Phil Spencer is at it again. I swear, the man is like walking Xbox PR clickbait at this point. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, he spoke about how he’s allowed a freedom of sorts to reach out to gamers on any device. This ostensibly means that platforms other than the Xbox One and Windows PCs are open for Microsoft-branded content. And that Spencer not only values this idea, actively sought it out. Could this mean that we could see Master Chief on a PlayStation console sometime in the near future? Probably not. But it could mean there’s more than just guerilla marketing for cross-platform play going on at the Xbox brainstorming sessions.
If you pay attention to Microsoft lately, the company has been pouring a lot of resources into service platforms. This word, “service,” has been cropping up a lot in the tech world lately. It may sound familiar after all the recent EA and microtransaction drama, with the phrase “games as service” becoming a hot topic in the discourse. This is because “service” is shorthand for “iterative tech we can support and make money off of in a long-term way.” Instead of yearly releases and individual software sales with large upfront (single) costs, Microsoft wants to sell you subscriptions, with free updates.
This means that Microsoft cares a lot about subscription numbers and user retention. What service, related to gaming, could fit that kind of business model? Yeah, Xbox Live. The service is already synced across multiple platforms and has been for years. I can get an achievement while playing an Xbox game and see a notification pop up on my PC seconds later. And my total Gamerscore will tally across the two platforms. I can even use the Xbox app to control my console and do a few other neat things.
But what about accessing Xbox Live on other game consoles without the Microsoft branding on them? That seems to be the end goal, the pie in the sky for Microsoft. And Sony is the holy grail. Think about it – we already log into services branded with EA, Ubisoft, so on and so forth on each console. But we don’t see the first party names across devices. But that’s starting to change, and Microsoft is the tip of the spear. The company wants to make its console, but it also wants a piece of that third-party pie as well.
That’s where Minecraft comes in. Minecraft is something everybody wants, no matter what device they have. And it’s succeeded. iOS, Android, PlayStation, and Nintendo all have Minecraft. And Microsoft bought Minecraft. And we all saw at E3 2017 that Minecraft Better Together is the new initiative, the Trojan Horse, that Microsoft wants to use to get the Xbox Live userbase expanded across consoles. It’s working, is the crazy part. Perhaps crazier, is Nintendo jumped on board.
To play Minecraft on Nintendo Switch and mobile, you actually log into an Xbox Live account. By joining in on this infrastructure, the Nintendo Switch version gets to stay at parity with the Xbox One and PC versions of Minecraft, meaning no delays in content or technical support. Sony is lagging behind and is even being made out to look like the bad guy in the situation by not wanting to cross-pollinate with historically competitive branding.
So what does this mean? It means that Microsoft, with Phil Spencer’s cavalier ways of thinking about brands and rules and boundaries, is making headway into uncharted waters. These waters are dangerous, as we’ve seen in the past how corporate alliances in the gaming world can quickly go sour. But it also means more benefits for gamers, with cross-platform userbases being a huge side effect of Microsoft’s service-heavy initiatives. From our perspective, we just see how cool it is to play with our friends without buying more boxes. From Sony’s perspective, they’re being asked to join forces with the enemy, a company that happily left them behind in the past. From Microsoft’s perspective, those Xbox Live numbers are going up and up, and all the company had to do was stir things up a bit. We live in wild times.