Back when I visited Rare in March to see Sea of Thieves' anniversary update in action, I asked about the split between those playing on PC and Xbox. Right now, "about 30 percent" of the playerbase is on PC, executive producer Joe Neate told me. He said that Rare was "very, very happy" with that number, but I couldn't help but wonder how big Sea of Thieves' pirate game could be if it was on Steam as well, instead of being stuck on the Microsoft Store.
Last week, Microsoft made waves with its announcement that it was going to start bringing more of its games to Steam, as well as other storefronts (see the full 'Our approach to PC gaming' post here, where Game Pass for PC was also announced). Sea of Thieves, right now, isn't one of those games coming to Steam—but the wording is promising. "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 & III: Definitive Editions." This is alongside the previously announced Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Valve stands to benefit a lot here. In a year where it's faced competition from the Epic Games Store when it comes to exclusives on the biggest upcoming games, like The Outer Worlds and Borderlands 3, Microsoft's messaging puts Steam at the core of its plans.
"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. 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," said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox. Halo, in retrospect, was the first sign that a major change in thinking was coming from Microsoft.
"Working to enable more choice" is careful wording from Spencer—in no way has this felt like Microsoft's recent strategy on PC. This is a calculated play to win PC players over, responding to a long-time consensus that, yes, people would like to buy Microsoft games on Steam, not the Microsoft Store. (It'd be nice to see some of these games on GOG as well, should Microsoft choose to take them there.) And without any explicit statement to the effect, it also positions Microsoft as an ally in opposition to Epic's controversial exclusivity strategy.
This isn't the first time Microsoft has brought its games to Steam by any means—Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is available, for example, along with a suite of RTS classics and some others, like Sunset Overdrive. But Sea of Thieves, Halo Wars 2, Crackdown 3, and the Forza Horizon games are not. This inconsistency has been part of a wider problem of Microsoft dabbling with better offerings for PC players but never quite delivering on them, cloistering big games in its first-party stores.
Now its PC strategy finally seems to make sense—buy the games on the platform you like, or join Xbox's all-you-can-eat Game Pass ecosystem. Either way, Microsoft probably stands to make more money. We'll have even more clarity about its Xbox/PC strategy as E3 kicks off.
Why it benefits Valve
In the face of competition from Epic, Steam has absolutely not lost its status as the home of huge hits this year, like Mordhau, Total War: Three Kingdoms, and Risk of Rain 2. Epic has secured some exciting games, though, and the potential impact on Steam is that it won't feel like the default place you buy all your blockbusters this year. That's why Microsoft's revised strategy is great news for Valve. It mostly makes blockbuster games, and it's made Steam a major part of its marketing message.
Here's another thing: people are treating Halo Reach on PC like it's one of the biggest new games of the year, even though it's a nine year-old (excellent) console FPS game. Over half a million people tuned in to the gameplay stream above last week, and every time we write about it on PC Gamer, I can see that excitement reflected in how many people are reading. And that excitement has no major caveats, because it's (hopefully) the PC version you've always wanted, on the platform you demanded.
Microsoft's priorities have changed in Valve's favour at just the right time. Freedom to choose where you buy your games is now important to Microsoft, following a relationship with PC gaming that's had a lot of ups and downs over the last 15 years. Spencer acknowledged this himself in last week's announcement. "We’ve not always lived up to our aspiration of keeping gamers at the center of everything we do when it comes to the experience they’ve had on Windows."
What happens next could be exciting. But the most important thing is this: put Sea of Thieves on Steam.