Microsoft hasn’t exactly been shy about its ambitions for Xbox-as-a-platform. The company made it clear that it wants Xbox games to be available on all kinds of devices, from consoles to smartphones, when it announced Project xCloud in October 2018. Now a Game Developers Conference (GDC) session listing has revealed that it wants Xbox Live to power multiplayer gaming across iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch, Xbox and PC devices.
Saying that’s a significant expansion of Xbox Live would be an understatement. The platform is currently a one-stop-shop for multiplayer gaming on Xbox; it enables multiplayer in most games, offers leaderboards, and provides various social tools as well. It even has companion apps for smartphones and PCs. But it’s still primarily meant for Xbox consoles; the expansion outlined in the notes for this GDC session would change that.
Microsoft acknowledged that shift in the session listing when it said that “Xbox Live is about to get MUCH bigger” (emphasis theirs) by “expanding from 400M gaming devices and a reach to over 68M active players to over 2B devices.” Nearly half a billion devices isn’t anything to sneeze at, but quadrupling that number to reach 2 billion devices by supporting additional devices would make Xbox Live the most expansive platform around.
This follows increased emphasis on cross-play from game devs and console makers alike. (With the exception of Sony, which had to be all-but-forced to support cross-play in Fortnite after intense criticism throughout 2018, and whose PlayStation is notably absent from Xbox Live’s expansion.) Microsoft and Nintendo in particular have been pushing the idea that people should be able to play together no matter what console they use.
It makes sense, then, for Microsoft to make supporting cross-play easier on game developers by expanding Xbox Live. The platform has already been established, and even people who haven’t used it before should be able to quickly grok how it works. Those who have used it, meanwhile, will probably like having a unified platform across every device they own instead of having to use several near-but-not-quite-identical services.
There is one caveat that’s sure to disappoint PC gamers: Microsoft said the new Xbox Live SDK 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.” Restricting the platform to games purchased via the Microsoft Store is a bit of a letdown—there are simply too many other storefronts for people to exclusively use Microsoft’s. (Especially now that Epic’s in on the action.)
For anyone willing to accept that limitation—which likely includes many people who mostly play games on their phones or dedicated consoles—Xbox Live’s expansion will be something to watch out for. More information should be available when Microsoft makes its presentation at GDC 2019, which runs from March 18-22 in San Francisco, and when the new SDK debuts. There’s no doubt cross-play is the future; the question Microsoft has to answer is if the new Xbox Live SDK and Project xCloud will be the foundation upon which that future is built.