Last week, Microsoft held its annual Xbox Spring Showcase, an event that normally puts the spotlight on a few upcoming game releases. This time, though, Xbox head Phil Spencer used the event to outline his vision for the future of the Xbox brand, and depending on how you interpret what he said, it could telegraph a pretty drastic shift.
At the heart of Spencer's plan for the Xbox One is an effort to unify the console platform with Windows 10, both literally and figuratively. Games created on the recently debuted Universal Windows Platform will work across Xbox One, Windows 10, and Windows-based smartphones and tablets--that means that the developers should have a much easier time porting Xbox One games directly to PC. These games could more easily take advantage of features like cross-play and cross-save, too.
Unfortunately, things are off to a bit of a rocky start, as Gears of War: Ultimate Edition released on PC only to run headfirst into a mess of issues with AMD graphics cards. That's only part of the reason to be concerned, though. The recent Rise of the Tomb Raider PC release revealed that games released on the Windows store (which will include all Universal Windows Platform games), have some pretty severe restrictions on them, including forced VSync and Borderless Fullscreen modes, locked FPS settings, and the inability to create mods. Microsoft's Mike Ybarra has confirmed that Microsoft is aware of these issues and is working to address them, a claim that was re-iterated to Jeff during the Spring Showcase.
We'll be able to judge how troublesome those restrictions are soon: Quantum Break releases on both Xbox One and PC on April 5th, and though the full edition of Forza Motorsport 6 isn't releasing on PC in the near future, a "curated," free-to-play version of the game called Forza Motorsport 6: Apex will be out this Spring. (Turn 10 creative director Dan Greenawalt has said the full game is on its way, and notes that all future Forza games will coming to both Xbox One and PC.)
Beyond just releasing games on both platforms, Spencer also indicated interest in taking a PC-like approach to the hardware side of the Xbox platform. During his statement to the press, he spoke about wanting to bring the the tech-driven innovation seen in the PC and mobile markets back to the consoles.
[On PC and mobile] you get a continuous innovation that you rarely see on console. Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger.
Now, said Spencer, Microsoft plans on "decoupling" the Xbox One as a software platform from the hardware it first shipped with. It's not clear exactly what he means yet, and in a statement provided to Polygon, Spencer explained that he wasn't ready yet to give specifics, but that he was committed to bringing the "capability of hardware iteration" to consoles. In other words: The hardware will improve, but it will still be the Xbox One (and therefore still draw from the same catalog of games and apps).
Statements like this lead to a lot of speculation. Does this mean we'll see a new, modular Xbox One? An add-on like the old Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak or the rumored PlayStation VR external processing box? Or maybe we'll just see a new Xbox One console every few years with an improved tech inside, a la Apple's iPad or a high-end closed-box PC?
Regardless, this plan signals a dramatic shift away from the traditional console model. For ages, conventional wisdom has said that optional hardware upgrades split a console's user base, which in turn discourages developers from fully taking advantage of the increased power. Why should devs spend time developing for the handful of people on the high end when most folks only use the baseline model of the console? We've seen that problem illustrated with both peripherals (like the 32X) and upgraded consoles (like the New 3DS), but perhaps Microsoft thinks that the problem with previous attempts was in the execution and not the basic idea.
In some ways, this whole plan actually started to roll out last year. Microsoft brought Xbox Live's friends list to Windows 10 and allowed for cross-platform play in games like #IDARB, and it released the Universal Windows Platform for developers to start building cross-platform games. It also launched its Xbox 360 Backwards Compatibility program, which symbolically lines up with Microsoft's envisioning of "Xbox" as a long-running platform and not just a single generation console.
Despite all these efforts, I'm not sure I'm convinced by the vision. I like its ambition, and in an ideal world, I'd love to see an Xbox One that keeps pace with PC but also maintains all of the ease-of-use benefits that consoles have. I'm just not sure that this is the way to do it--and I really don't think that this was the way to make the announcement. While I understand the need to take time with big decisions about hardware iteration, I'm just not sure why you'd make the announcement before you had specific details to offer. As it stands, it's just so easy to imagine the worst case scenario, and the last thing Microsoft needs is more people assuming the worst about the Xbox One.