You all know the story: Microsoft’s Xbox One console is selling better than its predecessor, but it’s still getting outsold by the PlayStation 4 by a 2-to-1 margin. So what can the software giant do to turn things around? Simple: Just change the rules of the game.
Microsoft is of course applying the same strategy shift in the smart phone market. With Windows phone relegated to also-ran status, the software giant has recast the platform as a new kind of phone, one that can transform into a PC-like device using a Windows 10 technology called Continuum.
Looking to Xbox, we can see both similarities and differences. Xbox One isn’t failing at all—far from it—but it does suffer from an image problem thanks to the unexpected (and to my mind unwarranted) domination of PlayStation 4. But Microsoft’s underlying solution to this problem is essentially the same: Leverage Windows 10 and the firm’s decades-long dominance of the PC market to give another platform a new lease on life.
Updating Xbox One with Windows 10 underpinnings was of course the first necessary step in the transition, but Microsoft has been doing much more than that. Key Windows 10 technologies like Cortana and the app store and model are coming to Xbox One in 2016, of course. Microsoft has been adding key Xbox technologies to Windows 10 for PCs, tablets and phones via the Xbox and Xbox Beta apps. And of course, Xbox One controllers—including the incredible Elite controller—already work great on Windows 10 for PCs. You can even stream Xbox One games through a Windows 10 PC.
But one year ago—and seriously, it happened that long ago—we caught the first glimpse of the real future of Xbox when Microsoft showed off a game called Fable Legends that would come to both Xbox One and Windows 10 for PCs and, more to the point, would allow “cross-platform play,” meaning that PC and console gamers could play together in the same game at the same time.
Cross-platform play has been a dream for many years, and in the Xbox 360 life cycle, Microsoft had likewise showed off identical functionality for a lackluster shooter-type game called Shadowrun, which proved to be a one-off (and a terrible one at that). Likewise, Microsoft has dabbled in porting games between Xbox and Windows (Halo 2 for Windows Vista, anyone?), and even between Xbox, Windows, and Windows Phone (The Harvest, and some others).
But this time is different. And the reason, once again, is Windows 10.
In the past, Microsoft could make the argument that since these three platforms—Windows for PCs, Windows Phone, and Xbox—were all “based on” a similar core OS, porting between them and making interoperable games was theoretically easier than before. But today, these platforms are in fact the same. Windows 10 for PCs, Windows 10 Mobile, and Xbox One are in effect a single platform. And this will enable new scenarios—or, more to this point, actually enable wishful thinking scenarios from the past for the first time.
So we see cross-platform play in Fable Legends, neat. We see cross-buy games, like the upcoming Quantum Break, which offers an explosion of giveaways that span platforms: Buy the Xbox One game and you get it for free on Windows 10 for PCs too, plus you get the older Xbox 360 Alan Wake games for free, to play on your Xbox One. Incredible.
And then there’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, the first-ever AAA game title to come to Windows 10’s otherwise lackluster store. This game doesn’t offer cross-buy or cross-platform play or anything like that. But it highlights how easy it is to take a first-class Xbox One game and make it available to Windows 10 for PCs.
Between Fable Legends, Quantum Break and Rise of the Tomb Raider we see a path forward for Xbox games that work everywhere across Windows 10. And while not every game will offer every feature—and many, many games will of course remain “stuck” on just one platform—these three represent, I think, the path forward. And when you consider that Microsoft is now measuring Xbox Live engagement, rather than Xbox One unit sales, as its measuring stick for success, you can understand why getting Windows 10 users engaged in Xbox is so important. It’s a much bigger audience than just the Xbox One.
Put another way, Windows 10 helps Xbox transcend Xbox One. And that is a win for all Xbox fans, just as its a win for all Windows 10 users, even those who feel burned by Microsoft’s half-hearted attempts to bring gaming to Windows in the past. (Does the horrible Games for Windows LIVE ring a bell?) But here’s the thing. As Windows 10 has proven so often, we can’t judge the Microsoft of today by its actions (or lack of actions) in the past. This is a new Microsoft. And I can’t wait to see what happens with Xbox throughout 2016 … on all of the Windows 10 platforms.