In Theory: Can Microsoft deliver next-gen experiences while still supporting Xbox One?

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Ridge Racer, Halo, Super Mario 64. Some might say that the most impactful console launches were those where cutting edge hardware was matched with gaming experiences we'd never seen before – titles that set the stage and the expectation level for the generation to come. Even if a specific next-gen platform exclusive wasn't an all-time great, experiences that pushed the technological state of the art still held a special place in our hearts – games like Ryse: Son of Rome or Killzone Shadowfall, for example. However, Microsoft is charting a different course with its Xbox Series X strategy. Yes, there will be first-party exclusives but these titles will still run on existing Xbox One hardware. Nobody will be left behind in the inevitable cross-gen period – but does this mean that the pioneering next-gen spirit is gone?

The current discussion stems from comments made by Xbox Game Studios boss Matt Booty in an interview with MCV. "As our content comes out over the next year, two years, all of our games, sort of like PC, will play up and down that family of devices," Booty said. "We want to make sure that if someone invests in Xbox between now and [Series X] that they feel that they made a good investment and that we're committed to them with content."

In short, Microsoft will continue its strategy of delivering first-party studio titles to both Xbox and PC – but for the next year or two, legacy consoles will be supported too. Before the interview, we knew that this would be the case for some titles – after all, Halo Infinite was specifically acknowledged as coming to Xbox One. However, the situation was less clear with other titles. An in-engine Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 trailer, for example, was recently released and according to Phil Spencer, "the game is being built to leverage the full power of Xbox Series X. The footage shared tonight was captured in-engine and reflects the power of Xbox Series X available to developers to deliver new universes, experiences and games in ways you have never imagined."

The Digital Foundry breakdown of the recent Xbox Series X reveal at The Game Awards.

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Based on Matt Booty's comments, the suggestion is that Hellblade 2 will also ship for Xbox One consoles, as will showcase titles we expect to see in the next couple of years, such as the new Forza Motorsport. While these games may well be 'built to leverage the full power of Xbox Series X', the question is this: to what extent is that actually possible when support for legacy consoles has to be factored in?

Scalability in game design is nothing new – certainly not for Microsoft games of this generation, where the company deserves kudos for delivering some absolutely phenomenal PC versions. By their very nature, PC games require the ability to run across a range of hardware, so there is precedent here. It's also fair to say that there's a lot of latitude in scaling graphics options, resolutions and frame-rates in order to open up a particular game to a wide array of GPUs. For example, getting The Witcher 3 to run adequately on a graphics card as weak as the Nvidia GT 1030 is doable and obviously the game scales all the way up to RTX 2080 Ti.

However, the challenge facing developers in supporting last-gen Xbox hardware is rather more profound. Beyond graphics, there are two key areas where the Series X offers huge upgrades. It starts with the Zen 2 CPU cluster, which promises eight cores and 16 threads. Microsoft says it is 4x more powerful than the current-gen machines, but our architectural testing points towards something closer to a 6x increase between a 3.2GHz Zen 2 processor and the 1.75GHz Jaguar within Xbox One S. Meanwhile, Microsoft itself rates the SSD bandwidth of Series X as a 40x increase over the mechanical drive in the current-gen machine (which one remains unknown, but the point is moot). These are astonishingly difficult hurdles to negotiate, so can it be done?

Our analysis of the Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 reveal. Could Ninja Theory deliver a worthwhile Xbox One S version of this?

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I'd say that there are definite routes forward for developers to take. A Series X title could target 60 frames per second (or higher in multiplayer modes) while the current-gen equivalents would run at 30fps instead. The advantages in lessening the GPU load are obvious but halving frame-rate also takes a lot of strain off the CPU: everything from world simulation to physics to animation would be much easier to handle. The process of creating draw calls – instructions from the CPU to the GPU – would also be lighter.

There are other methods in lessening the CPU load, some of which we've already seen deployed on the current-gen consoles. Both Halo 5 and Destiny 2, to name just two examples, selectively cull enemy animations depending on how far away from the camera they are. Put simply, enemies further off into the distance update at 30fps on Halo 5 and 15fps on Destiny 2. If you're not specifically looking for it, the human eye tends to be fooled quite easily and it's a useful technique for getting the most out of the limited CPU time available. Another relatively easy win is to aggressively cull world detail: lowering the amount of objects in play gives the CPU less work to do, it lessens the burden on memory and of course, it eases up on the GPU requirement.

Lowering world detail may be a potential strategy in getting games designed for an SSD to run from a mechanical hard drive too – but as well as density of objects, the variety of them may well need to be cut back too. This is where I feel that the generational leap may cause some genuine issues. I've discussed in the past how the move to solid state storage not only serves to radically reduce or potentially even eliminate loading times but also brings mass storage closer to the core hardware than we've ever seen before. A console generation is typically defined by a 6x to 8x increase in power, but a 40x increase in bandwidth and a move to virtual memory is a whole different ball game. It's right here where we have to wonder if the scale and scope of new games will be limited by the need to also support the 5400rpm mechanical laptop drives found in the base Xbox One.

Current-gen console exclusives have been backported to last-gen before – albeit with a very different development process. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a genuine success story.

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SSD aside, we do at least have some concrete examples of successful scalability in triple-A games from this console generation, encompassing both CPU and GPU. Games based on id Tech 6 transitioning from Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to Nintendo Switch show many of the kinds of scaling techniques I've already described – principally in cutting back resolution and frame-rate. Meanwhile, Saber Interactive's The Witcher 3 port for Switch demonstrates spectacularly how it is possible to scale a CPU-intensive game across to a far less capable processor. The current-gen Sony and Microsoft machines have access to 6.5 available CPU cores running at 1.6GHz and upwards. Meanwhile, Switch is delivering the game using three mobile ARM cores clocked at just 1.0GHz. Those cores may well be more efficient, but they're not likely enough to overhaul the frequency uplift and additional cores that the game was designed around – yet somehow, Saber did it.

We also have examples of Microsoft first-party or console exclusive titles scaling across the generations. The Xbox 360 port of Rise of the Tomb Raider is nothing short of a miracle, while Bluepoint's conversion of Titanfall is another work of art. However, there is an important distinction to make here. These games were designed and made for Xbox One with no thought towards running on older generation hardware – it was left to talented external teams to fashion these impressive downports. And sometimes, the level of compromise was such that the scale and scope of the game had to be cut back significantly. Sumo Digital's port of Forza Horizon 2 is a lovely Xbox 360 game but it's lacking a lot of the Xbox One version's content – and I do wonder whether it would exist at all if Playground Games' original Forza Horizon did not originally launch on Xbox 360 to begin with.

The critical question is this: could Titanfall or Rise of the Tomb Raider be as impressive as they were on Xbox One if Respawn and Crystal Dynamics had to factor in Xbox 360 in the initial design phase? Similarly, while Dead Rising 3 had its issues on Xbox One, it's clear that the developers had a vision that out-stripped the capabilities of Xbox 360. Meanwhile, Ryse: Son of Rome may have started out as an Xbox 360 Kinect title, but it evolved into something very different – a technically brilliant release that set the bar in several respects for the rendering technologies that would come to dominate the current generation. Would any of these titles have been anything like the same experience if the developers had one eye towards accommodating Xbox 360?

Microsoft recently outed its Series X processor design – what does it tell us about the system's next-gen credentials?

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It's a question only the developers can answer but supporting last-gen machines must surely limit options – and that effectively sums up the principal concern I have with Microsoft's strategy here. Additionally, we can't avoid the fact that the Xbox One S has sometimes struggled to deliver decent versions of current-gen games across the course of 2019, so just how is it going to cope with next-gen titles?

However, looking at the flip side, there are opportunities. First of all, if you bought an Xbox One X in the last three years, your console will not suddenly become out of date and it still has much to offer if its resources are deployed in different ways. The six teraflop GPU has been used to effectively increase resolution on current-gen games but the Xbox strategy here could produce some interesting results – GPU-centric Series X titles targeting 4K (or a dynamic rendition thereof) would likely run just fine at 1080p on Xbox One X even if you won't get hardware-accelerated ray tracing.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I have to wonder – is the concept of Xbox titles running across generations mandated at a platform level? In the last console transition, there were a lot of messy upgrade options or worse still, a straight out requirement to double-dip. If Microsoft's strategy applies to third parties too, it means upgrade costs and buying the same game twice becomes a thing of the past. From my perspective, that's the way it should be – and the way it always has been on the PC platform, of course. In short, backwards compatibility is a given and cross-gen support (presumably from a single release) is confirmed, but will this apply to all titles from all publishers – and would Sony follow suit with PlayStation 5? After all, it's hard to imagine that key first party releases will not straddle both PS4 and its next generation successor, while third parties will need to embrace cross-gen to recoup their massive triple-A investments.

A video breakdown of the latest next-gen spec leaks – and how PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X may compare at the GPU level in architectural terms.

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I also wonder whether Microsoft's objectives here might also encompass a cross-gen strategy of sorts on existing Xbox One titles, not just its future output. If new games need to accommodate older hardware, why not upgrade back catalogue games for the new console? It worked a treat for Xbox One X and just like Microsoft's excellent enhanced machine, we should expect out of the box back-compat improvements on Series X, especially for games that use dynamic resolution scaling. However, who wouldn't want to see upgrades that see Forza Horizon 3 and its sequel running at 4K60? How about Forza Motorsport 7 or Halo 5 at 120fps? What about Gears 5 capable of delivering 4K120 or even 8K30 or else importing some of the higher end PC features into the mix? While reservations about first party exclusives are a concern, Xbox One X demonstrated that pitch-perfect fan service goes a long, long way.

Ultimately, I have three questions outstanding. First of all, what will be missed by not having new Xbox games exclusively written for the capabilities of Series X? If PlayStation 5 has true exclusives, we should find out when the time is right. Secondly, assuming the cheaper four teraflop Navi-based Lockhart box is real and still coming, how will Halo Infinite on a prospective 'Series S' compare with the Xbox One X build? This may highlight just how potent the CPU and SSD truly are if GPU performance is broadly equivalent. And finally, just how much will developers need to cut back to get games designed primarily for next-gen running on Xbox One S?

On the final point, perhaps we'll get some kind of idea of what's possible sooner rather than later. We've seen Cyberpunk 2077 played in real-time on powerful GTX and RTX graphics cards paired with high-end Intel CPUs. It's a game that pushes boundaries in all directions and try as we might, it's difficult to imagine an equivalent experience running on the vanilla Xbox One S and PlayStation 4. However, the game will ship on those consoles just a few short months from now. As an indication of how third party developers will handle the upcoming cross-gen period, this may well be as good as it gets.

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