Gaming

Microsoft's answer for the Xbox One: Make it work with as many games as possible

At the year's biggest video game confab, Microsoft positions its Xbox One console as a device capable of stretching across multiple screens and reaching new audiences.

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At the year's biggest video game conference, Microsoft begins tapping into its vast array of Internet services to expand its game console. Josh Miller/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- Microsoft's Xbox is beginning to look like more than just a living room game console.

For the first time, the software maker known best for its Windows operating system is pulling together the various parts of its business to fashion the Xbox One game console as a play-anything, play-anywhere platform that goes behind the television.

To do that, Microsoft is bringing a slew of games and rolling out a bevy of new features -- some announced here at the year's biggest video game confab, the Electronic Entertainment Expo -- that leverage its upcoming Windows operating system, Windows 10. That software will be available for PCs and tablets on July 29, but will arrive as a software update to the Xbox One later this year.

Many games announced onstage at the Los Angeles Galen Center will have simultaneous releases on Xbox One and PC and will share features for the first time, like the popular ability to modify games on the PC.

Some titles will come with the ability to purchase a copy on one platform and download it for free on the other, as well as play online with friends across the two. For those titles that aren't made available on Windows, Microsoft is letting you stream any Xbox game to your computer and play with an Xbox One controller. The company is releasing a new, pro-grade controller this fall that will address what hardcore, competitive game players that rely on mice and keyboards find lacking about game controllers, including extra buttons and swappable components.

One of the more surprising announcements was that the Xbox One is now backwards compatible, meaning it will play games from its predecessor, the Xbox 360. The move helps answer some of the biggest criticisms of its new Xbox One console. Adoption of new gaming hardware has been steady since the introduction of the Xbox One in November 2013. But some consumers have complained that a lack of new games and the amount of money sunk into past game libraries for the Xbox 360 have kept them from upgrading.

"If you've been waiting to upgrade from an Xbox 360, now is the time," said Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft's Xbox division, onstage. Owners of Xbox 360 games on discs will be able to place the disc in the Xbox One and download the title to the new console free of charge.

E3 serves as one of the best opportunities for Microsoft to grab gamers' attention for the holiday season's game lineup, like upcoming shooter Halo 5: Guardians and adventure game Rise of the Tomb Raider. Yet the show is also a chance for Microsoft to establish its vision for gaming. This year, the company has a straightforward message: The Xbox One isn't just for console gaming anymore. It's a gateway to the PC, and even onward to futuristic gaming concepts like virtual reality and the HoloLens, Microsoft's augmented reality headset that floats 3D images in real-world environments.

Microsoft is developing a special version of pixelated building game Minecraft for the HoloLens following its acquisition of developer Mojang for $2.5 billion last year, and the company showed off the power of augmented reality live onstage with a Minecraft demo.

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Microsoft's HoloLens headset, still without a release date, was trotted out onstage to show off a working Minecraft prototype. Josh Miller/CNET

The company is also positioning itself as the de-facto partner for virtual reality makers. Microsoft executives announced a new partnership with software maker Valve, which is building a VR headset with hardware maker HTC. The announcement builds on last week's news of Microsoft's partnership to bring Xbox One controllers to Facebook-owned Oculus VR's Rift headset due out early next year.

It's been a long road for the Xbox One, which has finally found its footing with consumers over the last year thanks to aggressive price cuts and a more robust game lineup. Much of that progress has been making up for time lost against the competition.

Before launching the console in November 2013, Microsoft faced heavy criticism for shifting away from game playing and toward television, with a large focus on cable box integration and other media capabilities. It didn't help when the company attempted to impose new restrictions on how players connected the console to the Internet, requiring a sign-on once a day to play games, and limiting how people could lend games to a friend or sell them back to a retailer. Many of those policies were nixed leading up to the launch.

Microsoft has spent the time since rebuilding the Xbox's image under the leadership of Phil Spencer, the former head of Microsoft's in-house game production team. Spencer shifted the Xbox division back to more serious game playing, even as he made tough decisions about the platform itself, such as making the Kinect motion camera a separate accessory. He's also been candid in outlining where the Xbox One has needed to improve -- including making it easier for developers to create games -- and where the company had strayed from its mission.

It's been quite the turnaround. After Sony's PlayStation 4 handily beat the Xbox One in US retail sales for more than 12 straight months, Microsoft managed to inch ahead in December 2014 thanks to a $50 price cut that put the console at $350. That effort has paid off: Sales of Xbox hardware in May were up 81 percent from the same time a year ago, according to market researcher NPD Group.

At E3, Microsoft still spent a great deal of time falling back on its tried-and-true formula of big-budget franchises, many of which will exclusively tied to the Xbox One and PC platform. Not only will Halo 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider come only to Microsoft's platforms, but the company shed light on racing game Forza Motorsport 6; a compilation of classic titles from storied developer Rare; a new installment in the Fable role-playing series called Fable Legends; and a remastered edition of popular Xbox shooter franchise Gears of War alongside a new installment in the works, dubbed Gears 4.

Microsoft also highlighted independent developers and brought a few onstage to announce new exclusive downloadable games for the Xbox One. One standout includes a follow-up to indie success story Gone Home, from Portland, Ore.-based developer Fulbright, called Tacoma that puts players in the shoes of an astronaut investigating the mysteries of a space station disaster. Another game, Cuphead, from Canadian brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer as part of Studio MDHR, will bring the cartoons of the 1930s to life.

"There truly has never been a better time to be an Xbox gamer," Spencer said.

Follow all the latest news from E3 2015 on CNET and GameSpot.

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