Microsoft. Big-name. Probably the biggest when it comes to computers. Why then, has this mammoth of a computer company always seemed to fall flat on its face when it comes to them establishing their own reliable gaming platform on the PC?
Microsoft Games For Windows
Let's start by talking about Microsoft and PC gaming by looking at their first foray into establishing a brand on the PC: Microsoft’s Games for Windows.
Games for Windows was Microsoft’s way of trying to beat Steam; their own client on a PC that allowed gamers to purchase and download games on their computer without any real; hassle. The thing is, the Microsoft Games For Windows Store appeared at a time when the Steam Store was already popular amongst PC gamers and gaining traction by the day.
Realistically, Microsoft wanted to manage their computer gaming brand in the same way that they managed their Xbox brand. Console gaming was proving incredibly successful for the computing giant, and they believed that if they could replicate the success of the Xbox on the PC in terms of brand management, then maybe they would start making some headway in terms of a healthy customer base on the PC.
But no such luck. Not only did they have to come up against the competition of Steam, but Microsoft made no real headway in developing games for the PC itself. Arguably, a lot of their success in the console realm of gaming could be pinned to their first-party games being released at the time – Halo being at the forefront of what was popular during that generation, with Gears of War, a new IP to Xbox making a close second.
However, there was no real effort from Microsoft to get these titles released onto PC. Sure, there was a push to get some of their titles onto PC – but these steps were taken years after the original titles had released. In fact, Halo is only now getting its day on PC thanks to the Master Chief Collection being released – but more on that later.
Halo 2 is only now coming to PC, years after its original release
The point is, Microsoft has always struggled in getting their foot in the PC gaming door. It's entirely believable that there were some in the company who wanted to establish a bigger foothold in the PC gaming community, but either a lack of cross channel support from the Xbox gaming team or a simple unwillingness to split the player base they had built on console meant that the Microsoft Games For Windows brand would never become the giant in PC gaming some wanted it to be, ceasing to operate in 2013.
Reintroducing Microsoft To The Gaming Market
That, however, was the past. Nowadays it seems that there has been a complete overhaul in the Microsoft internal ranks when it comes to gaming. The Xbox One, for example, seemed to be designed as a home entertainment system first, with games coming second to apps like Netflix.
Why? The console released at a time that streaming content was becoming the new normal for a lot of people, with the laptop or computer becoming the new way to enjoy entertainment. Microsoft wanted to make sure that their console was the way to enjoy this entertainment first and foremost, with it being central to a family's living room.
Features like the Kinect and the Xbox voice interface were promoted heavily in the launch of the Xbox One, and with features like second-hand (or borrowed games) being disallowed on the platform caused a lot of the console player base to initially discount the Xbox One, believing that Microsoft had abandoned the ‘true gamers’ in favor of a console that pandered to a more family-centric, watered-down console experience.
The Xbox One X was considered by many to be Xbox's true return to gaming
Microsoft took note of this criticism – especially when Sony’s PlayStation 4 began garnering way more attention than the Xbox One was getting. So, what was the next step for Microsoft, whose competition was beating them out when it came to gaming?
More gaming. More production power into Xbox first-party titles, more resources dedicated to an upgraded Xbox One that could beat the PS4 Pro, more teams, and games studios working towards quality first-party titles for the Xbox that would turn it into the premier gaming system it should have been.
Now we are on the cusp of the next generation of consoles – the PS5 and the Xbox Series X - at least that’s what its called at the time of writing. Microsoft might be putting on a stronger front when it comes to gaming, but they need to get their naming conventions in order.
The Xbox Series X seems to prioritize gaming over any other feature available in a console
The point is, that with the appointment of Phil Spencer to the head of Xbox and Gaming, there has been a renewed focus on actual gaming from the house of Xbox, and PC gamers will be glad to hear that includes bringing Xbox titles to the PC gaming sphere. How exactly is Microsoft planning to do that though?
Second Time Lucky
Maybe you haven’t heard, but recently the latest installment in the Gears Of War franchise was released, and for the first time ever it wasn’t brought to consoles. Titled Gears: Tactics, the game is an RTS set in the world of Gears of War – traditionally a third-person shooter affair.
If all of this sounds familiar, it might be because Gears: Tactics rhymes with Halo Wars. Halo Wars was another RTS launch by Microsoft, set in the ever-popular Halo universe. The key difference between the two is that Halo Wars came to consoles far before it ever arrived on PC. Why does this matter?
Well, if you are familiar with gaming at all, and I asked you the question: Would you rather play an RTS on PC, or console, most sane gamers would answer ‘Console’. But, This wasn’t to be with Halo Wars (at least until 2016, when Halo Wars 2 would release for consoles and PC simultaneously, alongside a remastered Halo Wars), which meant that a large portion of the real-time strategy genre would be missing out on a potentially huge game.
So, Microsoft has learned from the mistakes of the past. Gears: Tactics released to some really good reviews – and having played it myself I can attest that it’s a great game, well optimized for PC play with a well-implemented turn-based system that kept me hooked throughout the game's story.
And really, that’s the whole draw of the game – its good. It’s a game designed for PC gamers – no mention has even been made of an eventual console release date, The Coalition (developer) making it clear that this is by every metric a PC game first, even though its part of a tentpole Xbox franchise.
What we have here then is a proof of concept regarding Microsoft’s intent with PC gaming, dedicating some of their resources to creating a well-playing extension of an already popular IP, within a gameplay setting that’s well supported on the platform that it was launched on.
But it doesn’t look like Microsoft is going to stop here.
X Out Of The Box
A few paragraphs ago I talked about Microsoft wanting to manage their PC gaming brand in a similar way to how they managed Xbox, and now they seem to have cracked it – by managing PC gaming as a part of Xbox, rather than as a separate entity.
Look at the last few Gears of War releases (as I’m talking about that series a lot in this article). The Gears of War 4 and Gears 5 port to PC were both handled really well – no major flaws or issues, and whatever you can say about the story and gameplay is irrelevant next to the fact that Microsoft worked hard to ensure that gamers could enjoy a nigh on comparable Gears experience on both Console or PC on the launch day of each game.
Take it back to when Gears of War originally released, and as a PC gamer you wouldn’t see a port for over a year – and even then it wasn’t totally optimized, and not at all the polished experience equivalent to the modern-day releases.
And from what it looks like, this could be the way in which Xbox takes all of their new game releases. Microsoft has already gone on record as saying that a lot of their new first-party games will be made available to PC players as well as Xbox owners from day one – whether those cross-platform titles are going to perform as well as the latest Gears port does is another question; Framerate stutters, AI and rendering all worked seamlessly during my time with Gears 5 on PC, and I would love to see that kind of quality and attention to detail brought to other titles that up until now have only been available on Xbox.
The Xbox Game Pass
So, if Xbox is to be seen as a brand rather than an actual console, how is Microsoft looking to make money from splitting the console and PC gaming audience. You would expect by offering up their games to buy both on PC and on console separately, that’s what anybody would think in a business model like this – but they haven’t.
In a suspiciously altruistic move, Xbox has promised that all of their future first-party games as well as another of other third-party titles will be available to play on the Xbox Game Pass – a Netflix style subscription service that will allow players to not only play the latest titles available from Xbox, but actually download them to their console (or PC), and play them from their hard drive. Take that PSNow and your streaming service.
So, with the addition of cloud saving, this could mean that players can progress so far in a console version of a game, and then switch over to a PC version if they feel they perform better on that platform than the console.
We already see a version of this available in the Master Chief Collection for PC / Xbox One – if you play on both Console and PC, you will see your progress and multiplayer rank, etc transferred from one platform to another, making it very easy for players to jump in and out of the story no matter how they play.
The Game Pass works brilliantly as a tool for keeping gamers invested, and using the Xbox service. In fact, studies have shown that subscribers are more likely to try out different games when using the Games Pass service, with the average player trying out 40% more games than usual when using Game Pass, and exploring 30% more genres than they might be used to.
From a user point of view then, it seems to be a slam dunk – lots of different games on offer to play, with a wide variety of titles to choose from. Is it the same experience on PC as it is on Console though?
The list of games on Xbox Game Pass varies from PC to console
At the moment, sadly, the answer is no. Whilst the library of games available for PC is exhaustive, it isn’t the same as the list of games available for the Xbox console – nor is the list as long. Now, sure, that’s disappointing for the moment – but it turns out there is a thought process behind this. Microsoft apparently looks at the different types of games that people enjoy playing on each platform and tailor the games available for PC and Console based on these preferences.
Think of it this way: You may love shooters and RTS titles, but you also love playing them because you are at your peak performance with a mouse and keyboard – that means the best FPS and RTS games you play are usually on PC.
Conversely, you like using a controller for racing games and would usually play these on console. Basically, Xbox is tailoring each tier of the Game Pass to specifically address the wants of each platform's user base.
And, as Game Pass grows it looks like the service is going to improve. Looking at it from the big picture, we are still in the infancy of the Game Pass – once we start seeing the next generation of games being released by Xbox from the massive number of games studios they have been buying up recently, then PC gamers could have a lot more to enjoy from Xbox on PC.
It looks like this subscription service is the way that Microsoft is going to be establishing their foothold firmly in the PC gaming world. Sure, the option will be available for gamers to buy the games from the Steam store (as is possible with the Master Chief Collection for example), but for one low price PC gamers can enjoy Xbox exclusives on their computer – leading into a larger market share for Microsoft itself as far as PC gaming goes – but will it last?
The Future Of Gaming On PC By Microsoft
Speaking from a personal point of view, I think that Microsoft has made a very smart decision in collecting their games under one banner for gamers to enjoy for a monthly fee -it works well for Netflix, Disney+ and all of the other subscription services we are seeing crop up at the moment – and with games being a medium that isn’t as mass-produced as television, it will be much easier to collect them all under one banner.
It’s good for the developers too – its been reported that games receive a boost of in-game player counts by around 60% when they get put on Game Pass, and with microtransactions forming such a big part of the current online gaming industry then Game Pass breathing a second life into a game that already enjoyed a healthy life cycle is something that developers can hardly say no to.
But, what about the future of gaming? And, how do Microsoft’s apparent long term plans tie into what is expected to be the next big step in gaming: Streaming?
Let's start by looking at Google Stadia. Right now, Stadia is the prevalent games streaming service available to use, with its subscribers able to play games via their internet browser, on their television, on their phone or tablet – basically, however they connect to the internet.
Microsoft are working on their own streaming service
As long as they have a stable internet connection, then it is totally possible for a gamer to travel from their home to work without missing a beat on Doom Eternal – save some input lag. This seems like a great idea; seamless, high definition gameplay in exchange for a stable internet connection; but where Google Stadia falls down is where Game Pass excels.
In order to play the aforementioned Doom Eternal on Stadia, you need to purchase it individually, as you would on the Xbox Store or in Steam. It isn’t available on the ‘subscription’ tier of Stadia, effectively meaning that you have to commit to playing Doom Eternal on Stadia to the tune of $60, without anything physical to prove you own the game.
And, by anything physical, I'm including download data, as of course, you won’t be downloading the game – just streaming it from one of Google’s many servers. If there is a power out, if you don’t have internet, if Stadia has its plug pulled by Google’s higher-ups – then that’s it. No game for you.
Now consider that Microsoft is working on its own version of Stadia, project Xcloud. Now you have two choices, use Stadia, and have to pay a full price for any game you want to play – or use Game Pass and get access to tonnes of first and third-party titles from Xbox shared with your Gamertag, for a lower price.
I know which I would pick.
How does this link into the future of PC gaming though? Well, not everyone owns the latest, $5000 PC to play games on. But they do have access to the internet. If Xcloud is done right, then a lot more people are going to be able to enjoy games like they never have before, and they are going to be able to enjoy them in more places too.
Traveling for a conference and only have your laptop to hand? You can stream Halo. Bored in the library and want a break from studying? Break out the Gears of War stream. It will be that simple to enjoy Xbox level quality games in the future on any PC, as long as a steady internet connection is at hand.
Of course, there is no way that a streaming service can replicate the performance of the most powerful gaming PCs out there – but it’s a start, and for the cost of Game Pass, it looks to be a promising way to keep the Microsoft and Xbox brand at the forefront of PC gaming.
There is a joke online that every two years, Microsoft announces that they are doubling down on their PC gaming efforts. The thing is, as games become multi-platform affairs, and the lines between console and PC gaming become more blurred, it's more important than ever for Microsoft to encourage and promote cross or even multi-platform play.
The introduction of Game Pass and the future of game streaming is promising though. It seems like this time, Microsoft has actually doubled down on their commitment to PC gaming, as an investment in their own and many gamers’ future.