What does Xbox's Project Scorpio mean for developers?

What does Xbox's Project Scorpio mean for developers?
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

July 8th 2016 at 10:53AM

The biggest news out of this year’s E3 was almost certainly Microsoft’s reveal that it has been working on an improved Xbox One, which it claims will be the ‘most powerful console ever made’. But is better hardware actually a draw for devs? We ask a crowd of triple-A and indie studios for their thoughts

Six teraflops of GPU power, eight CPU cores, 320GB/s of memory bandwidth, 4K and VR support. The finale of Microsoft’s E3 press conference pulled back the curtains on its long-rumoured Xbox One successor and, with it, a stream of technical stats and figures.

Speaking on-stage, Xbox chief Phil Spencer described Project Scorpio as the “world’s most powerful console ever built” and said it would “lead the industry into a future in which true 4K gaming and high-fidelity VR are the standard, not an exception”.

It all sounds very impressive, but questions remain. What will the new hardware actually allow devs to do? Will Scorpio be outdated by the time it arrives in late 2017? How will it compare to the PS4 Neo? Will two separate Xbox One specifications fragment the platform’s audience – or limit creators building for both?

"More GPU power might allow more sophisticated real-time lighting and post-processing."

Jonathan Burroughs, Variable State

First thing’s first: the technical opportunities Scorpio’s touted hardware will open up for developers.

“More memory is always useful as it allows you to worry less about memory management and rely less on streaming,” observes Jonathan Burroughs of Virginia studio Variable State.

“We don’t have the resources to produce lots of high detail 3D assets, so geometry isn’t likely to be a bottleneck for us, but more GPU power will potentially allow us to use more sophisticated real-time lighting and post-processing. So that’s attractive.”

Playniac’s Rob Davis adds that the Anomaly X studio will also make use of Scorpio’s power to improve core gameplay technology.

“We’re interested in using that extra processing power for smarter and larger-scale AI implementations, as well as more prolific visual effects,” he says.

However, Alexander Birke of Out of Bounds Games issues a caution that devs may find their options to take advantage of the faster machine limited.

“The main problem and blessing I see with both Xbox Scorpio and PlayStation Neo is that you are required to make games that also work on the current generation,” he explains.

“That means you can only use the extra power for more graphical fidelity and not on gameplay, such as more advanced physics simulations or AI.

“If you cannot make a game meant to run exclusively on these more powerful machines, I’m not sure how many developers will be interested in doing anything interesting with them other than providing a higher resolution and better framerate.”

Unveiling the Scorpio, Spencer confirmed that “Xbox One, Xbox One S and Scorpio will all be compatible – all Xbox One games will play on each device”.

That’s great for players, but will Birke’s fears that devs’ technical aspirations will be held back by the need to cater for the older console be realised?

Xiotex Studios’ Byron Atkinson-Jones agrees that “the specs for the Scorpio look impressive enough”.

“However,” he continues, “all of this is redundant if games have to be backwards-compatible with Xbox One.

“The power will just get used to throw 4K worth of graphics at the screen rather than to deliver better games.”

Worse still, these minimal technical benefits could come at the cost of having to produce two individual versions of a single title. Davis allays concerns of a doubled workload. 

“We won’t be concerned about the extra work to develop for two separate Xbox One specs as long as the two separate specs remain software-compatible,” he affirms. “We’re comfortable with handling multiple specs on PC and mobile, so it should be no problem on console.”

Despite this, Burroughs insists that developers should be prepared to invest more time and money.

“Any additional platform supported incurs development costs, even if it’s just in terms of time spent deploying builds and testing,” he warns. “If the Scorpio platform APIs are the same as the Xbox One’s, then that should minimise the amount of additional compliance work that has to be done, which would be beneficial.

“For teams who have already invested in Xbox One development hardware, they will need to re-invest in new dev kits or risk being left behind. And there will be further costs for devs in terms of integrating and QA-ing a new platform.

“Rather than the hardware, it’ll be the level of support Microsoft provides developers through programs like ID@Xbox that really makes a difference.”

Four Circle Interactive co-founder Dan Pearce echoes Burrough’s worries.

“One of the irritating parts of developing for multiple platforms is accounting for things like TRC checks,” he states. “This is already a bit of a roadblock for some indie developers and I can see multiple versions of the Xbox One and PS4 causing more of those requirements to stack up.

“In the grand scheme of things, these are minor problems to overcome providing that the dev kits issued by platform holders are well designed.”

Outside of the development community, the arrival of a second Xbox configuration could be confusing for players unaware of the differences – or cross-compatibility – between the difference boxes.

Burroughs explains: “There is uncertainty about how the game-playing audience will react to Microsoft refreshing their console so soon after releasing the Xbox One.

“Will shorter hardware cycles make people cautious about upgrading? Will the Scorpio’s adoption rate be low? I personally favour longer periods between hardware refreshes as it permits developers to establish stable workflows, without disruption, to minimise their costs and in the long term focus their efforts more on creative game design and less on adapting to new technology.”

One of the most intriguing factors of the Scorpio is its potential to support virtual reality hardware. While Microsoft has primarily focused on its augmented reality technology HoloLens over a competitor to Sony’s PlayStation VR, the company did bundle its Xbox One controller with the Oculus Rift on PC, hinting at future involvement in the sector.

"Scorpio and Neo are opportunities for VR to become a common and viable platform."

Dan Pearce, Four Circle Interactive

Spencer’s description of the Scorpio as suitable for “high-fidelity VR” has stacked wood on the fire, with many online commenters suggesting future Rift compatibility for the new machine. If the Scorpio’s specs bring it in line with VR-ready PC setups, will creators already in the medium be interested?

 “Additional hardware players in VR are great for developers, as well as players who will have the ability to experience more quality content,” responds Alex Schwartz, founder and CEO of Job Simulator dev Owlchemy Labs.

“We’ve said in the past that any platform that can deliver six degrees of freedom hand-tracking and positional tracking is a platform we want to bring our content to, so we are looking forward to hearing what Microsoft will announce in the space.”

Tammeka producer Sam Watts adds: “Considering we are already on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive on PC and in the process of porting to PSVR, working with a Windows 10-based XboxVR system is an obvious choice.” 

Pearce says that in contrast to its potentially negligible effect on the appearance of conventional titles, “VR is where the Scorpio will probably provide the most noticeable shift”.

“It will enable developers to provide more immersive visuals, which is great, but I’m hoping that the Scorpio and the Neo will expand the install base for VR and turn it into less of a novelty,” he says.

“It’s telling that we’ve not really heard of any VR games that have had massive financial success yet, but this could be the turning point. The Scorpio and Neo are opportunities for VR to become accessible and turn VR into a common, viable platform.”

ONE TO WATCH

Although uncertainties remain, the majority of devs we spoke to are optimistic about Scorpio’s prospects.

“I’m really stoked about it,” enthuses Kwalee’s James Horn. “They’re going to have devs queuing out of the door.”

For the pithy Kevin Patterson of Crows Crows Crows, however, at least one thing needs to change before Scorpio hits shelves: the name.

“It feels crass and inelegant,” he says. “Like a pregnant swan thrown into a supermarket.”