Goodbye, Project Scarlett, Hello Xbox Series X – Exclusive First Look And Interview

While preparing for my meeting with Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, to check out the design of Project Scarlett, claims of the next-gen console having four times the CPU power relative to Xbox One X floated in my head, orbited by specs like 8K and 120Hz. Could a system with those capabilities fit in an Xbox One X-sized console, or would Microsoft need to break convention and do something unpredictably big? And what would the name be? Spencer was joined by Partner Director of Program Management for Team Xbox, Jason Ronald, and together, they lifted the curtain on the console and laid out their plans a few days prior to the big reveal at The Game Awards.

Now I (and you) know: the next-gen Xbox previously known as Project Scarlett is officially called Xbox Series X, and it is, in no uncertain terms, a monolith. “We wanted to design a console where the form was driven by the function,” said Spencer. “And the function–as I said–was to really play the highest power, most immersive games possible.” Series X is a very different-looking console than what we’re used to, and for my tastes, it’s a beautiful-looking machine that commands attention. Looks aren’t everything, but when they’re this bold and refined, they’re certainly hard to ignore.

The Console Design

Series X’s square footprint is roughly as wide as an Xbox One controller and (again, roughly) three times as tall. There’s an illuminated Xbox-logo serving as the power button, a slot for inserting discs, and very little else to speak of on the front. It’s simple and elegant overall, and a far cry from the more elaborate Xbox designs of old. Modern Microsoft consoles like the Xbox One S and Xbox One X lean into similarly refined looks, but Series X’s stark aesthetics are unparalleled in the console space.

To Spencer’s point, the Series X design makes sense from an engineering standpoint. In an effort to make the console “disappear” into your entertainment center, Microsoft designed it to be as quiet as possible: with a single, large fan pushing high volumes of air out of the top. Spencer and Ronald confidently told me that the Series X systems in their homes are no louder than Xbox One X, which is to say, not noticeably audible when sitting couch-distance away from your TV. “There’s always this tension between design and the kind of acoustics and cooling and function of the console,” Spencer explained, “and we were not going to compromise on function. I’m just incredibly impressed with the design that they came back with.”

The Name

There’s bound to be a lot of folks tripping over the similarities between the names Xbox One X and the new Xbox Series X. That, in all likelihood, will ease up over time, but the fact remains it’s a surprising move on Microsoft’s part. Who knows, “Scarlett” may stick around for a while yet, at least in the minds of players.

Certainly, the name Series X also indicates that there might be other series of next-gen Xboxes in the future, and there are plenty of rumors and unconfirmed reports to that effect. Spencer didn’t open up to discuss anything in particular on that front, apart from confirming that the potential is there, and the naming convention is, in some way, designed with other potential iterations in mind. “Obviously,” Spencer said, “in the name ‘Series X’, it gives us freedom to do other things with that name so that we can create descriptors when we need to.”

The New Controller

Not everything has been given a dramatic makeover, however. The new Xbox controller shipping with Series X consoles looks a lot like the old one. The biggest difference, from a distance, is the addition of a share button in the middle, implemented to help you quickly share your gaming moments with friends. I was also told that the transition from the face of the controller to the top and over to the back is more rounded than before, which is likely more of an aesthetic feature than an ergonomic one–we’ll have to wait and see.

Getting down to the details, Spencer had the following to say about the controller’s new features: “There were certain things that we’ve learned through doing the Elite controller and just listening to fans. One of them is on the d-pad we have a new hybrid d-pad that we’ve been working on that we think is important, so you’ll get a sense of that in the new Xbox wireless controller. We do have a share button. We’ve heard the feedback. We’re not the first ones to do a share button, so we’re not going to say that we invented that, but we’ve heard feedback that sharing is such a part of a gaming experience now for many of our players that I wanted a dedicated hardware button to share, so you’ll see that. We’ll still have all the rumble triggers and haptic feedback that you’ve had in the console before.”

Spencer also noted that while the current Xbox One controller fits the majority of hands, according to Microsoft’s research, the new design is ever-so-slightly smaller in subtle ways to increase that coverage from 95% to 98%. And in terms of cross-compatibility, not only will Xbox One controllers work on Series X, but its new controller will also function on Xbox One consoles and on PCs.

Ergonomics and inputs aside, under the hood, Microsoft is also working to improve the already excellently low input latency of Xbox controllers, which rely on a proprietary radio, rather than Bluetooth–though some Xbox One controllers have Bluetooth support for added compatibility across non-Xbox devices. Ronald explained that one tool developers have, “dynamic latency input,” allows inputs to directly sync up with a game’s rendering path. And in Spencer’s opinion, reducing the disconnect between button presses and actions on screen is one step down the path to greater immersion. “So when we talk about things like refresh rate,” he added, “and we talk about input latency, this is all about the most immersive experience game designers can create, where the visuals are stunning, my ability to get into the experience [is] very timely, it’s as great as it’s ever been with the I/O speeds and the load times we’re going to see, and the input and the ability for just my control and activation of my character or of the game itself becomes a subconscious thing and not something that I think about.”

Streamlining Gameplay

The console, controller, and name reveals were the primary focus of our meeting, but Spencer and Ronald were able to dive into their broad objectives for Series X. They want it to be the most powerful console on the market, but they also hope to ensure that it’s a console that meets the wants and needs of developers and customers alike. Based on what we know at the moment, high-end performance is part of the equation, but so too is streamlining the process of getting into a game and enjoying it.

It’s no secret that both Microsoft and Sony are pursuing next-gen consoles made to offer a near seamless experience, with faster storage and memory, and cloud streaming helping to cut through some of the tedium of downloading, loading, and updating games that we’ve grown accustomed to. Series X will feature a NVMe SSD and use super-fast GDDR6 memory as RAM. Not only will these components help cut down on the aforementioned gaming pit stops, but they will also help you instantly pick up games from where you left off. Xbox One already does this, but Series X takes it a step farther.

As Ronald explained, “Today, we have the capability of instantly resuming the last game that you were playing. Why can’t you do that for multiple games? Many players choose to play multiple games at the same time, being able to instantly jump right back where I was, those are things that we can do with the platform level to make the gaming experience better. It’s really about ensuring there’s less waiting and more time playing because that’s ultimately what we all want to do with a with the consoles and with the services that we have.”

Next-Gen Xbox Games

Much of what Spencer and Ronald told me about Series X has to be taken at face value, with no way to currently verify the claims and features being discussed. All things considered, if Series X is the most powerful next-gen console at launch, and it is as streamlined and convenient as discussed in our meeting, I’m more or less convinced I want one. The big question: What about the games?

We already knew about Halo Infinite prior to this week, and we now know a little bit about Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, from Ninja Theory–now a first-party Microsoft Studio. By now, the trailer they showed me (above) is out in the wild. Perhaps, like me, you also watched it and thought it looked like pre-rendered CG, but everything in Hellblade 2’s trailer is said to be done in engine, in real time, and that’s really raised the bar for me in terms of expectations for flagship next-gen games. The Halo Infinite reveal trailer from E3 was beautiful too, but the technical flair and artistry showcased in the Hellblade 2 trailer feel like more pronounced statements: Xbox Series X games can look almost unbelievably good when they take full advantage of the hardware. I was told the trailer represents the full power of Series X, and while the video doesn’t showcase average gameplay moments, it still exhibits new levels of detail, lighting, and rendering techniques than we’ve yet to see on consoles before, at least running in real time.

There is currently no release date for Hellblade 2, but I felt it worth asking about the current state of its development. All I was told is that the game was on Ninja Theory’s roadmap by the time Microsoft approached the studio regarding partnership opportunities.

What About The Cloud?

During the recent X019 event in London, it was announced that xCloud services for consumers would be included as part of Game Pass Ultimate subscriptions at some point in 2020. There’s a lot to love about Game Pass already, chiefly being able to access hundreds of games for a low monthly price, and that value only seems to be increasing when things like xCloud start entering the conversation.

Based on the recent Google Stadia launch, it’s clear that cloud gaming has a long way to go before it’s suitable as a primary mode of gaming. Having used xCloud on and off during its current pre-launch phase, I can attest to the fact that it works very well, but it’s still a runner-up compared to the real thing, something that even Spencer will freely admit. “We’re not trying to tell people that xCloud is going to replace their console or xCloud is going to replace gaming on a PC,” he said. “But we do think that ability for me to take my gaming experience with me, so that when I log in all my friends are there all my games are there, my saved games are there, I get my Achievements, my library is with me, is pretty critical.”

Spencer and Ronald also made it clear that the xCloud streaming service will continue to be a big part of the Xbox portfolio in the future, and that, on the game development side, enabling cloud support won’t require any extra effort. “We literally show up to third-party publishers and we hand them a phone [with] their games running in xCloud,” said Spencer. “They didn’t have to do any work to make that happen.”

“We started at the beginning saying there’s a world where we might actually put as many of these in the Cloud as we do in people’s homes,” he added. “And how do you think about your silicon design and your platform design knowing that that’s the design point that you’re trying to get to. And as I said from a developer standpoint, it means you don’t have to port to a new platform. You can build the games that you want to build on Project Scarlett and know that we can enable the deployment of those games to so many screens.”

Next Steps

Seeing Project Scarlett take shape and get its final name are big steps for Microsoft. The console is more than a codename, and by the sound of things it’s going to be powerful, quiet, and perhaps most importantly of all, additive, rather than disruptive, for current Xbox players. We still have a lot to learn, including the release date, exact hardware specs, and of course, the price. Likewise, we only know of two games, and only one of them, Halo Infinite, is confirmed to be ready for the Holiday 2020 launch.

In just a few months’ time, E3 2020 will kick off, and Spencer promises, “It will be a big beat for us, and we expect that to be really important.” It sort of goes without saying given that we’re headed into the console’s launch year, but with the system largely out of the way, all eyes will be on what games people can play, when they will be able to play them, and how much money it will cost to get started.

Spencer and Ronald seem to be saying all the right things. There isn’t much I can fault with their plans, insomuch as I’m aware of them. It’s been days since our meeting, and I can’t shake how impressive-looking Senua’s Saga is, the bold console design, nor the confidence with which it was unveiled. It’s also telling how straightforward the messaging is compared to the Xbox One reveal, which was plagued with cross-media bloat and unnecessary DRM-laden policies. In their place, there’s an emphasis on streamlining the gameplay experience we know today, and bolstering it with new technology that not only makes games look better, but easier to play at home or on the go. With the next generation of console hardware around the corner, Microsoft appears primed to redefine how we think about playing games.

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Author: Peter Brown