Opinion: Microsoft, Admit Your Mistake

First, let me be clear. I have both new consoles as well as my gaming PC. If anything, this gives me greater authority to express my utter frustration with the company who promised to deliver me a “true next generation experience”.

The Mistake

It is 2014. 1080p should not be a talking point. It should be an expectation. To suggest that this is greedy in any way is a suggestion steeped in ignorance and incompetence. The latest victim of this “resolutiongate” is the game hailed as the Xbox One’s killer app, Titanfall. Titanfall is a game powered by Source Engine, possibly one of the lightest engines in terms of resource cost and features. Yet Titanfall, the game meant to be the reason to buy an Xbox One, fails to run at 1080p.

There is no denying this one truth: the Xbox One is a weak machine compared to its competition and certainly when compared with PCs. Microsoft made a mistake and were far too conservative with their design. They did not take enough gambles. Instead of putting forth a truly next generation gaming machine, their focus on entertainment proves to be the greatest blunder and weakness of the Xbox One. Microsoft continues to hammer home the point of providing a great experience while downplaying and flat out ignoring the power problem. In reality, this lack of horsepower has led consumers to not get the next generation experience they were promised.

This is wrong. Microsoft needs to swallow their pride and admit their mistake.

“Gameplay Is More Important Than Graphics”

This is the long-held counterargument and defense of a gamer attempting to downplay the power problem. It is important to note that this argument is not specific to Xbox One owners, rather, the gamer in general, especially when defending against PCs. However, this argument is perhaps more relevant to the Xbox One fanboy now more than ever.

Allow me to derail your rashly thought out and emotionally reactionary argument. Gameplay is affected by power and as such, is affected by graphics. How is this the case? Let us examine a recently released title, one that was specifically tuned for the new consoles, Tomb Raider Definitive Edition.

The Definitive Edition runs at 1080p60 on PS4 but at 1080p30 on Xbox One – half the framerate. There is a big gameplay difference between 30fps and 60fps, the latter providing a far smoother experience than the former. More so, the smoother framerate naturally allows for quicker reaction to in-game events simply due to less latency.

What does this boil down to?  The gameplay is tied to the power of the machine. More power equals smoother framerate. Smoother framerate equals better gameplay  – the very thing the fanboy argument claims is more important.

To all the Xbox fanboys crying out that “only gameplay matters”, you should be enraged at Microsoft because of the inferior Tomb Raider gameplay experience you received when compared to the competition. To not do so only serves to demonstrate the hypocrisy in your “gameplay is more important than graphics” battlecry and is anathema to your delusional ethos.

Practice what you preach.

Cross-Platform Woes

Let us examine cross platform titles. The recently released Titanfall, Thief, Plants vs Zombies (this game looks really fun), Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, and Battlefield 4 all fail to hit that native 1080p output resolution on Xbox One. Mind you, Battlefield 4 does not hit 1080p on the PS4 – another discussion entirely – but the point is that these titles are available on Wii U (some of them), PS4, and PC. Yes, the PC, that oft forgotten, jealously derided, empirically superior machine. But I digress, for the hatred and jealousy console purists express towards the PC is a different topic entirely.

In fact, many first party titles fail to hit 1080p, including Ryse and Dead Rising 3. The only 1080p60 first party title is Forza Motorsport 5. But even here, in my favorite racing game, the final retail build of Forza 5 was so gutted from its E3 build that side by side, one would think he is looking at a cross generation version of the same game.

This may sound like hateful bashing, but really, it is simply pointing to some harsh, irrefutable truths. Simply put, most cross platform titles are visually inferior on the Xbox One compared to the PS4, its most direct competition.

This isn’t trolling. It’s an observation, one that Xbox diehards either fail to recognize else revert back to the “gameplay trumps graphics” argument. In both cases, it’s a lose/lose situation.

ESRAM…Why?

First, what is ESRAM? ESRAM is static random access memory, that is, a type of memory that is much faster than traditional DRAM (dynamic access memory). It’s considered “static” because unlike traditional memory, ESRAM does not need to be refreshed.

In theory, ESRAM should be brilliant. In fact, the real-world bandwidth of the ESRAM in the Xbox One is 140-150 GBps. This, combined with the bandwidth from the DDR3 memory, comes out to a total system bandwidth of around 200 GBps. This is more than the PS4’s 176 GBps bandwidth. On paper, this sounds great.

Here’s the problem. The ESRAM in the Xbox One is only 32 MB. This is simply not enough to push through full 1080p. Many developers, including Sniper Elite 3 devs Rebellion Games, are struggling to push full 1080p through the Xbox One due to the ESRAM. Says Rebellion Games’ Jean-Baptiste Bolcato:

“It was clearly a bit more complicated to extract the maximum power from the Xbox One when you’re trying to do that. I think eSRAM is easy to use. The only problem is…Part of the problem is that it’s just a little bit too small to output 1080p within that size. It’s such a small size within there that we can’t do everything in 1080p with that little buffer of super-fast RAM.”

It is natural to think that some of this may be alleviated in future firmware updates. However, even here, there is reason for concern.

“They are releasing a new SDK that’s much faster and we will be comfortably running at 1080p on Xbox One. We were worried six months ago and we are not anymore, it’s got better and they are quite comparable machines. The Xbox One is a bit more multimedia, a bit more hub-centric so its a bit more complex. There’s stuff you can and can’t do because it’s a sort of multimedia hub. PS4 doesn’t have that. PS4 is just a games machine.”

This is a problem. It appears that the ESRAM is bottlenecking the system, preventing 1080p throughput, among other things. This also brings me back to my earlier point. Microsoft was too conservative. Had Microsoft opted for a simpler, unified GDDR5 memory solution, this whole issue may have been completely avoided.

It is worth noting that GDDR5 memory is the same type of memory found in PC graphics cards. Why? GDDR5 is ideal for graphics processing, you know, the one thing that consoles need to do…

The Kinect Problem

I’m going to be blunt here. Microsoft, you need to forget the Kinect. None of your core audience likes it. It adds $100 to the price. Crucially, it uses a precious 10% of the GPU. Even reducing Kinect to require only 2% of the GPU is a stopgap at best.  Why? Reducing the resource requirement of Kinect does not change the fact that the Xbox One GPU operates at fewer FLOPS than the PS4 GPU. You can’t change hardware like that.

What’s worse, I can’t shake the feeling that instead of wasting time and resource dollars to develop this useless peripheral, Microsoft could have invested in faster RAM and a more powerful APU. Consider the fact that there is only one true Kinect exclusive on the market right now. And no one cares about it.

The Future

You get the feeling that the Xbox One was designed by detached executives who are so far removed from their target audience. There is no sense of passion, no sense of devotion, no delivery of that next gen promise with this machine. It is a complete and utter disappointment, one that Microsoft should be ashamed to call “next generation”.

This does not bode well for the the future. Future games will only get more complex. Graphics techniques will only get more demanding. The Xbox One will not cut it.

But, for all my disappointment, for all my utter frustration and disgust with Microsoft, I do in fact have a solution to propose. You didn’t think this was going to be a hate-filled diatribe, did you?

In principal, consoles are very simplified focused PCs. As such, designing them using exotic hardware and architecture is completely counter to what these machines aim to provide to not just the gamer, but also the developer. A developer should never have to fight with the hardware.

I strongly believe that consoles should have the same hardware and architecture as each other. Hardware parity is a must. This shifts the focus of competition from hardware to software and services. It is here where consoles should compete with each other – not on the hardware level.

Otherwise, we will be consumed by these “resolutiongate” distractions that are corrosive to the gamer, developer, and industry at large. Shifting the differentiation from hardware to software and services focuses the competition on the right stuff – providing the gamer with a truly next generation experience.

One can hope.

2 comments

  • Microsoft fan boys do not read this lol great article wish Microsoft did better with the Xbox one I like the 360 better than the Xbox one

  • As usual, you bring up some really good points Shank. But I can’t help but feel that while you are not wrong, in reality, you and I and probably everyone else that visits this site, aren’t really Microsoft’s target audience anymore. Yes, the Xbox One is still first and foremost a gaming machine, but from what I’ve seen, they are moving away from that as fast as they can. Instead of going for the hardcore gamer, who may have been their original adopter, they have shifted their focus toward the more casual gamer. They aren’t looking to draw in the people that buy 3 games a month and play 10 hours a day anymore.

    I think Microsoft is looking to take those casual gamers, and provide them with a great way to cut down on clutter in their living rooms. They also want to pull in non-gamers, the people who spend 10 hours a day watching tv or netflix/hulu, and if you are part of that demographic, the part that doesn’t care if they can play the latest game at 1080p and 60 fps, it’s probably a really great deal.

    While it’s definitely possible to buy a computer that can do all that extra stuff for possibly less money, most people don’t see computers as a living room device, and having everything be super easy to use, with voice controls and skype and such, it is easy to see why it could be popular.

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