinking that’s going to happen and you have to make a console choice right now, and you’re like, “Hey, I don’t have one today, but I’m planning on getting one,” you’re going to want to invest in an Xbox One X because you know you’re sort of future proof. You know the console’s there when the TV comes.

And we have been very thoughtful about making the 1080p experience on an Xbox One X really good. We have a faster hard drive so that games will load faster. We’re doing anisotropic filtering in hardware so that older Xbox One games that exist on the market will get better texture filtering. Games that run at dynamic resolution or dynamic frame rate will run at their max res and framerate on an Xbox One X. And we have supersampling by default so games that are rendered in 4K get super sampled down to 1080p.

And if you haven’t seen, there’s some great YouTube videos on supersampling. A 4K super sampled image at 1080p looks better than a native 1080p image. So if you have a 1080p TV there’s a laundry list of reasons why an Xbox One X is a great console. And if you’re planning on getting a 4K TV it’s almost like a no brainer. 

Are there any other unique aspects of Xbox One X that you’re offering support and tools and things for developers to be able to utilize best?

Again, we didn’t want to split the user base. The more different they are, the more we go back to your early point about having to do specific work. In fact, an interesting thing is happening, people ask this question, “Is Xbox One X held back by the One S or vice-versa?” And in fact, the tweaks you make to your engine, every tool improvement that we make to development makes Xbox One S and Xbox One X development better. Every tweak you make to your engine to get a little bit more performance out of your engine makes your Xbox One S engine better.

So, no, in fact, actually the strategy is quite the opposite. The strategy is to grow our tools to make our development environment better to make our profiling tools better so that that work benefits both consoles. In fact, if you talk to Turn 10, they’ll say that the tweaks that they made on Xbox One X allowed them to get dynamic weather back into Xbox One S. So they are very much a strategy of making one great development environment and really just separating the devices by performance.

Dynamic weather in Forza Motorsport 7

So, is this is how the cycle is going to work? We’re going to move forward piece by piece and eventually the older pieces will fall away? Do you still imagine there’ll be another generational leap?

"It’s hard when a console transitions and you lose your library. Maybe you wanted to show your kids. Maybe your buddies are getting together from college and you wanted to reminisce and play those old games. We respect the content."

It’s hard to predict the future because technology changes so fast. Phil [Spencer, Xbox chief] talked on stage a lot about original Xbox backwards compatibility. That’s a 16-year-old system, but there are great games on that system. And we care a lot. I’ve been in the games business for a long time. Phil’s been in the games business for even longer and we care about your library of games.

It’s hard when a console transitions and you have to lose that library. Maybe you want to bring your kids through it. Maybe your buddies are getting together from college and you want to reminisce and play those old games. We respect the content.

And I think one of the things that the PC has done well for 40 years is that there’s a thread of compatibility—and sometimes things fall away, but for the most part you can go back and play really old PC games on a modern PC.

So I like that idea. I like that concept and I think it’s one of the things we do a lot with Play Anywhere, and backwards compatibility is preserving and respecting the content, making sure your library goes with you.

We’re in a position at Microsoft with our backwards compatibility team and the way we architect our systems to try and bring those things into the future. So I don’t know exactly what the world’s going to bring. I think we’ll always embrace state of the art hardware tech, but I think that thread of compatibility is something that we believe really strongly in.

Would Xbox ever just put something out exclusively on Xbox One X to show what that does on its own terms?

No. Because we’ve said, they [Xbox One and Xbox One X] are the same system. That is a question that I completely understand why a customer would ask, but if you go talk to developers they will say, “It doesn’t make sense.” It is one system.

That is like saying, “Would a developer ever make a game that only runs on a 1080 Ti?” Well, no I wouldn’t do it. Forget marketshare, it just—it’s a PC. It works on all of them, why would I do that?

The reason I ask that question is because developers might look to Xbox to position the Xbox One X in a way that makes consumers transition to it—to lead the way.

"We are going to sell more Xbox One S units than we will sell Xbox One X units."

We’re going to give them choice. We are going to sell more Xbox One S units than we will sell Xbox One X units. There are lots of customers that are having their first 13th birthday, that are just going to get their first console.

There’s a lot of people who aren’t going to make the leap to 4K, or they’re on a budget and they want to just play games. And we have an unbelievably good console in the Xbox One S.

I’m not trying to get people to move off of the Xbox One S and onto Xbox One X. I’m trying to offer choice. I think there’s a great value on the Xbox One S and I think for the people that care, that want the best platform where the best versions of games are going to be, that’s going to be Xbox One X. And then for the developer, our job is to take away all the difficulty in harnessing the power of those two systems so I can continue to make my Xbox One engine great and tap that power in Xbox One X very easily.

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