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Q&A: Making sense of the Xbox One X - an interview with Mike Ybarra

Q&A: Making sense of the Xbox One X - an interview with Mike Ybarra

June 16, 2017 | By Kris Graft




The Xbox One X was the centerpiece of Microsoft's E3 press conference this year, and there were a lot of conversations during the conference about how many consumers were swayed by the pitch for the $499 console. But what does the release of this souped-up 4K mid-cycle console refresh mean for game developers?

During the conference, Gamasutra had a chance to ask Mike Ybarra, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Xbox and the Windows game platforms, about developing for Xbox One X, and porting existing games to the new console. He also gave insight into Microsoft's strategies to support game development (and game sales) on Windows 10.

One question I think a lot of people have is [about] the process of taking an Xbox One game and then modifying it to take advantage of Xbox One X. Can you talk about the process and [what you say] if a developer is asking you, "What's it going to take for me to take advantage of this?"

Ybarra: It's the same package and binary type, so if you had an Xbox One app and you just wanted to bring it over with none of the enhancements, it'll work 100 percent. [To create a 4K game] you need 4K textures and elements like that to render in 8 million pixels on the screen. A staple of this product was making sure we make it easier for developers to actually create and distribute games on it. So [we have] a brand new dev kit that works across both Xbox One S and Xbox One X. We actually used Gamasutra to talk about that earlier.

"Our Turn 10 studio took two days to take 1080p Forza and make it 4K Forza with something like 35% extra GPU for them to play around with."

So you do need 4K textures. What we saw is that a lot of those game companies were making 4K textures anyway for the PC. So we took our PIX tool, for example, which is our graphics analyzer that we use on console. We distribute that on Windows so that when they create those assets, they're using a common set of tools so that the debugging and the optimization works across PC and console.

That's one of probably six or seven tools that we've created to make that process easier for them. But [the advantages] of the box -- there's spatial audio, there's high dynamic range, which is on [Xbox One] S, too.

4K textures are important. Outside of that, optimizing for memory, we have ESRAM. In S there's no ESRAM. There we use DDR5 so it's fast enough. And it's 9 gigs for the games themselves, so there's a little bit more optimizing for how many reads you're doing against the hard drive versus pulling from the RAM. If a game developer actually doesn't use all of that memory, for example, if it's an existing game, that's just a RAMDisk. If you remember RAMDisks from PC days, it's just a multigig RAMDisk. Instead of reading from the hard drive at 60 megabytes per second, you're reading straight from RAM, so loading levels, streaming games especially, they can use that as a cache.

So there are optimizations there to get every ounce of the performance that developers can do, but it's nothing they don't already do on a PC that has a lot of RAM, for example.

So it's definitely more of a PC development [environment]. 

Yeah, getting rid of ESRAM and going just straight to flat RAM, it's all x86. 360 wasn't, but the original was. This is x86.

So it's fairly simple from a PC standpoint. But those optimizations [are for] making sure you get every ounce of the power that's in the box. And it's fixed hardware, so we know exactly what GPU, what SOC, what the throughput of the hard drive is, the memory bus, so game developers can just tune it really well and actually get a lot more out of it than a standard PC, which has abstraction layers, as you know, in terms of what developers have to work through.

Microsoft is both Windows and Xbox. It's honestly hard for me to figure out where the [games] business is going because Microsoft owns the biggest OS and it's not pushing games there as much. I know there's crossover, like with the Games Everywhere initiative.

Yeah.

"There's people that want $249 value, and people that want the absolute most premium thing in the living room, and then people that will spend anywhere from $1500 to $5000 on Windows PCs."

Is [X] competing directly with Windows? And why not push games more on Windows?

You know, we look at it a little different. We look at it as, "Who are the classic gamers out there?" There are people that want $249 value, and people that want the absolute most premium thing in the living room, and then people that will spend anywhere from $1500 to $5000 on Windows PCs.

We've made a commitment that our first party games will run across console and Windows. And obviously Windows has a great ecosystem with Steam and other distribution properties for getting games. We have our Windows Store. We're distributing games on Windows Store there now. We've brought the service across all of the client devices. So I would say, we don't think of it as this "versus," because as I just said, Windows runs on both.

It's just a matter of gaming as an audience. And the number of gamers continues to grow, from mobile to console to PC, year over year. At a pace that even surprises us at times. So it's just the difference in the gamers and what they expect. And we want to have products across that whole spectrum.


Mike Ybarra

What do you think the next generation is going to look like? Certainly Microsoft has talked about when there's just not a box in the house. How far are we from when [an Xbox console] just shrinks down and just disappears? 

I think that's more about the network and gamer expectations than anything else. Being a fairly competitive PC and console gamer, I sort of have it in my head that I always want local everything, because I don't want to deal with latency, right?

Certainly from our Azure business and the cloud investments we're making around the globe, things like Crackdown and Minecraft are leveraging the cloud heavily, but there's always some base local [play] to give response time gamers expect.

I don't know, I have no crystal ball in terms of when that all goes away. But for us, we're going to keep creating the devices, we're going to leverage those cloud assets, and let the game creators tell us what they need in terms of a platform and physical local compute to make that work.

What was the aspect of Xbox One that game developers had the most issue with that you basically tried to fix with the X?

Certainly the dev kit, iteration times, elements like that. In fact, earlier today on YouTube, an art developer talked about the development kit we created specifically for developing on console and how much faster the better iteration times we've delivered there.

I remember when we launched Xbox One, developers were having to reboot the systems all the time and it was slower than they expected in terms of getting actual game creation happening across a studio of 400 people. Now with the dev kit that we introduced, we're hearing amazingly positive news. Patrick Soderlund [EVP at EA] was on our stage talking about how easy it is to get games into 4K and up and running. Our Turn 10 studio, for example, took two days to take 1080p Forza and make it 4K Forza with something like 35 percent extra GPU for them to play around with, which [Forza creative director] Dan Greenawalt sort of talked about on stage as well.

I mentioned on Twitter that somone in your marketing department said that porting games is "easy," using the air quotes around "easy." There was an indie developer that replied to my Tweet, basically saying, "'Easy' could mean actually easy or it could be the most excruciating drain on my process." If you're trying allay worries of devs that are kind of interested in [Xbox One X], but are still anxious about what it will mean for their process, what do you say?

Talk to people like Dan who's just out right here for Turn 10 and ask, "Hey, how long did it take you to get 4K running on Xbox One X." And he'll tell you less than two days. Same with many of our other first-party studios and EA and many partners that we hear from.

I'm very proud of what the team did with the dev kit, and the iteration times that we're seeing, and the acceleration that we're seeing. I think when Phil [Spencer, Xbox boss] says something on stage like '30+ games will have free updates for Scorpio,' that's a signal of how quote-unquote "easy" that is. But it was a design principle and a goal, certainly for what we do. I have a team that does nothing but interface with third-party and first-party studios, and take that feedback. It's in our backlog in terms of what we work on and how we try to improve the dev kit. 

So, shifting things a bit, I know that you really like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds...

I am addicted to that game, yes. That one's one I love. The competitive spirit of that game and the focus of what Brendan Greene and the team are building is really great.


Mike Ybarra's handles: Qwik on XBL/Mixer, MikeYbarra on Steam, Qwik#1912 on battle.net

How involved were you in getting that game for Xbox?

I certainly helped Phil identify the games that I think we have the most potential for. Being someone who probably plays more games than anything else in my life, I certainly send my fair share of mails to Phil saying, "We should check out the following games."

And when I see a developer that needs extra help or whatever it might be, I have the team that interfaces with them as well. We sometimes call developers and say, "Hey, we know this is under development, do you need any graphics optimization help, or throughput bandwidth optimization help?"

And we're responsible for Windows too, so it's more than just the console. It's making sure developers can create games for Windows really easily. So I like talking to Brandon about, "What are the challenges you have?" And he's sending me some issues, and we're working through those as well.

What would you say is the state of Windows gaming right now? Steam rules the marketplace...

We talk to developers about Windows 10, and what we're hearing is, "Hey, not many people can create a store and a service like Steam, but we need more alternatives." Because competition is good for those developers. So we're investing in the Windows Store as fast as we can to make that a good distribution channel.

We're also doing things like Game Mode. That came out in the creators update, which is sort of in a beta right now. But the idea of that is, how do we give users an operating system that knows when they're playing a game and shuts down all the background services? So, much like a console, when you start a game, this thing is doing nothing else but that game. There's some multitasking because we have some extra memory, but compared to a Windows 10 desktop, this thing is way more optimized. And I want to bring that philosophy to the PC, so that PC gamers, when they start a game, they can choose to have everything in the background basically in suspend mode so that game gets every ounce of that hardware.

Wouldn't that kind of automatically require building a walled garden on PC? You have people like [Epic Games'] Tim Sweeney coming out with criticisms and being worried about the potentially closing nature of the Windows environment? How do you respond to that?

Windows has always been open. I think Windows will always be open. So we constantly listen to Tim. He comes to Redmond all the time and we talk to him.

I think everybody's going to have stores and we'll have our own store there. Windows is an open platform especially for things like mixed reality, it's always been open. So Phil talks about the open platform that is Windows and how much we want to make sure that's the best development place for any game developer.

Great, well thanks a lot for your time.

Sure, and if you ever wanna play some Battlegrounds, you know where to find me.



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