GameCentral talks to Microsoft’s Albert Penello about the new Xbox console, 4K technology, and the future of video game generations.
The Xbox One X, as Microsoft are very keen to point out, is the most powerful video game console ever made. It’s out today and is not only compatible with all existing Xbox One games but is able to enhance them with 4K resolution and other extra features.
In that respect it’s similar to Sony’s PS4 Pro, but that power does not come cheap and the Xbox One X’s £450 price tag is enough to make anyone think twice.
We’ve already given our verdict on whether the Xbox One X lives up to its promises in our hardware review, but the question of whether it’s really worth it or not is not an easy one to answer.
Xbox marketing exec Albert Penello has some experience in trying to do exactly that though. And while usually there’s not much point talking to a marketing guy we had a very interesting chat with him about the Xbox One X’s abilities, priorities, and future…
GC: Okay, I’m sure you’re well practiced with all your marketing style answers, but let’s give this a go.
AP: [laughs] I will give you my best marketing answers for all these questions.
GC: [laughs] Well, this first one I never got a straight answer on for the PS4 Pro. But put simply, what exactly is the Xbox One X for?
AP: I would say the Xbox One X is for people that want to play the best versions of the games that are available. That’s really, in my opinion, the simplest way to describe it. We saw 4K internally and it really energised us and excited us. The quality of the image, the wide colour gamut, the high dynamic range, it really energised us. We were excited about the tech.
We saw the industry reports and talked to TV manufacturers, and knew that that was the direction that displays were headed. We saw PC developers really embracing 4K rapidly, and creating the assets required. But, you know, 4K capable PCs are pretty expensive, and so we decided that we wanted Xbox players to be able to play the best versions of games; we want to be the device that shows off a 4K TV, which is why we have 4K Blu-ray and 4K streaming; and we want to put enough horsepower in the box to take all those amazing PC assets and bring it to your living room.
At the end of the day what that means is – and I’m knocking on wood that the reviews will bear this out – but we believe that the best versions of all the games that you can play are going be the Xbox One X versions. That’s probably the simplest answer I can give.
GC: Xbox One X is much more important to Microsoft than the PS4 Pro ever was to Sony. Not least, as you implied, because for the first time since the early 2000s you’ve got the most powerful console on the market. But historically that’s never made much difference. The PlayStation 4 is the first time the most powerful console has ever been the most successful. Is that just a statistical anomaly or has something changed recently?
AP: You have a lot of interesting questions and points of view embedded in that!
GC: Well, it is my job.
AP: [laughs] In fairness, I’ll start with the debate as to whether or not the 360 was more powerful than the PS3.
GC: Well, that was always the thrust of Sony’s marketing, as it is now with the Xbox One X.
AP: I’m only saying that because actually, I think if you look at how the game comparative reviews work we were considered to be the best platform…
GC: Oh sure. The Xbox 360 was usually the best multiplatform version. But that only seems to underline that having the most powerful machine doesn’t necessarily mean much.
AP: For both Xbox and Xbox 360 we had the best versions, so really it was only on the Xbox One that that wasn’t necessarily the case. But really, the thing that I wanna focus on is that Xbox One X is about driving differentiation. It wasn’t just… the fact that we were the most powerful console… we didn’t know about the PS4 Pro when we were building Project Scorpio [the codename for Xbox One X – GC]. We had no idea. So we had our own internal goal, about what we wanted to do.
And so for us, if we were going to do something, and Phil [Spencer] said this many times, it needed to be meaningfully different from the other consoles that we already had in the market. There had to be a meaningful differentiation for customers. And so we needed a milestone like 4K to really drive it, to be a goal… that real reason to have these performance levels. And so that’s really what it’s all about.
At the end of the day we want customers to buy Xboxes, we think Xbox One S is still gonna be the primary volume driver for us. And I think there’s lots of industries where the customers can upgrade if that performance matters to them. I think the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X is the perfect example of two significantly different things shipping at the same time.
Customers can figure this stuff out, I think. It’s only console gaming that hasn’t really done this before. So I like that we have great value with the Xbox One S at a great price, and for the gamer that really cares about performance, and is gonna got out and buy a 4K TV, we have the best product you can possibly buy. The best place to buy games. And to me that’s a great position to be in.
GC: What kind of impact do you hope the Xbox One X is going to have on Xbox sales in general? Sony talks about a figure of one in five for sales of the PS4 Pro versus the standard model. Are you thinking something similar?
AP: Well, what do you think? I’m curious as to your opinion.
GC: Well, as I said, the Xbox One X is much more important to Microsoft than the PS4 Pro is to Sony. I have certainly advised that if you can afford it, the Xbox One X is the model you should get. Especially if you have a 4K TV. So I would assume you’re hoping for a better ratio than Sony.
AP: Trying to predict it is always interesting, I think the feedback we’re hearing from fans, the feedback we’re hearing from folks in the industry, the level of developer support that we’ve got for games… I feel good about how the mix is shaping up.
I don’t wanna call the ball on this one, just because part of doing this is learning. And figuring out what the customer behaviour is like, I do think it’s gonna be a hot item this holiday. We’ve got a really aggressive replenishment plan to try and get more out. I will be very curious to see the overall mix, I would like to see us do better than one in five. But I dunno, I’m gonna be looking at these numbers super carefully.
GC: Will you actually provide numbers? It’s frustrating that you don’t for ordinary Xbox sales.
AP: Ah… that’s not a question for me. But that’s a good question. That’s not my call. [laughs]
GC: This isn’t necessarily an Xbox One X specific issue, but in terms of 4K I have found that it’s not necessarily something I can show a non-gamer and be sure they’ll understand. They’ll squint a bit and say something like, ‘I think I can see the difference’ but often that’s all. Surely that’s a problem when you’re trying to sell a £450 piece of electronics?
AP: It’s an interesting observation, and I’ll be perfectly honest with you. You’re one of the first people that have ever said to me, that they didn’t think that the upgrade between 1080p and 4K was significant. My experience in showing even a casual gamer – and everyone uses their own anecdotes, their own family – but my wife and my parents… I showed them Planet Earth II on my 4K set and they were blown away. And they’re far from videophiles.
I’ve had quite the opposite experience, particularly with HDR and wide colour gamut content.
GC: Sure, but that’s not 4K. HDR, I agree, can be very impressive and I’ve found it’s that people react to rather than 4K itself. But HDR support does not require an Xbox One X.
AP: I think it’s the overall experience, and that’s why things like Dolby Atmos and 4K Blu-ray are important so that you get the whole package. We shall follow up after launch, because we’re actually going to be introducing something called Insects, which is an interactive in-engine technology demo that our Advanced Technology Group did for developers and is now going to be released to the public.
And it basically is a real-time demo that you can manipulate to show 4K, 1080p, HDR, and everything. So I would really love to follow-up with you afterwards and get your perspective once you’ve run that and shown it to people. Because the response I’ve gotten to the demo from real casual people has been super positive.
GC: That will be interesting. I have to admit though that the thing I really care about is 60fps. I realise you can’t really make it mandatory, but I really wish it got the same marketing push as 4K. Because 4K doesn’t really change the gameplay, but 60fps absolutely does.
AP: This is an interesting discussion that has a lot to do with the artistry of games, what the platform holder can mandate, and the fact that I think that the reality… there are certainly 60 frames per second purists, people that think that that it should be absolutely mandatory.
Look, we could put even more powerful stuff in the box and there would be game developers who will still crank everything to 12 and run it at 30 frames per second. [laughs]
So there’s an interesting debate about, ‘Well how come you’re not 60 frames per second on every game?’ Well, because the game developers don’t want to do that. That’s just not how they want their titles to show off. If they did, they could. And people go, ‘Oh, well you don’t do enough with the hardware…’ But we did! It’s very capable of doing it, and even if we put more powerful stuff in developers would still find a way to break it and push beyond the capabilities.
That’s always the way that video games have always kind of worked. So it’s certainly nothing we could mandate, because it’s not our job, I think, to tell game developers what the best thing for their game is. So this is really a conversation between gamers and the game developers.
GC: We’re starting to get the first rumblings that maybe Sony, at least, is thinking of releasing a new console in Christmas 2019. I doubt you’re going to give me a life expectancy for the Xbox One X but can you say anything about whether the traditional generational model is still relevant today?
AP: It’s a good question. I find it interesting, just as a guy who’s been in the business for a long time. But the day you launch a new console it’s sort of like when you get a girlfriend and your parents ask when you’re gonna get married, and then you get married and they ask when you’re gonna have kids. They’re always stuck on the next thing. And it’s the same with consoles.
GC: [laughs] But it does seem a more important question here because if you’re spending £450 on a new console you want to know whether it’s going to be superseded by something else in just two or three years.
AP: What we can say is we’re obviously putting a huge focus on game compatibility. If you think about Xbox Play Anywhere, if you think about the 360 back compat., the fact that we went all the way back to original Xbox. The fact that we have 100% game compatibility between Xbox One S and Xbox One X, that’s our focus.
And I actually think in this day and age, when we’ve just got a new iPhone, consumers have shifted a little bit from, ‘How long does my device last?’ to ‘How long does my content last?’ ‘How long do my apps last?’ And that is the model I think we are definitely focused on. What’s going to happen with console cycles and console generation is gonna be up to consumers and the pace of technology, and there’s lots of factors in that.
But I do think we can say, that when you think about game compatibility and investing in Xbox and that content staying with you… that’s a critical part of our long-term strategy.
GC: But with an iPhone you have a good idea when the next one is coming out. You can look back at the historical pattern and gauge your purchase from that. It’s not your fault that this is the first time it’s been done with consoles, but you are asking people to take a risk.
AP: We’re going to support the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X for a long time. And the thing I can say definitively is we care a lot about the game compatibility and making sure that that investment you’re making with us lasts.
That’s a big part of our strategy, it’s a big part of our future. And I think it takes a lot of the risk out of the actual device you’re buying. It’s more about investing in Xbox content and that content’s gonna stay with you.
GC: Okay, that’s great. Those were good answers for a marketing guy. [laughs]
AP: [laughs] Thanks, it was great talking to you.
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