Microsoft didn't win the PC turf war. Sony never showed up.

With Horizon: Zero Dawn rumored to come to PC in 2020, we look back on how the PC became "Microsoft's territory" in the Xbox One era, and how Sony let it happen.

Credit: Horizon: Zero Dawn

This week, Kotaku reported that PlayStation 4 exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn may come to the PC in the near future. And let me first say, it’s interesting this became big news because when Quantic Dream announced that Detroit: Become Human was coming to PC last year—another Sony-published game—it didn’t inspire nearly the same levels of pontificating about Sony’s intentions for the PC.

Of course, people generally praised Horizon: Zero Dawn and disliked Detroit. Maybe that’s the only difference, that Horizon is seen as one of Sony’s “prestige” games. 

It does have me thinking about the PC though, and specifically about the PC as an arm of Microsoft—because that’s what it’s become to some people. The PC is seen as an extension of the Xbox platform, or perhaps the Xbox is an extension of the PC. Hell, I even wrote that the Xbox Series X “sure does resemble a PC tower” when Microsoft teased it at December’s Game Awards.

Xbox Series X Microsoft

And it’s fascinating how times have changed. Only a little over a decade ago, Games for Windows Live seemed like a colossal overreach. Microsoft’s first attempt to wed PC and Xbox manifested as a buggy launcher with buggy authorization and buggy multiplayer functionality and it sucked. It wreaked havoc on the PC, and continues to do damage even today. Just this month Rockstar pulled Grand Theft Auto IV from Steam, citing a lack of Games for Windows Live keys as the reason.

With that failure, Microsoft pseudo-abandoned the PC again—or at least, that’s what PC gamers claimed. Really this period of benevolent neglect was the start of the PC’s resurgence. Windows 7 kicked ass. Valve built an empire. The average PC’s performance pulled way ahead of console hardware, and that status quo held even upon the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2013.

A bigger audience meant more money, which meant developers started returning to the PC, the ports got better, and the PC began feeling like digital Switzerland. It was neutral territory, or ostensibly neutral. 2014 and 2015 were the heyday of the “Console Exclusive,” games that were either coming to the Xbox One or the PS4—but which were definitely coming to PC as well.

That’s how we started this console generation.

Grim Fandango Remastered Grim Fandango Remastered

Grim Fandango Remastered is still on PC and PS4 but not Xbox—even though Microsoft now owns Double Fine. Console exclusives! Wild!

The situation’s changed though. Maybe five years ago now, Microsoft started quietly integrating the PC and Xbox again. The process has not always been smooth, nor subtle. The all-but-forced move from Windows 7 to Windows 10 proved controversial. The early years of the Windows 10 store even more so.

Valve tried to secede from Windows entirely, dreaming of a Linux-based future with SteamOS and Steam Machines. Epic’s Tim Sweeney penned a letter for The Guardian decrying the UWP format, calling it a “distribution and commerce monopoly.”

This was just four years ago .

And listen, I’m not going to act like the PC and Xbox are the same platform now. They’re not, and ideally never will be. But Microsoft’s done quite a bit with the PC in the last five years.

  1. Windows 10: Windows 10 has proven, if not as beloved as Windows 7, at least a decent follow-up.
  2. Xbox Game Bar: I still think it’s bizarre how much Xbox-branded software is on my PC, but the Xbox Game Bar’s various overhauls have made it one of the best ways to snag in-game screenshots and video clips, especially if you don’t use an Nvidia card.
  3. New controller: Since 2016, Xbox controllers have included Bluetooth so you don’t need to buy a specialized dongle anymore.
  4. Xbox Play Anywhere: Every Xbox first-party exclusive has been “Xbox Play Anywhere” since 2016, meaning you buy it once and own it across both the Windows 10 Store and the Xbox. Save progress also syncs between systems.
  5. Xbox Game Pass: As of last year, Microsoft brought its Game Pass subscription to the PC. Confusingly titled “Xbox Game Pass for PC,” it nevertheless is a separate subscription with a different lineup of games—but it’s easily the best subscription value on PC at $5 a month, and brought the PC up to parity with the Xbox’s services.
  6. The prodigal son returns: Then in late 2019, the walls came tumbling down. Microsoft started putting its games on Steam again, after years trying to force people into the Windows 10 store. The irony? The Windows 10 store might be a better deal at this point. Sure, you can buy the games on Steam—or you can pay $5 a month and get them through Game Pass. Why force the change and needlessly anger people if you can entice them with a better deal, yeah?

Again, not every move Microsoft’s made has been successful. Enough of them have though, and the result is that in 2020 the PC feels firmly like “Microsoft Territory” again. Thus when Sony wants to bring a game like Horizon: Zero Dawn to the PC it’s seen as a Big Statement.

And that’s disappointing, because it simply didn’t have to be this way. Microsoft does make Windows—that’s not in dispute. Perhaps this was always the most obvious outcome, given Microsoft can entrench the Xbox name at the OS level. Sony will always be an outsider of sorts.

Xbox Console Companion IDG / Hayden Dingman

The Xbox Console Companion, one of many Xbox-branded programs in Windows 10.

I still get occasional activity on a tweet from five years ago though. With the specter of Games for Windows Live looming overhead, Microsoft announced Xbox Live would be built into Windows 10 at the system level. I, like many others, reacted with alarm. Would we have to pay? What fresh hell was this? And Xbox’s Larry Hyrb, otherwise known as Major Nelson, replied with “Not charging. Xbox Live Gold will not be required for online multiplayer gaming using our service on Windows 10 PCs and Phones.”

[Side note: Remember Windows Phones?]

And it wasn’t. Xbox Live support on PC is barely noticeable, especially outside the Windows Store. I bring this up though mainly to illustrate that people didn’t want Microsoft and/or Xbox meddling with PC gaming. The PC was proudly independent, even from its parent.

Nowadays Microsoft’s presence is seen as largely a net positive though, and it’s no wonder some have started to view the PC as an Xbox fiefdom. Still, I’d argue it’s equally the result of Sony’s inattention as Microsoft’s generosity.

There was a period between 2010 and 2015 when developers were slowly remembering the PC existed again after a decade spent pretending otherwise. EA, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Capcom, Square, Activision—they all began putting more money into their PC ports, catering to the PC with dedicated servers and 4K texture packs. I began spotting PCs at trade shows more often, both on-stage and in behind-closed-doors demos.

Bloodborne Bloodborne

Really I’m just mad Bloodborne never came to PC.

Sony simply never showed up. The DualShock 4, a fantastic controller that’s sported Bluetooth since day one, only “mostly” works with the PC. You can’t play Uncharted 4 on PC, or Bloodborne, or God of War, or Until Dawn. And I’m not going to say that was a bad choice for Sony. It undoubtedly sold hardware. I own a PlayStation 4 Pro that I’ve played...maybe six games on. Pretty much the ones I just listed, plus Horizon: Zero Dawn.

I won’t turn Sony away, either. I think every game should come to PC, and if this is the start of Sony’s big push? Great. I’d love to go into the PlayStation 5 era neutral again.

Bottom line

It feels like perhaps it’s too late though, that even Sony has come to the conclusion the PC is Microsoft’s domain. We’ll get the one-offs, the ports that are either too old or too niche to matter much. And why not? Microsoft is all about services, about the Xbox platform, and it’s built that belief and brand into major parts of modern PC gaming. If God of War were to come to PC now, it would feel a bit like a capitulation, even if Microsoft doesn’t benefit monetarily.

If Sony had come to the PC with everyone else, I don’t think it would feel so weird. I don’t think we’d see people weighing in on Sony’s plans for the PC as a platform, because back in 2013 and 2014 it was still surprising to get a competent PC port of any game, publisher be damned. “Wow, a fully-functioning port of the Tomb Raider reboot? And they even did work to make the hair look better on PC? I can’t believe it.”

Under those circumstances, a God of War port would’ve only seemed as far-fetched as Halo on PC. And yet in 2020, I can load up Halo: Reach through Steam. Who would’ve guessed, right? It’s a shame Sony ceded the battle without ever mounting an offensive. Here’s hoping the Horizon: Zero Dawn rumors prove true. 

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Hayden Dingman

PC World (US online)
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