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Xbox boss Phil Spencer: the big interview

"Scorpio is designed as a 4K console…"

Microsoft's E3 media briefing was strong, I thought, although its impact was dulled by a pretty spectacular set of leaks that not only revealed the existence of the Xbox One S and Scorpio ahead of time, but the running order of the show.

On stage, Xbox boss Phil Spencer was determined to tell the whole story, and he did well, announcing Xbox Play Anywhere, which should help boost the potential player base of all those "Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive" games we heard about this week.

And yet, the announcement of the Xbox One S and Project Scorpio left plenty of questions unanswered. Perhaps chief among them is this: with Project Scorpio looming over the horizon, who in their right mind will now buy the Xbox One S?

We know Project Scorpio offers an impressive six teraflops of power, but one crucial aspect of its innards remains shrouded in mystery: the RAM.

And surely with those beefy specs the Scorpio, or whatever it ends up being called, signals the arrival of the next-generation of consoles, not some mid-generational refresh, as we perhaps expect of the rival PlayStation 4 Neo. And if it does, won't developers want to make the most of all that power, leaving poor old Xbox One owners behind?

Not so, Phil Spencer told me in an interview at E3 this week. Here, Spencer explains who, exactly, Project Scorpio is for, why Xbox One S is a console people should be interested in, and about those leaks...

Phil Spencer on stage during Microsofts E3 2016 media briefing.

I enjoyed your conference and I thought it was strong...

Phil Spencer: Thank you. But... here it comes...

The edge was taken of some announcements, particularly Scorpio, by the huge number of leaks you suffered. Was that something you felt as the conference took place, or detected in your analysis of the reaction?

Phil Spencer: I thought the excitement in the arena was high. We've got the fans there. We do this fan event on Saturday night where we bring people out so we can give them tickets to the show and get them into E3. Last year we had a few hundred people show up. This year we had 800 people show up on Saturday. So even with the leaks, we looked at our numbers online in terms of how many people watched and they were higher than ever. So I think there was a lot of excitement and anticipation.

In some ways you guys in your secret ways find the leaks and are able to publish those things, it doesn't really become real until it's validated because we stood on stage and said something. All that said, honestly, I like us to be able to control our message and say it in complete.

The leaks are a bummer. The things that are more of a bummer are the leaks that come out that are inaccurate, or part of a story, because then, without being able to tell the whole story, there could be certain parts of the plan - you could laugh then and say won't you leak everything like we did this time, it's not an issue - but you know what I mean. If somebody finds a certain part of it and it doesn't all tie together, that's why I think the opportunity to say something on stage. We need that.

I felt the energy in the centre was great. Viewership was really high. But honestly, we gotta find a way to control more of the leaks, yeah.

I stood on stage in front of the 4000 people at Xbox in February and detailed Scorpio and said here's what it was. There are people inside the company who would say, that's crazy. Of course it's going to leak. But I also, a couple months before we announced we were going to ship an Xbox One without Kinect in it, did the same thing and everybody said, if you do that everybody will stop buying now, you can't do this, it's gonna leak.

The work that happens month after month the team does is driven by thousands of people who are engaged and believe in the plan, and I don't know how to be a leader for that organisation if I can't communicate with them openly on what's happening. I don't think our team leaked, but doing things like that, if things leak, I will take the leak over not being able to be open and transparent with the team that's actually going to do the work, because their hearts and minds are infinitely more important to our long-term success than a couple weeks or days before our announcement, a leak going out.

So it's always this balance. I choose to try to be as open and transparent as we can be when we've made our decisions about what we're going to do.

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You announced Xbox One S. I hear there's extra processing power...

Phil Spencer: I keep hearing this as well. First thing for us with Xbox One S is making sure we have a great entry-level price, because price is critical. It's $299, smaller design, great-looking design, it plays all your Xbox One games, your accessories work. If you think about the really critical things it has to go do, we needed to tick all those boxes. That was the product.

Then we looked at what was happening, and we said there were some opportunities for us to do a little more. With upgrading the HDMI technology in the box, we're able to support 4K video streaming. So we said, okay, if we're going to support 4K video streaming, let's also put a UHD Blu-ray drive in there for 4K disc, so you can watch video in 4K. Just because where we were in technology, we saw that and we said, okay, let's make that possible.

From a design standpoint, it was designed to play Xbox One games exactly the same way your existing Xbox One does.

But I hear there is a small processing boost.

The Xbox One S.

Phil Spencer: The one definitive feature that's different is HDR. So, with the increased HDMI capability, it has the ability to support High Dynamic Range. I will say - and I've been asked about this - and I'm not trying to dodge the question, you should expect it to play your games the same way an Xbox One does. We did not design this to play Xbox One games better than the original Xbox One console.

We've gone through - even on the existing hardware - multiple hardware iterations on the inside. There will be certain decisions that are made either for cost reasons or other supply chain reasons that can result in slightly different performance, whether it's disc drive throughput... everything's not always pegged at exactly the same number, but honestly, do not buy this box if you think you're buying it to play your Xbox One games better, because it was not designed to go do that. It was designed to play your Xbox One games exactly the way your Xbox One does.

I don't want anybody to think this is somehow a performance boost for Xbox One games. That's why we said HDR on-screen, and that's what we want to be explicit about. Outside of that, you should expect your Xbox One games to run exactly the same.

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You announced the Xbox One S. And then you closed the show with Scorpio. Why would I buy the Xbox One S knowing the Scorpio is coming? What possible reason would I have given a much more powerful Xbox is coming down the line?

Phil Spencer: What TV do you have?

A standard 1080p TV.

Phil Spencer: Then you should buy this box, because Scorpio is not going to do anything for you. Scorpio is designed as a 4K console, and if you don't have a 4K TV, the benefit we've designed for, you're not going to see. Clearly, you can buy Scorpio, and if and when you decide you want to buy a 4K television to take advantage of the increased performance, obviously the console will be ready for you.

But I would say, price point is important, compatibility is critically important. We looked at 4K, talked to creators, you saw Todd Howard in our video, Patrick Soderlund from EA in our video, talked to creators about the work they were doing on PC in order to hit a true 4K gaming experience, and six teraflops is what we needed to go hit, so we designed for that.

For us in the industry, it's easy to think that most power is always the thing that wins. If you look at last gen, what won? The Wii won. The Wii sold more than we did on Xbox 360 and the PS3, and it wasn't the most powerful console out there. Price is critically important. Wii was a good price and it had a great experience.

But I'll say, having an Xbox One at $299 is going to be really important for us. It's the only $299 console on the market right now, and it supports 4K video with the S, that's going to be a really good selling feature for us, and we've got our biggest lineup of games coming this year in 2016.

So, Scorpio is for the person who's got a 4K television, who's really focused on 4K gaming. It's going to be a premium price over what we're selling this one for, and both of them will exist in the market at the same time. Scorpio is for your 4K gamer. And that's what we designed it for.

I saw Aaron Greenberg tweeted to say there will be no Scorpio exclusives. Is that right?

Phil Spencer: That's right. When you're buying a console game from us, you know that console game will run on your original Xbox. No-one gets left behind. We said that on stage. Your Xbox One S and Scorpio. That's an important design point for us. They're all part of the same family. And we want to make sure just like when you're buying your music today, you don't worry about upgrading to a new phone that somehow won't play your old songs or your new songs. We think about your Xbox One collection of games that will move with you between those different consoles.

In fact, somebody today will have an Xbox One, and when Scorpio comes out they will buy Scorpio and they will put Xbox One in a different room, and we're obviously going to make sure that as they move between rooms that they've got access to the same games.

The Scorpio games are obviously designed to take advantage of six teraflops and 4K. Your Xbox One, you were playing those today. You know what those look like and feel like. But there won't be Scorpio exclusive console games. Absolutely not.

But the specs you have released suggest the Scorpio is a monster, beyond what we understand of the PlayStation 4 Neo. Won't developers be so excited by the prospect, that they'll want to develop for the specs, and if so we're in a situation where they're thinking about, well, I have to actually make this work on Xbox One as well, and that's perhaps an issue for them?

Phil Spencer: Our biggest games out there ship on PC today, and the PC has this space of, right, you look at the big PC games that are coming out, they're going to support 4K, some of them will support 6K and crazy resolutions on PC and unlock framerates. What a developer's looking for is a real sweet spot of install base and users. We've got tens of millions of people who have Xbox Ones. Developers are gonna see that and, frankly, as the platform holder we're going to make sure games come out and support Xbox One.

They're already building 4K PC games, which is why we went out and talked to developers explicitly about what it takes to build a 4K PC game, to make sure Scorpio was a spec that they could look at what they're doing on PC and say, okay, I understand exactly how I'm going to make the Scorpio version of my game because I'm doing it on PC.

We just shipped Forza Motorsport Apex on Windows. We shipped that at 4K and we looked at that. We talked to Todd Howard about Fallout and the work he's doing on Fallout VR and said, what is the spec we need to have in Scorpio to make sure we can support 4K?

So developers today are supporting multiple design points already. That's why we picked 4K and not something kind of weird in the middle. We could have done a new update this year. We actually looked at it. We went all the way to, we had the spec in front of us, should we ship something that's less than Scorpio this year, but in truth you can't do a true 4K console this year. And I just didn't think anything between what is effectively a 1080p console and the 4K console, like, from a consumer television standpoint there's nothing in the middle. So let's go focus on 4K and next year was the right year to do that.

Given the power of the Scorpio, should it be considered a refresh of the Xbox One, or are we looking at, actually, the next-generation of what you are doing in terms of console? Is that actually the fair assessment of it?

Phil Spencer: That fact that when you buy an Xbox One and start creating your game library and when you buy Scorpio those games and accessories and everything are going to run, make it feel like part of the Xbox One family to me. That's why we communicate it that way. That was also part of the design point of the box.

Last year we announced backward compatibility, which at the time I think people looked at as, hey, can you get your Xbox 360 customers to buy an Xbox One? And yes, that's an important part of it. But really from a soul standpoint, we're thinking about when you buy your games from us, we want you to be able to play those games on the hardware we sell to you.

That's why we say beyond generations. The idea, is this part of the previous generation or the next generation gets a little blurry. For you and I, we usually think about generations in terms of what games will it play? This thing will play Ryse: Son of Rome, a launch game for your Xbox One. And we'll have launch Scorpio games as well that are playable on an Xbox One, Xbox One S and Scorpio and look great on all three of them.

So the idea of a generation is a little difficult to stretch on to this. That's why I focus on 4K and say this is really a six teraflop console built to support 4K and the power of high fidelity VR.

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You haven't mentioned the RAM.

Phil Spencer: Yeah, I know.

What's the RAM?

Phil Spencer: Kareem (Choudhry, Xbox head engineer) went through some of the specs in the video that's probably all we're gonna talk about.

Some eagle-eyed people reckon they've worked it out based on a snapshot of the motherboard.

Phil Spencer: They've done a good job. We've seen that. We knew that would happen.

Balance in the design of the system is really important. So when you think about the CPU and the GPU that are on the SOC, the optical disc drive and the speed of that, which we haven't talked about too much, but I'll just say that, the speed of RAM, all of these things when you're designing the system, making sure they're all in balance, so one piece doesn't get overpowered relative to the other, or you've got a lot of GPU but you're not able to feed all of the assets to it out of the RAM fast enough, all of those things were critical for us when thinking about the design.

All of this is why we picked the design point we did of 4K and the date we did. Like I said, we looked at other designs that might be coming earlier, and we don't think they really delivered on a full point. Kareem's line was this is a monster. You said the same thing. It's really the totality of the design. And we'll definitely be talking more about it as we go forward. But I'm really proud of the design.

With Scorpio you're introducing the idea of people playing online together and against each other in competitive multiplayer, one person perhaps on Scorpio and one on Xbox One. If the Scorpio enables such things as better framerate, won't that give the Scorpio user a competitive advantage in certain games?

Phil Spencer: Obviously the game designers of our games have to think about framerate and field of view when they're designing competitive situations. We have this scenario with cross-play today, people playing games on PC and console at the same time.

On a console to console experience, when we designed Scorpio and we said 4K console, we looked at games that are running at, let's say 1080p 60 on an Xbox One, and said we want that same game to be able to run at 4K 60 on a Scorpio. We looked at the design of the games we had on Xbox One today and said, if we increase the resolution and maintain the framerate we have, could we hit that?

I think framerate's more interesting than resolution in terms of competitive gaming, and we wanted to make sure teams were able to build the 4K version of their game at the same framerate they can hit, at whatever resolution: 900 or 1K or even 720 that they're hitting on this box. So, we thought specifically about that situation and talked to developers about it.

If you're together in a co-op situation it's probably less interesting. But with people playing together, we wanted to make sure you could build the same framerate at a higher resolution between the two consoles, and that was critical to us in the RAM design and everything else we did.

The team spent a lot of time thinking through the scenarios you're thinking through. We want to make sure the completeness of the ecosystem is there. It's why we announced it when we did. Like, who announces a console that early? Like, I must be the worst leader in the world to go do that of a console. But I know the discussions with the creators and the customers and the fans about what we're doing, it's better to have that discussion out in the open instead of us trying to keep things away from you so you don't find secret codenames and stuff. Now we can just have the open and honest conversation about what different teams are doing, and customers get to make the right decision, and creators can plan for when Scorpio comes so they make the best decision.

I've probably done 20 disclosures with third-parties over the last few months as we locked on our plan to communicate it and everything we're doing. Actually more than that - we've been doing this for quite a while. They've been both giving us great feedback, very supportive and constructive in this process, and I want to continue to do that. And, you know, as we start talking to more and more people externally, the chances of leaks just go up, so why not just be transparent about what our plans are and our visions are?

You can find all theXbox One S details in our guide, and Digital Foundry has done a separate analysis of Xbox One Project Scorpio.

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