October 26, 2020

Microsoft Lays Out a Player-Centric Vision of Gaming’s Future

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer released a blog post today discussing what Microsoft sees as the future...

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer released a blog post today discussing what Microsoft sees as the future of gaming and how it will deliver that future to its customers. According to the company, “Our vision has one hero at the heart of it all: You.” (Emphasis original).

Companies love making claims like this in lieu of actually doing anything to improve their products or services, but I’m not sure that’s the case here. Spencer leads by emphasizing that hate speech and abusive behavior have no home on Xbox. Any player who has been harassed or mistreated should contact the Xbox safety team. There’s also reference to new tools for blocking toxicity, with the implication that these are being developed for the Xbox Series X.

Microsoft’s next guarantee? Inclusivity, with more diverse storytelling representing more cultures and individuals. I have never understood why some gamers saw this idea as a threat. More people making games means more stories and different stories. It means titles that tap mythologies and worldviews that are different from the ones we’re familiar with, and that’s by no means a bad thing. Of course, this depends on Microsoft actually carrying out its promise.

Turning attention to the more technical side of things, Spencer pledges that all Xbox games will look and play best on Xbox Series X, including all titles from previous consoles supported by emulation. All Xbox Studios titles will also launch same-day on Xbox Game Pass, including Halo, Forza, Age of Empires, Gears of War, Minecraft, Hellblade, The Outer Worlds, Psychonauts, Microsoft Flight Simulator, State of Decay, Wasteland, Minecraft Dungeons, and Sea of Thieves.

Finally, Microsoft notes that it will continue to release titles for the Xbox One and the Xbox One X. All titles developed by Xbox Game Studios will be supported on older platforms for at least “a couple of years.” It’s not unusual for games launched near a console’s debut to get multiple releases for different platforms, but it’s usually obvious pretty quickly that the game wasn’t built for them. It’ll be interesting to see if the quality of last-gen releases improves, or if Xbox Game Studios do a better job of optimizing for old platforms than other developers tend to do.

The Forward Compatibility Guarantee

This is honestly a rather nifty feature that brings the Xbox Series X closer to matching what PCs can do. If you buy a PC game for a system that’s a little underpowered for the title, you can drop your graphics detail settings to compensate. Consoles don’t typically offer much in the way of adjustable settings, but thanks to Microsoft’s new Smart Delivery system, there’s an effective forward-compatibility guarantee. If you buy a game that supports Smart Delivery to play on the Xbox One, when you upgrade to an Xbox Series X, you’ll be able to download the same title in an optimized format for your new system, with higher graphics fidelity, enhanced effects, and higher resolutions.

Granted, it’s not clear how many games outside of Xbox Game Studios titles will actually use this feature, but we have a small list of titles confirmed to deploy this way, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Cyberpunk 2077, and Marvel’s Avengers. Games that support Xbox Play Anywhere — and there are 77 titles on the list — can be played on either your Xbox or your PC.

Microsoft is also combining Xbox Game Pass and Project xCloud. Spencer writes:

With cloud gaming in Game Pass Ultimate, you will be able to play over 100 Xbox Game Pass titles on your phone or tablet. And because Xbox Live connects across devices, you can play along with the nearly 100 million Xbox Live players around the world. So when Halo Infinite launches, you and your friends can play together and immerse yourselves in the Halo universe as Master Chief—anywhere you go and across devices.

The reason all of this is interesting, at least in my opinion, is that it’s a stark contrast to how badly Microsoft blew the Xbone unveil. Then, the company stonewalled questions on features and capabilities. By refusing to answer questions, Microsoft invited enthusiasts to reach the worst possible conclusions. It took the company months to change course, and when it finally did, it threw the baby out with the bathwater, killing off features people wanted rather than simply pushing back their introductions or reworking them to work with the new (old) gaming distribution model.

Though there have been a few missteps involving gameplay demos and showcases, Microsoft has done much better on the whole. There’s a clear sense of what this Xbox Next will offer and what the benefits are: Robust backward compatibility across all previous Xbox products, cloud gaming, and a great deal of flexibility around ideas like sharing games across platforms or devices.

There is, however, one exception to the above guaranteed to hurt the feelings of at least six people: The Xbox Series X will not support Kinect or Kinect games. If you still use one, you’ll need to retain an Xbox One to use it with.

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