How Microsoft's obsession with power gave the PS5 a free hit – Reader’s Feature

A reader suggests that Microsoft’s current problems are due to it putting too much emphasis on hardware power and not enough on its developers.

A recent poll showed that 84% of gamers are more excited for the PlayStation 5 over Xbox Series X, and that would indicate that the UK is following the trend of the majority of countries outside the United States in a lopsided preference for Sony consoles. Many are beginning to suspect that Microsoft are moving towards getting out of the hardware business and move to an exclusively service-based platform, but for now are still entangled in a PR battle with their biggest rival over who has the better machine.

Microsoft’s early campaign had been very strong. By playing to the strengths of the Xbox Series X, the initial message over what to expect was very clear: most powerful, best graphics. This was the narrative Microsoft were running with and they had made plenty of ground. Following the PlayStation 5 games showcase Microsoft had their own showcase, and that’s where all the good work seemingly backfired.

The display did not match the narrative, not only visually but in the extreme lack of any gameplay or anything actually running on the Xbox Series X at all. Surely Microsoft would have been informed of what was being displayed at the showcase, so where did it all go wrong? I believe the problem stems back years before the Xbox Series X.

To cut a long story short, back in 2013 Microsoft were sorely one upped by the PlayStation 4’s superior architecture, and it was a slight that wouldn’t go unanswered. When it became apparent that both consoles were to have a mid-generation upgrade, Microsoft invested heavily in order to have the console they could market as ‘the most powerful console of all time’.

This resulted in releasing the Xbox One X a year after the far more modestly upgraded PS4 Pro. Whilst being sold at a loss, and doing very little to pick up console sales, Microsoft at least had the mantle of ‘most powerful console’. However, this egocentric marketing focus left many more important matters neglected.

By 2017, Microsoft’s exclusive content had slowed to a mere dribble; many IPs from the Xbox 360 catalogue left in dust and the strength of their studios undermaintained. There was plenty of bluster about the Xbox One X’s power but due to the lack of driver support on many games, examples of its superiority over the PS4 Pro were inconsistent to say the least.

Meanwhile, Sony’s PlayStation 4 was now miles ahead in sales, the PS4 Pro was reportedly profitable, and their range of console exclusives and first party output were going from strength to strength. In particular, their investment in their talent was paying off and the generation was a decisive win for Sony’s hardware and software.

It’s now 2020 and once again Microsoft are gunning for the crown of ‘most powerful’, but have made significantly more effort to bolster their first party ranks as well as putting an emphasis on their Game Pass service. However, this time round they’ve gone one further than the semantic advantage of power and are fiercely trying to demonstrate this superiority by way of performance metrics: 4K and 60 frames per second.

How the capabilities of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X match up at this point is actually still quite murky, since there is much about the machine’s features that are yet unconfirmed. As I indicated in a previous Reader’s Feature, the raw specs don’t tell the whole story. But to take those at face value compared to what is true of other architectures you can expect the Xbox Series X can push for resolutions up to 10% higher than the PlayStation 5. In real terms, this means three or six extra frames a second, and that simply doesn’t qualify for higher resolution settings without serious compromises.

Pushing more pixels on screen for the sake of being able to say it’s native 4K is a mistake if you can’t muster enough quality into those pixels. Native 4K 60 frames per second is something that is extremely demanding even for GPUs far more expensive than that of the Xbox Series X. If 60 frames per second is desirable, then checkerboard rendering or artificial up-sampled 4K are far less costly options that can achieve a display fairly indistinguishable from native 4K.

Ironically, the technical analysis YouTube channels that probably drove a lot of Microsoft’s insecurity with resolution comparisons back in 2013 (NX Gamer, Digital Foundry, etc.) are actually strong advocates for using these up-sampling techniques where possible. If not up-sampling techniques then 1440p is still a generational leap from 1080p.

The graphical horsepower isn’t the only limiting factor. Talent, time, resource and dedication are also key to delivering the proper optimisation to ensure a balance between resolution and immersive graphics. Judging by the accounts of employees at the studio developing Microsoft’s most important upcoming game, it would appear this obvious philosophy has evaded the software giants.

The employee reviews of 343 Industries on are quite a fascinating read. Whilst reviews of this nature should always be taken with a pinch of salt, the consistency of particular complaints in negative and positive reviews alike are a damning indicator of the state the studio is in. One of the most frequent complaints is a Microsoft led policy of using temporary contractors for cheaper labour over investing in permanent talent, which leads to various problems – continuity and morale amongst them.

Another of the most recurring issues in the reviews are the tools that are being used; the developer software, the codebase and the engines used are described as ‘broken’ and ‘outdated’. There’s various other complaints aimed at management, criticising not pushing back on Microsoft’s unreasonable demands and generally creating what is repeatedly called a ‘toxic’ atmosphere. Delays and impending crunch are mentioned in reviews going back before 2020, and given the poor quality of the showing of Halo Infinite at the games showcase I think there’s sufficient evidence that these reviewers’ comments are legitimate.

While it certainly seems that 343 Industries has a decent amount of internal problems, it’s also apparent that Microsoft are culpable for their policies and demands. At the very least Microsoft has severely neglected the development of their marquee title for the past few years, all the while being consumed with winning the ‘most powerful’ paper championship.

It resulted in a poor showcase for what the Xbox Series X is capable of and gave rise to the now infamous Craig the Brute meme that’s being used as a stick by Sony fans to beat the Xbox Series X with. It’s important to realise, regardless of what platform a gamer might prefer, that competition in the market is good for gamers. For this reason we should all hope that Microsoft can get their priorities straight and deliver.

By reader Twiggy Smalls

This Reader’s Feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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