Cross Talk: Dissecting Microsoft’s Vision of the Future
This is an article that is going live simultaneously on Gaming History 101 and The B-Team Podcast as the topic is applicable to both. This was based on a conversation started on B-Team Episode 354 and continued without me on Episode 355 with Chip and Ryan. It regards the news from Microsoft’s Spring Event regarding Xbox One and Windows 10 gaming (this link provides a VR 360 video of the whole 30 minute announcement and was the only video I could still find of the actual Phil Spencer speech). Once the event ended, everyone wanted to chime in on what this means for Xbox One (the “updated hardware” announcement), Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps instead of Win32 (.exe) programs, and just what the heck Microsoft is planning. This also led to a series of articles rightfully criticizing many of Microsoft’s claims about PC gaming. Professional acquaintance Jason Evangelho did a great piece dissecting it on Forbes, Tim Sweeny (co-founder of Epic Games) flat out wants us to fight UWP, and Peter “Durante” Thoman (the modder responsible for the DSfix on Dark Souls PC and overall fixer of broken PC ports) explains how UWP renders many of the tweaks/mods PC gamers go to the platform for completely impossible. With all the discussion, I figured I would break it down for you and explain why I think that the future can exist with consoles, UWP, and PC games, but they all need each other.
What Was at the Microsoft Spring Showcase
Phil Spencer, head of Xbox at Microsoft, took to the stage to make the content-filled half hour presentation. For the record, I like Spencer and feel he is not only good for Microsoft but also the industry as a whole. That doesn’t mean he can avoid the corporate overlords above him or that he can spill the beans to the public outright, but that he probably knows what the masses are going to say. He also has legacy on his side. In the last 2-3 years we’ve seen the public scorn digital content, attack Microsoft’s disc-less future to the point that it reversed its decision only to read countless opinion pieces asking for it back, and even recently Microsoft announced it would add cross-platform play with PC/PS4 as well as look into “loaning” digital games. This isn’t new, kids, it’s something Microsoft led this console generation with, but the public wasn’t ready…until now?
The focal point of the presentation were the goals of Windows 10 as a PC gaming platform, the bright future for Xbox One hardware/software, and how the two may work in tandem. I already know that last sentence is enough to get some people heated and opinionated so just let that soak for a minute. Of the efforts we heard about plenty of games that were previous Xbox One exclusives hitting Windows 10, Windows 10 getting some proprietary ports as the process of Xbox One/Windows 10 games is streamlined, and a potential upgraded hardware future for Xbox One. If this doesn’t fill you with more questions then this is for you because it not only dissects what this could mean (Microsoft has been its typical vague self since the Showcase) but what I think about it.
From Xbox One to Windows 10
Quantum Break is the newest game from developer Remedy (Max Payne, Alan Wake) and it looks to be a showpiece both graphically and how it merges game and television. It was also an Xbox One exclusive, which as odd as it sounds everyone seems to agree is bad for the overall gamescape but Xbox One fanboys love to gloat about. Then it was announced that it was coming day and date (April 5, 2016) on Windows 10 and if you pre-purchased the digital version on Xbox One you would get the Windows 10 version free. Predictably, this sent the Internet into a bit of an outcry. Xbox One owners, it would seem, don’t really want exclusivity to go away and felt that even though Windows 10 is neither a competitor nor even an alternative (the hardware needed for Quantum Break at recommended specs is staggering) that this was in an affront to them. The days of the Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis have not been forgotten and are now worse than ever. Even funnier, most PC gamers don’t appear that interested in Quantum Break either, and I’m one of them. Sure, I was always going to buy the game – Remedy is one of the few developers that I have happened to purchase every game day one – and I’ll probably go digital to get the Windows 10 version, but I’m not expecting it to run well nor am I even sure it will be as smooth as the Xbox One version. I’m that oddball who cares about how it plays rather than looks in a forum screenshot. Listening to Chip and Eli on The B-Team (ep. 355 linked above), console gamers think this is a factor of either console game going away or the console platform becoming less relevant.
News flash, the Xbox One is less relevant. Fanboys aside, the Xbox One struggles to keep up with the PS4 in graphics and performance, not to mention sales. Microsoft is smart to want to generate income on these large scale expensive projects anyway it can and PC seems like the perfect place. Take my co-host Ryan, for example, has a PC and a PS4, never going to buy an Xbox One. He’s a potential customer lost that doesn’t have to be if Microsoft merely releases a game to PC. This has already proven true by the fact he bought the PC version of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Expanding the market and raising sales is necessary to get Microsoft to fund more projects, keep interesting exclusive games coming, and not close studios like it has had to do in the past. This is Microsoft fighting back against Sony’s massive hold on the grander market and not admitting defeat like Sega did in 2000 with the Dreamcast. Xbox One gamers should be happy, but instead they are mad. Well if Microsoft drops support for games on the Xbox One altogether, your box may quickly become obsolete. Also don’t discredit the Xbox One just on performance, audience, and graphics; you need to remember that the Xbox One does many things both within and outside of gaming much better than the PS4. It should exist, I own one, and I’m not getting rid of it anytime soon. In fact, almost every social game I buy on PC is inferior, despite looking better, to the Xbox One port thanks solely to Xbox Live. [This statement was revised in the comments below, please take note. – Ed] Don’t discredit that. Let the PC version come, it’s only good news for everyone.
How does Microsoft do this, though? It wants Windows 10 to be a store and platform, not to mention make it easy for developers to crank out an Xbox One and Windows 10 game at the same time, as well as make it intriguing for third parties. DirectX 12 seemed to be their white knight, only not many developers other than Microsoft are making much use of it yet and it still doesn’t help with a third party’s development/publishing cycle. Now it appears that the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) app is the solution. It allows a game to be built with DirectX 12 in mind, is compatible with any Windows 10 device that has appropriate hardware, and basically means you make one game for Xbox One and PC. As the articles in the opening paragraph reveal, UWP is also nearly impervious to mods, restricts the hell out of the program itself, and basically closes the PC platform like a console. This is seen by the PC enthusiast community as very bad. Well I use gamepads almost exclusively on PC, which enthusiasts also think is bad. Chip hates the tweak nature of PC and if he could get a closed platform like UWP he may very well be on board for a PC as a gaming device day one. Does that mean we remove the Steam version that comes as a Win32 (.exe) program? No, absolutely not, even Microsoft should admit that these games need to be available to as many people as possible. Does this cannibalize some of the sales that Windows 10 will get? Absolutely it will, but then, Steam was around and fighting this fight well before Microsoft was even much in the gaming business so I could really care less what chunk of the pie Microsoft gets. Frankly it should be happy to get anything. In the end the burden is on Microsoft to give developers the tools to take a game ready for Win32 architecture and convert it to UWP for the Xbox One/Windows 10 release. Then the difference is as simple as auto-changing settings in a PC game, you can create a profile for Xbox One, PCs, and mobile (if applicable). The PC enthusiasts can go elsewhere to get their port, but those that hate the settings crap on PC can grab the UWP version on the Windows 10 store, click “Start”, and simply play a better looking version of their Xbox One game. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like it’s that easy – I’ve heard of no “save as UWP” option – but that’s on Microsoft to make if it wants that future. UWP can be good for gaming and could create a future where PC gaming comes very close to merging with console gaming, only with beefier hardware that the user can adapt with time.
Xbox One Hardware Upgrades
This news. The response. It’s frankly hilarious. I was listening to Chip on Episode 355 literally talk about how he’s going to, without question, buy the newest iteration of his cell phone and then immediately turn off 90 percent of the new features. He wants to buy his cell phones every 1-2 years and keep them cheap with a contract. Yet, he doesn’t want iterative hardware. How does this make sense?
Microsoft can, and has already tested, giving you hardware in return for a contract. There was a time you would sign up to Xbox Live for 2 years at $15/mo and get a 360 for $100 instead of $300. If Microsoft starts updating the Xbox One, I expect we will see this again. Furthermore, I don’t see why not releasing updated hardware is even remotely bad for anyone involved, save perhaps Microsoft’s profit margin. Phil Spencer has already come out and stated that his mention of this potential feature would not be modular, so you won’t be buying internal or external parts to upgrade your Xbox One. Nope, you’ll be buying a new one with a new hardware profile, just like your phones. If Microsoft is smart it will offer an upgrade program for current users, release updated hardware iteratively (yearly, bi-yearly), and offer contracts to soften the blow. Here’s why it makes sense, but also how Microsoft could very well screw it up.
The ideal is that you can keep releasing Xbox One hardware, but that the better hardware can create a better looking and performing experience to those that have the upgraded model. This doesn’t ostracize the current owners other than them potentially feeling left out that they have the weaker version. The same can be said for anyone who hung onto a 360, doesn’t have a gaming PC, or hell even has an Xbox One instead of a PS4. You already have to deal with a “better” version being out there and in the capitalist ventures that are video games you will have to pay if you want a better product. Why would Microsoft continue to deliver a weaker piece of hardware and lose more potential customers when they can release a new one and not only get more customers but also re-sell to some existing customers? If it does a trade-in program it can also use this to sell the older, weaker models to new customers at cheaper prices or utilize the parts in a different venture. Provided that all games still run on all versions of the Xbox One – we’ve seen too many times from the likes of Sega and even Nintendo that splitting your market kills it – there’s no reason not to do this. In fact, it already happens today. Rise of the Tomb Raider released on Xbox One and an “inferior” version on 360. Those users who only had a 360 and bought that version are technically the people who have the older hardware that can still run the game but not looking or performing as nicely as the new one. How is the 360/Xbox One split anything different than this new proposal? It also allows Microsoft to be competitive with Sony and the Playstation 4, which is a company that wants to avoid having to iterate at all costs. Sony has always released a console at a base price and then as components come down rake in the profits of a standardized stable set of hardware that becomes cheaper and cheaper to make. You start releasing an Xbox One that at $350 in two years can do 4K gaming and load twice as fast as the then dated PS4 and you’ll start to see those masses coming over.
The only catch is that Microsoft could screw it all up with software and I don’t think Microsoft could make the promise (nor would I believe Microsoft if it did) to make everything compatible. As long as Microsoft makes it clear that all software released on the Xbox One has to be compatible with all versions of the Xbox One, then we don’t have a problem. This is easy for Microsoft to stick to internally, but what about third parties and indies? They don’t have to conform. Also unless UWP gets made into an easy conversion, I could see third parties and indies ditching the Xbox One and Windows platform altogether because they have to support too many different platforms. You have to understand that from a business standpoint, you have a much higher penetration rate simply launching on PS4 and Steam. Those not interested will simply walk away from UWP unless Microsoft gives them a reason. That’s another challenge in Microsoft’s wheelhouse.
In today’s changing world and the theory of the “single console future” seems to be, yet again, Microsoft trying to pave that way. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to get the masses to get on board and everyone’s scared of losing what they used to have. Microsoft tried strong-arming it with the Xbox One at launch at it failed miserably, so I feel confident it knows not to do that again. Now it’s trying to change an industry as the losing party in the marketing console wars. Personally I think we need a world where PCs are more like consoles thanks to UWPs, exclusivity is a thing of the past (and Microsoft tearing down the walls of cross-platform proves it does too), and consoles are no longer relics of the footprint in time they released. That said, I also think console gaming must continue, Win32 (.exe) traditional PC releases that support tweaking and mods are also necessary, and that ultimately gamers and game makers need more options instead of less. Microsoft’s Spring Showcase was clearly a taste of potential things to come, but it now has the burden of explaining what those changes mean and then making good with the responsible execution of these plans. Clearly it scares lots of people, but change always does. If handled appropriately we could see crazy things like Chip on a big gaming rig (he’s not scared about spending the money to have one), a new hardware release announced each year at press conferences, and a world where you just buy a game on any platform regardless of what you have. It could happen, but it could just as easily get horribly screwed up.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, Fred Rojas, and are not necessarily the opinions of Gaming History 101 or its other staff.