The Future of Xbox: Blurring the Lines Between Console and PC

Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer recently hinted at potentially big changes within the Xbox platform that are changing the future of the console

by Sededin Dedovic
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The Future of Xbox: Blurring the Lines Between Console and PC
© Christian Petersen / Getty Images

The arrival of the Xbox Series X wasn't just a shift in processing power. Its boxy tower-like design hinted at a deeper change. With hardware upgrades and the ability to run games at various PC-like graphics settings, the lines between console and PC began to blur.

As we approach the next generation of Xbox, it seems that Microsoft is ready to remove these barriers further. This intention became clearer when two seemingly unrelated events came together. First, Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft's gaming division, hinted at potential changes to the Xbox ecosystem.

Almost simultaneously, leaked internal documents revealed Microsoft's increased focus on preserving Xbox games and improving backwards compatibility. Taken together, these developments paint a picture: the next-generation Xbox could borrow heavily from Windows, creating a hybrid experience.

Phil Spencer, Executive President of Gaming at Microsoft, speaks during the Microsoft xBox E3 briefing at the Microsoft Theater© Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Spencer recently told Polygon that the Xbox team is considering opening up the ecosystem by integrating PC stores like the Epic Games Store and Itch.io.

This marks a radical change in the philosophy of the Xbox console. Spencer rarely throws out such ideas unless Microsoft is seriously considering them. In order to embrace outdoor storefronts, a few things would need to change, as TheVerge points out.

The most important might be the console's ability to run PC games. That doesn't necessarily mean Xbox owners will suddenly be navigating the Windows desktop with a Start menu and Bing search. However, this could mean that future Xbox consoles will rely more on PC-like game development.

Microsoft has been working on bridging the development gap between the two platforms for years, through projects like GameCore. This initiative simplifies the process for developers to package games that run on both Xbox and PC, using "container"-based applications (such as Docker containers).

While Microsoft boasts the "biggest technical leap ever" for its next Xbox, they've also formed a new team dedicated to preserving existing Xbox games. This team seems to be in a position to challenge the perception of Xbox and PC games as separate entities, while ensuring that current titles are playable on future consoles built with this new approach.

This could significantly expand the Xbox library and simplify development for developers. Opening up the Xbox platform to competing PC stores would have a significant impact on the economics of Xbox hardware. Traditionally, Microsoft has sold Xbox consoles at a loss, recouping costs through game sales.

The introduction of PC stores could disrupt this strategy, potentially leading to more expensive consoles. However, opening up the Xbox's core architecture to be more PC-like could also make it easier for third-party manufacturers to integrate into the Xbox ecosystem in the future.

This isn't to say that Microsoft is abandoning Xbox hardware, but if they're investing in software initiatives to open up the platform, why not extend that philosophy to hardware as well?

Game enthusiasts and industry personnel walk between the Microsoft XBox and the Sony PlayStation exhibits at the Annual Gaming I© Christian Petersen / Getty Images

These potential changes to the Xbox platform also have implications for the wider portable gaming landscape.

Valve's Steam Deck proved that a console-like experience for PC games is viable, years after Steam Machines' failed attempt to emulate Xbox functionality. Steam Deck runs a custom Linux OS that uses Proton, a compatibility layer for running Windows games on Linux.

Proton was instrumental in Steam Deck's success, because without it, developers would have faced a much steeper hurdle in porting their games to Linux. While Steam Deck sales may not yet be in the tens of millions, it represents the most significant threat to Xbox and Windows-based PC gaming to date.

Valve has managed to create a console-like experience for PC titles, while also offering access to a huge library of exclusive games typically found on Xbox and PlayStation through the Steam storefront. Rumors suggest that Microsoft is also working on a handheld Xbox console.

While the traditional next-gen Xbox console is not expected to use an ARM-based architecture, it could be a more appropriate choice for a potential Xbox handheld. Speaking of handhelds, Spencer mentioned in an interview with Polygon that he wanted to "be able to run the Xbox app in full screen, but in compact mode." If Microsoft can successfully bring Xbox and Windows together, they could truly realize their vision of "Xbox Everywhere" - a world where every screen becomes an Xbox.

This future wouldn't be simply porting Windows to consoles. Instead, it would be a carefully crafted experience that takes advantage of both platforms, offering players unparalleled flexibility and choice. However, this path also comes with challenges.

Balancing hardware costs, developer incentives, and maintaining a strong first-party presence will be critical to Microsoft's success. Regardless of the outcome, the boundaries between Xbox and PC are blurring.

Microsoft
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