In a presentation this past week at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, laid out Microsoft’s vision for how Windows 10 will transform gaming across its platforms. While there were only a few truly new details, this talk represents the most flesh-out explanation Microsoft has provided so far for how Windows 10 will transform gaming.
During this talk—called Microsoft Presents the Future of Gaming Across the Microsoft Ecosystem—Phil Spencer laid out Microsoft’s gaming vision. He referred to this GDC as “perhaps the most important GDC for Microsoft” since GDC 2000, where the firm introduced the original Xbox. That may seem a bit disingenuous, but when Microsoft uses such language—”bet the company” and so on—it’s really just communicating how big a deal it is that Windows 10 will form the basis for so much of its efforts across platforms. And not just in gaming, of course.
It’s worth noting, too, that Microsoft perceives, correctly, that Windows 10 will be a much easier sell than was Windows 8. So while the company very consciously pretended that the Xbox One wasn’t based on Windows 8—as it is—Microsoft is going out of its way to remind people that the Xbox One will be updated “to” or “with” Windows 10. And honestly, that is a pretty big bet.
In fact, before moving on to Windows 10, I’d like to highlight two things that Mr. Spencer said that reflect in an interesting way on Windows 8.
First, the evolving world of gaming of which he spoke—where “in today’s world, people pick up so many different devices to play games”—is really just a slightly more specific version of the rationale behind Windows 8: that people are using so many different devices, period, and that Windows (or at least Microsoft) needed to be on all of those devices. The Windows team executed badly on this vision—Windows 8 was quite obviously the worst disaster in the history of the product line—but they got the high level stuff right about where the world was heading.
Second, Spencer is the first high-level Microsoft executive of which I’m aware who has now spoken plainly about the bad impact Windows 8 has had on the company, in this case very specifically with gaming. (Which makes sense, given his role.) “We brought Windows Store to market with Windows 8,” he said, “but I don’t think any of us are looking at the money being made in the Windows 8 store would count that as a huge success.”
With all that in mind, I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft’s vision for gaming has evolved. After virtually ignoring the PC gaming space entirely since 2000 and the start of Xbox—aside from a few fits and starts like Games for Windows – LIVE and on-off games like Halo 2 for Windows Vista and Gears of War for Windows—Microsoft is finally starting to think a bit more holistically.
“Our goal in gaming at Microsoft is to allow people to play games wherever they are,” Spencer said. “We understand that people love to play games on the television and console … It’s pretty important to millions and millions of people. But at the same time, we know that there are billions of people who play games across all devices. And today the worlds are segmented. You don’t really have linkage between the different places that [users] are playing their games.”
And that is where Windows 10 comes in.
“As we’ve made this evolution with Windows, and we thought about our vision for gaming, [we] think about our customers on Xbox Live. And about those customers moving from screen to screen. And what we want to bring to those people is an understanding that the games you own are the games you own. And you are able to play those games on any device. You want to bring your social network of friends together … use the input you want to use … to play the game you want to play … on your laptop, your desktop, your television, on your phone. It’s a world we want to enable across all Windows 10 devices, including the Xbox.”
Indeed, this non-subtle shift has obviously impacted the Xbox organization—and Mr. Spencer even more specifically. “My role as head of Xbox inside of Microsoft is really head of gaming,” he said, “and to be talking about what games can mean within the Windows ecosystem to the leadership [of Microsoft] at the highest levels. Gaming was once central to what we did on Windows. But we’ve kind of lost our way. My hope [for Windows 10] is that it’s the best release we’ve ever had for gamers.”
Here’s a breakdown of the Windows 10 parts of his talk. (He also discussed very specific games from time-to-time.)
Games are an important entertainment ecosystem and will be fully supported in Windows 10 with a first-class experience. “The company recognizes how important this form of entertainment is to the success of the core platform,” Spencer said. “Xbox is on par with Windows, and Office, and Internet Explorer.”
Windows 10 will provide one core operating system, one application platform, one gaming social network, one store, and one “ingestion path” across all Windows devices.
The Windows universal app platform will allow developers to “effective create one game that runs across multiple devices … including Xbox.” Obviously, differences in form factor, input types, screen capabilities and more will require developers to adapt these games accordingly. But this is a “massive” ecosystem of devices that rivals any other platform out there.
Windows Store. “We understand that in any digital store, games have to be the number one form of entertainment,” he said. “They are on every single other consumer electronics device out there. That has to be the case in our Windows 10 store as well.” Developers will be able to create and deploy games “across the full Windows 10 device ecosystem” through that one store, “including Xbox, including PC.” Windows Store is an app on Windows 10, he added, so it will be updated more quickly than the OS.
Cross-buy and cross-use scenarios. These are crucial to the success of Windows 10 gaming, Spencer said. With cross-buy, developers can choose to let customers buy a game on one platform (say Windows for Mobile) and then get it for free on others (Xbox, Windows for PCs). Cross-use, of course, is where gamers on different platforms can play and chat together in the same games. Each of these will not be “mandated” by Microsoft. It will be up to developers to choose to use these features.
Windows on Xbox Live. This is what Spencer calls the service part of Xbox for Windows. This is straightforward enough, but it’s weird to me that we have to clarify Xbox Live. But more important, this isn’t a subset of Xbox Live features coming to Windows, as with Games for Windows – LIVE. It’s the full Xbox Live, and it will be pushed out to all Windows users across devices in a “staged rollout” over 12 months.
Xbox Live SDK. At the show, Spencer announced that an early version of the Xbox Live SDK had already gone out to early adopters. The audience for this SDK will be increased over time.
DirectX 12. Wearing a shirt that read, “X: Mine Goes to 12,” Phil Spencer was obviously particularly happy about the release of DirectX 12, which will be exclusive to Windows 10 (on all devices, including Xbox One). He reiterated that some games are seeing up to 50 percent performance improvements moving from DirectX 11 to 12, and noted that the first party Fable Legends game—which you may recall will be free and will allow cross-platform play—is seeing 20 percent GPU efficiency improvements as well.
HoloLens. While Spencer admits that Microsoft’s augmented reality headset will see success in productivity vertical markets, its biggest success will be in gaming. And on that note, Microsoft intends to support this device with “first party game entertainment.” More details are coming throughout the year. I’d imagine E3 would be the most logical place and time.
Great games are coming to Windows 10. Noting the failure of the Windows Store in Windows 8, Spencer said that Microsoft was working to ensure that Windows 10 was served by a great library of first-party (Microsoft) and third-party games. There were some game demos, but let’s just say that the embarrassment we see today in Windows Store on Windows 8.x will not be repeated.
[email protected] expanded to Windows 10. Microsoft’s program for independent game developers is expanding to include Windows 10 devices, including Xbox One. A number of independent games were of course shown off during the presentation, including some coming to Windows 10.
Wireless adapter for Windows. Later this year, Microsoft will release a wireless adapter for Windows that will let Windows PC/tablet gamers use an Xbox One controller and any other Xbox One wireless peripherals.
“We’re committed to this,” Spencer said. “We are committed to the gaming space, we are committed to creating great content, and we are committed to making Windows 10 the best Windows we’ve ever had for gaming. The Xbox team is staking our reputation on it, putting our brand on it.”