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Steam in your pocket: how Win32 PC gaming could energize Microsoft's mobile ambitions

Devices running on ARM are typically smaller and more power efficient than their bulky Intel cousins, at the cost of raw processing power. As ARM chips have become more powerful, Microsoft has finally bridged the gap between Win32 and ARM architecture. The company explained how new devices running on Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon processors can run programs like the full Office suite, full Adobe Photoshop, and "popular Windows games."

Few would argue against the notion that Microsoft has a good foothold in the mobile productivity arena but save for the purchase of Minecraft Pocket Edition, Microsoft has a minuscule presence in mobile gaming. What if you could fit an entire Windows 10 PC in your pocket?

Steam

Microsoft's mobile gaming efforts have so far revolved around the Windows app store. There are a few games that do function across Windows phones and PCs, but they're usually very casual titles. The few AAA 'core' games in the Windows 10 Store such as Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 would need to see significant compromises to run properly even on the new Snapdragon processors. And this is without considering inputs, UI scaling, and other hardware bottlenecks.

What if millions of lower-end Win32 Steam games could run on a future Windows 10 mobile device?

Windows 10 Mobile does support the Bluetooth stack that allows the Xbox One S controller to connect to phones, but to my knowledge, not a single game on Windows 10 Mobile uses it. Developers have largely abandoned the Windows 10 Store for mobile games, which puts a huge dent in the notion of consumers wanting to pick up a Windows-branded mobile device. What if millions of lower-end Win32 Steam games could run on a future Windows 10 mobile device?

Of course, you're not going to be running Battlefield 1 on your phone in the near term (it'll take more than a few years for that kind of power in mobile chips), but there are piles of classic games that have enjoyed a significant amount of success when ported to mobile on iOS and Android. Final Fantasy VII, Knights of the Old Republic, and even some modern, less-intensive games like Hearthstone are available on mobile platforms, in addition to their Win32 counterparts on Steam and other PC platforms.

At WinHEC 2016, Microsoft demonstrated how well World of Tanks Blitz runs on an ARM-powered Windows 10 PC. The possibilities for running less intensive mass market games like League of Legends or even World of Warcraft on lightweight, ARM-powered devices becomes clear. Standard 3D graphics API DirectX is already supported by the ARM-based Windows 10 Mobile.

Microsoft demonstrated World of Tank Blitz UWP to show how Windows 10 on ARM can render solid 3D visuals using an integrated mobile GPU.

The announcements at WinHEC 2016 could provide a huge gaming boost to Windows on lightweight ARM devices, as the Win32 emulation layer would eliminate huge developmental barriers for existing games to be ported across to UWP, either natively or via a Win32 to UWP bridge like Project Centennial. Since these Win32 programs just work without any additional modifications, this emulation can, in theory, support Steam. Millions of gamers would be able to pick up and run less intensive titles right out of the gate.

Hardware partners will be able to build a range of new thin, lightweight, power-efficient and always-connected Windows 10 PCs that run x86 Win32 and universal Windows apps, including Adobe PhotoShop, Microsoft Office, and popular Windows games.

It's easy to envision how, eventually, larger Windows phones or phablets could leverage this new technology to produce new power-efficient gaming devices such as the Nvidia Shield or even the Linx8 tablet, albeit with an enormous library of classic Steam and GOG.com Win32 games that would run well on lower-end machines.

Naturally, these devices would need external controls as the majority of those classic games won't support touch inputs, but the possibilities are clear. There's no longer an OS-level barrier between mobile tablets, phablets, phones, and light Win32 gaming.

Games ported via Project Centennial to UWP are still Win32 at their core, meaning that they would also benefit from this new emulation layer powering full Windows 10 on mobile devices. A new focus on gaming on mobile devices, backed by Steam, could be the market share catalyst Microsoft needs to make Windows on mobile credible with consumers.

Xbox head Phil Spencer once said that he saw an opportunity for Microsoft to re-emerge as a consumer brand on the back of gaming, similarly to the way Apple leveraged music on the back of iTunes and the iPod.

(Apple's) investment in music early with the iPod and iTunes and everything that they did was an incredible growth opportunity for them, and they really sparked consumer delight and innovation in the product, both the industrial design and just the way the whole service worked. I think we've got the same opportunity with Xbox here at Microsoft.

Xbox's stand-offish approach to gaming on mobile exemplifies Microsoft's wider retrenchment in the mobile space, and this announcement paints a picture of a company waiting for the right technology to arrive before making the leap back into the fray. That new technology could be the developments we're hearing about at WinHEC 2016, with Win32 gaming touted as a pillar alongside Office and other creativity tools.

Microsoft has a huge opportunity to give PC gamers a holy grail type of mobile gaming device eventually — a pocketable version of Steam — and eventually boost their mobile consumer ambitions back into the spotlight, if — and this is a big if — Microsoft's execution is on point. We can only wait and see (and hope.)

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for 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!

51 Comments
  • On that video they show World of Tanks Blitz, which is already available on mobile and PC as UWP.
  • Aye, to show how well it runs, but we asked Microsoft for clarification. Win32 games will run unmodified on this system, providing the phone has enough power. Low end / classic games yes, Battlefield 1 no.
  • So at least Call Of Duty fans will be able to play games like COD 1, 2, 3 (the original and not Modern Warfare) on their phones. Pretty cool even then !! :)
  • The first Modern Warfare is a Win32 game. It plays on my low end 32 bit Windows 2 in 1.
  • Aren't all the PC Call of Duty's Win32 games?
  • CoD3 was a console exclusive and did not make it to PC.
  • I don't know what you're talking about. I just searched again and Call of Duty 3 (world war series) has a PC version too.
  • It certainly was not released for PC. It was only released on Xbox 360, PS3, and the original Wii. Please cite your sources, if you can prove me wrong.
  • Ah, my mistake man. I checked further and even Wikipedia says COD3 wasn't for PC (too bad I think).
    .
    My earlier search was just a random google search which gave results like "download COD 3 for PC" which made me think that its available. I think they just hacked it somehow to run on PC's too. Am I correct?
  • Then use Bing lol
  • I did! I tried Bing first. Both gave similar results. :)
  • Nope, wouldn't be possible to "hack" it on to pc. The devs would need to port it from the source for it to work. Or we would see it run on an emulator, but 360 and ps3 emulators don't yet exist due to how complex and how much compute power would be needed. The Wii version on the other hand...
  • Probably if you try to download and run that, you will get virus/trojan/spyware or some other undesirable stuff.
  • World of tanks blitz is also on steam now too.
  • Lol now update my Surface RT into new life haha
  • My Surface 2 has pretty much turned into a very expensive picture frame. Wish it would get a w10 mobile update....I don't really understand why it hasn't already been done.
  • This is HUGE!!! And a game-changer for mobile! Love it! :)
  • Soooo.... Just waiting on the XShield, Nvidia
  • "Windows 10 Mobile does support the Bluetooth stack that allows the Xbox One S controller to connect to phones, but to my knowledge, not a single game on Windows 10 Mobile uses it." I use my Xbox One S controller with my Lumia 950XL to play games on Windows 10 Mobile daily. Several UWP games and apps support Xbox controllers, wired and bluetooth. The main games that I play with my controller are Nitro Nation, Win64e10 and Universal Emulator. I believe World Of Tanks Blitz has controller support too. I uninstalled it but I remember playing via Continuum and keyboard and mouse and usually that inclouded Xbox controller support as well.  If I remember correctly, the Lego UWP games and Talking Tom Gold Run, I may be mistaken about those last few. The emulators having full controller support along with Continuum support has been the most amazing experience ever and worth it for me even if no other game supported the Xbox One S controller. I just wanted to point those few titles out. The controller support so far seems to be limited to UWP games and therefore, games that have Controller suppor on Windows 8, do not have controller support with their Windows Phone 8.x versions, for example, Beach Buggy Racing, Riptide GP, the Asphalt games. It would be awesome if Microsoft would enable Controller support at an OS level and not what appears to be at a Windows 10 UWP level without consistency. Mouse and Keyboard support is at the OS level, it would be nice to see controller support at the same level. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.
  • Oh nice, I'll update. None of the games I tried worked.
  • Can't blame you for drawing that conclusion. When Microsoft's own Minecraft doesn't have controller support on Win10M, who are they supposed to be encouraging?
  • hmm I thought they demonstrated WoT - PC version not blitz. Blitz is running fine (not 60 fps, but playable just fine) even on SD810 (950XL - even in continuum mode)
  • Hmm I'll double check
  • can't wait to play prison architect on the go.
  • I feel like this is possibly going to compete with the Nintendo Switch™
  • It could sort of, depends really on how well games work, someone could put together an Arm CPU plus low end AMD or Nvidia GPU and probably get playable results but I wouldnt count on mobile GPU's from Arm/Qualcomm/PowerVR being up to the task. The ideal way would be via native Arm UWP Xbox Anywhere games to extract maximum performance, hopefully that is something MS will still push.
  • Yeah, nothing but IP will compete with the switch. This could compete with the DS though...
  • Not likely, Switch games will be optimized for the platform, and will either perform on another level, or use way less power. Not saying there couldn't be any competition, but taking on Nintendo on portables would be quite an undertaking.
     
  • What do they mean by emulation?
  • The demo uses a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM. Those specs are in my Alcatel Idol 4S. My phone will become legendary.
  • Damn, I didn't know that part. Future is bright
  • Anyone remember the UMPCs from the early 2000's? http://www.gpd.hk/gpdwin.asp
  • The article mentioned playing Knights of the Old Republic on our phones, and I came just to say that I would be the living heck out of KOTOR on my windows 10 mobile phone!!
  • Forget Steam. I'm thinking Xbox Play Anywhere now In your pocket. That is a very prosperous thought.
  • Can't wait to play PES 2017 or Crusader Kings 2 on Surface Phone 😍😍😍
  • Mech Commander on my phone!!!!!!!
  • UNBELIEVABLE! I really like this news. I am even interested in a cheap battery friendly ARM Windows 10 device! It has many possibilies BUT For some reason every windows phone obsessed website turns this PC news (MS clearly said this 2 times) everybody turns this again in the good news show for Windows Mobile. If the ARM PC's is the first hardware to support this will be released at the earliest end of 2017, begin 2018 it doesn't mean there is a "phone" variant. Also the topics in this article work great for PC's. As for phone sized deviced not so much. Steam and other win32 programs work great on tablet sized screens and laptops but not on mobile. Heck even many games and apps have an iPhone and iPad version of their game available. So if devs are not bother to updates some of their 5 year old games to support smaller screens it doesn't mean a thing. I do like the news and I am looking forward to see how it goes. However claiming it as the next rescue attempt for phones (or small sized pc's) it is not. For business running win32 apps could be handy, standard consumer long have moved on to apps and webapps. In fact steam games like Talisman, Smallworld 2, Ticket to Ride, Hitman GO, Ascension, 80 days, Sorcery, etc appeared first as iOS and Android apps before making the jump to PC screen.
  • Sorry but if you watched the keynote you would know they are clearly talking about mobile. And 6 times said the word cellular devices. And the whole excerpt ended with the Qualcomm guy onstage getting out his HP Elite X3 and very happily making sure everyone was aware the same chip inside his phone is what was powering the demo on stage. We will see Surface phone announcement before 2017 ends. And I believe Samsung, HTC and many other Phone OEMs will start immediately looking at bringing full Windows 10 phones. After watching the keynote its obvious this is for phones as well. So obvious its ridiculous to say otherwise.
  • Will we be able to play borderlands 1? I have a Lumia 950 with the SD hexacore 808 processor I really do hope there is a 32 bit version of borderlands which probably is I just hope it can run because I bought it on steam thinking my pc can handle it but I was wrong
  • Your Lumia 950 likely won't support full Windows 10. I'd think the 820 would be the minimum requirement.
  • Want that controller in the picture... Looks great
  • Need a handheld version of xbox one
  • YUUUUUGE!!!
  • Hoping!
  • No 64bit support = no fun at all. Why not getting a GPD Win that run the games x64 games natively ?   I do not believe that the emulated x86 Apps and games will run faster on a emulated x86 qualcomm 835 than an intel atom 8700… If they do not manage at minimum to support x64 is will not attract users even if it will be slower that a native intel Atom...
  • Because sadly there will be no new Atoms from Intel.
  • Emulated app will run slower if they are CPU bound. If they are GPU bound they run faster than on Atom. Emulation is just a bridge solution, while the ARM Win32 ecosystem is still in its infancy. But it is a necessary step, as the latest ARM cores have surpassed the Atom in both CPU and GPU performance by far.
  • Maybe we could just get our windows 10 like update talked about for old surface's with arm like maybe edge browser on arm surface lol never going to happen lol
  • "What if millions of lower-end Win32 Steam games could run on a future Windows 10 mobile device?" There aren't millions of games on Steam, the most recent figure I could find pegged it on the order of around ten thousand. Still plenty of games, but hyperbole like this doesn't do anyone good.
  • What about the current Windows Phones; Any news ?
  • Crossy Roads has xbox controller support