The Dream Engine
Taking a closer look at the industrial design of the Xbox Series X
New console launches are always exciting. They represent a point in time where we collectively lift our heads to catch a glimpse of some new horizon — a landmark that pops up in undiscovered country. In the video game hardware arms race, high-end PCs tend to run a better marathon thanks to continuous incremental enhancements; but next-generation game consoles are avid sprinters, leaping out ahead of the competition at least for a brief moment. Whenever a new console is unveiled, we learn a great deal about where games are going as a medium, where the attendant technology is headed, and where the overall industry is going. Given that consoles tend to have lifespans of several years, they represent statements of intent from their creators about how they see the video game medium unfolding in the foreseeable future.
When thinking about the next generation of consoles, it’s tempting to jump straight into hardware specifications. And, sure, that’s plenty interesting. After all, the hardware that exists inside these plastic boxes represents the canvas upon which game developers will be crafting their remarkable creations for us to enjoy. But it’s at this point where I have to make an admission: I’m fascinated by the industrial design of game consoles. Way back in 2017, I wrote a piece that discussed my (late) introduction to the Xbox One. I spent perhaps an inordinate portion of the article fawning over the industrial design of the Xbox One S; in retrospect, I believe it is still, by far, the most beautiful console ever made. That industrial design, of course, extended to the controller, which remains one of my favourite video game controllers of all time.
The man behind the design of the Xbox One S is Andrew Kim, who rose to prominence due to his clever reimagining of the Microsoft brand identity. Kim’s career has subsequently skyrocketed — after Microsoft, he joined Tesla and was then headhunted by Apple. Kim seems like a perfect fit for Apple, a company famous for its trend-setting industrial design.
So, the Xbox One S set a high benchmark for Microsoft — and maybe for consoles in general. Where to from here?
Microsoft recently unveiled the Xbox Series X at the 2019 Game Awards. As well as revealing the hardware itself, the company showcased footage from several upcoming games including, most notably, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. Ninja Theory’s next-gen project is still the subject of avid discussion among gamers days after the reveal — and rightfully so, it’s clearly a highly-ambitious title that aims to leverage the enormous power brooding inside Microsoft’s sleek black monolith.
The Xbox Series X has indeed been compared to the famous monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey — this is, perhaps, its most favourable comparison (others are not so generous; a cursory Google search will bring up everything from trash bins to fridges). It’s this iconography around the monolith that Microsoft themselves lean into heavily in the reveal trailer: I’ve cut a few seconds from the sequence and created the GIF above. This sequence reminds me a little of a similar effect that Sony used in a series of ads promoting the PlayStation 3:
This series involved the PlayStation 3 console performing various feats by manipulating objects in a room — the sequences always ended with the console itself floating above the floor. The implication, of course, was that the hardware was so powerful that it could move both itself and other objects — the impression was one of intelligence or sentience. Microsoft have clearly expressed a similar idea in the Xbox Series X reveal trailer, too.
The Xbox Series X’s industrial design is notable for two major reasons, I think. Firstly, Microsoft have adopted a form factor here that is so obviously different than anything we’re used to when it comes to game consoles. Consider the context in which game consoles are used — typically in living rooms, connected to TVs, often sitting within home entertainment centres alongside other electronics. For this reason, consoles have tended to lay relatively flat with a horizontal orientation. Over the years, industrial designers have usually tried to fashion hardware that looked like it belonged in this context, too. One of Sony’s most notable contributions with the PlayStation consoles (especially the original PlayStation 2), is their attempt to make gaming hardware look and feel like some kind of high-end AV equipment. The Xbox Series X’s design is unique largely because Microsoft have chosen to emphasise its vertical orientation — it looks almost like a small, featureless PC tower. The key design feature they do focus on in the trailer is actually the expansive vent at the top (which has the practical purpose of cooling the machine, but which, from a design standpoint, implies enormous power due to its prominent size and position). Although Microsoft’s approach here is novel, I think it’s worth noting that game consoles have increasingly adopted more unique form factors over the years — the PlayStation 2 prominently featured both a vertical and horizontal orientation, and the Wii’s trademark vertical “angled wedge” shape marked a radical departure from the past. It’s also worth pointing out that, according to Microsoft, the Xbox Series X can indeed be laid on its side.
The second reason why the design is so unique is because Microsoft explicitly didn’t start with a particular shape in mind and then attempt to fit the hardware inside. According to GameSpot, Phil Spencer (Head of Xbox) listed several key attributes that the Xbox Series X would be required to have (in terms of things like performance and visual fidelity), and then it was up to the Xbox team to figure out how to build the form around the function. This is the primary reason why the Xbox Series X looks as it does — its exterior shape is almost entirely in service to its core functional requirements.
Then there’s the new controller, which is — thankfully — not radically different than the previous model. I’m all for innovation and bold new controllers, but the original Xbox One controller design is sublime. There are changes introduced on the next-gen version, though. It is apparently just slightly smaller — Microsoft has tested the design with a wide range of people from around the world, and determined that the new size fractionally increases the range of the “sweet spot” for a broader number of people. The rear “shelf” of the controller is also apparently a little smoother and more ergonomic. You’ll notice, too, that there’s now a Share button front-and-centre on the controller — this was one feature that I think the original version definitely needed, as sharing media on the current generation machine can feel a little clumsy. Here’s hoping Microsoft also improve the software experience around this to make it effortless to immediately share content to your desired location. You’ll also see a new d-pad design here, too; Microsoft were apparently influenced by the d-pad on the second iteration of the Xbox Elite controller.
I’m sure there’s a whole lot more to say about the Xbox Series X. Its reveal has definitely raised numerous questions, and the striking industrial design has sparked conversation and debate among gamers everywhere. Despite all the inexpensive memes, I suspect that views will shift significantly when people are actually able to go hands-on with the box itself — the way it sits in a real living room, the size relative to other objects, and even the sound it makes (or the way the green glow from inside may look in a darkened room) are all likely to impact way the the design is ultimately received. I’m definitely excited to check it out in the flesh for myself, and when I do, it might make sense to do an up close and personal deep dive.