When designer Bryan Sparks explains the inspiration for the look and feel of the modern Xbox, he says he and his team went back to 1968, when a certain landmark Stanley Kubrick film hit theaters and changed how the world saw science fiction. “We had this vision in our minds of a monolith,” Sparks says, referencing the black, slab-like machine of extraterrestrial origin in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “In the movie, every time you see the monolith, it signifies this point of advancement.”
An industrial designer by trade, Sparks has long hair and a penchant for t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers in the workplace. Couple that with his tall wiry frame and he looks more like a professional skateboarder than the aesthetic mastermind behind Microsoft’s gaming hardware. The way he sees it, the signature look of last year’s gleaming white Xbox One S spoke to that idea of technological progress. It’s a look that the design team knew they had to keep when they designed the new, much more powerful Xbox One X, even more of a monolith with its matte black finish. Still, what Microsoft didn’t want “was for this to be a big block,” Sparks adds.
When discussing how he and his team designed the Xbox One X, Sparks says the process revolved around one pivotal benchmark. The new console had to be compact, more so than any comparable PC. In fact, it would need to be even smaller than the Xbox One S, itself a slim version of the original Xbox One. There was one big issue: the new console wouldn’t just have to be smaller, it also needed to be 40 percent more powerful.
To tell the story of how its Xbox team accomplished such a feat, Microsoft invited us up to its Redmond, Washington headquarters to give an inside look at the design process behind the Xbox One X. But the company was also willing to go beyond the question of how and into the question of why — why make such a device, and why now?
It’s a familiar arrangement. Since 2013, with the less-than-stellar Xbox One launch, Microsoft has sold the media, and by extension the public, on a message of redemption. Eager to explain its course corrections and transparent in acknowledging where it went wrong, Microsoft executives have in the past laid bare the corporate strategies behind its biggest gambles, like the (now failed) attempt at using the Xbox One as a Trojan horse for the living room and the more recent merging of its Xbox and Windows platforms. Starting in June of 2016, the company has seemingly gone all in on yet another promise: that the next Xbox console might be the last, at least as we think of console hardware generations today.
The Xbox One X, formerly known as Project Scorpio and arriving November 7th for $499, comes with what sounds like a simple pitch: to create the most powerful game console ever made. But that pitch becomes much more complicated when you take into account the industry the new console will live in. The device is an improvement, but it does not offer the same type of leap consumers saw when gaming jumped from 2D to 3D, from 64 bits to 128 bits, or from standard definition to high definition. Instead, the One X offers 4K gaming at higher frame rates, so long as you have a capable television set and so long as the game you’re playing has been optimized to take advantage of the new horsepower. It will not, as some fans had longingly hoped, play Steam games or run a full version of Windows 10.
More importantly, this new Xbox will be first in the history of Microsoft’s gaming business to straddle the line between an existing generation and a new one. Prior mid-cycle console upgrades have added more storage or sported a new, slimmer design. But the console business has always waited roughly six to seven years before completely starting from scratch with a new chip architecture, inevitably rendering older games unplayable on the new hardware. With the Xbox One X and Sony’s similar PlayStation 4 Pro, both of which are designed to play their entire respective libraries at various levels of fidelity and efficiency, we’re entering uncharted territory.
The question now is what these mid-cycle upgrades mean for consoles. Do they mark a move away from the current business model, toward something closer resembling the PC? Or are we seeing a more permanent constriction in the upgrade cycle that will turn a game console into something more akin to the smartphone — a device you upgrade wholesale every few years to a newer, faster model that still manages to run most older software?
Microsoft’s answer? Let’s wait and see.
“I think people misinterpreted some of what we said when we announced Project Scorpio about thinking beyond console generations,” says Albert Penello, Microsoft’s senior director of console marketing. Penello says he doesn’t think console generations, moments that mark big increases in performance, will go away. “I think that will exist in a form that is just different than it is today. Today, the devices are somewhat disposable.” It’s everything else — your games, your circle of friends — that should, in theory, remain constant. That’s a philosophy Microsoft is investing in heavily, with its backwards compatibility and Xbox Play Anywhere initiatives.
Yet for the company, even more is on the line with the success of the One X. After Microsoft fumbled the launch of the Xbox One, focusing more on entertainment than core games, Sony’s PlayStation 4 has been outselling it nearly two to one. Microsoft’s new device may be the most powerful console ever made, but if it can’t help close that gap, all that added power could be wasted on a player base that’s increasingly looking to play elsewhere. Then there’s the PC, perhaps the biggest existential threat to the One X, because it already plays most exclusive Xbox games while remaining more powerful than anything Microsoft or Sony produce for the living room.
Microsoft is willing to talk about the what and the why of the new hardware. But there’s an even more important question: who exactly is the Xbox One X for?
On a cloudless and sunny August day, Microsoft representatives welcome me and a group of other journalists into Building 87 at the company’s Redmond headquarters. The facility is a former on-site records warehouse that has since been converted into a hardware development and prototyping hub. It’s where the Zune MP3 player was designed and developed and where the Surface was first born as a massive tabletop touchscreen display.
Building 87 is maze-like, with winding halls and the occasional glass trophy case full of historic Xbox memorabilia. Deeper inside is a cavernous series of rooms containing everything from full-color 3D printers to precision water jet machines to injection mold makers. It’s an industrial designer’s playground and a paradise for the tinkerers and engineers now responsible for both the Xbox and Microsoft’s Surface business.
It’s here that Microsoft conceived what would become the Xbox One X, and the Xbox One S before it. We’re standing in what Leo Del Castillo, Microsoft’s general manager of Xbox hardware, calls the “campfire,” which is a collection of desks sporting massive computer monitors that sits in the middle of Building 87’s many hardware labs and prototyping stations. Just behind us is a wall of glass separating the workstations from numerous rows of gigantic machines…