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Xbox Scorpio is as much for developers as it is for gamers, Microsoft says

by Eric Frederiksen | April 12, 2017

Getting someone to actually buy a game console and then to sit down and play it is important, but first you have to have someone making games to actually play on it. As Microsoft heads toward the fall release of Project Scorpio, the upgraded version of the Xbox One, developers are on the console maker’s mind as much as gamers. Talking to Gamasutra in an extensive interview about the development side of Project Scorpio, Microsoft’s focus seems to be on streamlining and simplification on the development side. Not taking power away, but making it easier to access and simpler to work with.

Developers already familiar with the Xbox One shouldn’t have any trouble getting up and running, for starters.

“You can just write to the original set of [Xbox One] requirements that we have today, and we’ll do the work to make sure it runs better,” said Kareem Choudhry, Xbox’s Director of Software Engineering. Developers “don’t have to do any custom work for Scorpio.”

But performance is still at the core of the system. Games built on Xbox One will run on DirectX 12. With a console, though, Microsoft can let developers get a bit closer to the hardware. Scorpio has some parts of DirectX 12 built directly into the hardware. Some stuff that could normally take up a lot of processor time is now built into the system itself, and things that would take hundreds of API calls can take just 10 or 15, according to Gamasutra.

What do you guys want?

For developers, though, Scorpio provides a whole bunch of quality-of-life enhancements. Some of them are really simple, such as moving the system’s ventilation ports on those development kits. This is one place where a developer’s needs are distinctly separate from those of us at home. At home, a game console is typically sitting on a shelf or in an entertainment center. In a developer’s office, though, it’s a different story.

Kevin Gammill, the group program manager for the Xbox core platform, said that he would frequently see developers stacking dev kits one on top of another.

“They basically built blocks, or used legos, as a gap so they could vent,” he said. “Now you can stack these ten high.”

Even transferring a game from the computer a developer is working on and onto their console is simpler now. A new high-speed transfer cable included with the kit can transfer 100GB of data in just a few minutes. Mike Rayner of The Coalition (Gears of War 4) said the transfer process is “6 to 7 times faster,” and that something that would’ve taken 30 or 45 minutes now takes just a couple. Apparently the cable even works with existing Xbox One and Xbox One S dev kits as well. There’s also an extra network card and USB ports on the system.

There’s even an OLED-powered readout on the front of the system that can be used to display things like current frames per second.

All of this is making it significantly easier to get games running on Scorpio. Microsoft first-party studios Turn 10 and The Coalition both told Gamasutra that they were able to get their games – Forza Motorsport and Gears of War – running in 4K in just two days with a single developer on the job. Xbox Advanced Technology Group cheif Jason Ronald told the site that other developers had done it in less than a day.

One of the bigger under-the-hood changes to the system is the disappearance of ESRAM, a piece of technology specific to the Xbox One and Xbox One S that was designed to compensate for its slower DDR3 RAM compared to the PlayStation 4’s GDDR5 RAM. While game still have to account for that hardware for their low-end specs, so that they can run properly on the original Xbox One, developers don’t have to account for that when building the Scorpio-specific parts of the game, which brings development that much closer to PC development. Again, less work for developers.

Microsoft is building for the future, too

Scorpio isn’t just a console for right now, either. Microsoft is future-proofing it a bit. Project Scorpio will be one of the very first pieces of consumer hardware to support the new HDMI 2.1 spec and its Variable Refresh Rate technology, as well as AMD’s FreeSync 2 technology. FreeSync is already showing up in gamer-focused PC displays, and HDMI 2.1 could start showing up in televisions next year.

Both VRR and FreeSync are technologies that let the game hardware – in this case, an Xbox Scorpio – and the display connected to it synchronize their framerate.

With the way gamers talk about 60 fps gameplay, you might be tempted to think that this is some magic number ordained by nature as the best number for video games, but it’s more about the technology than our eyes. Most modern displays have a 60Hz refresh rate, meaning they refresh the image on-screen 60 times per second. As a result, that’s the highest frequency with which a video game can refresh the image on screen. Within that maximum space, a game should ideally be sending images to your display at a steady pace so that the display can show them to you at a steady rate.

What happens instead is that games can often overtax the hardware or their engines and instead of showing frames at a steady rate they end up missing refreshes, and the game and display end up out of sync. This ends up showing up as tearing, where a game’s image is shifting at a different rate than the display can show, causing images to look, well, torn. It can also show up as frames hanging while the system waits for the next display refresh to show the next image.

VRR and FreeSync allow the display to work adaptively with the game hardware so that the display is refreshing when the game tells it to, rather than the game trying to slot in frames at a rate dictated by the display. That means that even at a 30 fps framerate, games can look smoother, but also that, if your game is dipping blow its intended framerate or swinging between a couple different framerates, it isn’t nearly as noticeable. This technology is already in displays as both AMD FreeSync and Nvidia’s G-Sync tech, and people who have used it call it game-changing.  Pun definitely intended.

When Scorpio hits this fall, there won’t be any televisions that can use this tech yet, and not many PC displays. But getting it in a mass-market piece of consumer electronics is going to make it more appealing for manufacturers to include in their displays and, hopefully, less expensive over time. In a small way, Scorpio games are going to end up looking better over time as display manufacturers adopt VRR technology. Better yet, this technology will benefit Xbox One and Xbox 360 backwards-compatible games, too.

So what Microsoft has is a forward-thinking console that is easier for developers to create for and to work with, while allowing existing games to work better without asking developers to pour a bunch of time and resources into updating them.

Gamers still need to care about and buy Scorpio for all of this to matter, but it seems like Microsoft is trying to take every possible roadblock out of the way for Scorpio to succeed.

Gamasutra

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Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...


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