Entertainment·Analysis

New Xbox, PlayStation consoles will shake up gaming biz, but how much is hard to tell

With more powerful versions of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 due out next year, will gamers need to buy a new console with smartphone-like frequency?

Will gamers need to buy new consoles with smartphone-like frequency?

The Xbox One S is on display at the Xbox Media Showcase at E3 2016 in Los Angeles. (Casey Rodgers/Invision for Microsoft/Associated Press)

In the span of a week, the video game console market got a little more complicated.

On Monday at Microsoft's E3 press conference, Xbox head Phil Spencer unveiled the Xbox One S, a slimmer version of the company's current Xbox One console.

It's significantly smaller than the current model, drops the need for a giant power brick, and will be able to play 4K blu-rays and streaming video.

This isn't new for the console video game market. Companies have been releasing redesigned versions of their existing machines a few years after the release of the original since the 1980s

Things got more complicated with Microsoft's second announcement. Spencer unveiled Project Scorpio, the working name for a more powerful version of the Xbox One scheduled for release in 2017 holiday season.

Scorpio "will be the most powerful console ever created," according to a Microsoft press release, adding that it will be able to support games in 4K resolution, a step up from the current 1080o standard, as well as what it calls "high fidelity virtual reality."

'No one gets left behind'

Spencer stressed the fact that these new devices would form a family of concurrent devices, and that anyone who bought an Xbox One in the last few years wouldn't be forced to upgrade if they don't want to.

"As part of the Xbox One family all your games will work, no Scorpio exclusives, so no one gets left behind," tweeted Xbox marketing head Aaron Greenberg.

It's happened to Microsoft before. The original Xbox launched in 2001, and was replaced by the Xbox 360 only four years later. In that case, brand loyalists needed to upgrade if they wanted to play the newest games.

The Xbox One S was announced alongside a new version of the controller, which comes with Bluetooth functionality and a new textured surface for better grip. (Microsoft)

The announcement mirrors news from Sony last week. Sony Interactive Entertainment's Andrew House confirmed that the company is also working on a more powerful version of the PlayStation 4, code-named Neo. It will also be able to play games at 4K resolution.

Early estimates peg the Scorpio as significantly more powerful than the PS4 Neo, but with little concrete information to go on it's impossible to know what games will look like on either of them.

It's entirely possible that future games will look great on the Scorpio or Neo, but have choppy frame rates on the weaker standard versions. On the flipside, the Scorpio and Neo might only be able to display the full splendour of 4K gaming on the most expensive 4K televisions. It's just too early to tell right now.

Xbox lags behind PlayStation

For Microsoft, it's a chance to regain momentum in the console race. The company has sold 20 million units since 2013, while Sony has sold 40 million PS4s in the same amount of time.

Having two models would allow them to appeal both to cost-conscious shoppers and power users who will jump at every new iteration, much like hardcore smartphone users who buy a new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy every year.

A man holds a Sony PlayStation 4 after purchasing it at a Chicago store in 2013. He may have to do it again soon, because Sony confirmed it's working on a new, more powerful version of the console. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

It's the best case scenario for Microsoft and Sony — you won't need to buy a new machine every year or two, but their most loyal fans with deep pockets will jump at the chance.

For anyone looking to buy an Xbox as a gift this holiday season, the XB1S is probably the best choice. Starting at $399 with a 500 GB hard drive, it's the same price as other current Xbox and PlayStation bundles, and you'll look far more fashionable with the shiny new version.

Especially thrifty buyers will probably find the original model for cheaper and still be able to play all games for the platform, just like on the XB1S.

Xbox on Windows 10 PCs, too

Beyond expanding the Xbox One "family," every new, first-party game announced at E3 will be playable both on Xbox One and Windows 10 computers. They'll come with "cross-buy" compatibility, too — buy it on one, and you'll get it for free on the other.

This opens up franchises that were previously only available on the Xbox, such as Forza Horizon and Gears of War, to PC players who don't have an Xbox.

Lydia Winters and Sax Persson announce Minecraft Realms at the Xbox E3 2016 briefing on Monday in Los Angeles. (Casey Rodgers/Invision for Microsoft/Associated Press)

The company even showed off multi-platform support for Minecraft at their press conference. In an unusually brand-agnostic display, two presenters played the popular blocky adventure game on a Microsoft Surface Pro table and an Apple iPad. They were soon joined by Oculus's John Carmack, wearing a Samsung Gear VR headset.

"Microsoft seems to be admitting it no longer cares where you play your games, so long as you're within Microsoft's ecosystem," writes Kotaku's Patrick Klepek.

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