The symmetry could have been perfect.
On the same day that Microsoft revealed its high-end PC hybrid, dubbed the Surface Pro 2, Valve announced SteamOS, a platform for Linux-based game consoles. PC gaming has been so good to Valve and its popular Steam service that the company is now using that strength to attack living room consoles. I half-expected Microsoft to recommit to PC gaming in response.
Only it didn’t happen that way. Despite the power of the Surface Pro 2, gaming barely got a mention at Microsoft’s press conference–let alone any kind of unique hook for PC gamers. If Microsoft has any ambitions to attack Steam on its main turf (which happens to be Microsoft’s operating system), we didn’t get the slightest whiff.
Certainly, the Surface Pro 2 will have some gaming chops. It promises a 50 percent boost in graphics performance and a 20 percent increasing in processing power over the original Surface, which itself was reportedly decent for gaming. In laptops with similar specs–specifically, an Intel Core i5 4200U processor and Intel HD 4400 graphics–games like Skyrim and Need for Speed: Most Wanted have managed around 30 frames per second with low details. Even if the touchscreen doesn’t come into play, the Surface’s tablet-and-kickstand combo could still make for a handy little gaming device with an attached controller. At the very least, it’d be less bulky than a full-sized laptop.
How many times did Microsoft mention gaming during its Surface announcement on Monday? I count just once, when the company showed off Halo: Spartan Assault, a $7 tablet game, on the ARM-based Surface 2–not to be confused with the Intel-powered Surface 2 Pro. In its press materials, Microsoft mentions the “gaming capabilities” of the Surface 2, but says nothing about the Surface Pro 2’s ability to run beefier games like Skyrim. Microsoft’s promo videos for Surface Pro 2 are all about productivity; gaming never gets a nod.
That’s a marketing issue, and it’s a missed opportunity for Microsoft to create appeal beyond the business crowd. But marketing aside, there are product-related things Microsoft could do to beef up Surface’s gaming potential.
Why not port a proper version of Halo–say, Halo 4 or Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary–to the PC and give it away with the purchase of Surface? Better yet, Microsoft could bundle a Bluetooth game controller, or take a page from the Razer Edge and create an attachable controller accessory that compliments the tablet design. (It could “click in” and everything.)
There is, of course, an elephant in the room, which brings us back to Valve. Steam reportedly has more than 50 million users; it’s unquestionably the most popular PC gaming service, and its user base rivals that of Xbox Live. For Microsoft to acknowledge PC gaming is to acknowledge Valve. Without a proper competitor to Steam, any efforts to promote PC gaming would risk driving more people to Valve’s Linux-based alternative platform. Incidentally, Microsoft shuttered its Games for Windows Marketplace in July, and there have been rumors that Games for Windows Live will close down next year as Microsoft works on something new.
So perhaps this is just an issue of timing. Microsoft, after all, recently hired Jason Holtman away from Valve to work on Windows gaming. And with the upcoming Xbox One running on a PC-like system architecture, Microsoft could have its own plans for cross-platform gaming. (“We believe in Windows/PC gaming and have long-term plans to grow our support,” Microsoft told IGN last month.)
Surface could some day become a centerpiece for gaming along with the Xbox One as Microsoft continues its push toward “devices and services.” But with Valve preparing to launch its living room attack, the clock is now ticking.