In February, Microsoft’s recently acquired subsidiary, Bethesda, announced that it was shutting down its dedicated Bethesda launcher, moving its entire library of PC games to Steam and, in large part, to the PC Game Pass “Xbox” app. on Windows 10 and Windows 11. It makes perfect sense for Microsoft teams to consolidate their Windows platform offerings under the most popular storefronts, but if Microsoft acquires Activision Blizzard, they might have yet another consideration to take into account.
At the time of writing, the vast majority of Activision Blizzard’s PC games are available exclusively through the Battle.net PC app. Battle.net was a pioneer in the field, created in 1996 to facilitate online matches in games like Warcraft and StarCraft. Since then, the app has become a platform for mega-hits like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, serving as an in-game chat system across multiple titles under a unified Blizzard ID.
If Microsoft succeeds in acquiring Activision Blizzard, they will effectively have two separate and competing social gaming networks on Xbox Live and Battle.net, which at the time of writing do not communicate on the same platform. Battle.net has much of the same functionality as Xbox Live, with instant messaging, community groups, and voice chat, integrated into WoW, Overwatch, and more. The truth is that Battle.net often does better as well as Xbox Live, which uses the aging Skype protocol for a back-end, which could pose some tricky questions for Microsoft in the future.
Should Microsoft Ditch Xbox on PC for Battle.net?
A few years ago, Activision Blizzard almost killed the Battle.net brand, simply renaming the launcher to the “Blizzard” app, or something like that. The attempt was met with a backlash, which very quickly prompted them to reverse the rebranding. Battle.net has decades of history behind it, much like Xbox Live, a brand that Microsoft also quietly ditched in favor of a more neutral “Xbox network” reference that literally no one uses. The backlash against the demise of the Xbox Live brand was nowhere near as vocal as the attempt to scrap Battle.net, however, and I suspect that if Microsoft tried to shut down Battle.net the same way Bethesda shut down its pitcher, the backlash would be just as palpable.
The Microsoft of 2022 isn’t deaf enough to try to shut down Battle.net, I’d like to think. Nobody shed a tear for the half-baked Bethesda launcher, which pales in comparison to Steam. Battle.net is little more than just a launcher, it’s tied to the identity of Blizzard, which enjoys a Nintendo-like reverence in the PC gaming canon. Or at least it has in the past. Many current and former Blizzard fans are hoping that Microsoft will eject Activision’s money-obsessed executive layer and bring the focus back on quality to the legendary studio, though that remains firmly to be seen.
With that in mind, I finally ask the question: Should Microsoft ditch its Xbox brand on PC for Battle.net? Microsoft has struggled long and hard to rekindle interest among PC gamers after its maligned Windows Live DRM games that I always see quoted in discussions on Microsoft’s PC commitment. Microsoft has built bridges, offering full support to Steam, as well as very great value with PC Game Pass, but it still has a very steep hill to climb.
Microsoft Gaming vs. Microsoft Windows
One of the biggest hurdles that Microsoft’s games division is currently facing for its PC operation is identify. The Windows team ultimately has a very divergent view of what Windows should be of an ordinary PC gamer – one that values control, optimization and customization above all else. Windows 11 is one of the stiffest versions of Windows in the operating system’s history, and the PC Game Pass “Xbox” app has, by extension, suffered from that stiffness as well. I can’t help but feel that the Xbox app is the biggest impediment to PC Game Pass’ growth on Windows right now.
The Xbox app only recently gained the ability to open PC game files for modding tools, and it still lacks many of those PC-oriented features that Steam benefits from. Irritatingly, game builds on the Xbox app often lag behind their Steam counterparts in terms of features, thanks to Microsoft’s now fading UWP push, although this has also gradually improved over time. time. The trade-off, in general, has been the value offered by PC Game Pass. Microsoft also seems content with selling retail versions of its PC games on Steam. But games like World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and Heroes of the Storm are conspicuously absent from Steam and benefit millions of users without having to give Valve that very expensive commission.
I can’t help but feel that the Xbox app is the biggest impediment to PC Game Pass’ growth on Windows right now.
Microsoft may well just be looking to include these games on Steam as well, given their support for the platform and the new user potential that Steam’s graphics and algorithms can bring. However, I feel like they would be missing an opportunity to bolster their image as a PC game publisher if they abandoned Battle.net altogether.
Battle.net is no match for Steam by any means, but as an app, Battle.net is better in just about every way than the Xbox PC gaming app on Windows 10 and Windows 11. That’s faster for one thing, but also more intuitive, with consistent menus and design, ubiquitous access to social features, easy access to game files, game news and sales. Most of these features are also front and center on a single page, unlike the Xbox app, which is divided into multiple sections and segments with contrasting designs, due to different parts being owned by different divisions of Microsoft. . Messaging features are faster, require fewer clicks and menu jumps, and most importantly, don’t take a thousand years to load. Xbox Live’s messaging system feels like it’s stuck in the 90s, which in an age of Telegrams, Discords, and Whatsapps just isn’t good enough. Battle.net’s chat system also connects directly to games, for which Xbox Live chat is just too slow to even consider.
Bring Xbox to PC
I could write a separate article on how the design of Windows 11 puts off gamers in general, but that’s for another time. If Microsoft’s games division can’t cut through the bureaucracy that is the Windows Store and all its horror, the games division should just ditch them altogether and build a better system that’s more forward-facing and oriented towards the consumer.
The current iteration of Battle.net has its flaws, of course, too, but it’s light years away from what Microsoft has on PC for its gaming tools right now.
Ditch the slow backend for messaging and use whatever Blizzard uses. Ditch the Windows Store systems and use Battle.net to create a new PC store. I wouldn’t reject the idea of abandoning the Xbox brand entirely on PC and fully embracing Battle.net instead. Build Battle.net as a centralized bridge between the Xbox console and the Microsoft Windows PC gaming ecosystem, with a brand that actually has some form of influence in the space.
The Xbox app has very, very gradually improved over the past few months, with a fresh new release as part of the Xbox Insider program. I just wonder if the tangle of the Windows delays the whole program. The Windows Store is truly a misfit when it comes to carrying video games, and all of its haughty rigidity is contrary to what PC gaming is and always has been.
The current iteration of Battle.net of course also has its flaws, but it’s light years away from what Microsoft has on PC for its gaming tools right now, and if you’re down close to $70 billion, you might as well use all the tools at your disposal. Going forward, Battle.net might be a better vehicle for PC Game Pass, Halo, Gears of War, Forza, and Windows PC gaming in general, in a world that still hasn’t forgotten Games for Windows Live and still hates Windows Store.