Microsoft’s E3 2016 conference was a bit weird when it came to announcing Play Anywhere, the Xbox division’s new method of games selling simultaneously on the Xbox One and Windows 10 platforms. Play Anywhere, in a nutshell, works much like Steamplay – buy a game for one platform, and it gives you extra licenses to install that game on other devices you own. This sounds like a small, simple gesture, until you realise how much change it introduces into Microsoft’s Xbox brand, as well as the new minefield that developers have to wade through if they’re mandated by Microsoft to implement this feature.
Today, I’m introducing some of my thoughts and ideas as to how this is going to play out, but I didn’t want to do it alone. I reached out to Xbox South Africa’s community ambassador, Glenn Alexander, for his own opinions about Play Anywhere, in order to present an alternate viewpoint to my own. Hit the jump!
A new minefield, courtesy of the PC platform
One part of the equation that allows Play Anywhere to exist is that Xbox One and Windows 10 share the same hardware and software underpinnings. They both have the same version of DirectX 12, with subtle changes on the console for things like more advanced audio. They both run on the same hardware – an x86-based processor platform – and the graphics cards work in roughly the same way, even if they’re from two different vendors. Play Anywhere would not exist if this was not the case. If the console was on a Power architecture like the Wii U, it would be game over for this feature. It simply wouldn’t be worth the time and money to port games over.
But given the platform similarities, it’s possible to port over, say, Quantum Break with little effort. There are still caveats and things to be aware of when making the kinds of changes necessary to make the switch, as The Coalition discovered when fixing AMD’s MSAA bug on Gears of War Ultimate Edition for PC, but it’s much more straightforward than it has been in the past. The reverse is also true for this generation of consoles – Ubisoft Reflections once gushed about how easy it was to port The Crew to the PS4, and the PC was their lead platform. Other developers have noted the same, and occasionally we get gems like The Witcher 3, running a tight ship on the PC thanks to it being the lead platform, and porting over to the consoles at a later stage in development.
But this creates a divide for multi-platform games, especially in this generation of consoles, and it’s become a sorer point for Microsoft with the PlayStation 4 thrown into the argument. People tend to aim for the more powerful system if the games on offer are more or less the same, and the constant dogging of the Xbox One by forumites on places like Reddit and NeoGAF has done it no favours. Not only has Microsoft noticed a decline in the number of systems sold through to customers compared to their competitor, they’re also aware of a growing number of gamers moving back to the PC platform. Not only are the games cheaper there, they’re also capable of running better on more expensive hardware. Other improvements like VR compatibility and 4K HDR support add to the appeal, along with mods and graphics injectors like SweetFX.
That’s why Play Anywhere is a double-edged sword. It gets Microsoft a lot of goodwill on the PC and Xbox One platforms, but it also now forces developers to make the difficult choice of which platform to optimise the best. Do you aim for the Xbox One, with its larger user base and better reach? Do you optimise for the One S, with HDR support and a slight uplift in performance thanks to a die shrink? Or do you make sure it runs best on the PC first, because that’s the larger platform with people who are going to run the game on better hardware? It’s a tricky question.
Supporting one or the other better runs the risk of making one of the three platforms a second-class citizen. The One S, with its HDR and 4K support, would be the natural point at which to cease Xbox One production and allow developers to make all their games look great for HDR. But with the One still in play, you may have to compromise on the vision for the game by finding a way to make it look just as good with HDR turned off. What if you don’t use HDR, could you put that extra performance into increasing the minimum framerate and offer a better experience? Well, you could, but Microsoft might not want that.
Tossing DirectX 12 in also makes things more tricky, especially for the PC platform. Do you want to support variable refresh displays? That eats away at development time for other features. Do you want to allow V-Sync to be disabled? More dev time. Mods? Waaay more dev time (and I’ve even provided Microsoft with suggestions on how to implement mods on games on the universal Windows app platform without too much trouble). Support for benchmarking, framerate counters, or an FCAT-like overlay? That needs more dev time and access to console commands and command line arguments for the executable, which isn’t typically exposed to the user on Windows 10… at which point you might as well ask why you’re distributing this game through the Windows Store at all. All of these features need workarounds that make updates and long-term support more complex, while a straight DirectX 12 title sold through Steam would be much simpler.
On the subject of Steam, take note: Play Anywhere only applies to games sold online on the Xbox or Windows 10 stores. You can’t buy a physical copy of a game for Xbox One and get a digital code for the same game on PC. It sucks, but it’s the only way Microsoft’s going to keep their retail partners happy.
Glenn’s viewpoint on the whole thing
Glenn Alexander is Xbox South Africa’s community ambassador. He’s also an Xbox MVP, the team manager for Energy eSports’ eN F34R team, and the console manager for Energy eSports. He seemed like the right person to ask about Play Anywhere.
Q: As an Xbox gamer, how do you feel about the approach to Play Anywhere? Are you going to get any use out of it personally?
A: I am pretty amped about Xbox PlayAnywhere. As a primary Xbox gamer and using the Xbox One as my main gaming platform, knowing I have the ability to only purchase a title once digitally and can play it on both my gaming PC and Xbox console makes me a happy gamer. At the end of the day, playing more of my favourite games on more platforms without paying twice.
Q: Would you agree that Play Anywhere might incentivise you to not get the Xbox Scorpio? If all the exclusives make it to the PC anyway, why not get a PC now that is faster than the Scorpio?
A: Oh my, the Xbox Scorpio. Xbox Play Anywhere already has me thinking of juicing up my gaming PC. I think being a console gamer at heart and the added extra convenience of transporting a console vs. a PC and accessories to LANs and friends will always steer me to getting a console first. I also guess this will be determined if any exclusives get added to the Xbox Play Anywhere library.
Q: Are you looking to get a better laptop for gaming on the go now that your library extends to that too?
A: I am certainly in two minds with this question, even before you had asked me. I would opt for the gaming laptop knowing my Xbox Play Anywhere titles would be accessible and with my frequent travel ventures would make good sense for me on a personal capacity.
Q: Microsoft says they’re considering putting their games on Steam again, but I think this dilutes their offering somewhat. Do you think it’s a move that should be made? Gamers will be on Windows 10 regardless.
A: I tend to agree with you. Microsoft has put a lot of efforts into their own Stores and Shops but I think offering their “smaller” titles on Steam and keeping their “big” titles to their own Store is probably what will happen.
Xbox Play Anywhere will support future builds of Windows 10 (specifically the Anniversary Edition and onwards), and is technically already available in the form of Killer Instinct. It will soon come to the following games: Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, ReCore, Sea of Thieves, Halo Wars 2, Scalebound, State of Decay 2, Ark: Survival Evolved, Cuphead, We Happy Few, and Crackdown 3.