The future of Xbox One: early access gaming, Cortana and more

Since the Xbox One launched last November, Microsoft's latest game console has changed pretty dramatically. From "going all-in" on Kinect to offering a camera-less $400 model; from focused on TV and home entertainment to appealing directly to "core" gamers. The last year for Microsoft's Xbox division has been one massive pivot. The future sounds brighter.

You've already read about the updates coming to Xbox One this fall. What about beyond that? Head of Xbox Phil Spencer offered us some possibilities in an interview this week at Gamescom 2014. What about, say, a version of Steam's massively popular Early Access program, which enables developers to release games still in development and gamers to participate in the development process? "I think it does make sense. I think we have to land it the right way on console," Spencer told us. That's certainly a start!

On Valve's hugely popular Steam service, people can buy and play games that range from barely playable to nearly done. It's a system that works especially well on PC -- Steam's main customer base -- because PC gamers are more used to dealing with technical complications. On game consoles, there's an expectation of ease of use. There's also a guarantee of functionality. "There's a certain bar that we want to keep on consoles because of the nature of who plays on a console," Spencer said. "The model itself I think does make sense. I think we probably just wanna model it a little bit differently."

So, what would something like Early Access look like on Xbox One?

"The fact that we exist on both Windows and on a console could make it a strength of ours in the long run," Spencer said. In so many words, because of the Windows side of Microsoft, the service and its games could first exist in the PC world before making the jump to Xbox One in a more stable state. "So it starts in one space and kind of graduates up," Spencer said. "Maybe early access starts on PC, but it's targeting the main console customer."

It's also a question of Microsoft depending on its relationships with game developers to know which games are more likely to succeed in such an environment. I offered the example of Vlambeer's Nuclear Throne, a game that's been available on Steam's Early Access for months, with weekly updates and development livestreams demonstrating the impact the game's community has had on the game itself.

"Vlambeer is different. We know them," Spencer said. "But it could be 'Vlambo,' and we don't know them. And you're like, 'Okay, is this real; is it not real?' I think there's a certain bar that we want to keep on consoles because of the nature of who plays on a console." The company's indie game program, ID@Xbox, could help in the vetting process; dozens of indie devs and their studios are already registered through the program.


Phones, tablets, computers and even televisions all offer a basic level of day-to-day information: weather, traffic, stock info, news headlines, etc. Despite Xbox One's intention to act as a living room hub -- from "waking" the console with your voice to including an HDMI-in port for television viewing -- it's still missing the vital, basic information that far older technology delivered long ago.

It still feels magical every time Google Now tells me (without asking) about an upcoming flight, or the traffic on my commute, or some other helpful life information. Why doesn't that exist on the Xbox One dashboard? Hell, why isn't Windows Phone personal assistant program, Cortana, on the Xbox One? It's even named after a character from Halo!

"I think we get permission to do that as we succeed as a gaming console," Spencer said. The Xbox pivot isn't over, clearly, and Spencer and co. are still worried about alienating the Xbox "core" audience in favor of the general public. "It makes sense that I can get up in the morning and say 'Xbox, what's the traffic' and it brings up something that shows my commute in the morning," Spencer said. "That all makes sense to me in the long run."

That last bit -- "in the long run" -- is important. He repeatedly stressed that, despite already having discussed a variety of additions to Xbox One functionality (from Early Access-like games to alternate voice control inputs to Cortana), time is the primary lacking resource. "I think there's a ton of opportunity," he said. "Time is in precious quantity when we're talking about those scenarios."