After years of showing practically no interest in PC gaming, Microsoft appears to be having a change of heart.
The company has hired Jason Holtman, formerly in charge of the popular Steam PC game service at Valve, to focus on Windows gaming. “I think there is a lot of opportunity for Microsoft to deliver the games and entertainment customers want and to work with developers to make that happen, so I’m excited to be here,” Holtman told GamesIndustry International.
Holtman didn’t elaborate on his duties, but my mind jumped to the possibility of cross-platform gaming–the idea of playing a game on your Xbox, and then moving to your PC and picking up where you left off, without having to re-purchase the game or re-play through the same levels. Although a small number of downloadable Xbox games allow this already, it’s not a feature that large-scale, big-budget video games have offered. I wondered if hiring Holtman might pave the way.
Steam does something like this already, but only for PCs. If you buy a game on one computer, Steam then makes it available on all your computers at no extra charge. Some games offer “Steam Cloud,” which automatically carries your saved games across devices, and some allow you to play on Mac or Linux in addition to Windows, all with a single purchase.
I was curious to know how easy or difficult it would be for Microsoft to turn Xbox gaming into a cross-platform service. Hypothetically, if Microsoft wanted to do this, are there technical challenges or business roadblocks that would get in the way?
Easy, in Theory
“To answer your question, it is entirely possible for this to take place, and I say that only because of some recent changes,” Neal Robison, Senior Director at AMD, told TIME Tech. Robison is charge of working with developers to optimize their software for AMD chips, and while he couldn’t talk specifically about Microsoft’s plans, he was able theorize about what’s possible. (AMD’s chips power both the Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4.)
The recent change that Robison refers to is the switch to x86 architecture by both Microsoft and Sony for their next game consoles. This is the same system architecture found on nearly every laptop and desktop PC, which means that console games and PC games will share much of the same code.
“All of the elements that make up a game now can move between these platforms with very little modification,” Robison said.
To enable cross-platform gaming, Microsoft would have to provide some extra programming tools (APIs, in tech speak) to game developers, who would then be able to store saved game information on Microsoft’s servers. Robison doesn’t think this would be very difficult to do because of all the work Microsoft has already put into making Xbox Live secure and stable.
“They’ve already done so much of the hard work right on that backbone. This would be another piece of data that they would be able to store there,” Robison said.
Still, it might be tricky for publishers to figure out how to make multiplayer work across platforms. Players might expect that their community of fellow players would remain intact, but in the past, letting PC and console players intermingle has been difficult, due to the advantage PC gamers have in using a mouse and keyboard.
“The online head-to-head multiplayer thing is a very stormy beast, and very difficult to do,” said Lewis Ward, IDC’s research director in charge of gaming, “so I’m much less confident in the near term that we’ll begin to see games that are truly cross-platform between PCs, consoles and especially mobile portable devices,” Ward said.
A Question of Demand
Assuming the cloud save element, at least, is as easy as Robison says, there’s just one other question: Would game publishers support it? It’s not a given that publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision would let Microsoft’s customers make a single purchase across multiple PCs and consoles.
“In terms of being able to play purchased Xbox One games on your PC, there are definitely licensing and business hurdles. Hurdles that Microsoft may not overcome anytime soon,” Jesse Divnich, vice president of insights at EEDAR, said in an e-mail interview. “When you purchase an Xbox game, the license agreement only resides on that platform and I could foresee issues with publishers allowing licenses to jump between platforms.”
Then again, Valve (and Holtman, presumably) have been able to convince publishers that “buy once, play everywhere” is a good model for PC gaming. AMD’s Robison thinks publishers might warm up to including game consoles if consumers show enough interest.
To figure out how many people might be interested in cross-platform play, Lewis Ward of IDC conducted a survey of U.S. gamers last year. IDC asked these respondents how interested they were in being able to play the same game on consoles, PCs and mobile devices, giving them a choice of four answers.
Of those 1,503 respondents, 36 percent said they weren’t interested, 41 percent said cross-platform gaming would be nice to have, 19 percent said they would absolutely take advantage if it didn’t cost extra, and 4 percent said they’d pay extra for the privilege.
In other words, the majority of players aren’t demanding cross-platform gaming, and hardly any would pay extra for it. Factor in the effort it would take to figure out cross-platform multiplayer and mobile gaming, and publishers might not be so eager if they can’t then charge a premium price. “Especially with the mobile piece included, that gets really tricky,” Ward said in an interview.
Still, there are signs that Microsoft is figuring out how to make cross-platform play work. Robison pointed to Project Spark as an example of a game that works on every screen. The free-to-play title, which lets players create their own games-within-a-game, will be available on Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows 8, with players’ data syncing across all devices. Because Microsoft is in control of the console and the PC operating system, it can do things with tablets, consoles and full-blown computers that its competitors cannot–and perhaps it can lead the way for third-party publishers.
“My hope and my prayer is that’s exactly where Microsoft is heading,” Robison said. “They’re really in the driver seat to make this happen,”