Microsoft is shifting its gaming strategy in a way that’s been heard before — increasing the focus on PC gaming. “We are 100 percent committed to the PC-gaming space,” says the head of the Xbox group.
SAN FRANCISCO —
Microsoft is about to test whether its Xbox gaming franchise is strong enough to reach outside the living room.
At a media event last week, Microsoft outlined plans to grow a business built primarily on a game console to one also focused on the personal computer, pushing its own studios to release games for the PC and positioning Windows as a platform to buy games across device types.
“We are 100 percent committed to the PC-gaming space,” said Phil Spencer, who leads Microsoft’s Xbox group. “That is a long-term commitment from us.”
That’s a familiar tune for video-game industry watchers who have seen Microsoft fall short on similar promises over the years, a point Spencer acknowledged. “We know we have a lot to prove,” he said.
Microsoft, which helped move the personal computer from a hobbyist’s tool to a ubiquitous device for work and entertainment, was an early leader in making PC games, home to such iconic franchises as “Flight Simulator” and “Age of Empires.”
But after the launch of the Xbox video-game console 15 years ago, Microsoft’s focus on PC gaming flagged. Cash and attention were thrown behind making games for the Xbox. PC-focused studios were shuttered.
With Microsoft newly committed to following potential customers on whatever device they happen to be using, the Redmond company is again targeting the PC. The initiative is designed to boost the appeal of the Windows 10 operating system and broaden the reach of Xbox, arguably Microsoft’s strongest consumer brand.
Last week’s daylong event in San Francisco, which fell outside the drumbeat of major video-gaming trade shows, was officially held to tout games coming this spring for Xbox and Windows.
Notably, all the titles Microsoft featured will have variants available on the PC.
Among them is “Forza Motorsport 6: Apex,” a version of the auto-racing franchise developed by Microsoft-owned Turn 10 Studios. “Apex,” a slimmed-down version of its Xbox cousin, will be released free to users of Windows 10 this spring.
Racing games have long been used as showpieces of the amount of visual detail developers could pack into games running on new hardware and software. “Apex” is positioned as an effort to show off the gaming potential of Windows 10.
Windows 10 is Microsoft’s link between the Xbox and the PC. A variant of the operating system has powered the Xbox One since an update arrived in November.
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Microsoft’s engineers are working to tie its game console and the PC closer together, promoting technology that allows users of the Xbox Live multiplayer gaming service to compete against counterparts on the PC.
“Historically, gamers stay in their own lanes,” said Lewis Ward, who tracks the industry for researcher IDC. “Microsoft wants to prove to the developer community that this is actually a much bigger ecosystem (by) crossing from the living room into the PC.”
The technology to back up Microsoft’s ambitions isn’t ready yet.
Major games featuring PC-to-Xbox interplay haven’t arrived as finished products. A separate project to link Microsoft’s PC-focused Windows store with the selection of games and applications available on Xbox has not been completed.
The Windows 10 application store includes a reboot of a Microsoft effort, started almost a decade ago with Games for Windows Live, to be an online storefront for digitally downloaded PC games. That business is dominated by Steam, the digital store run by Bellevue’s Valve. Amazon.com also hosts digital game sales.
Mike Ybarra, who leads the Xbox software-engineering group, said games are a crucial part of any digital application store, pointing to the huge volume of video-game transactions on Apple’s iOS platform.
Microsoft is trying to add a bit of exclusivity to its store with “Quantum Break,” a highly anticipated third-person shooter by Remedy Entertainment, the studio behind “Max Payne” and “Alan Wake.” The game, set for release in April, will be available for download exclusively via Windows 10, instead of Steam.
“The attempt to sell games on the PC has never been very strong for Microsoft,” IDC’s Ward said. “Windows 10 gives them the opportunity to deal themselves back in.”
Ultimately, Spencer says, Microsoft’s goal is to meet gamers on any device, enabling them to pause a game they were playing on an Xbox and pick up where they left off on a laptop, or, eventually, even more mobile devices.
“The logical extension for us is from television to expanding to television and PC,” Spencer said in an interview. “In the long run, we want Xbox Live to be anywhere somebody wants to play.”