The next console generation is less than 18 months away, and Microsoft is starting to share a little more information about what it’s prioritizing for the next generation of Xbox consoles. Playability, load times, and backward compatibility for controllers and software are all top priorities for Redmond with the launch of Xbox Next.
“I think the area that we really want to focus on next-generation is frame rate and playability of the games,” Spencer told Gamespot:
Ensuring that the games load incredibly fast, ensuring that the game is running at the highest frame rate possible. We’re also the Windows company, so we see the work that goes on [for] PC and the work that developers are doing. People love 60 frames-per-second games, so getting games to run at 4K 60 [fps] I think will be a real design goal for us.
The thing that’s interesting is, this generation, we’ve really focused on 4K visuals and how we bring both movies through 4K Blu-ray and video streaming, and with Xbox One X allowing games to run at 4K visuals will make really strong visual enhancements next generation. But playability is probably the bigger focus for us this generation. How fast do [games] load? Do I feel like I can get into the game as fast as possible and while it’s playing? How does it feel? Does this game both look and feel like no other game that I’ve seen? That’s our target.”
This is more or less what ET predicted earlier this year. 60fps is a much more realistic target for the Xbox Next than the 240fps rumor that was going around. Despite various vague statements that the Xbox Next will support 8K, Spencer sensibly makes no mention of it as a gaming resolution target. There’s no chance a 2020 console will have a GPU powerful enough to support this resolution and we’re glad to see the company pivoting towards an emphasis on other aspects of gaming.
According to Microsoft, backward compatibility is a key pillar for Xbox moving forward. Xbox One, Xbox 360, and OG Xbox games will all continue to be supported on Xbox Next, Spencer told Gamespot. The company has promised that this backwards compatibility pledge extends to controllers as well, saying, “So really, the things that you’ve bought from us, whether the games or the controllers that you’re using, we want to make sure those are future compatible with the highest fidelity version of our console, which at that time will obviously be the one we’ve just launched.”
Will Microsoft Actually Push a 60fps Target?
Historically, there have been a handful of games that specifically targeted 60fps for console play, but it’s been an uncommon frame rate target. The Xbox One X and PS4 Pro expanded the list of titles that offered this frame rate by encouraging developers to release updates for new and existing games that would add new resolution options or the ability to play at higher frame rates than the base title supported. Actually moving the game industry (back) towards a 60 fps target, however, would be a feat.
There’s some reason to think both console manufacturers could pull it off. The Xbox Next and PlayStation 5 will both target performance levels above the existing Xbox One and PS4 Pro. The use of Ryzen and an RDNA-derived GPU for both platforms guarantees that the consoles will pack more performance, but the level of perceived visual quality improvement one console generation offers over the next has been shrinking every cycle. Instead of simply chasing improved levels of detail, Spencer wants developers to target smoothness and load times — two other objective areas where it’s possible to deliver major generational gains, particularly with SSDs being adopted for the first time.
One major question is how the 1080p/4K split will be addressed. Spencer refers to a 4K/60fps target, but 1080p still accounts for a large percentage of TVs sold and the install base for the older standard is enormous. The simplest way for Microsoft to handle a 1080p output limit is to render internally at 4K and then output at 1080p. This effectively applies supersampled AA to the entire image and would deliver a substantial improvement in image quality over standard 1080p. With the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, both Microsoft and Sony gave developers a variety of ways they could use the additional power of the newer consoles to punch up the base experience, and we expect a similar approach here. One of the advantages of having a powerful GPU paired with a lower-resolution display is that you can crank up secondary features like AA without worrying about the performance impact, and we’re hoping Microsoft brings some of that flexibility to its Xbox Next design.
The PC gamer in me can’t help noting that the already barely-there line between consoles and PCs will be even thinner next cycle. Consoles have provided backward compatibility before, but it’s often come up with qualifiers related to your hardware version and been limited to one previous platform. Microsoft isn’t just going to support Xbox One games on Xbox Next, it’ll continue supporting Xbox 360 and OG Xbox, as well as Xbox One peripherals. That’s exactly the kind of backward compatibility support we would expect when upgrading from PC build to the next and it’s nice to see consoles catching up after a few decades.
The flip side, of course, is that the console-versus-PC debate gets goofier every generation. At this point, you might as well just ask “controller or keyboard?” (keyboard, natch). Functionally, at the hardware level, we’re all gaming on PCs.