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Xbox One X: A hands-on analysis of Microsoft's powerful new console

Xbox One X, formerly known as the more astrologically-inclined Project Scorpio, is arriving on November 7 for $499, and Gamasutra got to spend some up-close time with the console.

Kris Graft is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra (@krisgraft).

Xbox One X, formerly known as the more astrologically-inclined Project Scorpio, is arriving on November 7 for $499, and Gamasutra got to spend some up-close and personal time with the console. Let’s take a look not only the console itself, but what it means for game developers in terms of making games and the game market itself.

The hardware

I saw the Xbox One X (a.k.a. the “X” or my preferred terminology “Xbonx”) in person at E3 2017 this summer, but going hands-on with it, I can say it’s a solid console, compact (and heavy), and quiet when playing games and movies on a Samsung QLED 4K TV.

It’s essentially a solid black block of a console, but I like how inconspicuous it is. Then again, I also liked the 1990s VCR look of the now-even-more-retro-sexy original Xbox One, so maybe I’ve got horrible taste in aesthetics. Your mileage may vary.

The main specs for the guts of the console have been known for a while but bear repeating: 12 GB of DDR5 RAM with 9 GB of that useable for games (Xbox One S has 5 GB of games-addressable memory), an 8-core CPU at 2.3 GHz, and an AMD GPU with 40 CUs running at 1172 MHz. There’s also a 4K UHD Blu-ray player, whose slot is nicely tucked away under the top half of the X.

The Xbox One X is how I like my coffee.

With the review unit sent to me by Microsoft, I found that the X’s 1 TB hard drive was eaten up really quickly, thanks to 4K textures and the fact that a lot of games these days are already enormous. Expect to see some raised eyebrows with regard to game sizes.

Considering that new X customers probably already own a couple Xbox One games that'll be upgraded and inflated on their hard drives, they'll be out of space quickly, and that's not great news when it comes to buying and downloading new games. External hard drives will be bought.

Every piece of the X is made to support its key marketing bullet points: 4K ultra HD games and movies, high dynamic range content, and cross-compatibility with other Xboxes and Xbox games. The X works with 1080p TVs and games look and run better on those, but to max out the X, you’ll need a 4K TV, a presumed near-term, market-wide screen upgrade that Microsoft is counting on.

As for the defining feature of the original Xbox One, Microsoft has given up on Kinect, and like the lower-tier Xbox One S, the camera requires an adapter to use. So expect to shell out extra money if you want to play Just Dance 2015 on your new $499 vapor-cooled console. (I am not disparaging Just Dance. I love Just Dance.)

The effect on game development

Over the past year-and-a-half we’ve talked to several senior Microsoft execs who’ve worked directly on the X. One of the main points we hit repeatedly was how this console will affect game developers’ processes, and how “easy” (or difficult) it would be to take an existing or in-development game to the X, and also to take advantage of the console’s features.

At this point in time, we can only go with what Microsoft game heads (and a few Microsoft game devs) repeatedly said – that bringing games to the X and taking advantage of its features is, well, easy (or at least as easy as anything in game development, which typically means ‘difficult,’ but we’re speaking in relative terms here, ok?).

People like Xbox boss Phil Spencer, Microsoft Windows and Xbox VP Mike Ybarra, and Xbox software engineering exec Kareem Choudhry have all told us, with somewhat tempered enthusiasm, that the X is much like making games for the original Xbox One, except you’ve got more power, more memory, the same dev environment as Xbox One, and the tools to support you.

The handsome young Xbox One X dev kit with all its old grotesque Xbox dev kit siblings.

Again, that’s their words, not mine, but just judging by the hardware specs themselves, and conversations with Xbox folks, Microsoft made the X with developers in mind, using game dev feedback as a reference. As Microsoft has told us on a few occasions, developers can still just make a plain ol’ Xbox One game, and it'll work fine on the X.

As Choudhry put it in an interview, “You can just write to the original set of [Xbox One] requirements that we have today, and then we'll do the work to make sure that it actually runs better. But [developers] don't have to do any custom work for Scorpio."

"We're just inviting people to come in and take advantage of it. In terms of requirements if they do decide to take advantage of it, we want that content to run, at minimum the same as but ideally better than it does on the original Xbox One.”

Xbox boss Spencer, who until a few years ago was VP of studios at Microsoft working closely with developers actively shipping games, told us earlier this year that he and the hardware team went straight to Microsoft’s game dev teams for initial feedback on what devs wanted out of new hardware (e.g. dumping Xbox One's ESRAM in favor of X's 12 GB of DDR5 RAM; taking steps to reduce iteration time). The X was the eventual result.

Essentially the Xbox line is about to morph into a more PC-like hardware environment. Games are made for one kind of platform, but are scalable across a couple different versions of that platform. And relating to that, developers already making PC games with 4K textures and HDR features, so bringing those performance-intensive games to the X seems a natural move.

And while these much-flaunted graphical marketing points are often associated with big triple-A games, there are also games made by smaller teams that can (and are going to) take advantage of these visual perks.

It’s also notable that the retail Xbox One X can be converted into a dev kit, though it won’t be quite as powerful as the dev kit issued directly by Microsoft.

Make sure to check out our in-depth exclusive on the X’s dev kit.

Game performance

Microsoft apparently gives developers choices in how they allow players to access Xbox One X enhanced features. Games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins gives players the option to tweak HDR levels. Gears of War 4 gives players a choice between two modes: “Visuals” and “Performance” – the former with a focus on all the graphical bells and whistles, the latter with a priority on framerate. Some enhanced games give you no flexibility on graphical options – they’re just automatically enhanced with no indication in the menus.

It’s interesting to see game developers get that kind of flexibility in offering players options when it comes to performance, particularly on consoles. So as the development environment mimics PCs, so does the user experience, in a way that’s more user-friendly than PC.

I won’t be doing any framerate or resolution analyses here, comparing Xbox One to Xbox One X versions of a game. But yes, there is a notable difference and games look markedly prettier on Xbox One X. 4K textures look great, and the HDR makes everything pop.

You can almost feel the beard against your eyeballs.

As of this writing, one game that I’m really looking forward to checking out, Forza Motorsport 7, did not have the Xbox One X enhancements, but I expect that’ll be a showpiece once it gets its X update (it already looks great). Gears of War 4, Assassin’s Creed: Origins were some standouts for me among the initial enhanced games that I was able to try out (and believe it or not, Minecraft's Super Duper Graphics Pack looked great on the X at E3). Microsoft said in August that it expects over 100 enhanced games will be heading to the X.

One thing that should be noted for consumers taking interest in this console: the Xbox One X isn’t a machine that’ll play absolutely everything in stunning 4K, HDR, and at 60 fps simultaneously for every single enhanced game, at least here at launch.

Something’s gotta give, and even though this is a powerful console, the enhanced games it runs likewise are more resource-intensive. Some games do and will be able to run at 60 fps in 4K with all the graphical enhancements; some won't. The X isn’t going to match the performance of a (much more expensive) high-end game PC, but for $499, players shouldn’t expect it to.

Market impact

It still takes some getting used to, the idea of mid-generational updates for home consoles. We've seen  console "refreshes" in the past, though they were mostly cosmetic. On the surface, the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X upgrades are more akin to a new PC graphics card than a "slim" version of an existing console or a traditional console generation re-do.

But, unless you want to be ultra-risky with your hardware like Nintendo, drastically changing up hardware at arbitrary points in the future, the way forward for Microsoft and Sony are these mid-gen iterations that essentially follow the trends of the TV and PC markets.

Certainly by now, the console business has noticed in the past decade or so the squeeze of the law of diminishing returns when it comes to releasing new consoles. There’s little benefit in hitting reset on yet another generation of hardware.

Now it’s all about growing the audience you have by not damning games to obsolescence with a generational shift, and giving game devs stability in terms of hardware and tools for more than a handful of years. The audience and the games are what bring profit, and to have hardware work against those components is antithetical to the financial goals of Microsoft.

So what kind of impact will the Xbox One X have on the market? At $499, it’s going to be for the more hardcore types, just like the $399 PS4 Pro, at least at this price point. Microsoft said it expects the Xbox One S, which sells for $279, to sell more than the X, a sensible and obvious expectation. Near-term, there will be little market impact from the X (we haven’t even talked about competition from Nintendo Switch either, but to some extent, there is that).

There are no pie in the sky sales goals for Microsoft, at least off the bat. This console is about future-proofing the Xbox as a platform, and the market will decide its success or failure as a platform. For now, the Xbox One X is the best, and perhaps the only option Microsoft has if it wants to gain more traction in the years ahead and remain competitive.

The X is an attractive, powerful little console, with a premium price. The fact that it's more expensive than the PS4 Pro puts it at a disadvantage, but on paper it is a more powerful console, for what that's worth. From everything we've seen and heard leading up to the launch next week, the console was made with developers in mind from the start. 

The X's release won't drastically move the needle in terms of software sales right away, and I don't think anyone is assuming it will. For game developers, the main point is that Microsoft is actively trying not to rock the boat too much with this console in terms of dev processes, and is working to expand and extend the current Xbox platform – and the stability that comes with it – as far into the future as possible. That’s a good thing.

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