Microsoft’s “Rolling Hardware Upgrade” model for it’s Games Consoles

Written by Will on July 19, 2012 and posted in Technology and Gadgets.

Back in December 2010 Microsoft filed patent application 20120159090 to the US Patent and Trademark Office for a “SCALABLE MULTIMEDIA COMPUTER SYSTEM ARCHITECTURE WITH QOS GUARANTEES“. What that means to your average everyday gamer is: A console that can have the hardware replaced, upgraded or downgraded as required. And yes I did say “downgraded”, there’s probably a reason for that being explicitly mentioned, check at the bottom of the post for my interpretation of the usefulness and purpose of a downgrade.

This generation of consoles currently has a ‘fixed hardware‘ model, that means that whatever is in the console when you buy it is what you are always going to have. There may be slight improvements in updated versions of the console (such as a better disk drive or more efficient RAM) but it will be just the same console – same power, same memory, same speed.

If, however, rolling upgrades were allowed then you could simply bump up the RAM or add a faster CPU to the console to increase performance. It also means that the ’10 year console lifecycle’ we hear so much about might be a thing of the past.

Hardware Limitations

Hardware limitations are cited by many as the primary reason for the need to create new consoles. If you could just upgrade your hardware to support better games then why not just do that? It’s exactly the same principle as home PCs – You buy a PC that plays the latest games > It gets old and won’t play the latest games > Upgrade your graphics card and it plays them again > Gets old, stops playing them > Upgrade your CPU, playing again. It keeps going till you have hit a bottleneck (usually your motherboard doesn’t support the latest processor or you’ve maxed out the RAM that the board supports).

It’s a wonderful model allowing you to vastly extend the useful life of your device but there is a problem that I can see with it. The problem is that having differing hardware variations would mean that games would need to accommodate that by allowing differing graphics levels for users with lower end and top end hardware – this would increase development time and costs. I already see this in the Android Development scene: there’s so many hardware combinations that I have to spend more time making everything work on each device than I spent on the core of the actual app. It’s frustrating finding workarounds for certain hardware or software combinations, developers will not be happy if they have to do that.

Here’s my theoretical setting to portray the big issue with this idea:

I’m a game developer working on a game for the latest Microsoft console. I want to make the best, most graphically intense, game ever. I have chosen to work with the MS console because it can run best hardware of the current gen consoles.

To make the ‘graphically intense’ game that I want I need to rely on that top end hardware available to the console. It’s unlikely that everyone will own, or even be able to afford, the top end hardware compatible with the console so right away I have to rule out some of the potential customers because they have the bottom end hardware that won’t be able to handle the game. I have to make provisions, taking time and money, to support the mid-range hardware – this means the most graphically intense game ever has to be scaled down for them.

In my story consider low-mid-high as each having an equal one third share of the market. Right off the bat I’ve lost 1/3rd of my market by not being able to support the low end hardware for my amazing game and I’ve offered a watered down version of the game to the mid-range consumers. The only customers I have left that can experience my game as I want them to are the ones with the top of the range hardware. Just 1/3rd of the original amount of potential customers are left.

At that point I realize that I’m going to loose a fortune if I make the game and scrap the idea entirely to work on a different project. LOL! In essence the older/lower end hardware wouldn’t be able to play the newer games at full spec, eventually NEEDING to upgrade to play the latest games. Simply buying the console wouldn’t be enough to guarantee that you could continue playing new games. Eventually there would come a time where you would have to upgrade your hardware to be able to play the games as they came out, adding more and more money to the overall cost of the console.

Back at the beginning of the article I mentioned “downgrade” was possible and said that I can see a reason behind it being explicitly mentioned. The reason that popped into my head right away is extremely simple: punishment. Currently Microsoft issues Console Bans and Profile Bans from Xbox Live for violation of the ToS. What if they could downgrade you for cheating or tampering with their console (for piracy or any other reason – like getting the most out of the hardware or having it run a different OS)? I don’t know if they ever would (it should be against some law somewhere, right?) but that’s the reason I think it’s explicitly mentioned.

There are some useful reasons to include downgrade in the model at least. It would mean that if your GPU broke and you couldn’t afford to replace it like-for-like then you could buy a cheaper version and substitute it in place of the broken one. An update could fail and brick your console (sadly not entirely uncommon) and a downgrade could fix it. There are more reasons but I’ll let you speculate on them yourself.

If you look at how the progression of games console has come along you can see it trending towards becoming more and more PC like. It’s only in the current gen of consoles that going online has been common place (the NES actually had online capabilities away back in the 80’s!) with consoles. It’s also possible for you to use them as a media center for your movies, music and online streaming. All of those things were PC exclusive a few gens ago. Basically what I’m saying is that games consoles are becoming more and more like PCs so why not just get rid of the games console and just use a PC instead? A PC isn’t limited by the creator to prevent you doing something it’s capable of doing. For instance I run a full media server from my original Xbox console to stream music and films to my laptop, phone and 360 – it’s more than powerful enough but it was specifically designed not to allow me to modify or replace the software. Games consoles are specifically designed to allow and DISALLOW certain things where as a PC simply allows you to do whatever you want.

You can read about more of the technical aspects of the patent, written by Pamela Parker over at Search Engine Land, by visiting this link: