Microsoft has decided that there's no shame in video games, and Phil Spencer is the lucky guy who gets to tell the world about it. In San Francisco last month, Mr. Spencer told the people who make video games that it was going to get easier, and he told gamers that they would have more and better options for playing. All because of Windows 10, and an executive decision to make games a part of it all.
Why Microsoft is celebrating Xbox
This comes about 18 months after financial analysts suggested that with Steve Ballmer stepping down, a new CEO might spin off or sell the gaming division. Rumours of Xbox's death, it appears, were greatly exaggerated.
On the phone from San Francisco, Mr. Spencer, who has been with Microsoft since 1988 and serves as head of the Xbox division, said that he's watched the approach to consumers change with different products and services. These days, he said, the company is focused on devices. "In all of these digital ecosystems you see games as the primary driver of monetization and engagement," he said.
Last summer, when Satya Nadella had become chief executive and was charting the course for Microsoft, Mr. Spencer was negotiating the acquisition of Minecraft. The "discussions and insight" that came up during that process, he said, helped Mr. Nadella and the board recognize how important gaming and gamers are to digital ecosystems. In a July, 2014, memo, Mr. Nadella wrote, "The single biggest digital life category, measured in both time and money spent, in a mobile-first world is gaming." Minecraft may have cost Microsoft $2.5-billion (U.S.), but it also gave the company access to more than 100 million registered users. Mr. Spencer said that executives recognize the value of the Xbox brand and "the role that can play across the broader part of Microsoft."
Game development gets simpler, faster
The people who make video games gather annually in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference. That's where Mr. Spencer announced that Microsoft is "enabling people to build one application that can run on multiple devices." Because Windows 10 is a single operating system that will run computers, consoles, smartphones, and tablets, suddenly the potential audience for games has grown to some 1.5 billion users, according to Mr. Spencer.
This includes independent developers who are part of the ID@Xbox program which supports self-publishing of games. Making it easier for these creators is critical, said Mr. Spencer, because of the diversity of content they bring. "It's great to see the small teams taking real risks on small games, which gives them the freedom to try new things. The more of those that we have on our devices, the more vibrant they feel for the gamers."
Mr. Spencer believes that many developers will choose to modify certain elements of their games for specific platforms – control schemes, for example – but the Universal App Platform will allow them to use the same graphics and Xbox Live scripts across all platforms. And the Windows Store will manage the different versions to make sure that customers purchasing a version of a game for computer don't end up with the tablet version.
Consumers can pay once, play everywhere
For gamers, the "vision for gaming" as Mr. Spencer puts it, means that with some games they'll be able to buy a game once, and play it on their computer, their television, their mobile phone, or tablet. The decision on a sales strategy will be left to the publisher or developer, said Mr. Spencer. "So many of the games do such a great job of engagement," he said, "that developers are excited about staying connected to their fans across multiple screens."
Making games universal also means there are opportunities for cross-platform play, so Xbox One gamers can play with and against friends on computers or tablets. Mr. Spencer thinks casual and co-operative experiences are more likely to make that possible, while competitive and e-sports games will stay in silos because their control schemes – mouse and keyboard or game pad – are so different.
But the objective is to increase the number of people playing games on all devices, so game controllers and other Xbox accessories are going to work with all Windows 10 devices. Later this year, an adapter for computers will allow for wireless connection of existing Xbox One game pads.
How HoloLens fits in
Microsoft Game Studios are already working on content for HoloLens, the augmented reality headset (Microsoft calls it holographic computing) revealed in January. HoloLens runs Windows 10, and as such, Mr. Spencer said that it will be a platform that game developers will be able to deploy to. "It is a connected and cohesive part of the whole Windows 10 device family," he explained.
Developers who join the Windows Insider Program will be able to get the tools for building programs in Windows Holographic early, said Mr. Spencer, to allow for early experimentation even before the device is available. "We know that developer support is critical to long-term consumer acceptance," said Mr. Spencer. "The faster we can get the flywheel going with the developers, the better shape we're in."