Interview: Xbox sets sights on the next great platform war

When Microsoft said it was taking gaming seriously with Windows 10, we weren’t the only ones that didn’t believe it.

We’d heard it all before. We are told that: ‘gaming is at the heart of Windows Vista/7/8 [delete as appropriate]’, a couple of games would then emerge, and a year later the whole thing would be forgotten.

This time, things are different. At Xbox’s E3 press conference, the phrase ‘Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive’ echoed around The Galen Center like a record stuck on repeat.

Gaming is important to the future of Xbox,” says Dave McCarthy, head of Xbox Operations at Microsoft.

The thing we have seen in the PC space, especially in the last five years, is that it has exploded in usage, with all different game types, business models and players in the space. We know, even with our traditional console fan base, that they’re gaming on PC as well. We felt that we had some meaningful assets that could really help in that space.

Taking the full power of Xbox Live across our ecosystem… and not just the Windows 10 PCs, you saw us yesterday present Minecraft on iOS and Android with Xbox Live, and Xbox Live being that connective social tissue for games. And having new features like clubs on Xbox Live and looking for groups… it’s a great space of innovation as well. We see awesome stuff happening [on PC] with 4K gaming and high fidelity VR, which makes us think that if our customers and gamers are there, we want to be there too, offering meaningful value.”

Xbox announced two new consoles at E3 last week. Xbox One S is a slimmed-down, cheaper model with 4K video output (and out next month), while Project Scorpio is a significantly more powerful machine capable of running far superior looking games (out Christmas 2017).

Yet despite this, Xbox is actually gearing up for the next great platform war – one that is about more than just console vs console.

Last week, analyst firm DFC said that ‘Microsoft effectively killed Xbox One Slim right out of the gate’. It criticised the firm’s decision to announce two machines, saying that gamers will just wait for the more powerful iteration. It also accused the company of mixed messaging, and asked: ‘all the important games will be on PC, so why invest in a console?’

We ran those comments and were immediately accused of being pro-PlayStation by Xbox’s loyal fanbase. Yet the truth is, we don’t actually agree with DFC. The analyst seems to have fundamentally misunderstood Microsoft’s strategy. It doesn’t matter if people are playing on PC, or Scorpio or S, all that matters is that they’re playing on Xbox Live.

It’s playing without boundaries,” says McCarthy, cooly delivering the company’s latest PR buzzphrase.

"We felt that we had some meaningful assets that could really help in the PC space."

Dave McCarthy, Microsoft

Our commitment to our fans and to our partners is around offering as much choice as we possibly can. You heard it across our content line-up, you heard it in terms of the Xbox Live feature set and you heard it in the additions to the Xbox One family of devices.

We wanted to be able to offer meaningful step-changes in technology that we felt delivered customer value at the end of the day. HDR gaming, 4K video and Blu-ray support on Xbox One S in 2016, then six terraflops of GPU and true 4K gaming in the console space in 2017. The great thing about that, and here’s the rub, is ensuring compatibility across those steps with our hardware overall. There’s always been this age-old dilemma of whether you leave a gamer behind when you make that shift. Clearly our promise yesterday was to say that we aren’t going to be leaving anyone behind. The games that you own today, the accessories you own today, those are going to work now and tomorrow across our family of devices.”

The ability for Xbox games to be playable on all future Microsoft-related machines (whether console, PC or mobile) is something McCarthy particularly liked to talk about.

The compatibility thing is funny in hindsight. It’s like: ‘hang on, I don’t have to worry about my music, I don’t have to worry about my videos working on all these new devices in the future and in the PC space I don’t have to worry about my games, either, so why the hell haven’t we done it on console?’ He asks. It’s just that mind shift change that we have. I do feel it’s really natural. And it takes a lot of angst out of it for consumers.”

It’s all well and good Xbox backing its PC credentials with some actual content, but PC gamers, generally, don’t seem to trust Microsoft. They’ve been stung too many times before, and most of these gamers have found a reliable home on Steam.

One way it hopes to convince fans is with Play Anywhere, an offer where gamers can buy select Xbox One games and play them on PC for no extra cost, and vice versa.

I’ll be honest, we are still learning in the Window 10 space on what to do there,” McCarthy continues. Part of our push is to make sure that we drive programmes like Xbox Play Anywhere, but also that we bring lots of our first-party line-up of games. Gears of War Ultimate Edition and Forza Apex are a couple of examples, and you are going to see across our line-up moving forward that those exclusives come to both platforms.

That’s all about making that platform better. Steam is one of many players in the PC space. So we want to make sure we are doing as much innovation as we can. We have introduced things like frame rate unlock, which needs to be in there according to our PC users. We are improving download times from the Windows 10 store. We are on a journey of continuous improvement. I’d say we show the same thing on console with our regular updates. We’re committed to making sure we are offering the experiences gamers want on the devices they want.”

This direction for Xbox takes it a little away from its head-to-head fight with PlayStation. PS4 continues to extend its lead over Xbox One in terms of pure hardware sales, and so Microsoft is gearing up for that next big platform war – not one between physical machines, but rather online services.

I think [Xbox and PlayStation] are on different journeys, McCarthy concludes. For us, really emphasising a connective tissue of Xbox Live is at the heart of everything that we do. Having those new features show up, committing to improve the service so it strives to be the fastest and most reliable for gamers out there, bringing it cross-network to things like iOS and Android and expanding the touch points that our gamers can enjoy our franchises on… all that is part of this larger canvas that we think our gamers want to play across.

It’s true to that spirit of playing without boundaries. That’s the path we’re going down.”

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