We may be over a year away from having Microsoft and Sony’s new console upgrades in our living rooms, but there’s been plenty of discussion from both sides about what Microsoft’s Project Scorpio and Sony’s PlayStation Neo will and won’t do.
And while some pundits out there might say it’s just too early to tell what the next set of systems will be capable of, if the current console generation has proven anything it’s that early details – even if eventually changed – are important in figuring out the final direction that platforms will ultimately take.
How systems are talked about pre-launch ultimately determine how many units will be sold once the console comes to store shelves. Need an example? Just look at Xbox One.
Microsoft started the conversation with always-online requirements and DRM that scared the public pantsless before backing away and re-evaluating what gamers really wanted from the next generation of systems, finally settling on Blu-ray and DVR support as the cornerstones of the new system.
Microsoft’s early missteps and policy changes put the Xbox One behind the PS4 in both hardware and retail performance, and have ultimately determined how the system has been seen by the public for its first few years of life.
So, while there’s little in the way of hard and fast specs out there, the next few months of platform prognostication and subsequently redrawn plans may give us a sneak peek at what this mid-generation console war will actually look like when Microsoft and Sony finally pull back the curtains.
Project Scorpio’s first steps
Let’s go back in time to June 10, 2013 to E3 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
That morning, Microsoft had the unenviable position of presenting its next generation of gaming before PlayStation. Microsoft didn’t do a bad job, exactly, but a high sticker price gave Sony the ability to react to the Xbox One’s shortcomings, winning that E3 and the subsequent two years for the PS4.
Microsoft’s biggest was its attempt to make the Xbox One a dedicated multimedia machine at the expense of prioritizing games, a mistake that still haunts the company.
Compare that day back in 2013 to the Project Scorpio reveal at this year’s E3, where the most “written in stone” specs of Scorpio were divulged.
Microsoft gave us a lengthy three-minute reveal that featured top developers and executives gushing about what Microsoft’s console upgrade was capable of: 4K gaming, a console capable of “high-fidelity VR,” and other impressive-sounding feats like “uncompressed pixels of the highest quality that anyone’s ever seen.”
Best of all, though, Microsoft learned from its mistakes with the Xbox One launch and focused on what gamers really wanted. At the heart of Scorpio, Xbox Chief Phil Spencer said, is a eight-core processing unit with 6 teraflops of power, which should make said feats viable.
At the heart of Scorpio is a eight-core processing unit with 6 teraflops of power
While Microsoft has remained firm in that Project Scorpio won’t hinder Xbox One game development and that games will be playable on both platforms (with VR-centric experiences likely the true Scorpio exclusives), there has been some debate about Scorpio’s usefulness for the majority of gamers who own 1080p HDTVs.
Spencer originally noted that the Scorpio’s power would only truly be viewable on 4K televisions (noting the new Xbox One S would be better for consumers with less-powerful HDTVs), but later noted to Giant Bomb that optimized framerates would be a benefit for folks just outside the cutting edge of TV.
The biggest mystery regarding Scorpio (which likely won’t be solved until 2017) is what kind of VR platform Microsoft’s system will utilize. Perhaps due to the company’s continued Kinect woes, many have prognosticated that the Scorpio will use already-developed VR technology in lieu of a Microsoft-made headset.
In an interview with Wired Spencer declared Microsoft is “not focused on a first-party VR hardware device,” instead noting that PC VR experiences could be brought “to the console space, to enable those magical experiences on Scorpio when it launches.”
With Bethesda’s Todd Howard noting that Fallout 4 will be able to play in VR on Scorpio “the way we want,” you can bet Scorpio will be a VR powerhouse, even if the technology is still nebulous.
That’s smart from the perspective of a company that has lost some pricey gambles with proprietary platforms in the past, while also hedging bets on the possibility of VR suffering the same short lifespan as motion control technology last decade, but there is the possibility that Microsoft is just putting up a smokescreen as an in-house VR technology is developed.
We’ll give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt here and assume they’re going to license a pre-existing technology such as the Oculus Rift, a product that comes pre-packaged with an Xbox One controller, or the HTC Vive. If it’s either of those, though, the downside is that Project Scorpio might not be the first platform in line for an exclusive game and will have to share a game library with the PC.
PlayStation Neo and the unknown
While an early September event may finally bring news of Neo’s specs (something corroborated with retailers noting redesigned PS4 consoles arriving in stores that would likely be announced alongside Neo features), Sony has held its cards much closer to the vest.
Sony, not keen on spoiling anything at E3 2016, only admitted to the Neo’s existence ahead of the conference and PlayStation executive Andrew House told the BBC that further details wouldn’t emerge until games showcasing the technology could be shown.
If Sony does choose to divulge information on the Neo on September 7, it will once again be in the position where they can play off the foible of its main competitor but, that said, the Neo isn’t quite in the position that the PS4 was in to trump several of the Xbox One’s shortcomings.
If Microsoft keeps making the right moves with the Scorpio – particularly the awe-inspiring revelation of 6 teraflops performance power – the Neo-Scorpio battle might be way more of an arms race than the lopsided PS4 vs Xbox One competition.
Does that mean the Neo is going to be less powerful than Project Scorpio? No, not necessarily. Historically speaking, you’d have to go back to 2001 and the release of the original Xbox to find the last time that Sony’s home console lagged behind the performance power of its competition.
Historically speaking, you’d have to go back to 2001 to find the last time that Sony’s home console lagged behind the performance power of its competition
The few details for the Neo have revealed that it’s in development for the same reasons as Scorpio: to showcase 4K gaming and the best-possible VR technology on home consoles.
It’s similarly toeing the line of improving upcoming software without rendering the current console obsolete, as Sony Worldwide Studios Chairman Shawn Layden said the Neo will present games “at a higher resolution, with an enhanced graphical experience” in comparison to the PlayStation 4.
Of course, that said, PlayStation VR is a tangible thing; it was demoed at E3 with software both exclusive and on other platforms, it has a release date and price, and it will be compatible with current PS4s. It’s one thing to make games that work comparably in 4K and 1080p, but showcasing how a new platform that’s more than a year away will improve imminently available tech and games is PlayStation’s own mystery.
Having its own proprietary VR platform might give Sony the edge in the new space, making it more appealing for developers to jump on-board with such a tightly controlled piece of hardware.
The flip side of that is if Microsoft does work with established technology that’s tied to PC gaming and those platforms get annual innovations, PlayStation VR could run the risk of falling behind the competition the same way that the PlayStation Eye and PlayStation Move did a few years back.
So, who’s ahead right now?
While a single press conference can dramatically shift this console war of words, based on what’s been spoken right now, Microsoft’s bold declaration of Project Scorpio’s powerful specs seem to indicate that it could have the edge in terms of pure performance.
On Sony’s side, however, its in-house VR platform does ensure exclusivity and the potential of a killer-app.
Outside of these two advantages, though, there’s still untold variables still yet to be breached like cost, configurations, bundles and increased integration with entertainment apps that have so far smartly kept to the background this time around.
One thing’s for sure – this next battle in the console wars is still far from won or lost on either side.
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