Last week, Microsoft canceled the Xbox One X and the Xbox One S Digital Edition. It also declared its intent to keep the Xbox One S in-market as a low-end, entry-level product for the next generation of hardware. It’s an interesting decision and it could potentially signal a shift in how Microsoft approaches console generations.
Historically, we’ve seen a specific pattern play out during console transitions. At first, games ship for both systems simultaneously. In the beginning, the cross-generational ports are pretty good. As focus shifts to the new platform, however, the quality gap between older and newer games begins to widen.
By the time the last-generation console is ready to retire, it’s clear that its games have become second citizens as far as getting developer attention. Oftentimes, it’s not so much that the games couldn’t run on the last-gen console, but that getting it to run smoothly and well would require considerable tweaking. The number of titles in development for last-gen consoles tends to be strong for the first year, drops off considerably in the second, and is a fraction of its original size by the third.
I think the Xbox One is likely to follow this pattern as well, but with a few twists and turns in the process. By explicitly keeping the Xbox One in the product stack, Microsoft is telling developers to plan to optimize for three different platforms and two console generations. The fact that both are x86 CPUs with AMD GPUs will cut down on a lot of cross-platform headaches, but the fact remains that the older system uses a different and much less powerful CPU, combined with an older GCN architecture rather than newer RDNA2.
Nonetheless, there’s no ignoring the fact that the original Xbox is built with either a decent low-end GPU or a low-end mid-range GPU, depending on how you want to split the difference. It lacks the fast storage of later platforms and it lacks the horsepower. Eventually, Microsoft is going to want to put the console out to pasture.
I suspect that when this time comes, Microsoft will either cut the price of Lockhart and Anaconda while introducing a new top-end Xbox Series X, or it’ll keep prices on those platforms the same but introduce a low-cost console on the same hardware generation as the Xbox Series X. The goal of keeping the old platform alive for a few years more, I think, is to entice more people into buying into the overall Xbox ecosystem by emphasizing how the company provides robust support for older platforms without price gouging you mercilessly on game titles if you want to upgrade. Instead of having to buy your favorite games twice, the ones delivered by Smart Delivery will give you the updated assets for free.
This may not sound like much in the PC world, where upgrading your hardware has always improved performance and visual quality in games. There are old titles you couldn’t play at top-notch detail when they were new that will now play at those settings on integrated GPUs. World of Warcraft Classic, for example, runs just beautifully on the Surface Laptop 3’s integrated Intel solution, even at high resolution. The most popular old titles often have extensive texture upgrade options, allowing you to breathe new life into old, dated titles. Fair point.
But for consoles, this kind of backward and forwards compatibility is a very new thing. Before Microsoft’s big push to enable emulation in the Xbox One, backward compatibility was a hit and miss (mostly miss) affair.
Microsoft could theoretically keep the Xbox One S around for a few more years, before introducing a cut-down version of Lockhart with, say, 2 TFLOPs of CPU horsepower and the same 8-core CPU for $200 – $250. The improvements over the Xbox One S would still be enormous — TFLOPs are a lousy metric for getting a feel for that sort of thing — and the console wouldn’t break the bank. Once Microsoft has the full Xbox Series X production line up and running, they’ll have more leeway to pursue other follow-up projects.
There’s one other way in this strategy makes good sense. Every time a console generation launches, customers reshuffle their purchasing strategy. Last generation, the Xbox 360 and PS3 nearly tied each other, with the PS3 ahead by about 87 million units compared to 85 for Xbox. This time, the battle has been a blowout, with Sony’s PS4 claiming a far larger slice of the console pie. There are many console gamers who will tell you they don’t have much brand loyalty.
By explicitly emphasizing the forward compatibility of the Xbox One, Microsoft is telling its existing customers that they have a future path into the Xbox Series X ecosystem. Sony apparently has its own backward compatibility plan, but we don’t know as much about it, and it’ll only apply to PS4 and the PS5. Microsoft content going back to the original Xbox.
If Microsoft can win significant support for platforms like Smart Delivery, it’ll have a genuine advantage over Sony. Considering how badly Microsoft was beaten this console generation, they’re obviously hoping to reverse that trend.