Albert Penello, the big boss of Xbox marketing at Microsoft, is proud of Forza Motorsport 7 and Gears of War 4 and Assassin’s Creed Origins on Xbox One X, but what he really wants you to experience on your new machine is an interactive movie about ladybugs. We spoke to him about the launch of Microsoft’s superpowered box, how it compares to PC, and why the PS4 Pro wasn’t a factor in its creation.
People are now getting to spend time with the Xbox One X, has the questions people are asking you about it changed?
The questions have really narrowed. In the beginning everything we were talking about was theoretical – the benefits of 4K and HDR and wide color gamut, resolution – those questions are all being answered now people actually have a console to play with. They can understand how it all works, versus having someone from Microsoft explain it technically.
Now, of course, the questions are narrowing to thing like ‘who is this console for?’ Back to more business related questions. That means that the basics are covered. If I’m just answering business related questions I’m feeling pretty good.
The Xbox One X feels closer to a gaming PC – in terms of the specifications and the amount of control you allow users to have – than any other console. Is that how you see consoles going in the future?
It’s interesting because today, more than ever, people are playing on more than one device. Your gaming identity is now more about preference than ownership. It used to be in the old days that what I owned was what I played on, because back in the day gaming was even more expensive. When I grew up I had a console, my friend had a gaming PC, today, everybody plays on everything. Everybody has a PC and a console and a phone of some sort and they’re gaming on those devices based on what they like to play on that specific device.
Those worlds have been merging for a while I think, just because players have been converging for a while. I hear two sides of this discussion and it’s going to be a fun journey. Console people will say they like console because they know what the best way to play that game is and they didn’t have to worry about it. PC gamers want the control. They want to decide what matters most in how the game plays. That was one of the fundamental differences between PC gamers console gamers, but I think we are experiencing a little bit more of that, but it’s interesting to see how console gamers respond.
We’re not at the level of control that you get with a PC because I just don’t think that’s what console gamers want.
You have around 70 launch window titles that will have some kind of Xbox One X enhancement – how did you work with developers to make sure that would happen?
It was not only something we worked on, it was core to the vision of the product. Having a great developer experience was fundamental in the product that we built and actually more than any console in history – I would be bold enough to say this – the Xbox One X was informed by game developers and by real game engines. One of the most unique things about how we derived the performance numbers in Xbox One X was that we actually took real game code from and Xbox One and we simulated it. We said we wanted to be able to take an Xbox One engines that were at 900p or 1080p and have them run at 4K with 4K PC textures. That was the basic premise.
Then we said we can build exactly the box to do that, because we have Xbox One engines. We did hundreds of thousands of simulation runs of Xbox One code and every spec that we have on the box, they’re not just arbitrary numbers, they mean something. They’re there to be able to achieve the goal that we set out.
When we went out and announced back in 2016 the numbers and that we were going to be able to do games in 4K there were a lot of people that were skeptical. Especially PC gamers, because they would say “well, on a PC that’s not enough” but internally we knew because we had run the games. We knew that we were going to be able to achieve those goals and we knew what the development environment looked like. So all of this had developers first in mind and so now we see 160 games announced so far that are Xbox One X enhanced.
On a typical console launch there are maybe 20 games that take advantage of the box. We’re going to be in the 50 to 70 range, so that’s pretty remarkable. That wasn’t accidental, that was because we had a very specific focus on the developer and their experience.
When you’re showing off the Xbox One X at events what’s your go to? I know Forza is an obvious choice, but is there anything else you think really shines?
I’m going to surprise you with this answer because it’s something that we haven’t actually talked about yet. It’s something that was created specifically as a wow moment. Obviously all the games that are enhanced are really impressive, Titanfall is rendering higher than 4K, Gears of War I’m hearing people with super high-end PCs saying they can’t believe the quality, but we actually built something with the advance technology group called Insects. It is a very simple, very short, in-engine demo of a lady bug.
It was built by our advance technology group as a teaching tool for developers to author in wide color gamut and high dynamic range, to show how the engine can scale between 4K and 1080p, and we saw it and it’s just magical. We said “can we ship this out to customers” and basically it’s our own little interactive Planet Earth. It’s native 4K, it’s authored from the beginning with wide color gamut and HDR in mind and we allow users to toggle on and off so you can actually run this in real time. We’ve got some randomization, day and night, different colored flowers, different color lady bugs, it’s a little bit different every time. It’s really short, it’s about a minute and a half but if you really want to show graphical representation of what your TV can do it’s actually a remarkable demo. It’s one of my favorite things.
Going right back to the beginning when we first heard about the then Xbox Scorpio, the first real details we got were very tech-focused. What was the reasoning behind that?
As a marketer this has been an unbelievably exciting thing to bring to market. You know what the box is going to do and we knew that power was important to our fans. If you’re going to go to E3 where you’re talking with the fans, the specs matter.
Everything we’re doing is a bit unorthodox. – I have to remind people we didn’t know about the PS4 Pro when we envisioned Xbox One X. I found out about it the same time everybody else did. – So we knew this was unorthodox and I wanted to bring it to market in an unorthodox way. Everything we’ve done for the launch of Xbox One X has defied convention. It’s totally intentional.
Starting with the specs; got that out of the way early. We knew we were dealing with the most powerful console and we wanted to talk about the benefits of the most powerful console and so we let the specs lead. That’s why we went with Digital Foundry for that reveal first – which was unorthodox, to start with a tech outlet – we wanted that stuff known to be true early so we could start talking about the benefits of HDR and 4K. there’s so many things that we’re doing that are different and we didn’t want the tech conversation… we didn’t want to be talking about teraflops until launch. I wanted to be talking about enhanced games and all of the cool stuff. That’s what I wanted to talking about now, so that’s why we chose to unveil the console in the manner that we did.