Xbox: Start to Continue
An exclusive look inside Microsoft’s plan to turn your Xbox into a PC
By Andrew Webster | Photography by Amelia Holowaty
It was a rare sunny day in Seattle and Phil Spencer seemed very pleased. Sitting across from me in a meeting room at Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond campus, the head of Xbox smiled as he talked, mixing serious discussion about the future of his business with jokes about how his employees dress. (He’s not a fan of cargo shorts in the office.)
It was 2PM, almost exactly a week before today’s E3 keynote in Los Angeles. I’d spent the day speaking with everyone from key members of the Xbox leadership team to the creative leads behind games like Gears of War and Forza, about what they’d present on stage in LA. I also checked out new pieces of hardware, including the much rumored and much smaller Xbox One S, and drove a few laps in the just-announced Forza Horizon 3.
Xbox’s presentation at E3 today points to a future in which the console in your living room behaves a lot like the PC in your office. Microsoft’s approach starts with hardware, where devices like the Xbox One S and Project Scorpio will fundamentally disrupt the tried-and-true console cycle by pushing continuous, periodic updates that take advantage of new technology like 4K and virtual reality. Then there are initiatives like Xbox Play Anywhere, which brings the Xbox One and Windows 10 closer together by letting customers buy a game once and play it seamlessly across both platforms. The vision also includes improvements to Xbox Live that add the kind of functionality PC gamers expect, like persistent chat, on consoles as well as on Windows 10.
Spencer says all these moves stem from a single goal: to merge the often disparate worlds of PC and console gaming, and use that to keep Xbox at the cutting edge. "I think there are things for us to learn and take from the [PC and Xbox] ecosystems to make gaming better. It’s our job as the platform holder to make the console experience feel like the console experience, to make the PC experience feel like the PC experience, and to bring the best from both when we can."
All of this sounds good on paper — and it also sounds very familiar. Last fall, Microsoft invited The Verge to Redmond for an exclusive look at the company’s Xbox strategy. A few years prior, Microsoft suffered a disastrous Xbox One debut. To the consternation of millions of fans, Microsoft had put games aside, instead positioning the Xbox One as the center of your living room entertainment experience. In 2014, Spencer and a new leadership came aboard to refocus Microsoft’s efforts in the console space, and put the emphasis back on the games themselves.
At the time, Spencer laid out an ambitious roadmap that involved putting serious effort and significant resources behind bringing hit games to the Xbox. The plan also included bringing some of those iconic Xbox franchises to the PC. "As we embrace [Windows users] as an active part of the Xbox community," he noted at the time, "it opens up opportunities for our first-party games.... I don’t want to dilute what the Xbox console customer feels," Spencer said. "I want to expand what we’re able to do for more customers."
That sentiment could easily be used to describe the brand-new Xbox Play Anywhere initiative. In effect, today’s E3 keynote indicates that the company is putting into action many of the ideas the company revealed to The Verge last fall, and expanding on them.
At its keynote, the company unveiled two new iterations of the Xbox One, both slated to launch over the next two years. The first machine isn’t exactly surprising. The Xbox One S, which will debut in August, is a smaller version of the Xbox One, with a white color scheme and a slick, streamlined design. It’s typical of the "slim" refreshes of devices like the Nintendo DS Lite or PS One, though it does add some new functionality, most notably the addition of 4K Ultra HD video support and HDR capabilities. (When Microsoft showed me the One S last week, hardware lead Matt Lapsen hid the device under the shell of an original Xbox One then lifted it up to dramatically reveal just how small the new version was; Spencer called it the "cheesiest thing ever" later in the day.)
Next fall it will be joined by yet another Xbox One, codenamed Project Scorpio. More powerful than the One S, Scorpio will operate at six teraflops, powerful enough to play both 4K-native games and virtual reality experiences (with the addition of an as-of-yet-unknown VR headset). According to Spencer, the improvement between Scorpio and the current Xbox One will be immediately noticeable. "I actually think the upgrade to Scorpio in terms of visual fidelity will feel as dramatic of a change as we’re used to seeing in new generations," he said.
But one of the most significant initiatives doesn’t revolve around a single console, Spencer said — it touches all of them. For decades console gamers have been faced with a persistent problem: when you finally upgrade to a new device, you’re essentially starting over from scratch, building up a new library of games. I can still play my dusty old copy of the first Diablo on my new PC, but apart from a few platforms that offer backwards compatibility, console games live in one console generation. Microsoft has slowly been adding Xbox 360-game support to the Xbox One, but now it plans to radically expand that initiative. Moving forward, Microsoft wants to bring the PC approach to consoles, treating all Xbox One games the same: they’ll all work no matter which iteration of the hardware you own. The next Halo will look better if you have Project Scorpio and a new 4K television to take advantage of all its capabilities, but it will still work on your current machine. "The idea is that wherever we are from the 360 generation on," Spencer says of the ability to carry over your library to new devices, "we’re investing in Xbox Live and content so that as you upgrade the experience moves with you."
The Xbox Play Anywhere initiative goes one step further, making some of the company’s biggest games available across both Xbox One and Windows 10. Starting later this year, if you buy a game digitally on Xbox One you’ll also own it on Windows 10 and vice versa. The game will simply appear in your library and all of your saved game data and achievements will transfer across both platforms. Imagine launching a Halo campaign on your console, and finishing it up on your laptop while travelling. Not every Xbox game will be capable of cross-platform syncing for some time, but the majority of upcoming first-party games — titles either developed or published by Microsoft — will support it. That includes flagship titles like Recore, Forza Horizon 3, and Halo Wars 2.
"People are going to play the games that they want to play on the devices that they want to play them on," Spencer said when I asked him what the future of gaming looks like. "Certain people will want to play Gears 7 on a VR device, other people are going to want to play on a laptop, some people are going to want to play on their television. I think our longer-term goal is to enable creators to reach the largest audience possible, and for gamers to buy the games that they want to play and to play them wherever they want to play, just like any other digital media; you can watch Netflix or read Kindle books on almost any device."
Speaking to The Verge in December, Spencer admitted that the idea of merging Windows 10 and Xbox was still in its infancy. "I feel good about the early steps there," he said. Over the next few months, the company made small moves toward realizing that vision: last year’s remaster of the original Gears of War was released on both Windows 10 and Xbox One; when you bought Quantum Break on Xbox One, you received a code to download it on Windows 10, as well. Forza made its PC debut with the free-to-play spinoff Forza Motorsport 6: Apex on Windows 10. You could see the the hand-drawn outline of an idea in these moves; now we can see the emergence of a fully formed plan.
"The biggest reason we actually started making Apex was because we knew [PC] was going to be our future," Dan Greenawalt, creative director at Forza studio Turn 10, told me during my Redmond visit. He’s the kind of person whose eyes light up when he gets into the nerdy details of things, whether it’s a virtual car or porting a game to a new platform. "We wanted to bring Forza to PC… because we believe in PC as a gaming platform."
Apex marked the series’ debut on PC, something that will continue with the cross-platform release of Forza Horizon 3 on September 16th. Working on Apex allowed the studio to get its feet wet in the world of PC development, before crafting the more fully fledged experience of a new Horizon game. "Horizon 3 comes in standing on the shoulders of Apex," Greenwalt says. Last year’s Gears of War: Ultimate Edition was a similar prospect, allowing new studio The Coalition to experiment with cross-platform development on a remastered game before creating a brand-new experience in the form of Gears of War 4.
Of course, there’s more to the modern gaming experience than just the games: the social element is arguably just as important, and Xbox Live has been a big part of that. In October, Xbox Live is getting a new feature called "Clubs," that lets you create predefined groups that you can use to play with or simply just hang out with other players. You can make a group for people who like to play Destiny in the evenings, or one for your closest friends who you’ve known since high school, and these groups will continue to exist outside their respective games. In a very PC-like addition, the groups will feature a persistent chat that you can access whether you’re on console, PC, or even the Xbox Live mobile app.
Persistent chat feels like a throwback — a modern take on chatting in IRC while you play StarCraft. But Microsoft hopes that the combination of cross-platform functionality and big Xbox games coming to Windows 10 will make it appealing to PC gamers who are already invested in entrenched platforms like Steam, and are used to having games follow them from PC to PC.
The PC-ification of the Xbox ecosystem has clear benefits for Microsoft. It allows the company to sell games to customers across a variety of platforms, and potentially move more consoles by regularly updating them with new features (the Xbox One continues to significantly lag behind the PlayStation 4 in sales). Similarly, the new strategy has the potential to benefit game developers and publishers, who no longer have to worry about the bumpy shifts between console generations, and whether to support an aging platform with a big user base or switch to a more powerful device with a limited audience.
But is the strategy is good for consumers? If Microsoft succeeds, the game console will be yet another device like your phone, in need of an upgrade every two years or so. Spencer says he expects new games will continue to work on older consoles "for a long time." And while I may technically be able to run the latest Xbox One games on my original hardware, that doesn’t mean I won’t be looking at the splendid 4K visuals on Project Scorpio with envy. But Spencer believes that choice is the key factor to this paradigm shift.
"What we’re saying is that we’re going to ship Xbox One games, and those games will run on Xbox One, run on Xbox One S, and run on Scorpio," he explained. "Am I going to run games in 4K on the Xbox One that I bought? No, you’re not. I’ll say the same things that I say to my 360 customers today: you love what you have on the 360, keep buying and playing games on your 360. Yes, I agree that there will be some people at the front end that will say, ‘Hey, I always want the latest and greatest,’ and for those people the upgrade cycle could feel shorter. But I’m not going to force that on you. I’m going to let you know that you get to make the choice."
The other question is how long the strategy will last. Microsoft has been talking about many of these features for quite some time, and only now are they being implemented in a serious way. In less than three years, Xbox One has already gone through multiple identity crises: from an entertainment system, back to gaming, and now toward a PC. Microsoft’s gaming efforts appear to be heading in the right direction, but if Project Scorpio fails to ignite Xbox One sales, who knows what the sales pitch will be two years from now.
Back in Redmond, I pointed out the company’s pivots to Spencer. The Xbox chief seemed undeterred by the company’s last three years. He believes that fighting against the traditional console cycle is important to keep consoles relevant in a world where technology advances at a rapid clip.
What was the likelihood, I asked him, that in a few months Microsoft would be pivoting again? Spencer became more contemplative. "I’m coming up on three decades now at Microsoft, I started as a programmer here, and betting on technology innovation seems to me has always paid off," he said. "As opposed to betting on static technology, that something is going to be built and not change for a decade, especially with today’s pace of innovation and consumer appetite for new, innovative experiences. I’m pretty convinced that this is the right approach."
Xbox fans are hoping he’s right.
Contributed reporting by Chris Plante
Design by James Bareham
Edited by Michael Zelenko