Xbox is close to being a brilliant games platform, but it needs games to get it there
The pressure's on for E3.
We would say this, but Microsoft's decision to reveal the specs of Scorpio, its Xbox One hardware refresh, exclusively through Digital Foundry was a very smart move. They knew a leak was likely once the machine was presented to developers, so they got in front of it. And they know that this souped-up console needs to win back the hearts and minds of the gaming hardcore who defected to PlayStation three and a half years ago. To convince those guys, you need to convince core-of-the-core communities like NeoGAF, and to convince NeoGAF, you need to convince Digital Foundry.
Naturally, the only reason this strategy could work is that all the right calls had been made in putting this machine together. One was designing it as a purist game console: the most powerful and best-engineered ever, more akin to the original Xbox and Xbox 360 than the original Xbox One's multimedia hub. Another good decision was targeting late 2017 for its launch, when Microsoft knew parts would be available that would enable it to reliably hit native 4K resolutions, just at the same time as 4K TVs become the mass-market industry standard. (It's already happened; try buying anything other than a small, budget 1080p set now.) By contrast, Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro was poorly explained, confusingly conceived and jumped the gun, launching before the chipsets or the customers were quite ready.
So Phil Spencer will have earned a feeling of great satisfaction when he finally reveals Scorpio - along with its name, release date and price, we hope - on stage at E3 on Sunday. You may not buy into the concept of mid-generation hardware refreshes designed purely to push more pixels - and that concept certainly has yet to be proven - but what we know of Scorpio suggests that, on its own terms, it's going to be a very tasty bit of kit.
There's more. Spencer and his team have been on a hot streak of good decisions and sound planning for a while now. The Xbox 360 backwards compatibility program is keeping gamers' existing libraries alive, as well as fleshing out the Xbox One offering with hundreds of great older titles to buy digitally. It dovetails beautifully with the just-launched Xbox Game Pass, which enables you to download over 100 games for a monthly fee, and is a far more convincing stab at "Netflix for games" than such over-engineered streaming services as PlayStation Now or OnLive. For gamers, it's a good deal, sensibly priced, and an easy way to add a ton of gaming content to their Xboxes.
For Microsoft, it's a new revenue stream and another justification for being in the gaming business for the long haul, and for its own sake - not as a Trojan horse for other services, but as a valuable service in its own right. Microsoft wants this service to have permanence as well as value. The vision behind Scorpio - and, for that matter, behind Xbox's extension onto Windows, including PC versions of key first-party games - is that console video games and the hardware that runs them no longer need to be locked into cycle of mutually assured death and rebirth every few years. Games can live on, on other machines, other platforms, and in other eras. (You don't need to look far for their inspiration: it's your Steam launcher.)
Since most of this only works with digital purchases, perhaps it is all just a stealthy way of bringing back Microsoft's historically unpopular attempt to kill game ownership. But - as Steam shows, once again - if you offer gamers convenience and value in exchange, ownership is a sacrifice they will be quite prepared to make. And this time Xbox is doing it with the right proposition, and for the right reasons. Another good decision.
As a result of all this, the Xbox gaming platform is a good place to be right now, right down to smaller initiatives like Copilot - a lovely accessibility tool that lets you split controls across two controllers - and the Xbox Creators Program that will open up the platform to many more developers and may, perhaps, allow for a partial rebirth of the crazy hinterlands that were Xbox Live Indie Games on Xbox 360.
You can probably sense there's a 'but' coming here - and it's a big one.
Faced with a dominant console competitor in the form of PlayStation (to say nothing of Steam on PC), simply offering a good deal and a pleasant environment isn't enough. It may not even be enough to promise that Scorpio will deliver the best versions of your favourite games - not any more. It worked for PS4, but that was a level playing field. Scorpio has to fight the inertia generated by all those PS4 games already bought, all those friends in your PSN friends list.
There's only one weapon that can combat that, and it's must-have exclusive games. It only takes one, if it's good enough - if it's a Halo: Combat Evolved, or a Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But you've got to have it, it's got to be exciting, and it's got to be unique.
This is where Xbox has been really struggling recently - perhaps surprisingly so for a console division run by Spencer, the former head of Microsoft Game Studios and an avowed software guy. MGS' releases have been high-quality, polished games, but - with the notable exception of the joyful Forza Horizon 3 - they've also been desperately unexciting. Titanic gaming names like Halo and Gears of War are looking tired and uninspired after years of safe sequels; they're more like proficient cover bands than the original act. A promising collaboration with Osakan rock stars Platinum Games on Scalebound was cancelled. Forza Motorsport 7 will look beautiful in 4K, but it's not going to electrify E3 - not even close. Crackdown is a fan favourite, but it's another backwards glance. Rare's Sea of Thieves, at least, is original and ambitious, but it's easy to detect a lack of confidence in the way it's been shown so far. Where is Xbox's Horizon: Zero Dawn, or Breath of the Wild, or Bloodborne? Where is an exclusive Xbox game that's really going to get our blood pumping going to come from?
I don't know, and I wish I did. The fact is that Xbox has been only halfway committed to first-party game development for years now, and the commissioning it has done has been very risk-averse. That's not a good thing in a creative industry, and the contrast with Sony's first-party publishing - with its willingness to delay and to fail and to pump endless cash into insane vanity projects - is night and day.
So the pressure is on. With Scorpio, Xbox could not have positioned itself better for its fight to reclaim lost ground on the console war. But to really make ground at E3, it needs to do something even harder than making good decisions, and something it hasn't done in a long while: it needs to surprise us.