It’s no secret the Xbox One’s launch didn’t go well. Current figures show that the PlayStation 4 has outsold its competitor from Microsoft by over 20 million units. Xbox is still paying for its disastrous 2013 press conference and its slightly inferior hardware, which often forces cross-platform games to play at a lower resolution on the Xbox One than on the PlayStation 4.
But the console war is not won in any single battle. Until either Microsoft or Sony bows out completely, it will never end. Throughout 2015 there’s been a sense that Xbox is regaining some momentum, and Microsoft entered its E3 conference with a slew of big announcements. Not just games, but also features, many of which depend on Windows 10 or partnerships with other companies.
Windows 10 – the best thing to happen to Xbox?
The conference held on Monday morning was specifically dedicated to Xbox, yet Windows 10 repeatedly appeared in the headlines. Numerous games and features with cross-platform compatibility were announced. There’s even a new “Elite” controller that’ll work with both Xbox and PC.
None of this is particularly surprising. Microsoft has been talking about how Xbox One and Windows 10 will work together all year. Gamers will be able to check up on their Xbox Live profile through Windows 10, stream games from Xbox One to the PC, and even enjoy cross-platform multi-player in some titles.
What is surprising, though, is how quickly the company is executing on its vision. The old Games for Windows Live program, Microsoft’s last attempt at creating a PC gaming ecosystem, was a mess because the company never really committed to it. Updates were rare, and when they came they failed to address user complaints. Xbox for Windows 10 is a different story. It’s been less than a year since we first heard of it, and already we know it’ll debut in July with Windows 10’s release.
Embracing the PC
We know that, at some point, Xbox One will be upgraded to run a version of its newest operating system. That will mean easier cross-platform porting, and cross-platform compatibility of new features.
Mod support is a major reason why PC gamers stick with their rigs.
The lessons Microsoft has learned with Windows are obviously trickling down to the company’s other products. Faster update cycles and a focus on user feedback are core to the vision of Windows 10, but they’re not limited to PCs any more. This new, more aggressive, more responsive approach is now a part of Xbox.
This is an important turn of events. In 2013 I wrote an editorial about why the Xbox One is basically a PC in a console’s clothing. Unfortunately, the potential of the console was untapped at its release, and much of what I thought Microsoft might deliver never came. But that’s changing. Software updates are on the way. And with Windows 10, the PC side of the equation is coming into focus.
It’s true, of course, that the Xbox One can’t keep up with a decent gaming PC, but it could provide value to even the most hardcore member of the so-called “gaming master race.” Even PC gamers like to sit down on the couch and play games on occasion, and when they do they’ll find a familiar interface. They’ll even use the exact same controller, as the Xbox gamepad remains the gold standard of PC compatible controllers.
And then there’s the biggest little bombshell of E3 – Fallout 4’s mod support. Though this tasty nugget of information has been overtaken by other news, it’s incredibly important. Mod support is a major reason why PC gamers stick with their rigs. Removing that barrier would give Xbox One a unique feature never before seen in any game console.
Everyone can join in
Microsoft’s ever-improving integration of Windows and Xbox is notable, but it’s only part of the company’s new approach – cooperation is also important. The company seems to understand its strength and weaknesses better than in the past, and is working hard to find partners in areas where it may not be able or ready to compete.
With Game Preview, Microsoft seems to be turning a corner.
Virtual reality is the most obvious example. The company has HoloLens, but that product is not due out for at least a year, and it’s not a full VR headset. Rather than try to force a round peg into a square hole, Microsoft has reached out, partnering with Oculus to make its gamepad the standard controller for all Rift headsets, and promising VR support for Xbox One games when played through Windows 10 game streaming. It’s also working with Valve, though the details on that project are hazy.
Xbox Game Preview also highlights this new approach. A reputation of rigidity has plagued Microsoft ever since the original Xbox, but with Game Preview, it seems to be turning a corner. Such a program is bound to be rife with issues and complaints, and will require close cooperation with developers. It may very well fail, but Microsoft had a choice. It could emulate the success of PC early access titles, or decide the challenge was too difficult and unsuited for consoles. The fact it took the former option is surprising, and indicates a fundamental change in thinking.
That change could lead to big things. Compare this new approach to Sony, which has elected to build its own VR headset rather than cooperate with others. Perhaps the company will announce new partnerships at its own conference, but for the moment, it’s a bit of an island, lacking software and hardware to accompany its formidable console. Importantly, Sony probably couldn’t follow in Microsoft’s footsteps even if it wants to – it simply lacks the manpower, money and reach of its competitor.
Two years ago, gamers gave Sony a standing applause because it promised to deliver a less expensive, yet more powerful system, and cooperate more closely than its rival with developers. Microsoft is making it difficult for Sony to fulfill its vision.
The Xbox One will never be as powerful as the PlayStation 4, but it does have a better selection of software, compatibility with Windows 10 that Sony can never emulate, and solid partnerships with cutting-edge VR companies all on the way, hopefully within the year.
E3 2015 could be the turning point for Xbox One, not just in terms of its commercial success, but also how it’s viewed by gamers – and Microsoft has Windows 10 to thank for it.