How Xbox Series X's Technical Specs Drive Innovation

Next-gen consoles will be about more than just better graphics. Here's how Xbox Series X is planning to deliver.

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Every generational jump has folks hyped up for wild improvements in graphics and seeing how game worlds can look even more visually stunning. While that's part of the excitement when it comes to PS5 and Xbox Series X, there are important advancements beyond sheer graphical quality. In talking with Xbox director of program management Jason Ronald, he laid out why Series X's Velocity architecture and state of the art solid-state drive (SSD) can help drive innovation in games.

"We were at the upper bounds of what's possible with the rotational drive," he said when looking at current console hardware. "This [SSD] unlocks huge opportunities and it's going to be an area ripe for innovation." When getting a bit more technical, Ronald explained that they had to fundamentally rethink the I/O (input-output) architecture and infrastructure--basically, how fast and efficiently the console processes data and executes tasks between its various components. Thus, the Velocity architecture is what Xbox touts as the foundation for Series X's capabilities.

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At the heart of it is the custom NVMe SSD, a type of ultra-fast storage drive that has only recently become common in high-end PCs. This will allow for significantly faster load times and little-to-no hiccups when games try loading in assets in real time. We've known about the SSD as a core component of Series X, but various features like the Direct Storage API, dedicated decompression hardware, sampler feedback streaming, new CPU (AMD Zen 2), and I/O systems alongside the SSD are the pillars of the Velocity architecture that will lead to games that can do much more than look pretty.

These may be high-level terms, but to simplify what these advancements in I/O mean for users, Ronald said, "As a developer, I now have access to way more memory than is even physically in the box. And I think those are the things that are really going to open up new gameplay experiences and new ways of creating games than you've ever seen before."

He further distilled these technical concepts, saying, "Many current-generation games are actually concentrating more on the CPU and on the I/O side. Modern game engines and developers usually have the capabilities of scaling up and down on the GPU, especially in the PC space. But CPU and I/O systems tend to be less scalable." Ronald continued, "When they design their games, a lot of times they have to work within those constraints. So, we really invested very heavily on the CPU on the I/O side, going with Zen 2 CPU architecture and significantly higher clock rates--it's about four times the performance of the processor in the Xbox One X."

The Xbox Series X component teardown render
The Xbox Series X component teardown render

We also caught up with Bloober Team, developers of Layers of Fear, Observer, and the upcoming Xbox Series X exclusive horror game The Medium. We asked about how this new tech is allowing them to create a game like never before. Lead designer Wojciech Piejko told us that the console "provides us with tools that allow us to create a seamless experience, it's super important in terms of creating a horror game...you will be able to finish it without seeing any loading screens." Head of core technologies at Fishlab, Johannes Kuhlmann, said that its new game Chorus will benefit with more advanced physics and unnoticeable loading.

One thing to note is that the Xbox Series X's SSD can store up to 1TB, and with the increasing install size of games, that could get filled quickly. Microsoft described to us how Xbox Series X is able to keep game install sizes down, but the only other storage solution lies in the consoles proprietary 1TB SSD expansion card from Seagate. While it's a separate product from the console itself, it's said to work seamlessly and without any performance loss. "The real priority for us was that developers didn't have to worry about different performance profiles...and that it matched the performance exactly as the internal drive," Ronald declared. He assured that it's simple for game makers and users alike, saying, "Developers get reliable, consistent performance and we can basically hide the complexity of that from a developer while still making sure that gamers have the opportunity to expand their storage."

When asked about any concerns around growing sizes of games, Ronald stated, "That's a huge reason why we have the expansion capabilities. We know some players are going to want to have large libraries, so we wanted to give that capability." He also explained that hardware decompression and efficient I/O have allowed game assets to keep their overall size down, and that developers have tools to determine if specific files are unnecessary for certain users (such as audio files for other languages).

The Xbox Series X is set to launch this holiday season, and although there's still so much we've yet to learn about Microsoft's next-gen console, we're getting an increasingly clear picture of its new capabilities. For more on the Xbox Series X, be sure to check out all our stories below.

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