And that's good news for marketers, because it means that instead of making separate buys to reach gamers on XBox, PC and mobile, they can target by demographic without having to worry about platform.
"You're no longer restricted to marketing on a single platform," said Craig Daitch, VP-group director of interactive strategy at PHD. Plus, he said "as they're consolidating their services and offerings, they're consolidating who can sell them. ... Having one resource we can go to for help building out a campaign -- it makes it much easier."
It's all part of Microsoft's "Live Anywhere" vision, which was announced by Chairman Bill Gates last year at the annual gaming confab E3. But it only recently became real, when Games for Windows-Live, the online PC equivalent of Xbox Live, launched in May.
Called cross-platform gaming or pervasive gaming, the platform-agnostic strategy allows users to play the same game and same competitors in a variety of places. It also allows players to use one identity across platforms, as well as all-in-one scorekeeping, chat and friend lists.
"To me, it's potentially Microsoft's most valuable games platform, above and beyond just 360 or PC," said IDC analyst Billy Pidgeon. "It's easy to leverage for advertisers. You can integrate advertising that won't be intrusive, [and] you can also target ads more effectively."
First of its kind
"Shadowrun" is the first cross-platform Xbox and PC game, with others expected to follow later this year, including classic card game "Uno" and Sega's "Universe at War." Microsoft's own "Halo 2" provides limited interaction, allowing PC users to text and chat with the Xbox Live community.
"The vision of 'Live Anywhere' is taking (gamers) from Xbox to PC to messenger to mobile," said Chris Early, general manager of Games for Windows-Live. "Then we can target not by platform but by demographic or game or age."
Behind the scenes, Microsoft has structured its ad-sales team so that the Massive unit is selling in-game ads vs. ads on Xbox Live, which will be sold, along with ads on all of Microsoft's other gaming platforms, by the MSN sales team.
Casual online gaming, in particular, is an area of strong growth for Microsoft, with more than 120 million people worldwide using its casual-game properties every month, compared with the 7 million Xbox Live users. It's natural Microsoft would tie together those interests -- cross-platform gaming and casual gaming -- as well. "Uno" will be the first Xbox-to-PC casual game this fall.
The value of the social-networking element in Microsoft's strategy is also important.
"[Games for Windows-Live] is effective as an online gaming service but also as an online social-networking service," Mr. Pidgeon said. "It's like MySpace with messenger but within the gaming application and tightly integrated in the gaming community."
Still, Microsoft's cross-platform strategy is not a slam-dunk. Sony plans similar cross-pollinating of its gaming properties on its PlayStation 3 console and online "Home" system. There are also logistical and internal hurdles for both.
"The vision is great, but because of different kinds of gamers and so many different genres of games, how they handle the details is quite important -- and difficult," said Michael Cai, analyst with Parks Associates. "If they can pull it off, advertisers will definitely be happier because then they could target individuals, not platforms."