When it comes to games, the wheel of progress is always spinning at an alarming rate.
Even the most visually polished of games ends up looking dated after just a couple of short years, and consoles that were at the cutting edge of the market are in need of a refresh almost as soon as they come out.
All this means that although the Xbox One is still in its infancy, it’s never too early to start speculating about what a new Xbox might feature.
Understand that by ‘successor’ we’re not referring to next year’s Project Scorpio. Although that particular piece of hardware is set to far outpace the Xbox One in terms of performance, it will still technically run the same games, and is such isn’t a new Xbox in the traditional sense of the word.
No, when we talk about the next Xbox we mean the next proper generation of Microsoft’s console, one that will be a fresh start for the company, and will be able to play games the Xbox One and Project Scorpio can only dream of.
But when discussing the future of the Xbox brand, you have to start by taking a look at the current one.
The chosen ‘One’
The Xbox One available to buy today is a very long way from the system announced on stage by Don Mattrick back in May 2013.
If all the features in the original Xbox One announcement had come about, we’d now have a console that required a near-constant internet connection for you to play your games, the physical discs containing your games would have been tied to your Xbox Live account, effectively killing off the pre-owned games market and pretty much everything would’ve required a subscription to Xbox Live Gold.
Plus, it would’ve needed the new and improved Kinect (bundled with every console) to be connected in order to be fully functional, even if you never intended to use Kinect’s voice or motion control.
“Microsoft made many mistakes during the pre-launch period of the Xbox One,” says Wired and T3 tech expert Guy Cocker, “but there were three major ones.
“Firstly, it pitched a product that no one wanted. The announcement heralded the device as an entertainment box that combined a DVR, a video streamer, an internet browser and pretty much lastly a games machine.
“Because of this, and Microsoft’s perceived need for Kinect to power all this, the machine was significantly more expensive than the PS4. Finally, it proposed some very anti-consumer measures when it came to being able to buy games and then give or sell them to someone else.”
It’s safe to say that these features were not well-received by the majority of gaming fans.
Microsoft, to its credit, listened to fan feedback and one after another introduced new policies to make the console more appealing to its core audience.
It’s been quite the transformation, but Microsoft is nowhere near finished yet and through monthly software updates, the console has continued to tweak its look and performance.
Since launch it’s added external hard drive support, improved media player functionality for multiple file types and formats, drastically overhauled its party chat and social functions and made changes to its built-in game DVR features, and that’s only been in the last three months.
And given that this generation of consoles is even more amenable to change thanks to operating systems built specifically for regular updates, dedicated game servers and ample access to cloud storage, what’s actually inside the box under your TV needn’t be the end-all its capabilities.
What does this mean for the Next Xbox?
So what can we learn from all this about the new Xbox?
Yes, the new one, because there will, inexorably, be another console. It’s certainly some ways off yet, but will it be another eight year wait? There are differing opinions on that.
“I would think so,” says Jon Hicks, former editor of Official Xbox Magazine, “but the timing may change. Microsoft was very clear at the announcement of Xbox One that it would have a ten-year lifespan, and that is likely to remain the case, but the shift from Xbox 360 and PS3 to next-gen hasn’t mirrored the shift from the previous generation.
“The initial sales of new-gen consoles, and the drop-off in software sales for the previous generation, has surprised everybody – the expectation was of a slower transition, and the consensus explanation is that there was significant pent-up demand for new consoles. So it might be that Xbox One’s replacement arrives a bit sooner than the eight years that Xbox 360 lasted, though the overall lifespan sticks at ten years. That said, even the sales data doesn’t really compare any more because Xbox 360 has an extremely robust digital sales platform, the data for which isn’t shared publicly. So it could be the drop in physical software sales is a red herring. Ask me in a couple of years, basically.”
I would say there’ll be another Xbox in about five years time,” he says.
Cocker, though, thinks it’ll be sooner. “I would say there’ll be another Xbox in about five years time,” he says.
“I think Microsoft will have definitely learned from its mistakes; the main guy responsible for the Xbox One’s development, Don Mattrick, left the company for Zynga shortly after announcing it on stage, and Phil Spencer, who now runs Microsoft’s Xbox division, is a games man through and through. I think 2015, actually, is going to be a good time for Xbox. It’s putting games back at the forefront, which is how it managed to become so successful with the original console back in 2001; with a great machine and great exclusive games like Halo and Jet Set Radio Future.”
If cryptic allusions by Xbox head Phil Spencer are to be believed, we might be seeing an Xbox Two announcement sooner than we think. In a blog post made back in April, Spencer teased that “Over the next few weeks and months we’ll be sharing more of our plans for gaming on Xbox One, Windows 10 and beyond.”
A recent FCC filing suggests that Microsoft has a hardware refresh of its own planned for this year’s E3. The smart money is on some kind of slim version of the Xbox One, but could this be an indication that Microsoft has something bigger planned?
Next Xbox: a game focus?
Ah yes, the games. Microsoft may have neglected to mention those during the Xbox One’s original reveal, but it’s changed its tune since in response to vocal feedback from gaming communities.
It’s a lesson MS isn’t likely to forget in a hurry – the company’s E3 and Gamescom messages were solely focused on games over the console’s TV and set-top box capabilities.
“I think the next Xbox will be a very game-focused console, so it will launch with high-spec PC parts like the Xbox One, the difference being it will be cheaper at launch,” says Cocker.
“I think the key for Microsoft, one that it has recognised, will be to make more acquisitions like Mojang (which Microsoft purchased just last week for $2.5bn) over the coming years. Exclusives are the lifeblood for any console maker, and Microsoft needs to build stronger brands and exclusives in the face of Sony’s increasing dominance in exclusive games and studios. There’s also a very good chance the next Xbox will finally ditch a physical disc drive, I think, as online services get better and better.”
“Both Xbox One and PS4 are extremely online-focused consoles and the games produced for them reflect that – Destiny being the most recent high-profile example of an online-only game,” says Hicks. “Somebody, and it might not be Microsoft, is definitely going to have an online-only console relatively soon. It’s just the way the world is going now. The only thing that I would bet on is that next time Microsoft will announce it with its still-impressive games lineup first.”
The “TV, TV, TV” approach is not one the company is likely to repeat, certainly.
Next Xbox: Kinect
And what of Kinect, the cutting-edge technology Microsoft was so keen to push as the Xbox One’s key unique selling point just months ago, which now appears to have been all but forgotten?
“It’s not the fundamental platform feature that Microsoft was initially hoping for, and it won’t have as extensive an array of software that uses it as a result,” Hicks says.
“But it’s still a smart piece of tech, it can be used in very interesting ways, and it’s a distinctive asset for the platform. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some cool applications and games for it next year, once Xbox One is a bit more established sales-wise.”
Next Xbox: hardware
Yet while its rival PlayStation continues to explore new horizons for the PS4 and beyond with Project Morpheus, Playstation Now and Vita Cross-Play, Microsoft has a few other aces up its sleeve.
“Microsoft has always had an incredible R&D budget and will continue to invest in all sorts of new technology, whether for use itself or for licence elsewhere,” Hicks says.
“I suspect we’ll see Kinect return in some capacity; there will be other as yet unrevealed technology that will join it. I’ve been hearing for years that there was VR tech in development; there’ll be other stuff too. The original Kinect was an accessory added to the 360 very late on, and was hugely successful – Microsoft designed Xbox One specifically to support potential expansion of that sort. Ten years is a long time, you don’t design something to last that long without leaving it open to evolution.”
Whether we’ll see this new technology take shape during this console generation or next remains to be seen, but we do know that Illumiroom, a proof-of-concept projector system from Microsoft Research that augments the area around your TV to reflect what’s being show on your console – a visual version of surround sound, effectively – may well make a return along with the next Xbox, after Microsoft deemed it ‘too expensive’ to mass produce for the Xbox One.
The overall positive public response to Illumiroom isn’t something the company is likely to forget when it comes to brainstorming the new console, if it hasn’t already begun to.
A new console is a case of when rather than if, and with the lessons learned from the Xbox One’s launch, its subsequent evolution and rising sales, Microsoft couldn’t be in a better position to make the next console its most considered launch yet. We just might have to wait another seven years for it.