According to reports, Microsoft is thinking about releasing a 7-inch, Xbox-branded version of its new Surface tablet device. For a company that for over a decade has avoided the temptation of releasing a portable Xbox device, that would be quite the thing.
So, let's say this actually happens. And next year sometime Microsoft takes the wraps off an Xbox tablet. What could we expect? What should we hope for? What should we be afraid of?
WARNING: Wild and uncontrollable speculation ahead.
First things first, though: these days at Microsoft, Xbox doesn't just mean gaming. The company's new music service, for example, is called Xbox Music. What was once simply the brand name for a console is slowly becoming a catch-all term for anything Microsoft wants to do that's "cool", or aimed at a market that's a little more interested in fun than the one interested in word processors and spreadsheets.
So an Xbox Surface would likely not be just a gaming machine. Sure, games would play a big part, easily the biggest, but you'd hope services like Xbox Music were tightly integrated as well (remember when custom soundtracks on the 360 was a thing?). Indeed, if it runs on a modified version of Windows, you'd hope for a full range of programs and services, from Netflix to Facebook.
Which is fine, and will look good at their presentation, but this is a video games website. Most of the time, anyway. So we'd be most interested in the games.
This is a 7-inch tablet, give or take an inch (it might be 7.6, or 7.8, etc). From specs leaked earlier in the year, the planned device apparently has a 1280x720 display, 7 hours of battery life and an SD card slot. The Verge report from today says it'll either have an ARM or Intel SoC processor, with special RAM made specifically for gaming.
That's not much to go on, but if it checks out—remember, this thing might not even get made!—it's enough to get the big things out of the way: this won't obviously play Xbox 720/Durango games. And it's too powerful to be stuck playing Solitaire, Angry Birds and Windows Phone 7 titles.
Leaving us with a middle ground that should easily be able to handle original Xbox games, and given advances in mobile technology should even be able to run many Xbox 360 games, especially those released earlier in the console's lifetime.
But then we run into a problem: it's a tablet. As we know, tablets are great for touch-screen titles designed specifically for use on them, but for games designed with a ten-button controller, the compromises are often woeful. So if Microsoft wanted to launch some kind of "virtual console" on the platform, it would have three options: stick buttons all over a tablet (which won't happen), release games that controlled like crap, or, more intriguingly, come up with some kind of controller solution, whether with some innovative proprietary system like the existing Surface's keyboard, or just by letting us use 360 pads on the thing.
Just re-releasing old games, or Vita-like downports of current-gen titles, won't cut it, however. Microsoft would need to entice developers to release new games for the system. The Xbox brand name and gaming focus would on the one hand be exciting for some developers, who could design games for a tablet designed for serious gaming, not just $2 casual experiences.
Yet there's the rub: if this is a tablet, it's entering a marketplace where $2 for a video game is now an expectation, and if an Xbox tablet started charging more than that, it might run into resistance from consumers. Yet if it was charging $2 for smaller, cheaper games... what would be the point? We can get those on an iPad, Nexus or even Surface already.
As we're seeing, whichever way Microsoft goes with a gaming tablet, it's going to be taking risks. By opting for the form of a tablet, and not something like a dedicated gaming handheld platform, it's risking control issues with many types of game that we associate with the Xbox platform. And by launching as a gaming tablet, it's going to be entering a marketplace where even Nintendo is feeling the pressure from a flood of cheap, disposable games.
But hey, like I've said, this thing might not even make it to market. If it does, though, well. The video game market has been pretty stale of late. Regardless of how weird its approach would be, seeing Microsoft throw its weight, and the Xbox brand, behind a gaming tablet would at least be one hell of an interesting thing to see.
(top pic courtesy of AGB)