In a big move for its approach to PC gaming, Microsoft has announced that it's planning to bring more Xbox Game Studios games to Steam, freeing them from the confines of the Microsoft Store. That store itself isn't dead and gone—it's part of Microsoft's plans for bringing the Xbox Game Pass subscription service to PC, which it also announced today. But it will no longer be the only way to play those first-party games 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 head Phil Spencer.
In the past, Microsoft's support of Steam has been spotty. Most of its new games have remained exclusive to the Microsoft Store, which also means they're only available as Universal Windows Apps, a container used on modern Windows with a number of drawbacks for games. UWAs are not nearly as open to modding, overlays, or tools like ReShade, and have been largely unpopular with PC gamers who care about those features.
Some of Microsoft's strategy games like Halo Wars have already been released on Steam, and the real prelude to today's announcement was the news that the Master Chief Collection will be rolling out on Steam this year, starting with Halo Reach.
Today's announcement names Age of Empires 1-3 Definitive Editions and Gears 5 as the first games coming to Steam. It doesn't mention games currently exclusive to the Microsoft Store, like Sea of Thieves or the Forza Horizon series, but Steam releases for them seem like a good possibility based on this statement from Spencer:
"Enabling gamers to play together, through cross-platform play and cross-network play across Windows 10 PCs and console, is vitally important. Building communities across all of those players, regardless of the store or platform they’ve chosen (console or PC), is also vitally important because it helps bring players together, allows games to find their largest audience and allows gaming to deliver its true potential of uniting people around the power of play."
It's an open question how features like matchmaking and friend lists will work for Xbox games like Sea of Thieves on Steam, but Microsoft clearly has a plan for Halo and a strong interest in cross-platform support. It would be great to see the whole back catalog of Microsoft Store games make it over, too.
Steam is seemingly the first step along the road to a multi-store rollout for Microsoft. "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," Spencer wrote. A future where Microsoft's games end up on GOG or the Epic Games Store doesn't seem unlikely, then.
To launch these games on Steam or other stores, they'll have to be repackaged as Win32 executables rather than UWP apps as they are on the Microsoft Store. If Win32 means nothing to you, the main takeaway is it's the format that virtually all your other Windows games and programs use. As Win32 applications they'll be better able to support things like unofficial modding and the Steam overlay, for example.
Not only will Microsoft be releasing more games on Steam in Win32 form, but it's opening up the Microsoft Store to support Win32 as well. That means that if developers want to put their games on the store (or perhaps make them part of the Xbox Game Pass), they'll no longer have to repackage them as UWAs, which will save time and effort. The Universal Windows Platform has some other limitations Win32 doesn't: It only supports DirectX 11.1 and 12, so games built on older DirectX tools or on OpenGL or Vulkan won't work. Even if the Microsoft Store isn't a popular destination for buying games, it's at least ditching one of its major limitations.
"When I think about the role we play as a company to support and evolve gaming on Windows, it’s critical that we make decisions that reinforce the open nature of the PC, focusing on how best to unite players on all devices around the games they love," Spencer wrote. "That philosophy will guide us as we introduce new ways to discover and play games on Windows."
Microsoft will be talking more about its PC plans, including Game Pass, at its E3 press conference on June 9.