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Inner workings of an Xbox One X console

The making of Xbox One X, Microsoft’s most compact and powerful console yet

The youngest member of the Xbox One family arrives Nov. 7 as a powerful prodigy, absorbing the benefits and advantages of its older siblings but in a much more compact package loaded with performance perks built for true 4K gaming.

With its 6-teraflop Scorpio engine, the Xbox One X is 40 percent more powerful than any other console and also boosts its memory, speed, storage and more. And it does so in a housing unit inspired by the giant extraterrestrial stone in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with a new color called Infinite Black) with a subtle shift in sections that’s as much about aesthetics as functionality.

The console broke records in pre-order sales of the Project Scorpio limited edition, which sold more in five days than any other Xbox before it.

When the Xbox One X debuted as Project Scorpio at E3 2016 – more than a year before its availability – it marked the first of many major changes with Microsoft’s premiere game console.

This is the company’s first foray into true 4K gaming, giving players high-end clarity and resolution that shows up best on the increasingly popular 4K TVs consumers are adding to their living rooms. It’s a device that has innovation baked in, from a water-vaporizing technology (more on this later) to the Scorpio engine that makes gaming more satisfying than ever. Owners of Xbox One consoles are also going to see an updated experience when they turn on their devices – a new home screen and carousel that gets them faster to the apps and games they want. There’s also a new method of personalization that tailors the console to each user.

And for game studios, the Project Scorpio Development Kit gets them up and running quickly to create native 4K experiences. Users who don’t have 4K TVs will still enjoy visual enhancements, thanks to a process called super sampling, which takes 4K images and scales them down to 1080p, at a higher quality than native 1080-rendered images.

“Xbox is a key piece of Microsoft’s vision to put customers at the center and develop content that is accessible across devices and inclusive for many people. The dialogue I’ve been having with the company is not what Xbox could become but what the gaming industry is and what it could mean for Microsoft,” says Phil Spencer, corporate vice president for Xbox. “The support we have from Microsoft is incredibly high and there are labs, teams, tools, technology and expertise at Microsoft that we can take advantage of to fuel gaming innovation at Microsoft. The games industry is experiencing massive growth and transformation and gaming is a top priority for the company. At Microsoft, we’re broadening our approach to how we think about gaming end-to-end to innovate boldly for gaming fans.”

Xbox One X Console Controller Hrz ANR White Background

This is a console that adheres to core “product truths.” It had to have true 4K gaming to take advantage of ultra-high definition TVs, high dynamic range (HDR) and high fidelity audio. It had to be compatible with other Xbox One consoles as a continuation of a family that works together. And it had to really shine as the premium offering of the Xbox family, loading faster with better graphics.

“We talked about power, performance, compatibility and craftsmanship as our main pillars,” says Albert Penello, senior director of Xbox console marketing for Xbox One X and Xbox One S. “You don’t achieve those things alone.”

For gaming studios, the importance of 4K can’t be understated.

“It’s a game changer, arguably the most meaningful upgrade to the viewing experience this generation. You get better contrast and a wider range of color and brightness, translating to a more realistic and immersive experience,” says Piotr Mintus, technology director for Platforms at Monolith Productions, the studio behind “Middle-earth: Shadow of War,” the highly-anticipated sequel to “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.”

For the designers and industrial engineers who created the console, 4K for gaming was their north star.

“We saw 4K TVs were going to be adopted, with much more meaningful images, bringing gaming experiences up to 4K resolution, maintaining continuous compatibility, bringing people forward into future without abandoning past,” says Leo Del Castillo, general manager, Xbox hardware development at Microsoft. “We saw this as a natural progression of the product.”

Xbox One X consoles and controllers in white and black
The Xbox One X (in Infinite Black) alongside the Xbox One S (in Robot White).

The little differences between the Xbox One X and the Xbox One S make a big impact.

“The craftsmanship and collaboration that goes into Xbox makes a bold change in how video games work,” Penello says. To make the smallest Xbox ever, they drew from Surface and HoloLens. Of the Xbox One X he says, “It’s the most powerful version of the console, showing real innovative changes.”

One way the Xbox One X is changing the industry is by adapting to customer behavior. Console video games have been around for several decades now, since the Atari days, creating eight generations of devices. It’s an industry in which the inventors of the business are still active.

Penello says that every five to seven years, consoles tend to reset, and while that can be fun, it can also be disruptive for business.

The team wondered, “Does it have to happen that way?”

Sketches of an Xbox One X console
Designing the Xbox One X.

“We’re closely aligned with fans and customers, and we’ve observed that in this day and age, people are more attached to apps and social media than devices,” Penello says.

So the Xbox One X retains the same order of inputs, the same cables and the same user interface as the Xbox One S.

“But, aside from the power only available on Xbox One X and immersiveness of true 4K gaming, one thing some may not realize is the attention we put on compatibility, says Spencer. “The Xbox One X is a part of the Xbox One family of devices, which means not only your games and accessories carry over, but your cords do too. The team also built a fast and easy way to transfer games and console profile settings from Xbox One or Xbox One S over to Xbox One X through hard drive or network transfer so games you already own are ready to play the day you receive your new Xbox One X. To me, this is so important because it makes it easy and seamless to transition to Xbox One X and jump right into your games.”

But the Xbox One X clearly delivers a premium experience for those who want to upgrade their gaming and entertainment experience.

“We wanted to make sure there was a significant leap from S to X. If you look at trends, PC monitors and PC graphic cards are hitting 4K benchmarks and we’re right at the influx of consumer TVs, according to external research,” Penello says. “It’s the perfect time to bring on a 4K model, with four times the clarity and resolution.”

A man holds up a microchip
Leo Del Castillo presenting the Scorpio engine.

When Leo Del Castillo’s team set out to craft the most compact Xbox One console yet, they thought about it like a puzzle, fitting the pieces in the console as efficiently as possible so no empty spaces were left. They went after the challenges together.

“We decided early on we wanted it no bigger than the Xbox One S, which was already a fairly small design,” says Del Castillo. “We were going to try to get it smaller if we could. Being able to pack that much more capability was a huge challenge for the team. It made us innovate, driving efficiency everywhere. We made the circuits more efficient, using less power for the engine, reducing the amount of power consumed, figuring out the best way to dissipate heat. To our knowledge, this is the first gaming console to use the vapor chamber heat sink”

This was the biggest challenge – getting rid of all the heat generated by the extra high power of the Scorpio engine – and trying to stay at a minimized height.

Usually used for high end PCs, servers and high-end graphics, the vapor chamber heat sink vaporizes water, which is a much more efficient medium for transferring heat. For the console, they created a custom design using a centrifugal fan that fits over the console’s vapor chamber. To further vent the unit, they kept minimizing the pattern of holes on the Xbox One S as much as they could, using the most complex tooling in-house.

They punched tiny holes in steel, to create a mesh or webbing effect so fine as to be indistinguishable to the naked eye.

Iterations of the venting on the outside of the Xbox One X.

In designing the device, they set it up as similar as possible to the Xbox One S so that it would have the same cables and inputs in the same order.

The motherboard sits in the ceiling of the chassis, which helped keep the console at the minimum height desired. A much more efficient power supply now sits behind the optical drive.

And on the outside, the team took inspiration from the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller’s textured grip to micro-engineer the bottom of the housing, which creates a dramatic contrast when the unit stands vertically.

xbox project scorpio
The Project Scorpio Limited Edition Xbox One X console.

And already, Penello says, the response has exceeded the team’s expectations.

In August, the Xbox One X Project Scorpio Edition, a specially designed limited edition version of the console, made its debut. It’s the first special edition ever made based on a codename. That night pre-orders launched worldwide and more of these consoles were pre-ordered in five days than any Xbox ever.

“A lot of people had really grown attached to Project Scorpio, the codename for the Xbox One X, so in releasing the limited edition, we’re celebrating fans who’ve been with us from the beginning,” Penello says.

Monique Chatterjee, the principal industrial designer for Xbox who led the design effort for the record-breaking limited edition Project Scorpio console, drew from her art school background and years of experience in both the PC and gaming space.

“Our design studio is creating tangible things that people need and use every day,” she says. “And, we have a great sense of accomplishment when we’ve designed something that makes people’s lives better. There really are no boundaries at Xbox. If you can dream up something really cool, you can find people to rally around it with you. There’s a lot of freedom to bring visions to life.”

Besides creating the award-winning Arc Touch Mouse, she’s also worked on Windows Phone and wearables, and now she’s focused on limited and special edition products for Xbox.

“What really keeps me going is the diversity within our Xbox fan base. There are so many types of people playing, and so many micro-cultures around the different games. It’s never boring. We work with lots of game studios, each is very individual” says Chatterjee, who has worked with the creative leads at the studios behind “Gears of War,” “Halo” and “Minecraft” to make these special and limited edition consoles and controllers. “The aesthetics of each game are so specific, the design work is never on repeat. There’s always new thinking, new materials, and new tricks involved in translating each game story.”

She says that for these editions, they take the core product and use it as a canvas to tell a special story or celebrate a specific moment.

“The Project Scorpio edition was a way to celebrate the launch moment with our fans. It’s for the people who have been really pumped since the console was announced at E3. It’s a celebration of getting there, with their energy and spirit behind us,” she says. “It feels really good to give something back to the community.”

Her team honed in on precision, subtlety and sophistication through their design, working for weeks, even months, going back and forth to China to cut new silk screens to find the right scale and gradient to create visual uplift.

“Every one of these limited editions has a different goal,” Chatterjee says. “This was about telling our story around technical precision.  The hardware development team really supported us on this one. This design tells the story of what can be achieved when everyone on a team is relentless about getting every detail right.”

A man gestures with his hands in front of multiple screens
John Snavely, principal design manager for Xbox

When a new Xbox One X owner turns on the device, they’ll find it boots up and loads games and apps faster.

“Time is precious. We want you to get to what you want as fast as possible,” says John Snavely, principal design manager for Xbox. “This UI helps fun find you.”

And after it opens, that new UI is easier to navigate. The dashboard presents the Xbox world at a glance, so you know where you left off. But it also provides ideas on where else you can spend your time. The new carousel shows at a glance the your personalized activities and opportunities so you never miss out. Through usage or by up/down voting, it’ll show fun stuff you can do right now: friends playing or broadcasting, your next achievement or activities in your clubs. Owners can also customize their home page as much or as little as possible with their games, friends and clubs, including adding up to 40 pins.

The guide – the sidebar that pops up when you tap the Xenon (the big X at the center of the controller) – serves as a base for multitasking, putting apps, games, offers and more all in one place. The guide also serves as a kind of time machine that allows players to pop right back into a game as if they’d never left, after they’ve done other things like sent a message to a friend or checked who’s online.

It’s an experience that’s designed to be as easy for hardcore gamers as it is for the casual gamer.

“I want to thank our fans,” says Snavely. “It’s awesome to work on something people care passionately about. We’re deluged with tons of feedback on how people use their box, what people do every day, how their whole family uses it. Their whole family! I feel a huge sense of responsibility to design an experience that’s as unique as every person who uses it. It’s humbling.”

Xbox Design Lab, which was rolled out at E3 2016, is a customization route for any of the Xbox Ones. Through it, owners of the device can create a custom-made controller that reflects who they are.

Gamers will be able to choose from avatars that are more inclusive and expressive, that reflect the diversity of people around the world. They’ll find more accessories, clothes, horses, unicorns and more nuanced expressions. They can also add wheelchairs and prosthetics.

If they are upgrading from a previous Xbox One, they’ll be able to transfer saved games through a network transfer they set up by backing up an external hard drive on Xbox One S.

“We know that consistency is important. Some people have multiple Xboxes in the house, so we want to make sure as you’re interacting with an Xbox One, One S, or One X, the experience is consistent,” says Chris Novak, principal director of design for Xbox.

In crafting the personal touches that aimed to make that experience unique to each user, Novak’s team talked to more than 1,000 people to find out and act on how different gamers and other Xbox users are.

“We’re designing so each user can spend the most time possible with the content, activities and people they want to most, so they don’t miss out on the things they love,” Novak says. “It’s not just personalization for aesthetics’ sake, but with utility in mind. Every user is unique, and the UI needs to support the dramatic differences in activities and content each user wants front and center in their home and dashboard. It’s personalized discovery, keeping each user up to date on their special blend of fun across Live’s huge breath of things to do.”

Screenshot from “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment/Monolith Productions)

For Monolith Productions, the makers of “Middle-earth: Shadow of War,” the potential of developing for 4K was something they approached with enthusiasm.

“Monolith has always authored our content at a higher resolution than we could ship, but now with 4K-capable consoles, we can deliver the extra detail and sharpness that comes from four times the resolution of a standard 1080p image to the player,” says Monolith’s Piotr Minus, based in Kirkland, Washington. “This extra resolution can also help convey extra image depth, increasing your sense of how far into the distance the view goes before the detail starts to drop off. The increased resolution also allows for more subtle color blends, reducing the striping effects of lower resolution blends. 4K and HDR allows ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ to deliver the most cinematic and immersive experience possible on console.”

It’s so dramatic, says Matthew Allen, director of technical art for Monolith, that players can now see “pits in armor, scars and even maggots coming out in 4K.” He added that being able to see the full range of responses in the characters is also thrilling for their animators. “At 4K, you see a lot more uniqueness, and our game is all about unique Orcs.”

“The Xbox system has given us more rapid iteration loops. Thanks to the faster storage (SSDs), iteration times have gone way down. Where it used to take us minutes to load into a ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ world on the Xbox One devkit, it only takes seconds on a Scorpio devkit. Because we use our own proprietary Firebird engine, developing for the Xbox One X was extremely easy to get up and running. It only took us a day to get our Xbox One build running on the Xbox One X,” Mintus adds. “The additional 4GB of memory allows us to not only run ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ in 4K, but also introduce 4K content that would not be possible without the additional memory.”

And, Allen adds, once you’re in the Xbox ecosystem, it’s all very similar, which is helpful for their developers.

“I think the vision for compatibility is already changing the gaming industry. I see games as an art form and console games can get lost when it becomes more challenging to play games from the past. I also believe that no gamer should be left behind when new hardware becomes available and I want to see gaming content live on,” says Spencer. “Through Xbox One Backward Compatibility and all Xbox One games working across generations, this brings added value to both gamers and developers for the games they purchase or make and changes the compatibility model the gaming industry has followed for years.”

Xbox collaborated with studios like Monolith, as well as Mojang (“Minecraft”), 343 Industries (“Halo Wars 2”), The Coalition (“Gears of War 4”) and Turn 10 Studios (“Forza Motorsport 7”) to help them deliver new 4K experiences for their fans.

“We worked with game studios in the development of the architecture,” Penello says. “Our goal was to make it very easy for game developers to get their existing engines up and running on Xbox One X. It’s been great to see not just our internal partners but external partners as well who’ve shared their ease of development on Xbox One X. Ultimately the time that developers are not spending working with dev kits and code means you get better games and game content. It’s a win for developers and for our customers too.”

The enhanced update for “Gears of War 4” started with early involvement with Penello’s team.

“We got the game up and running in two days,” says Mike Rayner, technical director of The Coalition in Vancouver, Canada. “Everything worked from day one, using the same developer tools, same engine code, same Xbox Live API. It can play between the Xbox One X, Xbox One S and PC without any changes. We’ve changed the resolution to native 4K, and it ran faster on the Xbox One X than 1080p on the Xbox One S.”

The combination of 4K and HDR expands the game’s color range and adds fully dynamic shadows from tree branches swaying, foliage and helicopters flying overhead.

With “Minecraft,” Xbox One X helps the game’s developers highlight the edges of blocks, adds clear definition and new dynamic and directional lighting that makes these worlds more believable.

Builders will also be able to see more worlds at once, and access high-end rendering technology and improved visuals, previously only available through modifications (mods).

“The change is building from 4K and HDR from the get-go,” says Frank O’Connor, franchise creative director for “Halo Wars 2.” “It’s much easier and has changed our philosophy for the better.”

If you get the new console, “Halo Wars 2” will include a 4K HDR update with extra textures and features. But even those who don’t get an Xbox One X can benefit from an intelligent install, with minimized downloads to separate the 4K content, languages, cinematics and other content.

“We’re able to bring a depth to digital effects we can’t without HDR,” says Barry Feather, executive producer for “Halo Wars 2.” “With HDR, we’re able to layer things so you can see the detail inside a laser beam. It provides a lot more depth and adds a huge amount of character, which is helpful to gameplay. The differences help players with recognition of units.”

Forza 7 Motorsport interior of race car

Relentless dedication to realistic details and differences amongst cars and drivers is embodied in Turn 10 Studios’ “Forza Motorsport 7″, the most comprehensive racing game ever made. The studio’s newest game features racing at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, 700 cars in Forzavista detail, and over 30 world-famous tracks featuring dynamic weather and race conditions in 4K and HDR.

Two days after getting the Project Scorpio development kit, the team was able to run their ForzaTech engine in 4K for the first time, allowing them to experience Forza in a way they never had before and, in turn, allowing them to reimagine the game. They were also able to incorporate a technology called photogrammetry, which uses photos to recreate surfaces of real-world objects, and noticed that in addition to expanding the level of detail players see, it also showcases the smallest of imperfections.

Players will see parts shaking on the cars, an in-depth variation of shadows, materials reacting to levels of light, details of puddles shrinking and growing and in the cockpit, racers experience their car’s windshield and other surfaces impacted by weather conditions.

The game also features personalization, with drivers stepping out of the car for the first time, giving male and female players the opportunity to customize their drivers with a large variety of driver gear to choose from.