Console gamers: Microsoft’s Project Scorpio is not for you

Earlier this week Microsoft announced Project Scorpio, a new version of the Xbox One due out in the Fall of 2017. Microsoft made some bold promises: Scorpio will do 4K gaming and be fully VR ready. We’ve seen a variety of reactions from existing Xbox One users. Some (like me) are excited about Scorpio while others feel betrayed by the fact that Scorpio will render their existing Xbox One “obsolete.”

I have a theory: I don’t think Microsoft expects the majority of XB1 owners to upgrade, at least not right away. I think Scorpio is a machine for PC gamers. Here’s how my crackpot theory works.

First, price. Scorpio isn’t going to be a $300 console. In order to do real 4K gaming it’s going to have to be in the $500-$1000 range. Console gamers will clutch their chests in panic at that price but hardcore PC gamers who’re used to spending $400-$500 for a state of the art graphics card upgrade won’t be quite as shocked. My prediction is that, at launch, a base Scorpio will be $749 and a bundle with an Oculus Rift will be $999.

So price is a kind of tangential point. What’s more interesting is the fact that starting this fall many Microsoft-published games will be “Play Everywhere.” What that means is you buy the Xbox One version and you get the Windows 10 version for free. That’s how Microsoft is pitching this now, but of course it works the other way around, too. These games also support cross-platform play. Xbox One and Windows 10 users play on the same servers and your save games will work on both platforms as well.

Now Microsoft can start marketing titles like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 to Windows 10 users. So here I am, Joe PC Master Race, and I buy Forza Horizon 3. Now I need an Xbox Live account, so I sign up for that. And I start playing online and starting building a Friends list as I meet interesting people. [Topic for another post: will Windows 10 players need a paid Xbox Live Gold sub to play online? Anyone know?]

And even though as a PC gamer I don’t really think about it, I’m also starting to build an Xbox One gaming library. As a PC gamer I have no interest in the Xbox One with its feeble innards. It struggles to do 1080P gaming at a decent frame rate! Not a machine for me!

But now here comes Project Scorpio, and now Microsoft is pitching it to me in almost the same way Valve has been pitching Steam Machines. Here’s a way to take your Windows 10 games and play them from the comfort of your couch, at the same framerates and resolutions you’re accustomed to. You already have a library of games you can play on it. You already have a community of friends to play with. All you really need is to buy the box.

Oh and as a bonus you can play 4K Blu-ray discs and the family can watch Netflix and Hulu on it too. And if you’ve always been kind of curious about all the fuss around Halo, you can run that too as long as you have the console anyway. And yes, Scorpio will support mouse and keyboard if you still hate controllers.

Over time of course Scorpio will drop in price and little by little the existing Xbox One audience will upgrade and soon enough, in Microsoft’s ideal scenario, the Xbox One gaming community and the Windows 10 gaming community will become one big happy family buying stuff through the Xbox Store.

So that, I think, is Microsoft’s long-term plan. And I do think it’s a long-term plan. “Play Everywhere” is the first step, Scorpio is the second, but it’s going to be a long-term play to get everyone in the same pool.

Disclaimer: I have no inside knowledge, this is all as much a ‘thought experiment’ as anything. I just don’t know how Microsoft will successfully market a $750 console to console gamers. (Though don’t get me wrong…I’m getting one!) I think PC gamers are their only viable market, at least during the launch window for Scorpio.

Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel

Last week on the day Forza 4 came out, I was poking around in Best Buy (a favorite way to kill time on my lunch hour) and I saw this weird U-shaped contraption in the same ‘end cap’ display case as Forza: The Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel [MWSW]. My first thought was that it was just a prop for Kinect, like the plastic Wii steering wheel that you snap the Wii Remote into. Then I saw it was $60 and figured it had to be more. I was vaguely intrigued and more so when Scott from Pumping Irony mentioned he had one pre-ordered.

This week I was back in Best Buy and now they had an Xbox station set up running the Forza 4 demo with the MWSW. I gave it a whirl and it actually felt pretty good. Much better than I thought it would. I was in need of a bit of retail therapy anyway, and the next thing you know (OK truth? I had to go to 3 stores to find it in stock. Target had it) I’m the owner of a copy of Forza 4 and the wheel.

Last night I spent a few hours driving with it, and I continue to be impressed, but let’s get the bad news out of the way first. There’re no bumper buttons and no jack for a headset. I don’t care about the latter but it was enough to cause Scott to cancel his pre-order. I do miss the buttons; they aren’t used while driving in Forza but they are used while navigating the interface. Also in other parts of the game where you’d use the right analog stick to move the camera around…you’re out of luck. The Wheel has no analog sticks.

This wouldn’t be a huge issue except that (unless I’m missing something) the Xbox 360 is stupid about having two controllers connected at the same time, without two Xbox Live accounts to go with them. Switching between Wheel and standard controller was a hassle, forcing me to constantly log in to my Xbox Live account each time I picked up the other controller. Eventually the system got so confused that the main display thought I was logged in but the pop-up ‘blade’ display [what do you call that?] thought I wasn’t.

I’m no Xbox 360 guru so if there’s a better way of handling this I’d love to hear it. I don’t mind setting down one controller and grabbing another between races if I don’t have to do all this logging in and out.

So that’s the bad stuff. The good? The wheel works really well when actually racing in Forza 4. I could hold a line nicely and my lane transitions were very smooth. At the end of each arm of the U, underneath, is a trigger. The right is for gas, the left is for brakes. There’s a D-pad on the tip of the left arm, used for shifting, and the face buttons are on the tip of the right, used for handbrake, clutch, look back and rewind. The game defaulted to a manual transition and I decided, for once, to stick with it. Shifting quickly came to feel natural; as you hold the Wheel your thumb rests easily on that D-pad.

How you hold the wheel doesn’t matter (in Forza at least). You can hold it up vertically or almost rest it horizontally in your lap. I thought my arms would get tired after a while but that wasn’t really a problem. Sometimes I’d rest the base of it on my lap while driving. You can also easily scratch your nose in the middle of a race…steering one-handed for a few seconds isn’t a problem using the wheel.

The wheel is heavier than you might expect it to be but that gives it some…inertia maybe? I think if it was any lighter you’d lose some stability. Eventually one hand started to cramp a little bit but I think that was due to my deathgrip on the thing during tense racing action. 🙂

According to the docs, the wheel can read pitch and yaw in games that require it to, so presumably it’d be a good controller in flight or space games too.

I do think Forza 4, or other games that have a simulation feel, would be a better fit than an arcade racer where you’re throwing your car violently into turns or ramming other cars off the road. The wheel feels like it’s better for finesse than for radical movements, and Forza 4 is a game of finesse. You rarely have to turn more than (total guesstimate) 20 degrees. Turning the wheel more than 90 degrees would feel really awkward.

As a test, at the end of the night I put down the wheel and picked up the controller and went back to Forza 4. Sure enough, my driving suffered. Maybe you’re better than I am, but I find in driving games my car tends to wobble a bit as I push the analog stick through the dead zone and then over-steer slightly as I leave the dead zone. I can correct of course but it doesn’t feel or look like real driving. With the wheel my replays look like there’s a person actually driving the car.

If you have a force-feedback steering wheel, I’m sure that’s going to be better than the MWSW. But for those of us without the room for a proper wheel and pedal setup, in my opinion the Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel is a better alternative to driving with a standard controller.