This week Microsoft formally took the wraps off a new business division, Gaming Cloud, led by some of the team that helped launch the Xbox One X and aimed at strengthening the company's foothold in remote computing in games.
What that means, for game developers, seems to be that Microsoft is going to be doing its best to get you using its game dev tools and services to build and operate games -- even if they're not running on Microsoft-owned platforms like the Xbox or Windows.
"We're taking a very device-agnostic approach," Gaming Cloud general manager Kevin Gammill told Gamasutra this week. "It doesn't matter whether you're a game developer focused on console devices, or PC -- that could be either our store or Steam or GoG -- or the mobile or indie market, be it iOS or Android. With our cloud services, we want to deliver a first-class experience, regardless of platform. That's one aspect you could argue is slightly different from Microsoft's old-school approach."
With that in mind, Microsoft is expected to announce a special promotion during GDC next week that will give interested developers roughly $2,500 worth of PlayFab, Visual Studio App Center, and Azure services for free to, in the words of Gammill, "kind of kick the tires, and explore what developing on Microsoft services for games may look like in the cloud."
As you might expect from a new business unit with the word "Cloud" in the title, Microsoft's longstanding Azure platform is a key focus of the new division, as is Xbox Live. Alongside them stand the lion's share of Microsoft's game dev services, including the afore-mentioned Visual Studio, Havok, Simplygon, and the recently-acquired backend service platform PlayFab.
PlayFab was brought into the Microsoft fold just two months ago, but in a recent call newly-minted Gaming Cloud corporate vice president Kareem Choudhry said that the origins of this new division can be traced back to conversations ex-Xbox chief Phil Spencer had with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as Spencer was promoted to executive vice president of gaming last year.
"One of the main things that Phil and Satya talked about as a part of that transition was, where do we combine the assets Microsoft has in gaming with the rest of the company?" Choudhry recounted. "From that conversation, a new organization was born, which Phil has asked me to lead."
While Gammill says the division's current focus is on beefing up its game dev tool offerings (so getting more people using the services in more parts of the world, more data centers to support them, etc.), he also expects the business will seek to woo more developers by offering to help them deal with the ever-present discoverability problem that plagues many game marketplaces.
"Right now we're really focused on game developer muscle, helping developers iterate on, develop, distribute, operate," Gammill says. "You're gonna see us shift more over to the marketing aspect, where we can bring some business intelligence to the table to help devs acquire the players they want, retain them, and help monetize them better as well."
If Choudhry and Gammill's names sound familiar, it's because they were two of the leads on Project Scorpio, which debuted as the Xbox One X in November. They both spoke with Gamasutra last year about the process of designing the console with developers in mind; now that the console is shipped and they've moved on to these new positions, Gammill says they expect to apply what they learned from the Scorpio project to their current work with game developers.
"I'd shipped a console end-to-end, learned a ton, and I was ready to learn something new," adds Gammill, noting that he's enjoying the opportunity to work on something that doesn't have a hard release date.
"When we kicked off Xbox One X, it was probably a little more than 3 years before we actually launched, so we were taking some very...calculated estimates. Guess is probably the wrong word, but we made a calculated argument that 4K TVs were going to be big about the time we thought we'd be ready to ship Xbox One X," he says. "One thing I love about the cloud is...you're able to iterate much more quickly in the cloud, learn from those mistakes, and self-correct. When you burn things into silicon, it's much harder to accomplish that."