Xbox Series S: So What’s the Catch?
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Xbox Series S: So What’s the Catch?

Alex Kane
11 September 2020

Some developers fear the hidden long-term cost of Microsoft’s affordable next-gen box.

There’s no question that the Xbox Series S is an incredible value: a new generation of console games, the same 3.6-GHz processor found in the Series X, 60 to 120 frames per second.

Microsoft’s big talking points the last couple years have been about giving consumers more choices and breaking down barriers. The Series S takes aim at the barrier of cost in a time of great economic hardship.

Some of the folks who make the games, however, see the $299 next-gen Xbox as a potential problem in the long run.

Xbox Series S As a Technical Bottleneck

As reported by GamesRadar, Sasan Sepehr, a senior technical producer at Remedy, was among the first developers to express their apprehension about the Series S.

“As a consumer, I love this,” Sepehr said in a tweet. “As a technical producer, I see trouble.”

When a title’s made to launch on as many platforms as possible, and therefore has to be optimized to run properly on all of them, the game itself has to be built with the minimum specifications — the “weakest” hardware — constantly in mind.

“I can’t stop thinking about the fact that they’re releasing a lower-spec console that will serve as a bottleneck,” tweeted David Mickner, a multiplayer designer at Infinity Ward.

“Granted,” he adds, “transition into next gen is always bottlenecked by last gen for a while.”

In a now-deleted series of tweets, id Software’s principal engine programmer, Axel Gneiting, offered perhaps the best explanation of this whole issue.

“Every AAA game in the past decade or so has [its] assets made once so they run on min spec,” Gneiting said. “Increasing sample counts a bit here and there for high settings isn’t what you could truly have done with more power. Min spec matters.”

In other words, a game built for the next-gen Xbox, the PS5, and cutting-edge PCs will always be bound, to a large degree, by the limitations of the Series S. But will consumers really care?

Hobbyists certainly see the value of an expensive PC upgrade, ray-tracing effects, frame rates in the triple digits, and so on. I know I’m looking forward to playing my current library of games on the new Series X for improved performance and faster load times.

Of course, the Nintendo Switch’s runaway success also suggests there are more things to consider than just how big and flashy we can make things look with something like Unreal Engine 5 and juiced-up hardware. People care about games — game design, experiences, perhaps even stories.

And, somewhat anecdotally, we’re already seeing this same phenomenon play out in the current twilight generation.

If I play Destiny 2 on the Xbox One — the box I brought home back in December of 2013 or so — with a friend who’s got a fairly new Xbox One X, the differences in performance are plain to see. A game like Control or Jedi: Fallen Order might look phenomenal on the One X or PS4 Pro, but play it on an Xbox from 2013 or so, and the difference is likely noticeable to the average player.

With cross-platform progression, you can take that same Destiny 2 profile from a baseline Xbox One to Stadia or PC, and then you really get a sense of how messy the problem of multiplatform optimization can be. These games are massive, and massively complex, so two platforms can offer radically different experiences.

Sometimes, compromises simply have to be made.

“Xbox Series S was designed to be the most affordable next-generation console and play next generation games at 1440p, at 60fps,” a Microsoft spokesperson told VGC on Friday.

“To deliver the highest-quality backwards-compatible experience consistent with the developer’s original intent, the Xbox Series S runs the Xbox One S version of backward-compatible games while applying improved texture filtering, higher and more consistent frame rates, faster load times, and auto HDR.”

So, no, the Series S is not going to deliver the same experience as the Series X or PS5 in a smaller box. And it may, in the long term, cause big-budget developers some problems with scaling.

But in the current economic landscape, taking the most powerful console of all time and trying to squeeze an approximation of its capabilities into a $299 package seems worthwhile.

“If you look at it as an industry where the number of players is tripled in the last two decades, it should really be about removing barriers and friction,” Xbox head Phil Spencer told Variety last year.

“So that, as new people are coming into gaming, they find it easy to play with their friend across the street, or to find a new friend on another continent that they’ve never spoken to, using a game that’s created by someone they’ve never heard of.”

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