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Platform(s): PC, Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Hardware
Release Date: Nov. 22, 2013


Xbox a Platform for Microsoft, Not Just a Console

by Adam Pavlacka on March 1, 2016 @ 8:49 a.m. PST

Xbox One is Microsoft's all-in-one gaming and entertainment system that puts you at the center of all your games, TV, movies, music, sports and Skype.

Microsoft held an event in San Francisco last week, showing off some of the latest titles for the Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs. While games were the focus, Xbox boss Phil Spencer took some time to address the assembled media and speak on the future of Xbox.

One of the key points highlighted by Spencer was the integration of the Xbox One into the overall Windows 10 ecosystem via the Universal Windows Platform (UWP). UWP is an abstracted platform that allows the apps running on it (UWAs) to be targeted for a device type, rather than a specific device. For example, a game could theoretically be written to run on both PCs and consoles.

Why is this important for the Xbox One? Because according to Spencer, Xbox is more than just a games console as far as Microsoft is concerned. Xbox is a platform that spans multiple hardware types. In order to adequately serve that platform, Microsoft sees UWAs running via UWP as a necessary solution.

“That is our focus going forward. Building out a complete gaming ecosystem for UWAs,” Spencer said.

The focus on UWAs might be seen by some as an easy way to ensure PC ports between the Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs, but for Microsoft it is more than that. It is also a way to reduce the lead time between console generations, while at the same time ensuring backwards compatibility for all future console generations.

“We are allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs,” Spencer said. “You’ll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation and allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible because we have the Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus more on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.”

Under this model, a theoretical Xbox Two wouldn’t have a drastically different architecture than the Xbox One. Instead, it would be more powerful hardware, running a version of UWP. As a result, all previous Xbox One games would run on the Xbox Two from day one. More importantly, new games could target both systems, with differences being in things like performance presets. For example, the Xbox One could be the equivalent of “standard” settings on the PC, while the Xbox Two could be the equivalent of “ultra” settings.

Sure, that’s something that could be done on a PC today, but part of the appeal of consoles is the simplicity of just being able to start up a game and play. Having fixed consoles versions would allow a variety of price points, without fragmenting the base. It would also mean that gamers wouldn’t have to rebuy remastered versions of their favorite titles just because they got a new console. With the Xbox platform model, we could see something like “Game X” running at 1080p/30 on an Xbox One and the same game running at 4K/60 on an Xbox Two.

“We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see in PC. Where i can still go back and I can run my old Doom games and Quake games that I ran so many years ago, but I can still see the best 4K games come out and my library is always with me,” Spencer said. “Hardware innovation continues, while the software innovation is able to take advantage and I don’t have to jump a generation and loose everything I played before.”

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it is because Spencer’s description of Xbox as a platform isn’t all that different than the original pitch behind the Steam Machines. It’s also not that far off from what Nintendo has done with the 3DS to New 3DS. The trick is whether or not Microsoft can pull it off without alienating gamers or developers.

Spencer addressed Microsoft’s history in that regard, telling the audience that its past forays into PC gaming weren’t lost on him. Microsoft knows that Games for Windows Live was far from a rousing success. And the current version of UWP still has some limitations on the PC side of things that hardcore gamers aren’t pleased with.

Although UWP can seamlessly use multiple graphics cards (even mixing and matching models between manufacturers), there are issues with v-sync that still have to be resolved, not to mention interoperability issues with things like overlay programs and general lack of controller support.

In order for Microsoft’s vision of Xbox as a platform to succeed, the PC side of the UWP equation has to be robust and rock solid. That’s part of the reason why Microsoft is releasing Forza Motorsport 6: Apex [LINK TO PREVIEW] as a completely free game on Windows 10. It is serving double duty as both a promotional title for gamers, as well as a proof-of-concept game that is pushing the current limits of UWP.

On the surface, Microsoft’s vision for Xbox as a platform sounds attractive. The idea that gamers will eventually be able to buy a single game and play it on the device on their choice, be it a high-end PC or a fixed spec gaming console, is something that could be quite disruptive and change the way we think about video gaming. At the same time Xbox as a platform is a lofty goal, and one that deserves a bit of skepticism. Microsoft has talked about console spec gaming PCs since the “Tray-and-Play” initiative with the launch of Windows Vista and that never came to fruition.

No matter what happens, it’s good to see the Xbox team is willing to push the limits of what we traditionally think of as a console. It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft expands on this idea at GDC and E3 later this year. Plenty of gamers will be watching.

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