Microsoft's GDC charm offensive was designed to complement its January roll-out of Windows 10 which, we're told, will shower goodies upon gamers. But what exactly are we being promised and how does it benefit Microsoft?
Microsoft is an immensely powerful company with a significant interest in PC operating systems, tablets, mobile phones, games console sales, online gaming subscriptions and game sales.
Dominance in each and every one of these sections is very much a part of Microsoft's organizational DNA, even while, in markets like mobile phones, it remains a minor player. Within its Redmond HQ, connecting Microsoft activities in order to create dominance is a sacred mission.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has some bad habits, which impede its own fervent desires.
This is a very large company with a complex political culture and internecine hierarchy. It's pretty incredible, really, that 15 years on from the launch of Xbox, the company is still struggling to make meaningful, worthwhile connections between its Windows PC and Xbox activities.
Microsoft has some bad habits, which impede its own fervent desires
The company often displays cultish qualities that make it deaf to the outside world's needs.
Microsoft has a long history of making things that excite its leaders, that are designed to very obviously further its own ends, but which perform disappointingly in the open market.
In gaming, we only have to look at Kinect as one example, or Games for Windows Live as another. These were not merely products or services. They were aggressive attempts to increase Microsoft's control over specific activities related to consuming entertainment. They failed because they were all about what Microsoft wanted, and only glancingly about what you wanted.
For those of us who enjoy the idea of corporations as sociopaths and megalomaniacs, Microsoft is as good an example as any (to be fair, there are many, many others). Microsoft doesn't merely make things to further its growth, it makes things that extend its power. There is a subtle difference between the two.
And like many sociopaths and megalomaniacs, Microsoft is capable of great charm and persuasiveness.
At Game Developer Conference last week, the company put on its biggest smile in order to persuade the world that an integration of Xbox One and Windows 10 across a swathe of activities, will benefit gaming-kind in manifold respects.
I can tell you, that when you are inside the Microsoft publicity bubble, the world starts to take on a distorted and lava-lampish hue. It becomes possible to believe that, wow, playing Fable Legends as a PC owner against an Xbox One owner is really neat. It seems weirdly cool that DVR clips from both PC and Xbox One games can be organized together, that having a single hub to access your Xbox and PC gaming pals is really going to make your life significantly better.
In the cold light of post-GDC relief, I suspect that having an integrated Xbox Live app for PC while running Windows 10 on an Xbox One will not make as much difference to the world as Microsoft is making out.
But, there are elements of the company's grand designs that look pretty attractive, chief among which, for me, is streaming Xbox One games to PC.
It's all to do with my wife's relationship with Orcs
I'll tell you why I'm excited by this application, and it's all to do with my wife's relationship with orcs. For some months, late last year, I played a lot of Shadow of Mordor on Xbox One. I take a laissez-faire approach to my kids viewing fantasy violence, so it's possible they have been witness to Glub the Red or Sharg Flame Monger getting their throats cut. This does not please my wife.
Obviously, unplugging my Xbox One and connecting it to my screen in my home office is too much effort, but walking downstairs to continue playing on my PC is absolutely do-able. Being able to stream Xbox games to my PC is definitely something I can get excited about.
Given that I don't play Kinect games, there are zero Xbox One games that I can't theoretically enjoy on my PC. (Microsoft says that streaming from PC to Xbox is something the company is working on, but you can see how that might carry more complications.)
Hell, I'm actually at a point where it''s a bit of an inconvenience that this service isn't already available. In fact, it doesn't yet have a release date. Windows 10 is coming this year, but streaming won't be ready for launch.
But let's try to look at the positives. Almost as good as streaming is the cross-buy idea that, having bought a game on Xbox One, I can also own it on PC (and tablet) without paying any extra. I can play online via my PC at no charge. The platforms my pals are using is not relevant.
Microsoft is even releasing a dongle that will allow me to connect my wireless Xbox One controllers to my PC and to the Window tablet that I don't yet own.
Now, we must temper our enthusiasm with caution. The number of games currently named as arriving with cross-buy and cross-play is small. Third party publishers will be at liberty to choose whether or not to enable these benefits.
Details are fuzzy and cross-platform play always comes with control-related caveats. But, as Microsoft was at pains to point out last week, the company's integrated back-end systems make it very easy to make and connect games across all Microsoft-related platforms
The good things that I see make me think two things.
First is that, as a PC owner and someone who spends a lot of time playing on my PC, I feel pretty good about owning an Xbox One. I mean, it's nice that I can play PlayStation 4 games on my Vita, but I reckon this is a bigger deal. Connecting these two machines is Microsoft's duty, and I'm glad it's finally happening. That it might also benefit Xbox One's standing among other PC owners is a happenstance that Microsoft surely appreciates.
It also makes me think more favorably about Windows 10-based tablets. Now, I am a long way away from making that particular purchase, but were cross-play to work as advertised and were it to be extended to networks outside my own (as the company is considering) then it becomes a valuable selling point.
Microsoft's desire is to sell more Xboxes and more Surface Pro 3s. But it also wants to create a single store across console, PC and tablet where you go and buy your games and your digital goods. Frankly, this is a tall order, given the strength of other players in the market and their ability to move a whole lot faster than Microsoft.
Making actually useful connections between these devices is a step in the right direction. Microsoft has been talking about delivering games to everyone, everywhere for at least a decade. Now it's time to come through with the goods.