Albert Penello leads planning for Xbox, which means he's heavily involved when Microsoft works out what it's going to do next in video game land. It also means he keeps a keen eye on the competition - and right now that competition is Sony's recently-announced PS4 Pro and slim.
Microsoft, with its own recently-released Xbox One S and the upcoming Project Scorpio, is ramping up its comeback after the original Xbox One suffered in comparison to the rampant original PS4. After Sony confirmed neither the PS4 slim nor the PS4 Pro play 4K Blu-rays, Xbox was quick to point out that Xbox One S does.
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And after Bethesda came out with a strongly-worded statement pointing the finger at Sony for the lack of mod support on the PS4 version of Fallout 4, Xbox took to social media again to stress that the Xbox One version of Fallout 4 does.
That's not all. After Sony revealed its hand at the PlayStation Meeting event in early September, Microsoft responded by issuing a note to press that highlighted some of the key differences between the new PS4s and the new Xbox One consoles. Chief among them: neither the PS4 slim or the PS4 Pro play 4K Blu-ray discs.
"At Xbox, our goal is to put gamers at the centre of everything we do. The new hardware available now and next year was designed with that in mind to give gamers a choice in how they play," Microsoft said.
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"Starting at £249, Xbox One S is the only console available today with built-in 4K Blu-ray - a value price compared to 4K Blu-ray players. It also offers 4K video streaming plus HDR for video and gaming."
Microsoft continued by hammering home the point that Project Scorpio will out-muscle PS4 Pro.
"Launching holiday 2017, Project Scorpio is the next member of the Xbox One family and will be the most powerful console ever created with 6TFLOPS capable of delivering true 4K gaming," Microsoft said. By contrast, PS4 Pro offers 4.2TFLOPS of power.
What's clear is that Microsoft is now up for the fight after a bruising few years, and at a time when Sony's PS4 strategy has, perhaps for the first time, come under fire. But the challenge facing Microsoft when it comes to the console business is great indeed. Yes, Xbox One S plays 4K Blu-rays, but the more powerful PS4 Pro will soon be available, and it won't be much more expensive. Yes, Project Scorpio will outmuscle PS4 Pro, but it launches a year after its competitor while on the face of it offering a fundamentally similar gaming experience. And yes, Project Scorpio guarantees a true, native 4K video games, but won't it always be more expensive than PS4 Pro?
It's in this context that I spoke with Microsoft's Albert Penello on the phone to eke out insight into Xbox's strategy. There was much he was unable to discuss, but there a few nuggets in here. It seems fair to assume Project Scorpio will indeed play 4K Blu-rays, and it sounds like the experience it will provide is already available on PC with the likes of Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4. For more on that and other things Xbox, read on.
It's been interesting to see Microsoft's social media response to Sony's announcements around PS4 Pro and the slim, especially on Twitter. Is this the start of a more bullish, aggressive Microsoft?
Albert Penello: There's definitely a certain amount of like, we've got a product to sell, they've got a product to sell, so we're going to highlight the things we think make our product advantaged over their product. But that to me feels different to the historical Sega does what Nintendon't kind of head-on jabs that have happened in the past. I don't feel like that's Phil. Phil and his nature and the nature of Xbox right now hasn't really changed. But clearly people are seeing something in it. I don't think it's anybody's intent. Clearly, you and I are going to talk about Sony and us and why I think our product is better than their product. But it doesn't came with a disrespect for what they're doing.
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You might argue that the timing of doing that felt a little bit more contention, but the holidays are coming up, advertising is going to start kicking in, television is going to start kicking in, media is going to start kicking in, and of course we're going to talk about the things in our product we think are differentiated. But I don't believe it signals any sort of change in the nature of how we're going to compete.
The lack of the 4K Blu-ray player in the PS4 Pro was a big deal for many people. Is it safe to say Project Scorpio will have a 4K Blu-ray player as a point of difference?
Albert Penello: We haven't announced anything specifically on that. You could assume that would be our intent, but we don't have anything specific on that.
The lack of the 4K Blu-ray player in the PS4 Pro sparked an interesting debate about whether one is really needed in a video game console. Is a 4K Blu-ray player really that important?
Albert Penello: Microsoft's point of view on this is, the story is told in the product we're shipping. We had to make those decisions long ago. So it's funny how much people think we act or react to what Sony's doing. But this decision was locked a long time ago. And it largely was driven on two things: one, a personal belief in 4K. This will be an interesting that the next time you and I chat we can continue to have. We don't sign up for every media format change. There has been a lot of SmartTV stuff and 3D, and they didn't really set the world on fire. I really believe in 4K and HDR. I have one myself. I thought I was going to regret it. I think it's as meaningful an upgrade as it was going from SD to HD, when you start seeing the native 4K content. And so we were just really bullish on it.
We wanted to make sure we delivered when we said 4K, that we had streaming, up-scaling and physical media as part of the 4K story for Xbox One S. So I think it's fair to say I'm a fan.
The other thing, when you look around the world, not everybody's at the same state when it comes to digital. You could argue they're probably not at the same state when it comes to 4K either. But I still think there's room for physical. For the high-end enthusiast, 4K Blu-rays look amazing. And there are still going to be places in the world that won't get that streaming because of their internet connections, but might have access to physical.
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So yeah, I'm glad we made the decision. I'm a fan of 4K, thinking globally. And we have good differentiation between the PS4 slim and us.
The PS4 Pro doesn't have a 4K Blu-ray drive, but it's only $50 more than the 1TB Xbox One S. From a consumer perspective, if we're looking at what console to buy this Christmas, isn't it an easy choice to go with the machine that's so much more powerful?
Albert Penello: Look, there are a lot of things customers are going to have to think about. Certainly the PS4 Pro is a good machine. It's got a good spec. What's interesting is, when you think about wanting to buy the most powerful thing, you know that something more powerful than that is coming next year. It is.
The debate could go either way. I'm not trying to say anything to salt Sony's plans. But I feel like the holiday shopper wanting to buy a console for Christmas, a $299, 500GB Xbox One S with all of the 4K stuff, showing off their new 4K TV is pretty good value.
The guys who want to do this mid-generation upgrade, you're going to get something significantly more powerful next year. It's really just going to depend on the individual customer, because I can see a case to be made for both arguments.
Scorpio obviously will have a more powerful spec, but won't PS4 Pro always be cheaper? Scorpio has a bigger processor, more RAM, potentially a 4K Blu-ray drive - that can't be cheap. I get the sense it's already being billed as a premium product. Won't you run up against a tough comparison next year when Scorpio is more expensive than PS Pro?
Albert Penello: Well, we haven't announced the price yet, so we'll see.
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Sure, but the expectation is PS4 Pro will be cheaper than Scorpio, right?
Albert Penello: It will be an interesting discussion next time we chat!
Well if you guys come out at the same price or cheaper, that would be incredible. My view of Sony's pitch for the PS4 Pro is it's a machine primarily aimed at a 4K experience, running games at the same frame-rate as the original PS4. Isn't it fair to say that Project Scorpio is a similar pitch? That it will offer a 4K experience, but in terms of frame-rates, we're looking at the same ballpark as Xbox One?
Albert Penello: This is one of those things that's hard to speculate about until we see how developers take advantage of the boxes. Obviously there are things we haven't said about Scorpio yet that give me a different perspective on this.
I will say, the most shocking thing about all of this is how Sony and us arrived at a similar strategy, even though the execution is different in nuanced ways. Certainly this is a pretty revolutionary idea. When we announced Project Scorpio at E3, to do this kind of mid-console upgrade, and Sony clearly had their plans, which were very similar. I just think that's interesting, for what it's worth. It's a pretty revolutionary idea to have two companies arrive at.
To go back to your original point about salting the competition or trying to be aggressive against them. I think there are a lot of caveats they're giving customers right now around 4K. They're talking about checkerboard rendering and up-scaling and things like that. There are just a lot of asterisks in their marketing around 4K, which is interesting because when we thought about what spec we wanted for Scorpio, we were very clear we wanted developers to take their Xbox One engines and render them in native, true 4K. That was why we picked the number, that's why we have the memory bandwidth we have, that's why we have the teraflops we have, because it's what we heard from game developers was required to achieve native 4K.
Now, similarly to what Sony said, that doesn't mean I'm going to require developers to do this. They're going to be able to decide to take that six teraflops of power and do what they think is best for their game. But I know that 4.2 teraflops is not enough to do true 4K. So, I feel like our product aspired a little bit higher, and we will have fewer asterisks around the 4K experiences we deliver on our box.
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Are you dancing around an accusation that Sony's marketing for PS4 Pro is misleading?
Albert Penello: No. I'm not dancing around it at all. I would actually say that if you go look at their marketing and look at what Cerny said, they talk about checkerboard rendering. They've been very open about it. I'm not accusing them of anything. They've been very open about the compromises around 4K.
Fundamentally, will the game experience be that different? We're talking about a resolution difference between PS4 Pro games and Project Scorpio games. It rekindles memories of the 1080p versus 900p thing we had with PS4 and Xbox One when both those consoles launched, but fundamentally the game experience was the same. If the frame-rates for the same game on both consoles is the same, is this not just that whole thing all over again, but played out on a 4K screen?
Albert Penello: This is going to be a fun thing for you and I to talk about in a year from now. It's really hard for me to predict what game developers are going to do. And you and I both know there will be people who claim with absolute certainty that the difference between 1080p and 900p is the most significant thing, and anybody who claims otherwise is blind. And there will be people who say they can't see a difference. Both people are right in their own minds. So, predicting how developers will use the power and how different the games are going to look, it's hard for me to say right now. So it's probably worth us waiting to see.
We're building a great platform. We're building the most powerful console ever made. We're doing a lot of work with developers to allow them to harness that power. I feel really good about our plans. Now we just have to see it play out.
So as far as you're concerned, Microsoft will not dictate to developers that they render games in 4K? That, if they wish, they can have their game run at, say, 60 frames per second and not render natively at 4K?
Albert Penello: Yeah. We had to pick a number. Why did you choose six teraflops? Why did you choose 320Gb/s in memory bandwidth? What's the point of those numbers? The point of those numbers was to deliver Xbox One-quality games in 4K. That's the point of those numbers. But we're not going to dictate to developers that that's how they have to use that power.
In a previous version of this article, Albert Penello was quoted as saying 384Gb/s in memory bandwidth, when he actually meant 320Gb/s in memory bandwidth. We apologise for the error.
Does that mean that what we're seeing from the PC versions of some of your Xbox One games out now, such as Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 - are we getting that Scorpio experience now, just on PC?
Albert Penello: I always hate predicting the future.
But you are dictating the future. It's your platform.
Albert Penello: Well, but it's still up to the artists to decide what they want to do. Things we thought were gonna happen prior to Xbox One launch didn't pan out the way we thought. They pan out better or more interesting or different. That's what's fun about this business, right?
Yeah, to a certain extent there are a lot of PC games that are being offered in 4K. Looking to the PC to predict what Scorpio performance is going to look like is fair, because those guys who are really pushing the state of the art on PC - our guys are doing that, they're pushing high-end 4K and HDR - and yeah, the intent is to make that experience and bring it to the television.
But I always have to caveat that by saying, but that's not what everybody's going to choose to do. That's why it seems like I'm being cagey. I don't intend to be. But I don't want to set an expectation that what we're going to do is exactly what experience every developer is going to choose.
Well, PS4 Pro we know now is coming out in November. And we know Scorpio looks like it will launch a year later. In previous console battles getting in first has benefited platform holders. Microsoft benefited from Xbox 360 launching before PS3. Is that a concern for you, now we have two consoles that are basically pitching 4K gaming?
Albert Penello: I don't think so. It's mostly because the environment is different. If you think of PS4 Pro and Scorpio as like PS5 and Xbox 2, then that might apply. But in this world of continuity of games and users and accessories, the whole landscape changes. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Anybody who buys an Xbox One today, they already are buying Scorpio games. There are already games that will look better and games that will be in 4K. So they're already invested in Scorpio. All their accessories work, and their account carries over, and it's going to be seamless.
It's just a different phenomenon than the historical console generational shifts, where you have to get out early or pick your spec. It's just a different environment. We'll see how it plays.
I've heard from some developers who are not thrilled about the prospect of support PS4 Pro with patches for their existing games. And some have told me they're not thrilled about having to develop for two different consoles, because one of the appealing things about console development traditionally is that you work on a unified platform. Have you had any similar feedback from developers around Project Scorpio?
Albert Penello: We're in an environment where more developers are used to scaling their content across different performance specs, if you look on the PC. One of the things we're focused heavily on is making the development experience between Xbox One and Scorpio really good. We had third-party partners in our announce video who were enthusiastic about our plans.
If anybody's developing a PC game, it's going to be similar to the experience they already have. Again, you and I are going to have a great follow-up conversation in a year from now.
I know Microsoft talks a lot about Xbox being a multi-platform business and that's it's about console and PC. But PS4 has been a phenomenal sales success. With Xbox One S and Project Scorpio, are you confident Microsoft will somehow catch-up with PlayStation when it comes to consoles, specifically?
Albert Penello: It's about making sure have a healthy ecosystem for our gamers and our developers. It's funny how all this goes back to the very first thing we talked about, which is the console war thing. We have a great exclusive games lineup. We're getting tonnes of developer support. We have a very healthy business on the console. We just announced and released a great new product in the S. We're continuing to show investment in the future with Scorpio.
The day to day war of numbers is not something I focus a lot of my energy on. I think we're in a healthy competition with them, and we are two healthy game ecosystems. The console business all up is doing great. So really, it's something that's fun to talk about in the press, but it's not something that occupies a lot of my personal time.