Microsoft and Sony will launch the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 later this year. While their hardware improvements are hard to argue with, they’re arriving in an unprecedented era of media consumption: Netflix on iPhones, Kindle on tablets, Spotify on PC, all three interchangeable on each piece of hardware. As videogames follow that same path, the primacy of the specced-out console itself seems increasingly in doubt.
After all, tweens who play Fortnite already know that everything can be a console. It’s a vision Xbox itself is championing. Yet at the dawn of a new era of consoles, it’s hard not to wonder whether these mega-powerful boxes we plant in our living rooms will even exist in 10 years. Despite its massive push for the Xbox Series X, Microsoft is hedging its bets that a decade from now more and more gamers will be taking a “no gods, no masters” approach to where and how they play. Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, thinks whether consoles will exist in 10 years is the wrong question to ask.
“In the long run, to me, it’s a question about the viability of the television,” said Spencer last week in an interview with WIRED. “There’s this calculus, this chess match we’re playing,” says Spencer. “It’s no longer checkers.”
Spencer’s chess match isn’t against Sony or Nintendo; it’s against the ever-changing trends in how 2 billion gamers worldwide consume media. When the Xbox Series X arrives in stores later this year, it will become a part of Xbox’s chimera approach—alongside its cloud gaming service, Project xCloud, and Xbox Play Anywhere—to capture gamers wherever they are. With xCloud, you’ll pay a currently undefined subscription to stream AAA games onto your mobile phone and tablet. With Xbox Play Anywhere, you can buy, say, Forza Horizon 4 and play it on both Xbox One and Windows 10 on PC.
“We're going to be focusing on the player and the devices that they have that fit in their lifestyle,” says Spencer.
When the Xbox Series X launches, it will be the console maker’s most powerful game machine yet. For spec fetishists, it’s got a custom processor that’s four times more powerful than the Xbox One’s. It will support up to 120 frames per second, and its GPU can handle an enormous 12 teraflops of GPU performance. For those uninterested in teraflops, some exciting features: “quick resume,” which lets players suspend and return to games almost instantly, and an exhaustive library of backward-compatible games. There’s no price tag attached to it yet, though. (The Xbox 360 launched at $400 and the Xbox One was $500.) Customers will be paying for an oblong black box that smoothly runs high-end games with an easy-to-use user interface and satisfying quality- of-life features—all of which may get outdated in a couple of years should Xbox launch, say, a Series Y.
For years, Xbox has been chipping away at the historical borders delineating how we play games. It was an early champion of cross-play—when gamers can play online games together across consoles—for games like Minecraft and Rocket League when Sony in many cases was not. (Once, in 2017, when Sony accidentally turned on Fortnite cross-play between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Spencer tweeted, “I would have liked to see them leave it on.”) You were a PlayStation person and you meandered around their walled garden, where you played the games exclusive to the PlayStation console. Or you were an Xbox person and you lived in the walled garden next door. “This world where the hardware you bought keeps us from being able to play together seems totally foreign in today’s world,” says Spencer, describing “walled gardens” as “such a 1990s construct.” (There’s arguably more in it for Xbox to want to tear down those boundaries; for a lot of gamers, Sony’s plot of land has more appealing exclusive games.)
Spencer recalls some backlash from “traditional console purists” when Xbox decided to start simultaneously shipping first-party games on PC and console a couple years ago. For them, he explained, “a console comes out every five years: I take my old hardware, and I put it and all of the games in a cardboard box and go put that in a closet. And I buy all new games for this new piece of hardware. And that's the way a console should be.”
Today, consoles aren’t the most popular way to play games; phones are. The image of the mobile gamer is changing a lot as the years go on, too, from an idle mom poking away at Candy Crush to a dedicated teenager headshotting opponents in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. As Xbox moves further into markets like Africa and India, Spencer theorizes that populations who typically enjoy entertainment on mobile devices and tablets aren’t going to buy a television and a gaming console to plug into the wall. They’re going to want to play Sea of Thieves on hardware they already own. Sure, it may not be a perfect experience. (Until 5G rolls out, cloud gaming will suffer from issues around bandwidth and latency.) But movies, television, and music are all becoming more and more device-agnostic. Why not games?
“You and I might watch Netflix. I don’t know where you watch it, where I watch it, but we can have conversations about the shows we watch,” says Spencer. “I want gaming to evolve to that same level.”
Then, of course, there’s the PC, a piece of hardware that Microsoft already looms large over with Windows. A cheap gaming PC can cost just a little more money than an Xbox. It can run a huge range of videogames, including those never released on Xbox, and if you’re really in love with the Xbox controller, it takes a couple of seconds to plug one into your USB port. In any case, Xbox’s famous Game Pass—a great deal on dozens of games for $5 a month—is available on PC, too. A cheap PC probably won’t run games nearly as well as an Xbox Series X, and it definitely doesn’t have the same brand charisma. So why isn’t an Xbox just a PC in your living room?
“To some people, it is,” says Spencer. “Other than people whipping out a keyboard and mouse and composing an email, a lot of what happens on our console is similar to what happens on a PC.” Relative to a PC, though, Spencer says that what Xbox needs to do is “have a UI that works on a television, an input mechanism that works on a television.”
Spencer paints the Xbox Series X and the “game anywhere on stuff you have” pitches as complementary rather than cannibalistic. “I don’t think it’s ‘hardware agnostic’ as much as it’s ‘where you want to play,’” he says. Which makes sense: The more ways to play, and the more services Microsoft provides, the more repeatable revenue flowing into Microsoft’s coffers. After the hype around the Xbox Series X cools down and the hardware-content singularity approaches, it’s possible that many of the people opting to play Xbox games will do so on everything except the Xbox. It seems fair to ask whether this generation of dedicated consoles will be the last.
“I like watching TV. I like playing games on TV. It's where I play most of the time,” says Spencer. “I think there will be—for a long time—a world where people want to play on a television, and we're committed to that and we will deliver great console experiences. I don't think Xbox series X is our last console. I think we will do more consoles to make that great television play experience work and be delightful.”
And if not, well, the company still has options. “The nice thing about being in a company the scale of Microsoft is that we're able to make bets across a lot of those fronts, and we're not really dependent upon any one of those individual kinds of businesses or relationships to succeed,” says Spencer.