Ahead of E3, Microsoft aims to bring Xbox to billions of players with or without consoles

The tech giant is working on TV software and a streaming device to access Xbox games anywhere with an internet connection.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
3 min read

Microsoft's vision for the Xbox goes way beyond this device.


When Microsoft launched its Xbox video game console in 2001, the only place you could play games like its popular space war epic Halo: Combat Evolved was on an Xbox. Today, you can still buy the company's latest devices, the $499 Xbox Series X or entry-level $399 Xbox Series S. But you can also play on a PC. And if you pay Microsoft $15 per month, for its Xbox Games Pass Ultimate subscription, you can play on a tablet or a phone too.

But in the future, Microsoft thinks you'll want to play in even more places. Like a hotel room TV. Or a small streaming set-top box you can plug into a TV or monitor at a friend's house.

"Of course, there's still a place for consoles and PCs. And frankly, there always will be," Microsoft's Xbox head Phil Spencer, said during a briefing for journalists this week ahead of his presentation during the E3 video game conference this Sunday. "But through the cloud, we will be able to deliver robust gaming experiences to anyone connected to the internet, even on the least powerful, least expensive devices -- even on devices people already own."


Phil Spencer has headed up Microsoft's Xbox division since 2014.

Nick Statt/CNET

The game industry's biggest players like Microsoft, as well as Sony , Nintendo , Apple and Google , tend to talk big about their products being designed to entertain people around the world, wherever they are. And it's largely true -- billions of people around the world play games on phones , consoles, or computers at home or in arcades and cafes. Military service members even play video games while patrolling the depths of the ocean in submarines.

But Microsoft has had dreams of going further for years. For more than a decade, it's experimented with new forms of interactive TV shows, like a Sesame Street series from a decade ago. And it's researched marrying Xbox technology with televisions and set-top boxes

See also: Xbox Series X review: Game Pass is the secret weapon

Now, Microsoft is planning to bring its Xbox software and games to those types of devices. Without providing further details, Microsoft said it's working with internet-connected TV makers "to embed the Xbox experience" into them, with no extra hardware required other than a controller. Microsoft also said it's building its own "streaming devices" for TVs and monitors. At the same time, Microsoft is investing further in its Xbox Games Pass subscription service, offering people ways to buy its Xbox on monthly instalment plans too.

"As a company, Microsoft's all in on gaming. Gaming has been key to Microsoft from our earliest days," said Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO. "We are truly redefining how games are distributed, played and shared."

Harder push


Minecraft, the video game, was Satya Nadella's first major acquisition as CEO of Microsoft.

James Martin/CNET

Microsoft isn't just talking a big game when it comes to the Xbox. Over the past couple years, it's invested heavily in its devices and lineup of games. In 2014, it spent more than $2.5 billion to buy Minecraft, already one of the most popular games ever made. Last year, it followed that up with the $7.5 billion all-cash purchase of ZeniMax Media, a company that owns industry heavyweights like the fast-paced demon-slaying game Doom, the fantasy epic series The Elder Scrolls and the post-apocalyptic adventure series Fallout.

The company's also struck deals with companies including FIFA football game maker Electronic Arts and Fortnite developer Epic Games to bring their hits to its subscription service.

"We're trying to reach the 3 billion people on the planet who in some sort of way play an electronic game," Spencer said. But, he added, Microsoft realized that only 250 million people are actually interested in buying consoles. "We need to meet players where they are, which is mobile, and on other screens and devices," he said.

See also: Xbox Series S review: The console making next-gen gaming more affordable

Whether Microsoft can pull off such large feats is unclear. Microsoft and Sony don't report comparable console unit sales data, but UK-based Ampere Analysis said Sony's PlayStation 5 and Nintendo's Switch consoles are outselling the new Xbox Series X and Series S, though all three companies are struggling against global chip supply shortages.

Still, Microsoft said it plans "unparalleled investment" in cloud gaming, new titles and its community. The company will discuss more of its plans during E3 on Sunday, starting at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET. Though the event will be streamed remotely over the internet due to the coronavirus, CNET and our sister site GameSpot will be covering it live, as we always have, with real-time updates, insights and analysis you can only find here.

Watch this: How to play Xbox games on your iPad or laptop