This past week, Microsoft announced a game-changing new Xbox feature to little fanfare, but it could become one of the most important new features Xbox has gotten in years.
Announced on Xbox Wire a couple of weeks back, Microsoft detailed how it's planning to bring full keyboard bindings to Xbox controllers, as part of the Xbox Insider Program initially. This will allow for vastly more control over games than has ever been previously possible, and portents a major cultural shift in the types of games that could actually work on consoles.
Ahead of Microsoft's acquisition of PC-focused developers like Blizzard, the potential is vast and exciting, and not enough people are talking about it.
Xbox could now realistically get World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, and more
One thing I'm asked repeatedly since Microsoft opted to purchase Activision-Blizzard was if the firm's world-busting MMO World of Warcraft could realistically come to console. Until recently, I wouldn't have thought it to be even vaguely possible, but this new feature set suggests it could be far more plausible.
Some games are just designed all up for PC, like it or not. World of Warcraft is sort of playable with a controller. There are third-party tools that allow you to map a gamepad to the game, which is how users are playing World of Warcraft on handheld gaming PCs like the Steam Deck or the ASUS ROG Ally. Those devices already have keyboard mapping, though.
On an Xbox controller, you'd be limited to the four shoulder buttons and four face buttons, alongside the d-pad and the stick clicks for your keybindings. For some classes in World of Warcraft, that simply aren't enough buttons — and that's without factoring in non-combat features like sheathing weapons or stuff like sitting, macros, etc. So, how would this new feature benefit games like World of Warcraft in this scenario? It's all about modifiers, baby.
When this system goes live more broadly, users with an Xbox Adaptive Controller or an Xbox Elite Controller will be able to map modifying keys like ALT, and SHIFT to create combination keys. Binding one of your inputs to SHIFT or ALT would essentially double or triple the number of available keybindings. Some games already use the standard buttons available to create modifying control schemes, of course. Dragon Age Inquisition is an easily memorable example, which had one of the triggers bind to an additional bunch of spell slots when held down. However, when you combine the additional available buttons on the Xbox Elite Controller or the Adaptive Controller, it's easy to see how games that have more complex keyboard-first controls would benefit from the feature. In the case of World of Warcraft specifically, it would preclude the developers from having to remake and rebalance the entire game potentially, to downscale complexity to meet the needs of controller gameplay.
Of course, however, the issue is actually having to own one of these controllers. The Xbox Adaptive Controller is designed for accessibility needs, but the Xbox Elite Controller is by no means cheap, and a question mark still hangs over its long-tail susceptibility to wear and tear. But this move strikes me as just the first step.
It's time to make back buttons standard
Trying to play Baldur's Gate 3 recently on my ASUS ROG Ally has proven a chore. While the game is admirable in handling gamepad controls, the granularity of the game's world makes me wish I had a mouse attached at all times. While playing Armored Core 6 for preview recently, I couldn't help but lament the lack of back buttons, since taking your thumbs off the controls for any period of time in that game can be a death sentence. For other games, the issues are less about needing a cursor, and more about needing a keyboard for those extra buttons.
There is a ton of games on Xbox that already support mouse and keyboard natively, and Microsoft noted that it will allow developers to enable their games to use a combination of gamepad controls and keyboard binding controls. Sea of Thieves already has support for this, allowing users to set up quick bindings for specific items and weapons, for example. World of Warcraft would benefit massively from this feature, particularly since up until now, the reverse buttons on the Xbox Elite Controller were essentially used as mirror keys for ABYX. It's great for playing characters like Farah or Echo in Overwatch, whose omnidirectional flight modes kind of demand that you never move your hands from the joysticks. Therein lies the issue, though, really.
Back buttons are not standard on Xbox controllers right now. If Microsoft was setting up the Xbox Elite Controller as a defacto control method for games like World of Warcraft, the upcoming Final Fantasy 14 Xbox version, or MOBAs like Heroes of the Storm, it would be asking users to shell out of a lot of extra cash for the privilege. That's why I firmly believe that to really maximize the potential of this feature, Microsoft really needs to consider adding four back buttons as a standard feature on future basic Xbox controller iterations. Part of me thinks that's absolutely the plan here. Nobody was really asking Microsoft for this feature on Xbox Elite Controllers, which hints that Microsoft is planning for future needs. Time will tell.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!