Microsoft is bringing the Xbox One and Windows 10 together in a single development platform. At the same time, the company is also looking into changing the gaming console ecosystem, by potentially moving from a single platform for an entire generation. The news was announced at a Microsoft press event attended by The Guardian.
"That is our focus going forward," explained Xbox boss Phil Spencer at the event. "Building out a complete gaming ecosystem for Universal Windows Applications."
The news that games like Quantum Break, Killer Instinct: Season 3, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition (available today), and Forza Motorsport 6 are coming to Windows 10 PCs is underpinned by Microsoft's overall vision. Spencer explained that Microsoft is providing a unified development platform, the Universal Windows Platform, that will allows developers to make games for any device in the company's ecosystem. That means Windows 10 PCs, the Xbox One, the Microsoft Surface, and more. For Microsoft, this means the software and the hardware are separated; developers can decide they want to make games for the Universal Windows Platform and then determine which hardware platforms they'll support.
Once you separate the software from the Xbox One itself, it also means you can play around with the hardware a bit more. Like Valve's Steam Machines, the Xbox One could become a moving hardware specification, with new versions of the same platform sporting better hardware.
"In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so," said Spencer. "We're allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs. We'll see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation and allow the same games to run backwards and forward compatible because we have UWAs running on top of UWP. It allows us to focus on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform."
For Xbox One, this is a means to potentially have the same continuity as the PC or smartphone platforms like Android and iOS. I don't think the market is ready for an immediate shift to annual Xbox One updates, but every 3 years or so feels about right. I can already envision the "Xbox One S" or "Xbox One Plus".
"We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see on PC where I can still go back and run my old Quake and Doom games, but then I can also see the best 4K games coming out. Hardware innovation continues and software takes advantage. I don't have to jump generation and lose everything I played before," added Spencer.
Nintendo has previously hinted at building a similar unified development platform with the Nintendo NX. Many have guessed at a hybrid console/portable, but it's far more likely that Nintendo will release a console and a portable, with developers working on a single software platform and tuning their games' capabilities accordingly. Late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata called the idea "brothers in a family of systems".
"Currently, we can only provide two form factors because if we had three or four different architectures, we would face serious shortages of software on every platform. To cite a specific case, Apple is able to release smart devices with various form factors one after another because there is one way of programming adopted by all platforms. Apple has a common platform called iOS," said Iwata in a 2014 investor Q&A.
"Whether we will ultimately need just one device will be determined by what consumers demand in the future, and that is not something we know at the moment," continued Iwata. "However, we are hoping to change and correct the situation in which we develop games for different platforms individually and sometimes disappoint consumers with game shortages as we attempt to move from one platform to another, and we believe that we will be able to deliver tangible results in the future."
Essentially, console platform holders are looking at PC, iOS, and Android's rolling development and hardware release and wondering, "Why can't we get in on that?" It's not easier for developers, because it loses the ease of a single specification to program for and relies on setting a minimum spec, but for consumers and platform holders, it tends to work out better.
The biggest issue is the same one I pointed out in the Quantum Break news. This unified platform isn't for PCs in general, it's for Windows 10 PCs. The games are all run through the Xbox Store on a Windows 10 PC, not through an executable or Steam. For Microsoft, the idea is getting Xbox One owners to support Windows 10 and vice versa. They're moving more people towards a platform that's not being used much by using their console muscle. That's why Spencer even mentioned Microsoft looking to provide an option like Sony's Cross-Buy: buy a game on Xbox One, get it on Windows 10.
This doesn't always mean the games that make the crossover will be the same. Microsoft also announced Forza Motorsport 6: Apex, a free-to-play version of Forza for Windows 10 PCs. It's not the best option for players that wanted the full Forza experience on PC. That said, Forza developer Turn 10 confirmed to IGN that future Forza games are being developed for Xbox One and PC concurrently.
This is a big, big change for console gaming, assuming Microsoft delivers on everything it's talking about here. The latter point is a big question mark, because Microsoft has promised the world on PC before, only to deliver a tiny whimper. Let's see if this is any different.