The news from Microsoft today is rather enormous. It signals that the Xbox One is certainly not the machine Microsoft wants it to be in terms of sales or hardware, and it signals that Microsoft is adapting on the fly to try and overcome their limitations while pushing the market forward in a completely new way.
According to Xbox boss Phil Spencer at an event in San Francisco, Microsoft is unifying the Xbox One and PC platforms. Spencer offered that Microsoft is “building out a complete gaming ecosystem for Universal Windows Applications.”
Xbox One games will sell on the Windows 10 store. They’ll be playable on the PC platform and the Xbox One. Even further? Spencer indicates that the Xbox One will eventually be a bit more modular, making it possible for users to upgrade their consoles with newer hardware in order to player higher-end Universal Windows Applications.
These announcements are massive, and we’ve decided to chew on them as a duo in order to better understand exactly what’s going on. What you’ll read here is a conversation between Eric Frederiksen and me, Joey Davidson.
Eric, let’s parse this out. The source with one of the more extensive takes on the announcements from Mr. Spencer is The Guardian, and it’s there that they tease out a few of his quotes from this press event in San Francisco.
If I’m reading this right, and I’ve moved over it like four or five times already, Microsoft is essentially removing platform exclusivity from its first-party Xbox One games, selling them as Universal Windows Applications on both the PC and Xbox One and making their console and Windows 10 systems into universal platforms.
Is that what’s happening? Am I dreaming?
I think that’s exactly what you’re seeing. This seems like a culmination of things Microsoft has been working toward for years. They tried it with Windows 8, though not so much in the console space. They had this operating system they wanted to run on phones, tablets, and PCs. In that case, they were thinking a bit ahead of their time, maybe, and it just never quite came together.
By updating the Xbox One to run on a Windows 10 base, they were already starting the console in that direction, and that alone started blurring the lines between what a console is and what a PC is, at least as far as the Xbox is concerned.
Now, they’re making some real moves on that front, turning former console exclusive games into PC games as well. Anytime Microsoft talks about PC gaming, that very customer base tends to scoff because they have something like a decade and a half of promises at this point that have gone unfulfilled, but Microsoft really does seem to be pushing things toward this universal platform idea, for better or worse.
Right, so there’s that universal platform idea. That now has some official branding from Microsoft. It comes twofold: Universal Windows Applications and the Universal Windows Platform.
I’m not really one to hone in on lingo like this as a signal of what’s to come, but these two pieces of branding indicate exactly what Microsoft is doing. The Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs will run universal software.
I ranted about this on Twitter earlier today, and I’m running it by you once more here. Microsoft is essentially doing the Steam Machine in reverse.
The Steam Machine was an idea born out of Valve recognizing the convenience of a gaming box in the living room that simply plugs into the TV for play. That’s what the Xbox One (and PlayStation 4 and Wii U) has always been. It’s a console. The Steam Machine was a PC in a console box made out of recognized demand.
Now, Microsoft is seeing that “40% of the people running Windows 10 are playing games,” and they want to take all the work they’re putting into the Xbox One’s exclusive software and make it available to that revenue stream. They’re taking their convenient console box and untying it, making it more like a PC and spreading its wealth to that platform.
This is happening. Xbox One games will start selling on the Windows 10 store. You can buy them there. We’ve seen with Quantum Break that Microsoft is totally willing to give Cross-Buy a shot, meaning that buying the game on one platform will let you play it on both.
Here’s where things get tricky, though. The Xbox One will, it seems, be upgradeable down the line. Spencer explained this a bit.
“We believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we’ve ever seen…We’ll see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation and allow the same games to run backwards and forward compatible because we have UWAs running on top of UWP. It allows us to focus on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.
…We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see on PC where I can still go back and run my old Quake and Doom games, but then I can also see the best 4K games coming out. Hardware innovation continues and software takes advantage. I don’t have to jump generation and lose everything I played before.”
Will we see a modular Xbox One? Will I be able to swap out a graphics card? Will I have to buy a machine that’s actually built to be upgraded?
We’re getting into a weird new space with this stuff. When I talk to friends who don’t play PC games, the ease of use is such a huge part of it. So many have been turned off by something, whether it’s as simple as a rough driver upgrade to finding out that the video card they bought a year ago won’t run the game they’ve been looking forward to because they didn’t plunk down enough cash at the time. One of the big benefits of console gaming is that there isn’t any of that business. Pop a game in and play. Nowadays you have to wait for it to install, then download a patch, but that just adds time to the process, not complexity.
If we start talking about an upgradable console, we get into a space where we have potential for two situations. One is that there are games that won’t work on the low-spec Xbox. Spencer is talking about games being backwards compatible the way they are on PC, but you do get to a point where games just don’t run on older PCs.
That is a huge catching point for me right now. If the Xbox One becomes upgradeable, you create a unique problem. You remove the luxury of a console being a simple, easy, consumer friendly plug-and-play box.
If I’m Joe Consumer who refuses to open my machine in order to swap out graphics cards and I buy the new Halo, I expect to play it. Period. Will Xbox be making games that scale like PC games do? Will they detect the low-end hardware and simply scale back in requirements in order to be playable? That I don’t know.
Developing for multiple configurations is expensive.
And that’s the other thing. I’m going to bring up one of a PC gamer’s worst nightmares: hearing a developer say “The PC version was held back by the console version.” Don’t worry, we’re just talking hypothetically here, it’s okay.
But we have this potential for a situation where the developer has no idea if the user’s running an Xbox One Point One, Xbox One Point Two, or what. Do they take the time to make something scalable? Or do they just aim for the one that they know is going to work best on all versions? When you work on a console game, there’s a cost savings there. PC game developers, they have to take their game and have it put through compatibility testing – there are entire firms that do just that. You don’t have to do that with console games right now. So I can’t help but wonder if this could become a danger with Xbox console titles.
Let’s assume for now, that the Xbox One isn’t going to be upgradable, that it’ll be the next Xbox. So this Xbox, what all can we upgrade? The hard drive, sure. The APU (the chip that houses the GPU and CPU). The memory. Each of these makes it that much more complicated, and soon we’re just straight-up talking about PC gaming. We’re just talking about having a PC in your living room, right down to opening the case up and replacing parts.
Here’s what I think. Microsoft is getting trashed by Sony. Sony’s not just eating Microsoft’s lunch, they’re sitting in Microsoft’s chair, sleeping in Microsoft’s bed. Microsoft is hurting badly, and they’re looking for something to get back in the game, so to speak. If the tables were turned, I don’t think we’d be seeing nearly this level of push. I think the unified platform element would still be there, sure. As I said, Microsoft has been pushing for this since Windows 8. But the talk of, as you said, reverse Steam Machines, wouldn’t be happening.
I tend to agree. This is a really crazy time for the Xbox team, and I think they’re being smart about this move.
Spencer totally admitted to the current lot of problems with games on the Windows 10 store. You wrote about this yesterday. The games are not simply executable files. They’re a new file type, and they have some really weird restrictions like forced V-Sync and borderless windowed fullscreen. They don’t work with FRAPs, and they have some other issues to boot.
Spencer and company know that. They will fix that, too.
I think we can both agree this is a weird time to be an Xbox fan, and I know that I’m at least taking solace in the fact that Microsoft isn’t ditching the platform. They’re adapting it without abandoning the userbase, and I appreciate that.
I do hope that, ultimately, this will be gamer friendly. Microsoft really is starting to make good on their promises for PC gaming. Things aren’t perfect yet, but we’re starting to see the fruits of that and things are getting better. To have someone as high up as Spencer say “yep, those are actual problems” instead of talking around it echoes that.
The progression of consoles has, so far, largely been one of a linear increase in power, Whatever the Xbox Two would’ve been in that potential future is out the window (all 10 of them). We don’t know exactly what’s coming next from Xbox. It’s scary, but it’s pretty exciting.
With all of this news discussed, what do you think? Sound off below.