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Xbox’s Project Scarlett console is awesome, and it doesn’t matter

Microsoft went hard at E3 2019 and, as expected, made its next console official. Project Scarlett – the final name wasn’t announced – will be coming for the 2020 holiday season.

The exact details weren’t unveiled, but Microsoft did talk about the basics. Project Scarlett will have an AMD Ryzen 2 processor with a Navi GPU, GDDR6 memory, and a next-gen solid state drive. Like the PlayStation 5, it will support a lust-worthy list of eye candy including 8K resolution, framerates up to 120 frames-per-second, and real-time ray tracing.

It sounds amazing. I want one, just like I want a PlayStation 5. Yet beyond all the fanfare, all the hype, and the spectacle, a hard truth remains.

Doesn’t this feel familiar?

The hardware doesn’t matter.

Xbox Project Scarlett - E3 2019 - Reveal Trailer

The next console generation will pit Sony’s PlayStation 5 against Microsoft’s Project Scarlett in an epic holiday showdown. It’ll be fun to watch, and fun to talk about, but we’ve seen this movie before. Inside, the PlayStation 5 and Project Scarlett will have the same AMD architectures. One will probably be quicker than the other, but the gap won’t be large enough to be meaningful.

It’ll be the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One all over again. Yes, solid state drives are coming, but both companies are adopting it, and neither makes the hardware internally. The performance will be roughly the same.

Games win console wars. Hardware just plays them.

Since the new generation’s battle will be the same as the last, it’s not hard to see how the fight will go down. Two things will matter. Price and games.

Price is always an x factor. I think the PlayStation 5 will be around $500, and I imagine Project Scarlett will be close to that as well. If one does end up less expensive than the other, it will have the advantage.

But it’s the games that really matter. Microsoft knows this. The company repeated a new slogan throughout its E3 2019 conference. “Discover your next favorite game.” That phrase, used to pitch Xbox Game Pass, presents Xbox as a games service, not a game console. It’s good marketing backed up by Microsoft’s repeated acquisition of game studios like Double Fine, the latest to join Xbox Game Studios.

Why is Microsoft buying game studios and focusing on game discovery? Because Sony used games to beat the snot out of Microsoft in the last generation. The PlayStation 4 didn’t beat the Xbox One. Uncharted, Bloodborne, and Horizon Zero Dawn beat Forza, Halo, and Gears.

Like the past, but more so

Games would win the day even if nothing changed. But gaming has changed and continues to change. Cloud gaming is right around the corner. I’m skeptical it’ll be the immediate hit that companies like Google hope it will be. Still, it’s going to change how we play by making more games available on more devices.

It’s the games that really matter.

That will further undermine the long-term relevance of consoles. Microsoft has announced Project xCloud can use your Xbox console to stream games to other devices, but gamers can also opt to stream direct from a Microsoft data center. Unfortunately, Xbox didn’t provide much clarity about when, how, and how much. Sony already has PlayStation Now, already allows streaming to a PC from a console, and has plans to expand both features.

All of that makes console hardware even less relevant than before. You’re not going to choose between consoles. You’re going to choose between services. You’ll decide based on pricing, game selection, and the quality of the overall service.

In a way, this is already happening with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass. Though mostly meant for Xbox, you can choose to instead buy the Game Pass for PC. If you do, you gain entry to Microsoft’s game service for as long as you’re subscribed, and you never have to spend a dime on Xbox hardware.

Keep calm. It’s going to be ok.

Ok. Game services matter. Consoles don’t. What does that mean for you?

Good things, I think. Signing up for another subscription might be annoying, but this new future will make gaming more diverse and easier to access.

Look at film and television. The rise of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others has led to an incredible variety of shows. Many wouldn’t exist if they had to make money off ticket or Blu-Ray sales. I think we’ll see the same positive effect on gaming.

What about the fanboys and fangirls? They too have no reason to worry. PlayStation will continue. Xbox will continue. You can still wave your flag and wear your shirt. It will just represent a service, an ecosystem of games, a platform for gamers – and not just a box.

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