Microsoft is planning to unify its PC and Xbox One gaming platforms into one ecosystem running Universal Windows Applications (UWAs), the head of the company’s Xbox division Phil Spencer has announced. It also looks likely that the Xbox One will become more PC-like with backwards compatible hardware upgrades in the future.
During a press event in San Francisco last week, Spencer said that the Universal Windows Platform, a common development platform that allows apps to run across PC, Xbox, tablets and smartphones, would be central to the company’s gaming strategy. “That is our focus going forward,” he told reporters. “Building out a complete gaming ecosystem for Universal Windows Applications.”
This is, he explained, the culmination of the company’s vision over the past year. In January 2015, Microsoft announced that it was bringing an Xbox app to Windows 10 PCs, allowing cross-platform play and a cohesive friends list across both platforms. Then, in November, the Xbox One was updated to be compatible with Windows 10, bringing a new interface and features to the console. In late-January, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella told attendees at the dotNet conference in Madrid that UWAs would be coming to Xbox One, but did not specify in what capacity.
Now it seems Microsoft’s plan is to shift the entire development model towards universal applications that run across PC and console – indeed any machine that’s compatible with the Universal Windows Platform. This could have radical implications for the console model, which so far has always been based on the idea that the hardware has to remain largely unchanged throughout the machine’s lifespan.
“In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so,” said Spencer. “We’re allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs.”
What this could mean is that the Xbox One becomes more like a PC, with Microsoft releasing updated versions at regular intervals with more powerful processors and graphics hardware. In theory, because games will be written as UWAs, older titles will remain compatible with the new machines.
“We believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we’ve ever seen,” said Spencer. “We’ll see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation and allow the same games to run backwards and forward compatible because we have UWAs running on top of UWP. It allows us to focus on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.
“We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see on PC where I can still go back and run my old Quake and Doom games, but then I can also see the best 4K games coming out. Hardware innovation continues and software takes advantage. I don’t have to jump generation and lose everything I played before.”
Spencer went on to claim that uniting the Windows 10 PC and Xbox One ecosystems has meant that there are now more Xbox games in development than there have ever been before. He also stated that the games division within Microsoft is working to provide experiences like cross-platform play between different devices, as well as giving publishers the ability to sell a game on one platform that will then be available to consumers on other Windows 10 devices. In other words: purchase, say, Tomb Raider on PC, and that will also get you the Xbox One version.
The Xbox chief ended his keynote by reiterating the importance of the PC as a gaming platform. He promised that UWAs will support multiple different graphics processors and that issues with V-Sync ( a setting that matches the game framerate with your monitor’s screen refresh rate) would be resolved.
“PC gaming is as important as its ever been in the company,” he said. “Windows is a critical franchise. Over 40% of the people running Windows 10 are playing games. We want to work hand in hand with our partners to make sure we have the best platform we can have.”
Spencer reiterated the company’s commitment to abandoning console sales figures, in favour of monthly active user (MUA) data, like smartphone and online multiplayer game publishers. “This is the critical factor for our teams to gauge our success, because that’s what our partners want to know,” he said. “They want the largest collection of active gamers who are buying and playing games – that is the health metric of any service you talk about – what’s your MAU? It’s not how many consoles you sell. If I sold a console two years ago and now it’s in a closet gathering dust, that’s not good for the gamer, it’s not for the developer and it’s not good for Microsoft.”
When Microsoft first used MAUs to talk about Xbox One, the decision was criticised as an attempt to obfuscate the fact that PlayStation 4 has shifted more units. Unsurprisingly, Spencer disagrees.
“We didn’t choose this metric to hide something,” he said. “In fact, we’re more exposed because it shows how many people are actually using our platform and service every month and reporting that publicly. We’ve done it for the development community who want to know how many people they can get to by building these games. This is the success metric that all of you should be looking at.”
The big question now is how onboard the development community is with the UWA concept. In theory, these apps should run seamlessly on top of PC and Xbox One architectures, with abstractions to exploit the graphics processors, system memory and other hardware features, as well as compatibility with Microsoft’s DirectX application programming interface (API) for enhanced graphics performance. But will the reality match the promise?
To press home the advantages, Microsoft has employed in-house team Turn 10 Studios to convert its Forza Motorsports engine to the UWP format. “The Forza Tech engine is now DirectX 12 and UWP so Apex is just the start of that,” said Turn 10 creative director Dan Greenawalt. “It was something we had to do for technology reasons, but it was also something we wanted to do to make the platforms better. We wanted to make UWP and DX 10 better for everybody.”
Outside of Microsoft, it will be interesting to see how studios react. “In principle UWA sounds like a good idea,” says Byron Atkinson-Jones, a veteran games programmer, now running his own indie studio, Xiotex, and working on sci-fi puzzler, Caretaker. “It offers a more unified platform or environment rather than a fragmented operating systems running on an even more fragmented hardware base. However, this is all reliant on just how hard it is to develop for and how much of a closed shop it will become.
“The best thing about PC is that anyone can make a game for it and UWA sounds like it’s going to become a curated system that will probably require some developer registration to get on.”
Given that Microsoft is promoting UWP as a catch-all platform for Windows 10 that encompasses Xbox one, what does this mean in terms of support for the console’s hardware specifications? “As it stands currently, if you are making an Xbox one game you can be sure on what kind of hardware it’s running,” says Atkinson-Jones. “If developers are then forced down a UWA route, is it going to be the case that this certainty is gone and we get back to the situation on PC where you have to start specifying a minimum spec – which kind of renders a unified platform redundant?”
Microsoft already lists Universal Windows Applications on its guide for Windows 10 developers. The site mentions that the platform boasts a common API offering “tools and options to tailor your game to each device experience.” The company is also already offering cross-platform game purchase promotions: for example, pre-order purchasers of forthcoming action adventure Quantum Break on Xbox One, will also get a free copy for PC.
But what’s likely to be most controversial is the indication that the Xbox One will follow the smartphone model of regular iteration, with updated hardware versions going on sale throughout its lifetime. In the past, console manufacturers have often tweaked the hardware within a generation, but usually only to make certain components more efficient. Xbox One would become a new kind of hybrid device, effectively a living room PC in the same space that Valve’s Steam Machine is currently trying to occupy. The question becomes: is that what console owners actually want?
“Everything we do on any device is being driven by the Xbox team, and that team is 100% committed to success on every platform gamers want to play on,” said Spencer. “The gamer is at the centre of every decision we make.”
But he will have to convince not just gamers, but the development community. “Microsoft has tried this before with Games for Windows and that was a disaster,” says Atkinson-Jones. “There will be many game developers who had to go through that monstrosity shaking their heads in disbelief that history may just be about to repeat itself.”
Update: we asked Microsoft whether UWAs would be a closed platform, with only licensed developers able to develop for games. A spokesperson told us: “Any developer can create UWP games using tools available at http://dev.microsoft.com, and load those apps on their computer or send them to others to side-load. To widely distribute UWP apps, developers currently have to register to sell through the Windows Store and follow the store guidelines to make their app available. However, there is no approval process to obtain development tools or develop UWP apps.”
Keith Stuart attended a press event in San Francisco, with travel and accommodation costs met by Microsoft
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