It’s not all that exciting. Yet.
Earlier today, a seemingly accidental update to the GDC schedules indicated that Microsoft has been working on a cross-platform version of Xbox Live that stretches beyond Xbox consoles and PC. ‘Xbox Live coming to Nintendo Switch’ is certainly an exciting headline, but you probably don’t need to get all that excited about what it means. Yet.
Microsoft points out that the changes 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.”
What this means is that the meat-and-potatoes base layer of Xbox Live will now be an option for developers on non-Xbox devices: friends lists, achievements and clubs are all mentioned. What it doesn’t mean is that you’ll be able to download Xbox games on Switch. This is simply an extension of the Live service, not the games or stores associated with it.
This kind of functionality isn’t even totally new: Xbox Live profiles are already integrated with Minecraft on Switch, cross-play is available between Xbox, Switch and mobile, achievements were even available in iOS game Wordament as early as 2013. This feels like more of an attempt to formalise and flatten out what already exists in pockets of games, rather than a bold new move in and of itself.
But that’s not to say this isn’t big news – the announcement is just more interesting for what it could mean in future, rather than what it does right now. In the short term, it may be that that integration means you could earn Xbox achievements while playing a multi-platform game like Fortnite on a different device, or connect with friends using your Live list rather than Switch Online, for example.
In the long term, it could signal a major change in how Microsoft thinks about its games. Microsoft’s been intermittently trumpeting its Project xCloud tests since last year, building a service that promises to allow players to stream Xbox games to any device.
So far, Microsoft has only publicly said that xCloud is being tested on phones and tablets, but Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has been vocal about the fact that his division’s future lies on “every device”, and has repeatedly lobbied for increased crossover between consoles’ network services.
It’s not a stretch to imagine, then, that Xbox sees a future for xCloud on what would traditionally be rival consoles. If that is the case, then it’s very possible that integrating Xbox Live on Switch and mobile now is laying the groundwork for xCloud’s roll-out later, helping the experience of playing Xbox games on non-Xbox devices feel seamless.
Since dropping the bungled all-in-one approach that characterised the early years of Xbox One, Microsoft has more recently embraced the idea of being a multi-platform game maker. That began with introducing true cross-play with other consoles and cross-buy across Xbox and PC on almost all Microsoft Studios games.
But by pursuing xCloud and acquiring multiple new development studios, Microsoft may be signalling a new focus for next-gen – prioritising players buying its games over buying its consoles. As today’s announcement emphasises, extending Xbox Live outside of Microsoft devices turns a 400 million-strong userbase into 2 billion. If it can turn that potential into a paying audience, it makes business sense to look beyond the company’s own machines.
Xbox isn’t going away – in fact it looks like next-gen may see 2 different versions of a new Xbox console introduced – but it might become a little more diffuse of an idea. Today’s reveal may well be the first step.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK Deputy Editor, but he’s in the US office at the moment and is a bit unsure what that means for his position, so he’s just calling himself “The Nowhere Man” for now. Follow him on Twitter.