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Analysis: Microsoft's cross-platform future is about competing on its own terms

Analysis: Microsoft's cross-platform future is about competing on its own terms
June 13, 2016 | By Kris Graft




At its E3 conference in L.A. this morning, Microsoft solidified its plans to expand its video game ecosystem beyond Xbox, and connect players regardless of what platform they’re playing on.

It’s a significant strategy that not only gives Xbox and Windows game consumers more options, but also leads Microsoft to be less reliant on a single dedicated game console, ever-so-slightly shifting its Xbox business away from a head-to-head console war with Sony’s PlayStation.

Platform agnosticism in practice

The company’s cross-platform initiative was best displayed with Microsoft’s “Play Anywhere” initiative, announced today, with a slew of high-profile Microsoft-published games like Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 adopting the model. Players will be able to buy the game once, and play on Xbox One or Windows 10.

At one point during Microsoft’s E3 briefing, there were multiple people playing PC games on stage, playing with people on console. In one fell swoop, Microsoft emphasized two things: a commitment to platform agnosticism, and also more game support for Windows, an area in which Xbox chief Phil Spencer said Microsoft was regrettably lacking. 

While seeing people across PC and console playing Forza Horizon 3 was a strong display of cross-platform support, Microsoft’s breaking-down of barriers was most notably showcased with Minecraft, Microsoft’s most popular game. Now players will be able to connect and play together whether they’re on PC, console, mobile, or even virtual reality. Not only does this allow more players to connect to one another, but it also positions the hugely-popular Minecraft as a sort of Trojan Horse to expand the Xbox Live userbase beyond Xbox and Windows.

Not everyone is happy about how Microsoft is executing platform unification. Notably, Epic Games' Tim Sweeney has criticized Universal Windows Platform, saying Microsoft is moving inevitably towards a closed PC ecosystem. But Microsoft, particularly at E3 today, has been able to make a strong argument that this kind of ecosystem is good for its customers.

New hardware launch will be tricky

With this emphasis on expanding beyond consoles, it's also interesting that Microsoft isn’t shying away from new console hardware. The Xbox One S is a slimmed-down version of the current Xbox One, due later this year, and “Project Scorpio” is a more significant hardware upgrade with beefed up processing power that will better serve (currently unnamed) virtual reality platforms next year. Microsoft is essentially covering all its bases in the video game space, while at the same time staying committed—even doubling down on—its dedicated Xbox console business, which is a good way to secure the future of Xbox and reach a wider connected audience.

Expanding the capabilities of dedicated console hardware will be a tricky situation to navigate with both players and game developers. Current Xbox One owners will need to fork out extra money for the new hardware, and developers will need to get up to speed on making their games compatible across multiple versions of Xbox, due to the new Scorpio specs.

It’s the same issue that Sony will have with its “PlayStation Neo.” Depending on which developer you talk to, you’ll get different viewpoints on this mid-generation console up-spec. Developers who have a background with PC development—which requires making a game compatible with countless hardware configurations—seem to appreciate the flexibility. Other game developers, at least in this initial race toward these mid-gen hardware relaunches, are not so enthusiastic in this major shift in the video game console hardware business model.

Spencer at least vaguely acknowledged that developers need some time to come to grips with the new hardware, and that Microsoft is willing to afford them that time. It’ll be an interesting multi-part balancing act for Microsoft as it tries to bring in new customers and developers while not alienating existing customers and developers.

Spencer and the Xbox team seem keenly aware of this balancing act, and he noted that even with the introduction of Scorpio, Xbox One games and accessories will be compatible across all Xbox One hardware versions in a sort of ‘no gamer left behind’ promise. But even with such a promise, one can already sense the Scorpio envy among existing Xbox One owners (and it’ll be the same situation with Sony and PlayStation Neo).

All the major notes

It was an admirable showing for Xbox overall, with the company displaying an awareness of major shifts and trends in the game industry, such as eSports, the continued support for indies with [email protected], expansion of Early Access-style Xbox Preview paid beta program, virtual reality, and the importance of a connected audience. While the company is trailing behind Sony in terms of console hardware sales, Microsoft’s new tack seems to be to flex its muscles as the owner of the most popular OS on the planet and compete on its own terms.



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