By Shelby Steiner
Here recently, Microsoft’s Xbox exec Phil Spencer teased the idea that the Xbox might be capable of receiving hardware upgrades without a need for a new generation of console. This has sparked some valid questions about the path that Microsoft is allegedly planning to take with their brand.
Perhaps the number one concern is that a modular approach to the Xbox would split the user base in the same way that the Kinect did. After all, a piece of hardware that not everyone has would make it difficult for developers to take full advantage of the system’s resources. Another concern is that offering upgrades would make it more difficult for developers to create games for the platform.
SO WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL?
This news comes at an interesting time for this console generation. We’re now about three years in, making this about the halfway mark in the generation. Sony and Microsoft are undoubted planning their next move for the industry, and Nintendo is already hard at work on the NX.
Sony’s PlayStation 4 also made a monumental step in the console industry by announcing the release of PlayStation VR (Morpheus was a much cooler name), which touts a separate processing unit to deliver the extra power needed to handle the framerate and resolution that is necessary to offer an experience that doesn’t leave the user with the desire to puke their guts out.
Microsoft appears to want to give console players the benefits of a PC experience in the form of optional incremental upgrades that can boost the power of the system, which could solve the problem of the GPU bottleneck that the Xbox currently has. It could mean that users could guarantee that they’d be able to play every game at 1080p or higher, at 60 FPS, or perhaps even be able to use things like VR headsets.
The thing to remember too is that while a move to make a console a modular item has pretty much never been done successfully before, there are examples of similar things being done with degrees of success. The New 3DS is one instance of this, as some games are meant strictly for the New 3DS and exclude the previous versions. The fact is that this could actually work if it is done right.
HOW MIGHT THEY DO THINGS?
First off, I’m going to refer to this hypothetical console as Xbox 2.0.
One thing that Microsoft could do to make the Xbox 2.0 successful is by making upgrades simple to carry out. Something to the tune of a plug-and-play method. Forget the idea of plugging in cords to USB or proprietary ports. Make the system modular in the same way that 360 users were able to swap out hard drives. If you want to upgrade the GPU, just buy another GPU and plug it in. Sure a proprietary upgrade would be more expensive than an off the shelf option, but it would make it possible for anyone to do it. Ideally Microsoft would also allow users to install off the shelf hardware as well, like how Sony allows people to use their own hard drives to upgrade the hard drive space.
The best starting point for the Xbox 2.0 would be to offer a base package and tiers of upgraded versions. Users would either start with the cheaper base Xbox 2.0 or a slightly more expensive version that features better components.
On the developer side, they could simplify the settings options by either making the game recognize the system architecture and adjusting the settings accordingly, by allowing the user to make those decisions by themselves, or by allowing for both. Developers could make a game that functions more like a PC game as well, allowing mods that boost the graphics quality and the like. After all, the biggest issue with optimization on PC is the sheer quantity of different system architectures. Even with the option for the Xbox 2.0 to allow the user to switch out the GPU, hard drive, or even the processor; there would be vastly less differentiation between the Xboxes.
WHAT WOULD THIS MEAN FOR XBOX?
The neat thing about this sort of approach would be that console generations would be, more or less, a thing of the past. Instead of releasing a new Xbox every 5-10 years, Microsoft could just allow users to buy upgrades for their systems. Granted, there would be a need for a new platform after a certain amount of time, but the gap in generations would be much larger. Framerate issues and “controversies” like Resolution-Gate would likely be a thing of the past, as long as the developers made a solid game.
It would also make the Xbox far more competitive in the gaming market and potentially turn Xbox into a service instead of a platform. Xbox could become a Steam-like service (though without the ridiculousness of Steam Greenlight) that could even be supported by standard PCs. Sony and Nintendo would be forced to do more to compete as well, which would hopefully result in more unique features being offered by all three.
Personally, I’m pretty excited by the idea that consoles could be upgraded in more ways than the hard drive space, as you can probably already tell. I’m by no means a stickler for graphical quality. I mean, my PC only has a GTX 960 in it after all. I do however enjoy visually pleasing games and ones with awe-inspiring graphics. I like the idea that the platform could evolve over time instead of being stuck at the same specifications for an entire generation. I like the idea of being able to upgrade on my own terms.
It just seems like Microsoft is heading in the right direction by swinging for the fences. Sure, they could play it safe and just go with a power increase next generation, but that didn’t exactly wow anyone this generation on any platform, did it?
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