OPINION

Lockhart, Accessibility, and the Implications for the Next Generation

a poorly-drawn box and controller with the Xbox logo plastered on both. The words, "Cheap", "Cute?", and "Different!" all point towards the box.

It was not too long ago where I was counting the days leading to the launch of the Nintendo Switch. Besides the long hours spent reading about what the console could be before its reveal—price, hardware, the whole shebang— I was also doing what I have done for every hardware launch that I have been around to witness; saving up money to buy the latest tech on launch day. Money was hard to come by when I was younger, and if I chose not to save up over time for something I wanted, I would rarely feel inclined to drop hundreds on almost anything (sans the bare necessities). I feel that is partly due to the frugal nature of my parents (I still love ‘em!), but nowadays I am happy to be in a position where I can drop that sort of money without batting an eye.

But even now I find myself saving up for what will likely be a pricey new console launch—the Xbox Series X (“SX”) and the PlayStation 5 (“PS5”) are likely going to cost $500 each, and for a lot of folks out there, that kind of money is not easy to come by right now. Gaming is still quite the expensive hobby; even with the increased engagement across platforms thanks to quarantine measures by local governments, not everyone is going to be able to jump into next generation gaming immediately. The closer we get to launch, the more my curiosity grows—what is adoption going to look like a year after the launch of these new consoles? The year after?

I do not think it matters much. Many of the popular games today will likely be just as popular over the next five years, and they run simply fine on the systems we have now. But I have always believed that games should be more accessible. Not just with how players interact in the worlds they play, but how we make gaming available for more than just the low and middle class in the Anglosphere. Price, hardware and service availability, and localization are all factors in the growth of any platform. And it is not the case that availability has stagnated, per se. Mobile gaming dominates thanks to its ease of access, and game streaming seems like a promising alternative to game access. But we can always do more, because while I had the opportunity to save up for a console launch, many do not, even within the Anglosphere.

And while I enjoy saving up for new consoles, I have to say that I find the next round of hardware launches to be rather… Boring. Based on what we know of the Series X and the PS5, they are beefed-up machines, but that seems to be it. Now do not get me wrong, the introduction of SSDs into consoles will be a world of difference alone, but besides being ‘better’, next-gen might just be a better current-gen.

But that is why I am excited for a little piece of hardware yet to be unveiled. The weaker, cheaper little sibling of the Xbox Series X: codenamed Lockhart.

What is Lockhart?

Phil Spencer speaks at the Xbox E3 Briefing at the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live, Sunday, June 9, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for Xbox/AP Images)

In June of 2019, Project Scarlett was unveiled onstage at Microsoft’s E3 press conference. A montage of people, long bearded or not, told us why Project Scarlett was a game changer for gaming, but not much else. But even before this unveiling, Project Scarlett was already being discussed online. This codename would encompass two other code names: Anaconda and Lockhart. The former was later unveiled in late 2019 at The Game Awards as the Xbox Series X, but the latter has yet to make an appearance.

There is a good chance that the reader of this article might know all there is about SX—with its monolith-like stature, unique hardware setup, and boasting incredible specs for its size—this thing is a beast. But like I mentioned earlier, it is likely to be a pricey piece of equipment. Which is where Lockhart comes in: a cheaper console meant for the masses, for the folks that do not need a 4k powerhouse and just want to play Minecraft. Guesses on the price of this console typically range from 250 to 350 dollars, and assuming both the PS5 and SX are priced at a premium, Lockhart could potentially be a fantastic entry point to next-gen gaming and console hardware in general.

Speaking of price, I will be frank (and this one is obvious, but it needs to be said): no one knows how much next-gen hardware will cost. We will not know for what could possibly be a month or three from now. Much of the $500 price points seem to derive from the idea that a console costing more than $500 would simply fail in today’s market. Whether that is true or not, I cannot say, but I do know that cheaper prices mean faster adoption and Lockhart has the potential to do well especially during the holiday season. Lockhart exists for a good reason: the next generation Xbox console was going to be pricey, and an alternative needed to exist to ensure a larger audience can access the Xbox platform. I believe that the Xbox team has really positioned Xbox to be a successful platform without the hardware, but right now, I do believe that consoles are still key to the majority of gaming ecosystem engagement.

What does a weaker system mean for the games of next-gen?

I brought up that Lockhart is an interesting console not just for its price, but what it means for next generation games. It is not an everyday sight, a weaker console launching alongside more powerful consoles. The different Xbox 360 editions1 of yore do not hold a candle to this—there will be performance difference between SX, PS5, and Lockhart. Some have raised concerns that Lockhart could hold back games that could otherwise push the specs of the former.

Unlike these two, Lockhart likes to stay home and argue over the internet. (Photo from the Unreal Engine Feed/Epic Games)

At the risk of abusing his namesake, let me be frank—it is not our job as the consumer to be worried about what these upcoming games are going to look like. If you are a developer reading this, know that I do not mean any harm by this statement. The games of yesterday have delighted players across hardware generations; many of these games have pushed the consoles they were running on, and many of them did not. But that did not stop these games from being remembered for years to come.

I believe that anyone with grandiose dreams of what next generation games could be will always end up being disappointed in some way. It is not a bad thing to dream, but I do believe tempered expectations are the way to go with any upcoming release. Let the developer show their vision to you with the hardware they are working with. And I believe that said developer will know these systems better than anyone arguing over the internet. I think that, over the next 7 or 8 years of the SX and PS5’s lifespan, you will find something new to play.

Read this as a justification of Lockhart’s weakness if you must, but I do want to mention that some of my most favourite games run on calculators, and my most currently played game right now can be played in a web browser. The top played games are there because they are easily accessible and most of all fun. You do not need incredibly powerful consoles to run good games. And the developers that have pushed hardware preceding this launch will continue to do so regardless. I love beautiful visuals and intense scenes just as much as everyone else—and from I have seen over the last four decades of gaming, I believe that you, the player, will not be disappointed and you, the developer, will not disappoint. A rather pressuring point for developers, but when has that never been the case?

Instead of gatekeeping, let us make gaming accessible for more people across the world.

Making games accessible (and it is not just about the price)

A postcard features a group of boys playing a game called ‘Morra’, a hand game where the players guess the total number of fingers in play. Dating back a thousand years, this game is still played today. (Photo from Anonymous/Wikimedia)

Let us bounce back to today’s popular games, there is a reason for their popularity. Some of these games were popular from the get-go (Minecraft and Rocket League), and some of these games through continued updates were turned into absolute gems (Rainbow Six Siege, Sea of Thieves, and Fortnite). In particular, Minecraft, Rocket League, and Fortnite are available on a wide variety of systems and they support crossplay. These two games show that there is no better way for everyone to join in on the fun, regardless of the console they play on or control scheme players use. It is simple fact that a fun game that can be accessed by anyone will be played for years to come (and it does not have to be a video game, just look at the countless board games still played today).

Lockhart’s big bullet point, its price, will a big factor in its success. Coupled with an Xbox Game Pass subscription, you are looking at one of the cheapest ways to get into HD console gaming. And even better, a cheaper launch price could mean faster adoption rates for players into the ‘next generation of gaming’. Yes, launch hardware has typically been picked up by the core audience, but that does not have to always be the case. Gaming has never been bigger, and I think it is time that we also consider the ‘casual’ audience, the audience that arguably makes up most of the gaming community to begin with.

Mind you, a cheap price point is not enough. As much as I have been arguing for cheaper price points, accessibility is not just cost, it is availability and practicality as well. This is where I turn my attention to Microsoft, the one massive company with one massive elephant sitting in the corner of its massive room—this one company has shown time and time again that it will ignore regions outside of the Anglosphere, and the regions that it does support are often left with the scraps of the English-speaking countries. Services are often unavailable and games that the Xbox One had in the West sometimes do not launch in other territories. Sheer madness if you think about it, but it is the sad truth—outside of the US, UK, and Australia, the Xbox may as well not exist.

But despite this, Xbox still has fans. For the barebones support Xbox had outside of the Anglosphere, there were still individuals buying the Xbox One console and aiding to its fifty plus million units sold. Microsoft, you know better than I on how to run a trillion-dollar operation, but if you ever want your consumer products to succeed beyond just English-speaking countries, you need to support these regions in the first place.

Microsoft’s vision for the future seems to be quite ‘perfect’, if you catch my drift. (Picture from Xbox Wire/Microsoft)

The Xbox team, you guys have brought incredibly fun experiences for almost 20 years now. Expand your audience: support your players, localize your games (that means dubbing them in more languages!), make services available and ensure parity. Look at your subscription offerings right now, simplify them. There are too many of them and, truth be told, one of them gatekeeps your audience most of all: The Gold subscription prevents your console audience from engaging with your online services and those of your partners. In comparison, Game Pass offers incredible value compared to Gold’s measly offerings. If you guys at Xbox genuinely believe in gaming without borders, there should be nothing short of culling Gold and its online multiplayer paywall in favour of Game Pass.

Over the next few months, Microsoft will be holding monthly events leading up to the release of these next generation consoles, one of which was held a few short days ago and the other loudly discussed event taking in place in July. But in June, Microsoft will be holding an event for Series X and services for its platform. It is here that Lockhart will supposedly make its debut—yes, that is right, Lockhart has the possibility of not even launching. But the company has been rather mum about next month’s event, so whether we see it or not is anyone’s guess. And despite my frustrations with Microsoft’s lack of support across more regions, I believe that they are well-positioned to building a successful console launch this coming holiday season—with Lockhart in tow.

  1. For the uninitiated, the Xbox 360 launched with 2 console editions: the ‘Pro’ and the ‘Core’— the former offered a 20GB hard drive and a wireless controller while the latter only came with a wired controller. Also, Microsoft apparently chose not to bundle an ethernet cable with the Core edition. For a console that would later become oh-so attached to the internet, what a bizarre thing to omit!

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