The new reveal of Project Scorpio’s specs told us a lot. We know pretty conclusively that Microsoft is getting ready to offer up a beastly monster of a machine that would give Horizon Zero Dawn‘s Aloy a run for her money, if you’ll forgive the cross-platform metaphor. But there’s a lot we don’t know yet that will make a big difference as the system hits the market.
What’s in a name?
Let’s look back at the Wii U and PlayStation 4 Pro for a second. The former is a new console generation, while the latter is a mid-generation refresh that offers 100% backwards compatibility. One is a brand new thing with a new gimmick, while the other is a simply an upgrade.
The PlayStation 4 Pro, just a few months after launch, though, is seen as a success for Sony, while the Wii U is one of the worst blemishes on Nintendo’s history, surpassed only by the Virtual Boy.
And all of that lies in the name.
The Wii U was utterly confusing to consumers. Everyone had just bought a Wii a few years ago – and I mean everyone. The Wii U looked like, to many, many consumers, an optional tablet you could use with your Wii. That U on the end, really, tells you nothing about the system. It’s as cryptic as Switch is catchy.
Calling the PlayStation 4 Pro a “Pro” system was a stroke of genius on Sony’s part. It sends a clear message to consumers that helps them make a purchase decision on the spot. It does what a PlayStation 4 does, except better.
We’re in a new world with game consoles now, where mid-generation refreshes are going to be a Thing. They’re going to happen. But really, Sony’s the only console manufacturer to have tried it so far. We’re still in uncharted territory. That’s the second Sony reference so far in this piece, by the way.
What Microsoft calls this thing, the Scorpio, matters. Calling the system the Xbox One already put them in hot water. It was a dumb name to begin with, and not even because it’s a clear opening for gamers to refer to it derisively as an ex-bone. The whole name was based around the idea of people calling it “the One,” like it’s a video game system from The Matrix, so that they didn’t have to release an Xbox 3 while Sony was marketing a PlayStation 4.
So now, Microsoft has to figure out what to name this thing so that consumers understand what it is – an Xbox One that is massively more powerful than the Xbox One, but still totally backwards and forwards compatible with it. They have to figure out how to get consumers into the Galaxy SX/iPhone X mindset in a market where there’s never been such a thing. In the phone world, people know upgrades happen, and they know they’re optional – that their phone isn’t going to suddenly stop getting apps in a few months.
Of course, the system has to be good on top of all this, but good on its own isn’t enough. If you build it and market it well, they will come.
How much will it cost?
Price is crucial to how well a piece of hardware does, especially one you have to buy right out the gate, compared to a cellphone that you pay for over a couple years. Sony found out the hard way that there’s a difference between the actual value of hardware and the sustainable market value when they unveiled the PlayStation 3. The system was powerful for its time, and that showed over and over again with some of the best-looking games of the generation, but all that power was accompanied by a bill for $600. In Sony’s case, a sharp advantage in Japanese markets and some aggressive pricing helped them recover.
Now we look at Project Scorpio. Technical estimates put the system’s power somewhere between that of a GeForce GTX 1070 and 1080 graphics card. In terms of video power alone, the system could easily be worth $400 to $500 by that estimate. That doesn’t count the hard drive, the UHD Blu-ray player, the controller, or anything else. While mass-scale manufacturing takes care of some of those costs, there’s no doubt that the system could be worth upwards of $600 or $700 in pure dollar value.
But the market won’t sustain that. Eurogamer‘s Digital Foundry is guessing a $500 retail price on the system, and we’d be willing to bet on that, but when compared to the PlayStation 4 Pro, that’s still a high price to ask of consumers.
Will gamers care?
While Microsoft and Sony spent the previous generation of consoles largely neck-and-neck, ending with a gap of just a few million units at the end, that hasn’t been the case this time around, Sony won the fight before it even started.
Things got so bad that Microsoft has refused to publish numbers for the last couple years. The PlayStation 4 holds something like a 2:1 lead over the Xbox One.
Teens think Xbox is cooler than PlayStation, but Sony has an incredible amount of momentum. For almost four years, they’ve had an advantage in not only power and often in price, but also in overall consumer perception, regardless of what those teens think.
With Project Scorpio, Microsoft is trying to win everyone back. They’re trying to win back developers who were frustrated by the system’s lack of horsepower, media focus, and weird hardware configuration. They’re also trying to win back gamers who were frustrated by the shift in focus away from gaming and by, again, that power gap. They’re also trying to win back the greater consumer who saw a VCR-sized system with a beefed-up webcam packed into the box and decorated with a higher price tag. That’s a tall order for a mid-generation console refresh. It’s possible that, if Microsoft gets the messaging just right, games utterly perfect, and the price right, they could have a slam dunk. But getting the core audience that will pick up this thing on day one to care is going to be an uphill battle, for sure.
The Other Stuff
There’s a lot of more trivial stuff we don’t know that will contribute to all of this. What will the system look like? Surprisingly, people care about that. Impressions online of the Xbox One and Xbox One S at release were night and day. What games will show off its power? What original Xbox One games will see meaningful boosts?
Some of this stuff, we’ll know once E3 rolls around. It’s possible Microsoft could do another presentation before their E3 show, but revealing anything before it would take the wind out of the sails they’re trying so hard to raise, and that seems unlikely. Some of the other stuff, we won’t know until this thing is connected to our televisions and in our hands. In the meantime, a lot of questions linger in the air and we’re eager to see them answered.