Will the Xbox Series S hold back next-gen gaming? – The Verge

Will the Xbox Series S hold back next-gen gaming? by Tom Warren for The Verge

Ever since the official announcement of the Xbox Series S, I have been trying to comprehend how it will limit developers and consumers going forward into the next console generation. Tom Warren of The Verge seemed to have the same thoughts.

Microsoft revealed its Xbox Series S console last week, aiming to offer more budget-friendly next-gen gaming for $299. The console is specifically targeted at 1440p resolution rather than 4K, leading to some lingering questions and confusion around just how well it will play next-gen games. There are concerns around the GPU performance, memory, and whether the Series S could hold back next-gen gaming. I got a chance to speak with Jason Ronald, Microsoft’s director of Xbox program management, to dig into what’s really going on with the Xbox Series S.

 

Billy Khan, a lead engine programmer at id Software, shared Gneiting’s concerns. “The memory situation is a big issue on the S,” said Khan in another deleted tweet. “The much lower amount of memory and the split memory banks with drastically slower speeds will be a major issue. Aggressively lowering the render resolutions will marginally help but will not completely counteract the deficiencies.”

Sasan Sepehr, a senior technical producer at Remedy Entertainment, also shared a brief concern. “As a consumer, I love this,” said Sepher on Twitter. “As a Technical Producer, I see trouble.”

It is ironic that some of the quotes from this article were from id Software developers, which were just purchased by Microsoft this week. These concerns don’t seem to phase Microsoft though, at least on the surface.

“We did a lot of analysis of what it would really mean to run a game at 4K with 60fps and then to scale that down to 1440p at 60fps,” says Jason Ronald, Microsoft’s director of Xbox program management, in an interview with The Verge. “The reality is you don’t need as much memory bandwidth because you’re not loading the highest level MIP levels into memory. You don’t need the same amount of memory as well.”

While thinking about all the differences between the two new Xbox consoles, I kept switching tabs and sources to figure it all out. So to spare you the same fate, I whipped up a table below with all the specs for both the Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X officially from their product pages on Xbox’s website. I also threw in the PlayStation 5 specs to put it all in one place.

Xbox Series SXbox Series XPlayStation 5
Processor – CPU8X Cores @ 3.6 GHz (3.4 GHz w/SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPU8X Cores @ 3.8 GHz (3.66 GHz w/SMT) Custom Zen 2 CPUx86-64-AMD Ryzen Zen 2
8 Cores / 16 Threads
Variable frequency, up to 3.5 GHz
Processor – GPU4 TFLOPS, 20 CUs @1.565 GHz12 TFLOPS, 52 CUs @1.825 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU10.3 TFLOPS,
Variable frequency, up to 2.23 GHz Custom RDNA 2 GPU
System on a Chip (SOC) Size197.05 mm360.45 mm
Process7nm Enhanced
Memory (RAM)10GB GDDR6 128 bit-wide bus16GB GDDR6 w/320 bit-wide bus16GB GDDR6 w/256 bit¹
Memory Bandwidth8GB @ 224 GB/s, 2GB @ 56 GB/s10GB @ 560 GB/s, 6GB @ 336 GB/s448GB/s Bandwidth
Internal Storage512GB Custom NVME SSD1TB Custom NVME SSD825GB Custom SSD
I/O Throughput2.4 GB/s (Raw), 4.8 GB/s (Compressed, with custom hardware decompression block)2.4 GB/s (Raw), 4.8 GB/s (Compressed, with custom hardware decompression block)5.5GB/s (Raw), Typical 8-9GB/s (Compressed)²
Video Resolution1440p2160p (4K)2160p (4K)
FramerateUp to 120fpsUp to 120fpsUp to 120fps
1 & 2 – Taken from Eurogamer‘s report on PS5’s specs

I won’t pretend to know how each one of these differences measures up in game development. I’ll leave that to the people that actually make games. As someone with their ear to the ground regarding this industry though, I have a hard time hearing and believing the idea that native 4K gaming is a difference of 8 TFLOPS, 6 GB of RAM at significantly lower bandwidth. Xbox One X, which is both more and less powerful than the Xbox Series S, was capable of 4K gaming, a point Xbox used regularly in their marketing. Numbers don’t paint the whole picture, but I feel like they present a clear outline.

The Xbox Series S is the lowest common denominator for third party titles now. Not only do Xbox Game Studios have two SKUs to worry about, but third party developers like Activision and Ubisoft have to reign in their games for Xbox Series X and PS5 to make sure that the games run well on Xbox Series S. Maybe developers will build for the Xbox Series X and PS5, then figure out how to scale down to Xbox Series S, but that jeopardizes that lower-end version’s performance; both technically and possibly commercially.

We won’t really know how hamstrung design and development will be until we actually see the fruits of labor. Even then, it won’t necessarily be this year, especially with third party developers make cross-generational games, thus making the Xbox Series S actually a higher tier version of whatever game. We may get a taste of the restrictions, but probably won’t get a full, juicy comparison until a year or two into the generation. We are only 50 odd days out from the launch of the next-gen consoles, but I can’t help but feel like Xbox is already putting an arrow in the knee of next-gen development.

Microsoft Buys Bethesda for $7.5 Billion

Welcoming the Talented Teams and Beloved Game Franchises of Bethesda to Xbox by Phil Spencer for Xbox Wire

Microsoft is buying ZeniMax Media (Bethesda’s parent company) for $7.5 billion. This means Xbox now owns Elder Scrolls, Fallout, DOOM, Starfield, Wolfenstein, Dishonored, and much, much more. 

Disney bought Star Wars for $4.05 billion in 2012, which would apparently be $4.5 billion today

The Cross-Generational Bottleneck

In the bloody confusing aftermath of the PlayStation 5 stream, Sony confirmed that Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and Horizon Forbidden West are also launching on PS4. After believing in generations it seems that Sony also believes in its PS4 install base.

It’s no secret that I have voiced concerns about Xbox’s own public promise to support cross generational support for its Xbox consoles. The wider the range of supported hardware, the more work it is for the developers and the more it can limit the upward potential of the game. Now Sony has promised three major first party titles are cross generational.

This is great (just like it is for Xbox) for those consumers that don’y want to or can’t upgrade to the next gen consoles. You aren’t left behind. Nintendo has done this before with popular Zelda titles. It is definitely a win for consumers.

My concern stems from the development process. I may not know the ins and outs of making a video game, but I do know hardware is the determining factor in how far a game can go technically. When Xbox says that Halo Infinite will be playable across six different Xbox-focused platforms and then the practically infinite (heh) possibilities with PC, there has to be restrictions in the game’s design to make it work. It’s been like this in PC gaming forever.

Sony touted a belief in generations and making experiences only possible on new hardware. This gives devs the highest possible ceiling to shoot towards. Then after the PS5 price reveal, Sony announced that some of their new PS5 games would also be launching on PS4. I can just hear the cassette tape rewinding.

It would be entirely foolish for Sony to ignore their install base of 125+ million PS4 consoles. They never were just going to flip a switch and stop supporting their second best selling console when the PS5 launched. It’s the same as Nintendo with the DS, Wii, and 3DS.

Are these new games built on PS4 and crammed with PS5 enhancements or built PS5 and then scaled down for the PS4? It feels like to me that these have to be scaled up from the PS4 based off loading specifications of the PS5 SSD. The PS4 physically cannot match the performance there, creating a huge limitation.

Spider-Man makes sense to me. As I’ve previously pointed out, Insomniac and Spider-Man in particular have had a long lead time with the PS5 and its technology. It does strike me as odd to not announce this compatibility back when Miles Morales was announced. Either way, it’s a slight blow to the list of reasons to snag a PS5 at launch.

Sackboy also makes sense. I can’t imagine this cute platformer is really pegging the PS5 hardware for all it’s worth.

Horizon Forbidden West on the other hand; what a total surprise! I think this reveals quite a bit about Aloy’s next adventure. Right off the bat, I think that Forbidden West is a Spring 2021 game. Pair that with God of War in Holiday 2021 and Sony has a strong first year of PS5 titles. This also indicates that Forbidden West does not have game design and/or mechanics that require the PS5 hardware like a game like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and its instant world traveling mechanics.

This doesn’t mean Forbidden West is not goingn to take advantage of the PS5’s SSD or ridiculous I/O speeds or the 3D Audio Tempest Engine. I’m sure the game will run at 4K (possibly 60fps since it will be on PS4 too?). It’ll look and play great.

What it does mean is that Guerrilla is developing three versions (PS4, PS4 Pro, and PS5). They are automatically shackled by the restrictions of the eight-year-old PS4 in how far they can push their design. It also means more time for testing, optimization, and fixing bugs. They have to pour their time, energy, and focus into three versions instead of one. That is a developmental hurdle.

It still is a good transitional move for consumers, if the PS4 versions run and perform well. It would be a real mess if they PS4 versions ran poorly and weren’t even worth players’ time, but I highly doubt that’ll happen.

A key difference between Xbox and PlayStation here is the longevity of this cross-generational support. Xbox flat out promised first-party titles for two years. Sony has promised three launch window games. This gives Sony a blank check to fill in, either with more cross-gen titles or full-blown PS5 exclusives. God of War is a good option for the semi-near future. What check will they write Kratos?

Xbox could and probably will back out of this two year promise with some games. It’s already had questions pop up around it. Frankly, I think Xbox needs to cut ties with hardware support for Xbox One and somehow transition those consoles (Xbox One S and One X specifically) to xCloud boxes. Then, their hardware cap is mostly removed freeing up developers.

At some point, this bottleneck will naturally close. The PS4 will look at the rabbits by the river while the PS5 stands behind it and talks about the great farm where all the PlayStation consoles go. The same will happen for Xbox and the console cycles will go on. Heading into the next generation though, I’m not as confident of a shift transition as I was earlier this year. It was much easier when Cell architecture was involved.

PS5 Release Date, Pricing, and Launch Line-Up Revealed

The PS5 will launch on November 12, 2020 at $499.99 and the Digital PS5 will launch at $399.99. Pre-orders are live at certain retailers as of this writing (this has been sitting on my desktop for a few days). Here is the launch line-up from Sony:

  • Astro’s Playroom (Japan Studio) – pre-installed on PS5
  • Demon’s Souls (Bluepoint Games / Japan Studio) – US$69.99/¥7,900/€79.99 (RRP)
  • Destruction All Stars (Lucid Games / XDEV) – US$69.99/¥7,900/€79.99 (RRP)
  • Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (Insomniac Games) – US$49.99/¥5,900/€59.99 (RRP)
  • Marvel’s Spider-Man: Mile Morales Ultimate Edition (Insomniac Games) – US$69.99/¥7,900/€79.99 (RRP)
  • Sackboy A Big Adventure (Sumo Digital / XDEV) – US$59.99/¥6,900/€69.99 (RRP)

Finally…

Now with that sigh out of the way and it being replaced by the stress of waiting to see how preorders shake out, I want to explore the date and pricing options, because this generation is spicy.

The fact that the launch day being just two days after the Xbox Series X and S is a hoot. I believe this is the closest PlayStation and Xbox have launched new hardware to one another and it makes for an expensive week for the hardcore consumer.

As for the launch games, I am glad that Spider-Man is day one. I was surprised to see Demon’s Souls also make day one, but am stoked for my friends that love the Souls games. I can see myself snagging Sackboy since I’ll be wrapped up in the new console hype, but we shall see.

The pricing is far more intriguing. Sony hit the right price point by match Xbox at $500 for both PS5 Disc-Based and Series X. The real juicy bits come from the disc-less PS5 (aka Digital PS5) and the Xbox Series S. The digital PS5 is identical to the PS5, minus the disc drive (hence the name), but it comes in at $100 less. This allows Sony to technically undercut Xbox’s high-end offering. Sony may be eating the loss upfront, but over the course of the digital PS5, they will make more money since more, if not all sales, will go through their own store, earning them a larger cut.

The Xbox Series S on the other hand comes in at a cool $300, but has performance setbacks, mainly limiting its visuals to 1440p and Xbox One S levels of backward compatibility. There is a different amount of RAM and both a slightly less powerful CPU and GPU. Plays the same games, but not as well and for who knows how long. It’s like Xbox is launching a “phat” first gen console and the slim at the same time.

The other piece to the financial puzzle is Xbox’s installment plans (dubbed “Xbox All Access”) for the new consoles. For $25/month for the Series S and $35/month for the Series X, consumers can get the the latest console plus Game Pass, which includes all Xbox first party games and plenty of third party options. There is no up front cost and 0% APR. In two years, the console is theirs and they can chose whether or not to keep the Game Pass subscription, currently $15/month.

On store shelves, this makes for an unprecedented launch. Next gen consoles have a range of $200 from day one. Right out of the gate, consumers have four options with varying features. Not to mention the range in game prices. 4K is practically standard in all TVs these days. I’m not sure how the adoption rate compares to the jump from standard definition CRT televisions to flat-panel HDTVs, but I feel like 4K is more widely common since television prices can be dirt cheap.

Even if consumers have a 4K capable TV, do they care if their TV shows, movies, and games are in 4K? I’m not sure, millions were content with using a Wii for Netflix for years. If that’s how the mass market feels about 4K gaming, I can easily see the Series S dominating average consumer demand. On the flip-flop, Xbox actively advertises Game Pass, which now comes with xCloud. Over the next couple years, I imagine xCloud will be widely available on TVs, phones, etc. So will the average consumer simply opt for the monthly subscription service and just stream their Xbox games? Will this push people toward buying a PS5 as their dedicated gaming hardware?

The price range and slew of choices for consumers going into this console generation is unprecedented. Holiday sales may give a quick glimpse of longer term sales/market share, but I imagine supply will be low and demand high, just like it usually is for hot, new consoles.

Remembering Super Mario 64 DS

A great Super Mario 64 port already exists, on the Nintendo DS by Ana Diaz for Polygon

True fans have been asking for the King to return. The impending release of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection has had me walking down memory lane back to the summer after the release of Nintendogs in April 2004. I was getting ready to get my own DS and was extremely excited. One day after church, my Dad took me around town in his truck looking for an Electric Blue Nintendo DS just like my friend had gotten for his birthday. The plan was to buy the Electric Blue DS bundled with Super Mario 64 DS and snag a copy of Nintendogs too.

Unfortunately, the Electric Blue DS was a hot commodity in the summer of 2004 and every store we stopped at was sold out. Our last stop was a Walmart and they too were sold out, but they did have a Titanium Silver DS bundled with the Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt demo. I decided to buy that system instead of waiting to find the Electric Blue. This decision did force me to chose between Super Mario 64 DS and Nintendogs thought; two games I was incredibly eager to play. I ended up choosing Super Mario 64 DS and would end up getting Nintendogs later on.

I had played Super Mario 64 before at neighbor kids’ houses, but I never owned it myself (and wouldn’t until I bought it in college for $15). This portable remaster/upgrade was my first real introduction to the game. I must have played over 100 hours between the main game and all the multiplayer minigames with my friends. I absolutely loved this game growing up.

After the announcement of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, I decided to download a copy of Super Mario 64 DS on my Wii U. You read that right. The Wii U has a nicely curated selection of Nintendo DS games for $9.99 or less. I was fiddling around with the game, capturing some footage, and I realized how much this portable version actually changed from the N64 original. Ana Diaz puts highlights the changes in the linked post:

Mario 64 DS wasn’t just a carbon copy of the Nintendo 64 game. It added a plethora of new content. This included a whopping 30 new stars, entirely new areas, and secret stars. It brought in Yoshi, Luigi, and Wario as playable characters. It also boasted a catalog of 36 touchscreen-based minigames. Those are just some of the highlights.

I’m not here to say that more content is inherently better. What made this port work was that the new content enhanced and improved on the experience of the original game.

This strikes me as the kinda of remake in the same vein as Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. When remaking Metal Gear Solid for the GameCube, Silicon Knights decided to fuse the gameplay from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty with the original game’s setting and plot. While not necessarily a graphical powerhouse upgrade over the original, Super Mario 64 DS does add new gameplay elements and modernizes some of the original game while keeping its spirit. The one star per level structure was always a perfect format for portable play and Peach’s Castle shined on the DS.

It really is a bummer that Super Mario 64 DS really has never been properly acknowledged after its initial release. Maybe if Nintendo ever decides to truly remake Super Mario 64 (maybe with the Super Mario Odyssey engine), they’ll turn to the DS version instead as their foundation.