The Xbox One X is set to launches on November 7. Releasing alongside it is Super Lucky's Tale, which is one of the first games designed to take full advantage of Microsoft's upcoming console. We had a chance to speak with Playful Corp CEO Paul Bettner to get the game developer's take on just how powerful the system is.
In our in-depth hardware-focused interview, Bettner suggests that the Xbox One X can deliver performance on par with a high-end PC and confirms that it's a console that's capable of delivering true 4K experiences.
GameSpot: In terms of processing power, how much faster would you say the Xbox One X is over the Xbox One? And, if you guys have had a chance to use the PlayStation 4 Pro, could you compare it to that as well?
Paul Bettner: Super Lucky's Tale is only an Xbox game, so we've never compared the performance running on PlayStation because it's a Microsoft title. These questions are tricky to answer because performance is, at least the way we look at it, measured across several different sectors, like what the CPU can do, especially what the GPU can do, and then memory bandwidth, and the ability of the machine to actually get out of the way and let the game run as fast as possible. There have been powerful consoles, obviously, in the past, but sometimes they're held back by an underlying architecture that doesn't really let us tap into the full performance of the system.
I have an engineering background, but I'm not actually doing engineering on the project, but just speaking a bit for our engineers and just what I've seen as we've been working on it, it's probably the easiest console that we've ever worked with to get it to be high-performance. I hope our engineers don't hate me for saying that because I don't think that their job was easy by any means! But I mean that going from not having the console in our hands to getting our first dev kit to getting the game running solidly at 4K, 60 Hz, is the fastest that we've ever gone from getting new hardware in our hands to tapping into the full performance of the box. 4K, 60 Hz on a device that's small and low-cost, relatively speaking, compared to a high-end TV, is no joke. It's not easy to hit that level of performance, just generally, consistently, so yeah; high-level, we've been really impressed with the raw horsepower of the box, but really, the overall architecture lets us tap into that and doesn't get in the way of our game performance.
Well, at the time that we got the Xbox One X in our hands when we were first doing some of our initial tests, we had Super Lucky's Tale still running on PC and we are shipping it on PC, so people can do the comparisons themselves when the game launches because it's an Xbox Play Anywhere game, which means you can buy it once [digitally] and it's available on Windows and on Xbox. But from our own work, we saw ... And I said this at E3 when we first announced the game too, we were just kind of shocked by how close the performance was between the Xbox One X and the high-end PC that we were working with at the time. Most of our developers have high-end PCs, and doing those initial builds, getting the game initially up and running around the E3 time frame on the Xbox Dev Kit that we have. Our expectation was, "Well, clearly we're gonna have to change some things to get it to run as fast as it's been running on our PCs," but [laughs] there was really very little that had to change. Almost right out of the box it was performing at the level of a high-end PC and that's ... I mean, people will see that when they get their hands on the box coming out in a few weeks, but it's probably the closest Microsoft's ever gotten to delivering true high-end PC performance in a console-type form factor.
As it pertains to the PC space, what GPU do you think it most closely aligns with?
That's hard to say. We haven't directly compared it ... And you know, so many things working, it's very dependent on the game. Some games, they're not necessarily GPU-bound, but we're actually ... Super Lucky's Tale is kind of right in the middle; we have a decent amount of particle simulation and physics and stuff running so that we're doing a pretty good job of utilizing the CPU and the GPU at the same time. It's really hard to tell, actually. It depends on the games. It's definitely within the realm of [Nvidia's 10-series cards], ranging from the 1060 to 1080. It's somewhere in that range, looking at the comparisons that we've done, but it's hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison of exactly where it's at as it really depends on the games and the CPU and things like that...it's like current generation of Nvidia [hardware]. With a new console, I'm used to it being at least a generation or two behind, but that's not how this box has been performing for us. It's very current gen, which is amazing.
Lucky's Tale is gonna run in 4K. Is that native 4K (non-upscaled}? And will it also support HDR?
It is truly native 4K. It's not supporting HDR--actually, it's unclear. We keep doing these experiments. I think the first version that launches won't have HDR. It may be coming in the future, but we haven't committed or announced it yet. The reason for that is more complicated. The Xbox obviously supports HDR out of the box, and I love HDR, it's awesome, but the tool change for building HDR content, especially the engines like Unreal and Unity, it's not as clear-cut. There's a lot of things that go into making a game look good on HDR displays. If you just look at our studio, the way that it works, not all our developers have HDR displays hooked up, in fact only a few do, so authoring HDR content really requires setting up an entire HDR tool chain, and we just started doing that a couple months ago. so it's really more on us to …it's a content development challenge, and so we're getting spun up with it, but I think it's gonna be a little while longer before we have a full HDR tool chain up and running at the studio. But the box is just sitting there waiting for us to do it, we'll get there!
Okay. Piggybacking off of that, what are your thoughts on 4K and HDR as a developer?
They're amazing...But again, if I had to pick, my personal ordering of what's important, I would probably pick frame rate first. The fact that, especially for a platforming game, running it through 60 Hz contributes greatly to how the game feels and how easy it is to control and how responsive it feels. For me, that's actually the most important thing is to be able to render a high-fidelity environment at 60 Hz.
Secondly, for me, is 4K. Most people can see the difference that it makes, especially, if they have a 4K monitor. And we are running in native 4K. HDR is more subtle and like I said, I think… Tuning the look of a game to fully take advantage of HDR displays is kind of cutting edge for our industry right now. There are studios that, I think, that are getting great work on the frontier, like I've just been playing Uncharted. That game does a really good job of taking advantage of the full dynamic range that HDR can provide. They've been doing that for a while, but I think that the industry, we're all kind of tooling up and gearing up to be able to make content that takes full advantage of HDR displays. That's probably more of a next year thing, and that kind of matches the rollout of the technology itself in terms of consumer adoption of HDR displays. It feels like there's a decent amount of them in households today. And from here going forward, all displays are going to be HDR, and I'm sure all our games will be that going forward as well.
Do you think the Xbox One X has enough graphical horsepower to natively render the more graphically demanding games at 4K or will rendering shortcuts like checkerboard rendering have to be used?
I think that most all of the games that you would play today on a high-end PC, that the Xbox One X can render those at 4K full frame rate. That's the amazing thing about it. Now, of course, as you would expect, progress on the PC front is non-stop, so there'll be a next generation of GPUs coming out soon, I'm sure, and will enable even further advancements in what's possible graphically. And next year's PCs are gonna be able to do things that this year's technology can't do, but at least in terms of the games that people are familiar with today, and the fidelity that people would want to see those games at, when they get their hands on the Xbox One X, they're gonna see that it's delivering that high-end PC performance. And especially more so than what other consoles can do right now, it is a pretty significant step beyond anything else on the market in terms of performance.
Graphically, you mentioned that it performs somewhere between a GTX 1060 and a 1080.
GPUs like the GTX 1060 and 1070, some of them will struggle to run the most graphically demanding games on PC at 4K. Do you chalk it up to optimizations on the Xbox One X that allow it to bridge that performance gap?
Yeah, so this has always been the case. When developing a game for a console, there's just a lot more that is possible in terms of maxing out memory bandwidth and utilizing the architecture of the system to the full advantage for the game's performance that you can't necessarily get when you're running in a more managed environment like the operating system on a PC. That gap is not as wide as it used to be... I think that consoles several years ago, you were running straight on the metal, there was barely even an operating system at all. These days, there's a little bit more of a layer between the game and the hardware, but still, the ability for an application or a game to give access to the raw power of the hardware on the console is still beyond what's possible on non-console platforms...The gap is narrowing a bit but for developers like us, when we have the ability to specifically target that fixed platform and we can make optimizations because we know exactly what the architecture is on the Xbox. That's something that you can't do on a PC because we have to target a much wider range of hardware, so that's why generally, and certainly in our case, we're able to squeeze more performance out of the equivalent hardware on a console.
Do you think that that performance gap is shrinking in part because consoles have become much more like PCs with their x86 architecture?
It's actually on both sides, so yeah, that's one reason. Another reason is there are more things the consoles are doing in the background than they've done before, like operating system level things. I mean folks [at Sony and Microsoft] have done a really good job of making sure that stuff never consumes more than a certain amount of the device, and the game has the majority of what's there. But the other actual aspect of it is that on the PC side, and even on the Mac side, there have just been continued developments in graphics APIs like Metal, for instance, on the Mac where you get more direct access to the metal access then used to be the case. There's less layers of abstraction there. But still, there's just always gonna be an advantage in being able to build for a fixed hardware platform that isn't gonna change, and you don't have to worry about different hardware configurations that customers have. That is always going to enable a greater performance advantage. ...The challenge is ... So you ship a game on a PC, you can't just target that one graphics card, you have to create a game that ships across all these different configurations, but on the console, you can squeeze every last ounce of performance out of it, because you know that every customer has the exact same silicon.
Can you describe the differences between Super Lucky's Tale on the Xbox One X vs. the regular Xbox One?
Sure. So the main difference is no 4K, the other big difference... The Xbox One S should run 1080p, and I think that across several games that are shipping on both those platforms, that's similar. Like the Xbox One X is a device made with 4K, on the Xbox One S it's 1080p performance. In Super Lucky's Tale's case, the other difference is that the game doesn't all run at 60 Hz on the Xbox One S. I think the majority of the game runs at a locked 30 frames per second, or 30 Hz, on the Xbox One S, whereas the Xbox One X is entirely 4K 60Hz. And the PC version is dependent on what kind of hardware you have.
Is there a part of you that hopes more people will play the game on the Xbox One X over its regular Xbox One counterpart for better visuals and higher frame rate?
That's a great question! Not necessarily, I think that ... I'm very much a fan of Microsoft's strategy. This generation of hardware, this is the first time ... And I think not a lot of people have noticed this or recognized this, what Microsoft is doing, because this is the first time really that you have the launch of a new console generation alongside hearty support for the previous generation and Microsoft saying, "You know what? You can buy either of these consoles and we're gonna continue to ship great games that work across this entire ecosystem. If you decide to upgrade, because you just got a brand new 4K TV and you wanna get the absolute best performance out of it, you can go get an Xbox One X and, in fact, the games you bought on your Xbox One S will continue to work. You don't have to re-buy them, you can just upgrade."
That's a brand-new thing in the console market, so from my perspective, our mission at Playful is to build IP that people love and get it into as many people's hands as possible, so I love the fact that the enormous Xbox One S audience is gonna get to play this game on the same day as the Xbox One X, the brand-new Xbox One X audience. And I love that for the consumers that care and really want that high-end experience, that we're giving that to them, and it's probably one of the best-looking platforming games that I've ever seen. And the Xbox One S players get something that is pretty much the best looking on their piece of hardware for their 1080p TV also. So if I were talking to someone about it and saying, "Do I encourage one way or the other," I'm just happy the largest possible audience gets to play the game.
Microsoft has sort of made it an onus for developers to make games compatible across the Xbox One X and the Xbox One. Does this philosophy hold back the Xbox One X in unleashing its true performance in any way?
That's another really good question. So I can't speak to ... what it's like for different game developers. Like we were saying earlier, the performance profile on different games is very different, but in our case, it was actually a fairly seamless thing. Like the performance delta between 1080p 30 Hz and 4K 60 Hz is very similar across these two pieces of hardware. The amount of extra pixels and fidelity that we're pushing on the Xbox One X is ... There's not a lot of difference between what we had to do to get the game running on the Xbox One S at 1080p 30 Hz and the Xbox One X at 4K 60 Hz, so that was a great advantage for us in building this one game for both those platforms. If that's the case for other developers, that's phenomenal because there's almost no porting effort involved. You can build the game and, if you're automatically targeting the higher resolution and higher frame rate, or even just the higher resolution that the Xbox One X can do and features like HDR, then you get those and you kind of gracefully step down to the Xbox One S level of performance by just going to a lower resolution and not doing the additional HDR and post-processing effects, that kind of rendering overhead, without a ton of other differences between those two.
But I think there will be developers that push the Xbox One X even further than we have. I mean, we're one of the first to get the dev kit and we're one of the first games shipping natively on this device, but it's always the case that once more people get their hands on the hardware and have worked with it for longer that they start squeezing even way more performance out of it, and so the gap between the two devices is probably gonna grow over time. The Xbox One, at this point, is a well-understood piece of hardware that has a lot of the optimizations and that work has already been done, but for the Xbox One X, that's just starting.
Is there anything that might be surprising to our readers about the Xbox One X or your experience working on it?
So I'm a game developer and also a gamer, so as a game developer having had the Xbox One X for six months now and having worked with it, played with it, it's clear to me that I'm gonna wanna play all my console games on an Xbox One X for the foreseeable future, until the next generation comes along, I guess. There is quite a performance gap, and performance advantage in this piece of hardware, and so, I just know since I've been making games for a long time that as the developers begin to release their titles for this platform that they're going to look and play better.