Microsoft continues to blur the line between generations.
In a recent interview with MCV UK, Xbox Game Studios head Matt Booty revealed that, for the first few years at least, all first party games (at the very least) will be coming to Xbox One and Xbox Series X alike – meaning that Microsoft’s next generation efforts will be available to play on their current generation console too. This is in line with a lot of initiatives and efforts by Microsoft: their attempts to blur discrete console generations, and go for a rolling, continuous platform (similar to PCs, tablets, and smartphones); their emphasis on backward compatibility; and the recent attempts by Microsoft to ensure that their platform isn’t orphaned when newer iterations are introduced. It even seems to tie in well with the recent rumors that Microsoft will have a lower specced version of their next gen machine (which appears to be closer to the current generation than the next-gen consoles, in terms of raw hardware grunt).
The gist of this, then, is that your Xbox One X (or One S) will play not only Halo Infinite, but also every other first party game Microsoft releases for the next couple of years. Which means that you might not need to spend the hypothetical $500 on the Series X or even $300 on the Lockhart (if it exists, and whatever it ends up being called) to play Fable 4 or Hellblade 2 – you might be able to play it on your current Xbox. Those games won’t look or play anywhere near as great as they will on the Series X (or, I presume, the Lockhart model, which may be less powerful, but will have more modern and capable hardware), but you can still play them.
This is a very dramatic break from how things have been done in the console market in the past. While some cross-generation games have always existed – Breath of the Wild launched on Switch and Wii U simultaneously, and the first few years of this generation were marked by a slew of cross-gen games. But especially for first parties, this is not how things have been done. When you have a new console, as a platform holder, your job is to sell that new console, which is an investment going into the hundreds of dollars. The best, the only, way to do that is to have great games that compel an upgrade to that hardware. If you want to play Super Mario Odyssey, you need to buy a Switch. If you want to play Bloodborne, you need to buy a PS4. If you want to play the next Forza game, you… can play it on your current Xbox?
From one perspective, this sounds like Microsoft is making an egregious mistake, one that will cause the Xbox Series X to not sell as much as it would be able to were games exclusive to it. And you know what, that might actually be the case. At least some people who would have bought a Series X at launch to play Halo Infinite won’t, because they have their Xbox One X that can play it perfectly fine. But there are two questions here: a) why does that matter to us? And b) does that matter to Microsoft?
As far as a) goes, it doesn’t matter to us. How many units Microsoft sells is its business. Our primary concern is the content on the platform, and Halo Infinite coming out on Xbox One does not stop it from having a Series X version as well. Any person who is actually arguing on this merit against this move is not arguing in good faith, because they are literally arguing against their own self-interest as a consumer. They are arguing as a fanboy, for fanboy talking points.
But let’s try to approach this from Microsoft’s perspective. As a corporate entity driven by revenues and profits, they too must act in self-interest, primarily trying to earn money. So why are they willing to not sell more units of Series X? Are they suddenly acting out of the goodness of their heart?
To understand Microsoft’s moves, one must approach them not from the traditional mindset of a console manufacturer, but from the mindset of a computer industry services provider, which, remember, is ultimately what Microsoft is (who just happen to have a gaming platform too). Microsoft wants more people to buy into the Xbox platform – they don’t care if it’s the Xbox One or the Series X, they just want more people to buy an Xbox. Microsoft wants people to subscribe to Game Pass. They don’t care if they do it on Series X, Xbox One, or PC, as long as they do it. And Microsoft wants Halo Infinite to sell, a lot. Ideally, it would be the Series X version that sells the most, but in the end, if it sells 16 million across Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows 10, rather than 4 million on just Series X, to Microsoft, the former is preferable.
For Microsoft, this is also a great way to foster confidence in ongoing support in their platforms. If you know that your 2019 purchase of the Xbox One S All Digital Edition is being honored with new content through to 2023 (as an example), you’re far likelier to want to stay with Microsoft’s consoles than if just the year after you bought your console, it couldn’t play any new games.
One meaningful argument against Microsoft’s decision to have a rolling, continuous platform like this, however – the only meaningful argument against it, I would wager – is that having a lower baseline for development holds games back. After all, if Fable 4 has to run on a One S (which was underpowered hardware even in 2013, let alone now in 2020) too, then there’s a limit to how much its design can be truly “next gen”, right?
This type of argument, however, betrays ignorance of how modern game development works. The rise of standardized hardware (remember, there is very little actual difference between Xbox, PlayStation, and PC in terms of the hardware inside them), along with scaling middleware engines such as Unreal, and the popularity of mobile games and Switch, has led to scalability of games. Essentially, you can build a great, stunning, next-gen game that can also run on lower-end hardware. This is something we have always seen on PC – just because something runs on a low end PC does not mean that it is any less impressive on higher end machines, running on maxed settings. As an example, Sea of Thieves has a 540p mode for extremely low end PCs. That does not stop it from being one of the prettiest looking games of the generation, when running on Xbox One X. The Witcher 3 is heralded as a benchmark for the current generation, and yet it can also run on the Nintendo Switch, which is functionally equivalent to a last-gen console. The existence of the Switch version does not suddenly mean it is impossible for the game to look next gen as all heck on a high end PC or Xbox One X in 4K – it just means that there is a graphically compromised version on lower end hardware, should you want it.
And in the end, that’s all that Microsoft’s decision spells. For those of you who are willing to take the graphical and performance hit on Forza and Fable, you can continue to play them on your Xbox One S without any issue. But the ideal, optimal way to play them will be on a high end PC or the Xbox Series X, and if you want that, you will upgrade.
It’s a radical new shift in the paradigm that has pervaded the games industry for the last four decades, that is for sure, and I am very interested in seeing how it ends up going. But I will say this, those of you who think it’s a bad move? You’re not thinking straight (and are also probably the same people who argued against the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X when they were originally leaked). Times change. It’s acceptable for business strategies to change, too.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.