Getting Xbox everywhere is the long-term plan of Microsoft. That’s according to a wide-ranging presentation that the software giant gave about its games business, in which it dropped several interesting tidbits about its plans for Xbox. Some of them new, others simply reaffirmation of the ideas and platform methodology that’s already been established in previous brieftings and press statements.
Anyone who’s been paying close attention to Microsoft over the past few years knows that the company has low-key stopped trying to compete with other platform holders in selling consoles. Instead they’ve gone for a device-agnostic strategy that opens up Xbox to any device with a screen, be it a smartphone, tablet or smart TV while continuing to deliver experiences to PCs and consoles.
At a pre-E3 briefing dubbed The Future of Gaming, Xbox boss Phil Spencer reaffirmed this strategy by inviting comparisons to Sony, without naming them directly. It was a sound bite echoed and repeated across the tech media world. “We’re the only platform shipping games on PC, cloud and console simultaneously,” said Spencer. “Others bring console games to PC years later, not only making people buy their hardware up front but then charging them a second time to play on PC.”
Spencer’s remarks pointed to Sony’s practice of keeping games exclusive to the PlayStation console, and then delivering their games to the PC years after with no discernible rhyme or reason as to when, how or where they do so. Exclusives like Beyond: Two Souls arrived on PC six years after its release on PS3 via Epic Game Store, while 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn launched on Steam in August 2020 and GOG on November 2020, and in a buggy state.
By eschewing a walled garden approach to the Xbox consoles, Spencer and his team are able to grow the brand and audience for Xbox everywhere. Xbox stands not just for shipping first-party games on console and PC, but third-party publishing on Steam and soon, the ability to play most if not all games on any device that can carry and output Game Pass, the company’s all you-can-game subscription service. By unshackling Xbox, Microsoft is creating opportunities on every screen it can.
The company is already working with TV manufacturers to develop a Game Pass app so that any TV with an Internet connection merely needs a controller to start playing Xbox games from the cloud. Liz Hamren, corporate vice president of gaming engineering, added that plug-in hardware is being built for this purpose. “We’re also developing standalone streaming devices that you can plug into a TV or monitor, so if you have a strong connection, you can stream your Xbox experience,” she said.
This is in addition to the work that Microsoft has already invested into the Xbox Cloud Gaming limited beta currently ongoing via Edge, Chrome and Safari browsers that, according to Spencer will “bring these great AAA-quality games to hundreds of millions of below-spec Windows PCs that to date have not been able to play the hit games that everybody sees.” It will also allow Microsoft to circumvent some of the restrictions Apple has placed on gaming on its own devices.
Of course, with all of these things on the horizon, people occasionally ask me if consoles are simply an afterthought for Xbox. Absolutely not. Many times in the past, Spencer has maintained that Xbox consoles will be where games will look and play best. And anyone who has spent time with a Series X knows that firsthand, not just in terms of power, but in design and quality of life features. Which is why the company is already planning the next iteration of consoles.
All of this is a result of meaningful long-term planning that stretches as far back as the disastrous launch messaging of the Xbox One. Say what you will about the focus on sports and television, the Xbox One strategy simply betrayed the truth of Microsoft’s long-term vision, which was to transform its platform for a broader audience instead of focusing on core gamers who are perfectly happy with decades of generational hardware and expensive software from Sony or Nintendo.
Microsoft’s strategy has always been about evolving their platform into an all consuming entity, for better or worse. They transformed their operating systems into a global standard in their first decades as a company. It simply took years of work on cloud computing, backwards compatibility and platform optimizations on top of building relationships with other companies to bring Xbox to its current state.
All of this will mean little without compelling games of course. While much has been written about the embarrassment of riches that Game Pass will bring to every screen that can host it, “killer apps” remain important. The Pass can have over three hundred games but quantity can’t sell it alone, at least no more than Netflix can sell on quantity of programming. If original programming is what it took to help Netflix truly breakthrough, then exclusives are the killer programming that Xbox needs.
For those who still identify as PlayStation or Nintendo loyalists, this seems like an obvious point. After all, both platforms have long been defined by brands and properties whose identity or history are tied with the platform. But Microsoft isn’t about to compete with the generations trusted mascots of Nintendo or Sony’s output of slick, glossy and cinematic event titles.
Instead, they want to create a constant churn of content — already they’ve made the promise of one first-party exclusive every quarter — that will keep people renewing their subscriptions. By combining FOMO of exclusive experiences with the unbeatable value of an endlessly refilling mug of content, consumers are to feel constantly rewarded for sticking with Xbox. All Microsoft needs to do now is seal the deal at the upcoming showcase.