My thoughts on Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox E3 press conference

xbox-e3-2015-event (1)

Let me be the first to say that I don’t think anyone expects the possible bomb that Microsoft might drop on us come 13 June. The overly aggressive nature that Microsoft has taken to secure their spot on the console market has yielded quite a lot of good press lately, and there’s definitely no shortage of people who want to climb on the platform. This past week, Microsoft announced some interesting additions to the Xbox platform that also affected the Xbox app on Windows 10, and I couldn’t help but notice one omission that is probably (most likely) going to drop at E3 2016 – Xbox Live Gold support for Windows 10.

WTFBBQLOL, Suuuuure…

“OK, sure, you’re pulling this out your ass,” you may retort, but the writing has been on the wall for a long time now. Microsoft’s strengths in the PC gaming market really just extend to Windows being the dominant platform there, and they’ve never actually put their heart into growing the platform as much as they could have. They’ve just about screwed over every PC gamer on the planet in the past by allowing Windows to be invaded by DRM that cripples security and introduces instability, or trying to be an online vendor of games that had its own form of DRM that never really worked properly. Do you recall the recent shutdown of Gamespy? Microsoft followed that event by pulling down Games for Windows Live in July 2014, two months after Gamespy’s exit from the market.

Hundreds of games got taken offline overnight, and millions of gamers were affected. If anyone actually benefited from the crash, it was Valve, who scooped up contracts with developers that had games that were already on the Steam platform to provide multiplayer and matchmaking services. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

microsoft games for windows live

And even when Games for Windows Live worked properly, Microsoft threw away crucial opportunities to bring their console and PC platforms closer together. They promised “Tray and Play”, which is analogous to today’s setup where you shove a disc into your console and play the game immediately, but it never materialised (it still doesn’t work for all games on the Xbox One). They promised cross-platform multiplayer, and only had a handful of games supported it. Simultaneous multi-device access? Forget it. Backing up save files? They’re encrypted for that machine instance only (it’s happening again with Windows 10). Accessing previously purchased titles to save their installers for posterity following the announcement that the Games for Windows Marketplace would shut down? Too bad if your internet was slow, because it went completely offline exactly one week later.

Oh hey, did you buy that game overseas intending to play it back at home? You had better check your region settings, because GFWL-enabled games also only worked in 42 countries across the globe. You couldn’t register the key on your profile, and you couldn’t access multiplayer services if you weren’t in any of those countries. Sound familiar?

Mixed messaging, incoherent marketing strategies, undelivered promises, and lying by omission – Microsoft has literally done it all in the past, and it’s amazing to me that the Xbox console brand did not suffer by affiliation. How could this company, this giant that had recent, fantastic success with the Xbox 360, have found so many ways to screw up their chances on the PC platform? It’s a question that still puzzles me to this day.

Also, yes, I’m still salty that I can’t play my copy of DiRT 2 on Windows 10. It’s never worked thanks to GFWL servers no longer being online to fulfill my activation requests. Yaaay!

A Clean Slate

windows 10 dream machine

But that was the old Microsoft. Today’s one is the new hotness. Its Phil Spencer and titles like Quantum Break. It’s leather jackets and casual shoes while talking about the latest Forza. Its cool and new and “in”, and it’s also an attempt to show that things have changed inside the Xbox department, no longer shackled by the rest of the company’s daft ideas about gaming (well, mostly). The people heading up Xbox now are gamers themselves, long frustrated with the status quo, and things have seemingly changed for the better. Xbox One is still considered a commercial success in the US even when compared to Sony’s astonishing lead in the console market.

This past week, Microsoft’s Anniversary update for Xbox One and Windows 10 was detailed, and some interesting bits were announced. Microsoft is paying proper attention to the PC gamer market, and some of the changes and additions they’re making to the Xbox app and games on Windows 10 sold through the Microsoft Store are definitely for the better. But two updates caught my eye, and both are rather important:

Unified Store – The Microsoft Store and Xbox Store are now identical in most respects, and behave in the same way with the same applications available to them where possible. The store is also it’s own app, which allows Microsoft to update it at a different pace compared to the regular Xbox One updates, keeping it more in line with the Windows 10 update cycle which is faster and more aggressive.

Win32 game integration – Because the default behaviour on Windows 10 is to have games running underneath the Xbox app overlay (hence why the Xbox Gamebar pops up when you’re launching something), it’ll be possible to see what games your friends are playing even if they’re on PC instead of Xbox One, and vice versa. You need to keep the overlay enabled to get this functionality on Windows 10, and you can do things like chat to your friends and share screenshots and videoclips from within the Xbox app.

Why does it matter how the games are presented on the Xbox app and the Xbox Store on the console? Why does it matter to be able to see what games your friends are playing on PC? There’s currently no reason for them to be fixed, and in years past it would have just been duplication of efforts to keep up the appearance that things were being done by competent people. But I believe that the thing that ties these two updates together is dropping at E3, and that it is going to be Xbox Live Gold support for Windows 10.

This makes sense on many levels. Microsoft has been going through tremendous trouble to bring the Xbox experience to the PC. Games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, Gears of War Ultimate Edition, and even Forza Motorsport 6: Apex are all part of the company’s plan to make Windows 10 look like a more attractive platform for gamers and introduce some sort of parity between them. You can stream games from your Xbox One to your PC at no extra cost to you. You can even use the same controller for both machines. Buying games for your Xbox One? You can do that through the Xbox app on Windows 10 today. Doing the reverse on your console? With this update, that could also be possible.

300 million Windows 10 licenses since July 2015

Currently, this functionality doesn’t earn the company any money. You have to pay for an Xbox Live Gold subscription to be able to play Gears of War UE death matches with your friends on console, but there’s no restriction for the same game on the PC. Microsoft earns money on Windows 10 through other means like advertising spots, but not charging for multiplayer is rather odd. The company swore up and down in early 2015 that they wouldn’t apply a Gold sub to games on Windows 10, but that was a decision made before they realised how much money they could make on Windows 10 (and how much more they were losing by making it free). Xbox One might be a great platform with around 20 million units sold to date, but Windows 10 is used by more than 300 million people and counting.

I’m not a math major, but 300 million is definitely a larger number than 20 million. 41% market share of all Windows installations on Steam (now around 170 million active users or more) is also a larger number than 34% for Windows 7. None of the people playing Gears of Wa-VREEEEEEEEEEEEEM! against each other are paying for multiplayer.

windows 10 store games

This fact becomes more strange when you consider that some of the most popular games on the Xbox store for Windows 10 are technically in a beta stage. Minecraft for Windows 10 is cheap and in beta. Forza Apex is free, and also in beta. Pulling them out of beta status and requiring an Xbox Live Gold subscription earns Microsoft money, and gives gamers the guarantee of great server support that is characteristic of Xbox Live. Along with it would come the obvious benefits, like using one account across your Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Windows 10 devices for multiplayer gaming, as well as getting free games each month thanks to Games with Gold. Do you like discounts? You’ll get more than you know what to do with through Deals with Gold.

No new hardware needs to be released, no additional distribution channels need be opened to make this happen – there’s probably a giant green button inside Phil Spencer’s office next to one labeled “Skynet” that awakes this functionality when pressed. You don’t need new hardware unless your current PC is already too slow to run Minecraft. You don’t need a new operating system because Windows 10 has already downloaded itself into your system. You might not even need to buy an Xbox console for future titles that arrive on the PC at the same time – just buy yourself an Xbox One controller with the wireless adapter, or stick to the keyboard and mouse, tried and trusted.

Heck, this wouldn’t even be the biggest bombshell Microsoft could announce. Xbox 360 discs are readable on a PC because they’re regular dual-layer DVDs. Imagine popping in an Xbox 360 game disc, signing into the Xbox app on Windows 10 and boom! Call of Duty Modern Warfare is now downloading and plays on your PC using the same container technology that makes it possible to play the game on Xbox One. Want to have a round with your friends online? R50 per month or R590 for a year’s subscription to multiplayer, please.

That’s your next billion dollars in revenue for Xbox Live Gold subscriptions right there, and it didn’t take a hardware launch to do it. I do think this is the direction that Microsoft will probably head in. They’ve got so many pieces of the puzzle figured out, that all they have to do is lay them out on the board properly and not let anyone muck it up.

But Wesley, how exactly does this benefit me?

Its no secret that games on Windows 10’s Store aren’t selling tremendously well. The UWA platform isn’t the friendliest of things for games and it was actually designed to be a platform to port applications over to Windows 10 quicker, allowing them to run in a sandbox environment that was also compatible with Windows 10 Mobile. If you look at it from a different perspective, Windows 10 apps from the Store are basically portable apps that leave none of the file bloat behind when they’re uninstalled. They’re also more secure by default, which is a plus. More and more work is going into fixing these problems and making the Store and its apps useful.

windows 10 xbox platform

Still, things are never simple when Microsoft decides to do something. One of the platform’s best selling games, Minecraft for Windows 10, isn’t the actual Minecraft, but instead a port of Minecraft Pocket Edition. It thankfully lacks Java and runs way better on most machines, but it’s nowhere near to feature parity with the standard version, nor does it allow for mods. Fable Legends was shaping up to be a fantastic asymmetric multiplayer, but the constant upheaval within the company, and changing management strategies of Phil Harrison (now gone from the company), and Phil Spencer (now the godfather), meant that it got too bloated to support itself, and ultimately failed. Microsoft’s plans for this level of convergence was unlike anything the company had ever attempted before, and the first game that ever tried to do it, Fable Legends, collapsed because they couldn’t execute on their own vision.

So will this benefit anyone? Initially, I don’t think it will. There’s not enough of a draw to make buying from the Windows Store attractive. Xbox One is a great platform, but on the PC there are more options from the competition than you can poke a stick at. The gaming industry is so much more cut-throat than ever before, and Microsoft hasn’t exactly been keeping their foot in the doorway to make sure they’re ready with a retort. At the same time Microsoft needs a big hit to drive adoption and take people’s attention away from the issues remaining with Windows 10 and UWA, and cross-licensing would also be appreciated.

Ironically, the one thing that would help right now is a free-to-play MOBA-style game that generates revenue for the platform and lets people dive in without spending any money to play with their friends who might be on a console. That was the whole point behind Fable Legends. Perhaps they’ll have better luck following the new trend in having an online trading card game in the spirit of Hearthstone.

But there are definitely ways to make it work if the hard choices are made now – offering Live Gold subscriptions to Windows 10 gamers, offering cross-licensing for the games they buy, and offering cross-platform play are the key ones. All three are doable and possible in today’s software ecosystem, and some incredible engineering has gone into Microsoft’s Azure cloud services to allow it to work. Killer Instinct already does cross-platform play quite well, and it’s free. More games like it are needed.

Microsoft’s E3 press conference takes place on 13 June at 6:30PM. Do join me in watching it, if you’re interested. I don’t think anyone’s going to be ready for the changes that are coming.