The Slitherine Group´s owner and Development Director Iain McNeil
The Slitherine Group Development Director Iain McNeil

Microsoft is working heavily on Project Scorpio as their next-gen console and, as far as we know, it will bring some interesting changes to the gaming scene. The company claims that with six teraflops of graphical performance Project Scorpio will be the most powerful console ever built.

On the software side, Project Scorpio will also be much more different from its predecessors as Microsoft is currently unifying its whole ecosystem under the Windows 10 umbrella. The company´s Universal Windows Platform (UWP) approach should bring PC and console gaming closer together than ever before. Microsoft is also investing in cross-platform gameplay and promises backward compatibility across different generations of future gaming consoles.

However, not everybody in the gaming community is positive about that approach. Take Tim Sweeney, for instance, who is one of the most prominent critics. The Epic Games´co-founder has repeatedly challenged Microsoft’s plans for the Universal Windows Platform, stating it was designed to break competitors such as Steam.

A publisher´s perspective: Slitherine

To get another perspective about what game studios make of Microsoft´s strategy, we talked with Iain McNeil, The Slitherine Group´s owner and Development Director. Slitherine is the world’s leading producer and publisher of digital wargames and strategy games. It operates under the brands Slitherine, Matrix Games and Ageod.

Together they have released hundreds of game titles over the years, among them many award-winning titles such as Panzer Corps, Advanced Tactics: Gold, and Time of Fury. Thanks to their very realistic and detail-oriented approach, some of their games have been used by the US military for training purposes.

What do you expect from Microsoft´s next-gen console Project Scorpio? Do you think it will be a game changer for the industry? What about Sony?

“The kind of games we make do not rely on cutting edge hardware and focus more on mechanics and playability. They have very long shelf lives. Panzer Corps is still selling well more than five years after its release. As a result, we do not worry too much about the latest hardware and really only consider a platform once its matured and has a large player base.

We have five console games in production at the moment and we’re seeing a good potential audience for strategy games. But finding success is more about which platform is willing to support you than the core technology. Microsoft and Sony have very different approaches to this.

Microsoft’s requirements are more rigorous but they give you great help navigating the system. Sony’s system is in the less onerous but there is less help available when things go wrong which can cause delays. Overall we’re pretty pleased with both and expect to make a lot more console games in future.

I believe this is not really a hardware war but a content war. I think the winner will be the one who can bring the most high-quality content to their platform. Obviously having more units with consumers is a big attraction for a platform but having great support on technical and marketing issues is also of huge value. I think these could be the deciding factors, not the teraflops.”

Project Scorpio will have a significant increase in graphical power. 4K is the big selling point of Project Scorpio, but Microsoft has a goal of 60 fps at that resolution. How achievable do you think that is?

“To push that many pixels per second to the screen means you need to be sure there are no bottlenecks at other points in the flow. It may just work or it may require lots of massaging of low-level code to make it work, so it could be something we see appearing more commonly in games or it could be something reserved for the huge AAA games with the budgets to throw manpower at the technical issues. I think time will tell on this one – it is very hard to forecast.”

What effect, if any, will extra memory bandwidth and processing power have on development?

“This is one of the constant problems of game development. The more the processors can do, the more you throw at it. That requires more & higher quality assets and often coding time and more design time so costs start to balloon.

I think we’ll find at least initially only the larger releases really making much use of this, but maybe someone will come up with an innovative way to use the power without cost increases.”

Microsoft is merging different platforms using their UWP approach. Epic Games co-founder Tim Sweeney is accusing Microsoft of “unfairly disadvantaging” competing stores like Steam and Origin, as well as those who sell games directly to customers. What´s your opinion about this?

“I don’t think Microsoft really intended to prevent other stores from working on their platform. Steam is such a huge force there would be a riot if Microsoft tried to block people`s steam libraries. I think the same applies to lesser degrees to the other stores.

It would be a PR disaster for Microsoft to go down this route, so while I understand the concern I don’t see any way, Microsoft would ever want to actually enforce it.”

What´s up in your pipeline? What are you currently working on?

“That’s a pretty complicated question! We have over 20 full games in production for next year plus a number of expansions and DLC’s. Our next major release is Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach in January on PC. This is a turn-based strategy game set in the 40k universe focusing on the Space Wolves and the Orks.

The reaction from press & players so far has been amazing and we’re working hard to finish things off. This will be the first release on our new internal engine specialized for strategy games. We have another 4 releases using the engine next year including the next Close Combat and a number of unannounced games.”

With the move to UWP apps on Xbox, a number of unofficial apps have been released as game companions. Do you have any plans for an official companion app?

“We tend to produce high-quality manuals instead of companion apps. Many of our games come with full color printed manuals. Some even have hard back books and one comes with 3 hardback books and a printed map 27 feet by 9 feet (yes I said feet, not inches!).

We’re the only company I am aware of that let you buy direct from us, download your game immediately and also ship you the game in a box direct to your door with all these high quality printed goodies in them. You also get a steam key so you can choose to use our non-DRM version or play in your Steam library. We even let you buy your game digitally and later upgrade to the boxed edition for a small additional charge. It is a pretty cool system!”