Microsoft will distribute more Xbox titles through Steam and finally support Win32 games

Image: Microsoft/343 Industries

Microsoft says it’s committed to supporting competing PC game stores and it’s announcing today that it will distribute more Xbox Game Studios titles through Valve’s Steam marketplace. Typically, Microsoft has distributed its games through only Xbox Live on its game console platform and through its own Windows storefront on PC. Now, Microsoft says it wants to better support player choice and let customers buy games in more than one destination on PC.

“Our intent is to make our Xbox Game Studios PC games available in multiple stores, including our own Microsoft Store on Windows, at their launch. We believe you should have choice in where you buy your PC games,” writes Xbox chief Phil Spencer in a blog post announcing the shift in strategy. The move follows Microsoft’s decision to publish its upcoming Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Steam.

“We will continue to add to the more than 20 Xbox Game Studios titles on Steam, starting with Gears 5 and all Age of Empires I, II, and III: Definitive Editions,” Spencer explains. “We know millions of PC gamers trust Steam as a great source to buy PC games and we’ve heard the feedback that PC gamers would like choice.”

It’s not an unusual move for Microsoft these days, especially not since Spencer took over the Xbox division in 2014 under CEO Satya Nadella, who promoted him again in the fall of 2017 to run all of the company’s gaming initiatives spanning Xbox and Windows 10.

The two have worked together to build a far more open and cooperative Microsoft, and that’s given birth to a lot of genuinely player-friendly advancements in the Xbox and Windows departments. Xbox games published by Microsoft can now be played on the PC free of charge, thanks to the Xbox Play Anywhere initiative, while Microsoft worked with Nintendo and game developers like Epic and Psyonix to successfully apply pressure on Sony to support cross-platform play. The company is also pioneering a new business model for games with its Xbox Game Pass subscription, and its upcoming xCloud cloud gaming service is poised to introduce an all-new distribution model for delivering games and potentially upending how games are both funded and sold.

What’s remarkable in this case is that Microsoft is standing somewhat in opposition to Epic Games, a company whose CEO Tim Sweeney once criticized Microsoft for attempting to create a closed ecosystem with its Universal Windows Platform strategy, which attempted to distribute all software, including PC games, exclusively through its own storefront.

”Microsoft has built a closed platform-within-a-platform into Windows 10,” Sweeney wrote in a 2015 op-ed in The Guardian, “as the first apparent step towards locking down the consumer PC ecosystem and monopolising app distribution and commerce.” At the time, Sweeney called for Microsoft to let developers publish games built using UWP on other stores. He went so far as to say UWP “can, should, must, and will die.”

Now, it’s Epic that’s trying to supplant Steam with its own game store and finding itself embroiled in controversy stemming mostly from its exclusivity contracts it secures with developers. Of course, Epic’s approach is much different than Microsoft’s was back then, given it does not own the Windows operating system and has nowhere near the level of power and control Microsoft did when it was trying to push UWP. But Epic, having grown to a level of unprecedented power in the PC marketplace due to the success of Fortnite, is discovering just how hard it is to dethrone Steam.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has given up entirely on that vision and is instead embracing a much more open model. And it extends beyond gaming. Microsoft recently announced a partnership with Google to rebuild its Edge browser, once built on UWP, using the open-source Chromium framework.

“We also know that there are other stores on PC, and we are working to enable more choice in which store you can find our Xbox Game Studios titles in the future,” Spencer writes, indicating that Microsoft may eventually publish its games on Epic’s store as well. Spencer goes on to say that the company is committed to providing voice and text chat, friends lists, and cross-play across PC and console to all titles it publishes under Xbox Game Studios. “On Windows 10 you’ll find this functionality in the Xbox Game Bar, which we’ll continue to evolve and expand,” he adds.

In addition to this shift to support Steam and competing stores, Microsoft says it’s also opening up support in the Microsoft Store for games built as native Win32 apps, which is the predominant Windows app format and the format that UWP effectively was designed to replace. This all but ensures UWP will fall out of favor with game studios that may have felt forced to adopt the format in recent years to better access core Windows 10 features.

“We recognize that Win32 is the app format that game developers love to use and gamers love to play, so we are excited to share that we will be enabling full support for native Win32 games to the Microsoft Store on Windows,” Spencer writes. “This will unlock more options for developers and gamers alike, allowing for the customization and control they’ve come to expect from the open Windows gaming ecosystem.”

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