When Microsoft launched Xbox it had a grand vision. The idea was to bring their games API suite to the living room. That suite is called DirectX. Hence Xbox. (Direct)X box. That vision was fine but no one really took advantage of it, and by the time Microsoft released the Xbox 360, they had abandoned some of their core beliefs by releasing unusual hardware (namely PowerPC chips).
But the Xbox One, and PS4 (it’s nearest console rival — currently beating Xbox on all fronts) are hardware equivalents to unified, shit PC’s. Their spec-to-price value is awful, but because they’re unified boxes (i.e. every Xbox One is the same), developers can push the hardware to deliver solid gaming experiences.
Before I jump into the guts of this story, let’s introduce the biggest player in the PC market: Valve. Valve own & run Steam, the first real attempt at a proper digital distribution system & marketplace for the gaming industry. I remember the launch. It was abysmal. Nothing worked, but you needed it to play Half Life 2. Login always crashed, meaning you couldn’t play an offline game. They fixed nearly every issue thereafter (that’s not to say Steam is flawless today). Today, years later, Valve have launched new initiatives under the Steam monicker. One such initiative is Steam Machines; cheap, licensed PC units built by (mostly) third parties like Alienware that run Valve’s Linux-based OS, selling exclusively from the Steam store.
Now we get to the crux of this: Microsoft want to turn the Xbox into the same idea. A small, cheap, easy to use box that runs a platform that’s on par to the PC world. You keep your enthusiast PC players happy as well as the more casual couch surfing gamers.
The development model Microsoft will follow is a unified platform for all games to run on DirectX. So a studio can build a single code base and have it run on both Windows PC machines as well as Xbox. Which is one step better than Valve which mostly requires studios to run games on their Linux-based OS, usually ported from a DirectX title from Windows (because most Steam users are using it on a Windows PC).
It’s an interesting idea because it merges two very similar worlds: hardcore enthusiast PC gamers as well as casual folks. It also merges a huge opportunity for Microsoft to sell more titles, like Halo, to a wider audience who tend to stick to titles for longer than console players; who have a more cyclical gaming habit.
However PC gamers are embedded into Steam. I doubt Microsoft will adopt Steam as a digital distribution store/platform, but as long as Microsoft doesn’t deviate too far from it I can see their plan working. Hell, it might even get more PC gamers adopting the Xbox One as an under-the-TV experience; similar to how Valve want gamers to hook up Steam Link to their TV’s to play games casually.
Valve have their own casual controller to play games with, which is a huge departure from normal controllers. But most PC gaming experiences with controllers that I know of are typically driven by Xbox controllers already.
My point here is that I think Microsoft are onto something. Both with the points above, and them divorcing themselves of the console wars entirely. The market has spoken; and it’s ambivalent about whether they own an Xbox or PlayStation. It doesn’t really matter to them, and Sony have more skin in the game right now so they’ll push harder (plus Microsoft’s Xbox push in APAC has been comically poor in the past).
Of course, there’s more to this, and the Guardian has some great information and interview quotes from Phil Spencer. But for now, this is a fascinating prospect.