Yes, you read that right. For years, platform holders have held firm on maintaining their respective walled gardens, although recent years have seen some changes in that regard. A major change in this field is now on the way, as Microsoft has announced plans to bring Xbox Live to Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android, with more details coming in a GDC talk in March. The company says bringing the network to more consoles will "enable game developers to connect players between iOS, Android, and Switch in addition to Xbox and any game in the Microsoft Store on Windows PCs."
Until the company reveals more at GDC, we're not entirely sure what the move will involve, precisely. What we do know is Microsoft wants us to take our Xbox profile, including our Achievement history, friends list, clubs we're in, and more, to every screen--even rival consoles.
That ties into a wider recent Microsoft strategy to get its services on as many devices as possible. Gone are the days when it only wanted you to buy an Xbox One to be your "all-in-one" entertainment solution; now the company wants you to buy a Switch and play with your Xbox friends on it. Trying to pressure everyone into buying a Windows Phone didn't work--and was costly, thanks to the $6.2 billion (£4.7bn) acquisition of Nokia. Now, Microsoft Office runs on iOS, with a subscription fee for professional use. Instances like ex-CEO Steve Ballmer calling open-source OS Linux a "cancer" are in the past; instead, current chief executive Satya Nadella declares the company's "love" for Linux. It only makes sense for this platform-agnostic approach for Microsoft as a whole to involve Xbox. Sure enough, it's possible to play a huge selection of Xbox games on PC with Play Anywhere, and taking Xbox Live to other platforms seems a natural next step.
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"I think if you get so focused just on hardware sales at this point, as gamers, we lose sight of what's going on around the console business," Xbox boss Phil Spencer told GameSpot in 2017. "Console's important. I love the console space, but it's part of the gaming business, it's not total.
"I look at those in aggregate, and so it's not actually about how many Xbox One Xs do I sell, or how many Ss do I sell, or even how many of one individual game that I sell. I look at, are we growing the number of people who have a relationship with Xbox in some way? [It] could be an Android customer in China playing Minecraft, but that's a person who's connected to our platform who's able to use Mixer, who's able to connect to Xbox Live, meet their friends online. That's really the metric for growth right now."
Ultimately, the real metric for growth is money. Microsoft's latest financial report states the company's revenue has increased 12%. Profit has increased by 18%. The company's share prices have tripled in the five years since Nadalla took over and began implementing this collaborative strategy.
In that sense, it seems an obvious move to bring Xbox Live to other consoles and to mobiles: it gets the Xbox brand to, potentially, an additional 2 billion devices by Microsoft's calculations. Nintendo in particular are the gateway to gaming for millions of children around the world--Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida once said the games industry "needs Nintendo to be very successful" for this very reason. Those children will soon possess not only a gateway, but a direct pathway to the Xbox ecosystem.
Children will soon possess not only a gateway, but a direct pathway to the Xbox ecosystem
But there's an elephant in the room: Sony is, thus far, not mentioned anywhere in Microsoft's plans for Xbox Live expansion. Whether that's because the PlayStation-maker wasn't asked, or because it didn't agree with Microsoft's collaborative strategy, isn't clear. What is clear is that the Japanese company has been less willing when it comes to joining forces than its competitors: it resisted the temptation of cross-play, for example, for many years, saying the PS4 was the best place to play and that's the end of it. It finally succumbed to the pressure, but only in Fortnite at first, and only in beta form.
What's odd is that Sony was once the frontrunner in this space: Portal 2 on PS3 allowed cross-play with PC players through Steam. More PlayStation games have allowed limited cross-play functionality since then, but only Fortnite and Rocket League allow full cross-play between PS4 and Xbox One. At least that's some sign of progress, though, and if Xbox Live on Switch is a success, more pressure will mount on Sony to follow suit and allow Microsoft's service on to PS4.
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When I was growing up, the thought of playing Call of Duty or FIFA with my other-console-owning friends was a mere dream. With Microsoft's plans to bring Xbox Live to competitors' consoles, that dream is a step closer to becoming reality.
"When you look at Twitch and you look at Steam, look at PUBG, look at Minecraft," says Spencer. "People on Minecraft on Switch are playing with people on an iPhone. They don't own a Windows machine or an Xbox, but they own our game, and they're using Xbox Live across multiple devices. That's what gaming in the future's about, right?"