46 Interviews

Interview: Phil Harrison on unleashing Xbox One

By Rob Crossley on Friday 27th Sep 2013 at 9:14 AM UTC

After months of tumbling over hurdles and (sometimes) running backwards, the Xbox division is now sprinting forwards, full pace, at the final stretch. Just in the nick of time.

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Corporate VP, Phil Harrison

But of course, after the race to release day (November 22), this quickly becomes a ten-year marathon. Phil Harrison, corporate VP of the Xbox division, has to be mindful of both contests; brokering deals for the future and ensuring everything is in place on day one.

He still doesn't look exhausted. Perhaps it's the fact he has his own Xbox One at home, right now, to both motivate him and help him relax during the downtime. In what is likely our final interview before release day, CVG met with Harrison at the Eurogamer Expo to discuss final launch plans, new competitors, and the ten-year race ahead.


Xbox One is now weeks away from the UK launch. What's the mood like going into that final phase?

Yeah it's great, it's really fun, today I spoke at the expo with a few hundred core fans in the audience, which went well. Our launch line-up is killer - I counted up our 23 games targeted for launch, and eleven of them are billion dollar franchises. I thought it was ten but am reliably informed it's eleven. That's great, it's an incredible line-up, and hardware is in full production.

How are the production yields looking? All going swimmingly?

Yeah it's great, all very much on target.

In terms of games, do you feel there's enough first-party presence at launch? Would you have wanted more?

I think we've got a great line-up, with 23 titles targeted for November 22. There's brands you already know like Forza, games you've never seen before like Ryse, digital exclusives like Killer Instinct, family games like Zoo Tycoon, all from different studios.

I ask because there was a rumour that internal studios were many months behind production timelines, which seemed odd of course because they would typically be first to get development kits.

Yeah, there's no truth to that rumour. Irrespective of whether you're internal, external, first or third party, making games for launch is hard. Any developer who gets a game to launch deserves a medal. They are working on evolving hardware with evolving ecosystems, so I am thrilled at what they're achieving.

I get the impression, from the pent-up demand we see from CVG readers and beyond, that both the Xbox One and Ps4 will sell out for the first few months at least. It seems like it's a supply issue more than a sales one.

I think it's great for the industry that there is such excitement around next-gen. And you look at the incredible success of GTAV, which is the biggest entertainment and cultural event of all time, and it happens to be a video game. I think we all should be proud of that.

Yeah I read a lot of people talking down the viability of consoles and console games, so it's good to see emphatic reminders that the business is still generating even bigger blockbuster games.

Yeah exactly. There's the old expression that economists use about talking yourself into a recession, and I think we should celebrate there is a game on Xbox 360, and other consoles, that is the world's most successful event.

There's also great potential for future Xbox One games, particularly Titanfall, which I would say is showing signs of making a major impact in the games space.

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Well it's certainly shaping up - it has all the hallmarks of a killer app. The proof is in the final pudding, but the ingredients in there are pretty damn good already.

Last time we spoke, you explained you have an Xbox One at home, and discussed the satisfaction of turning it on with your voice, and the system recognising you, and personalising the console to your preferences. Tell us more about those other enjoyable features that you can only really appreciate by experiencing it for yourself.

So, I'm going to leave aside all the great games, just for a second. What I'm personally really excited about is game DVR and video uploads. This is a platform feature that saves your gameplay experiences as video - either the game can invoke it or the platform can invoke it - and then there's an upload studio application that allows you to edit the video and share it.

You can add in the Kinect video of yourself using it, and mix it together.

That reminds me a lot of livestream set-ups, which are of course very popular, with footage of both the game and the person playing it.

We think live-streaming is also great, and we've partnered with Twitch for that, but I also think that high quality, edited experience where you can share great moments with your friends is great. We also have some really powerful special effects and video editing tools that can make it all look like a TV program. I've used it myself, and no I won't be sharing some of my early experiments with the world [laughs]

I wanted to talk about your job at Sony. At Worldwide Studios you visited studios, assessed early game builds, decided which to invest in and back those games as future blockbusters. Do you have that responsibility at Xbox today?

Absolutely, and if you strip away everything I do, that's the main thing that I like. Finding a team, nurturing them, helping them with their vision, that's what I love. That's what I've done throughout my career, that's what I'm most proud of. I can tell you, I feel so proud when I see a developer I've given a little nudge collect the awards, and be successful in the charts.

"Valve is clearly a smart company. I admire what they do, I admire how they do it."

I thought that would be very important for you, because ultimately you're a games studios exec. Even when you were out of the console business you were still attending things like Develop and talking to devs.

It's what makes this industry so exciting. That mix of technology, creativity, and consumer satisfaction coming together.

That's actually why I like the architectural features of Xbox One, where it's also a development kit. It's the next springboard allowing players to be creators as well as consumers.

Just to clarify, do you have any oversight on PC? What's happening there? Games For Windows Live has been scrapped and it's not clear what the future is there.

My main focus, understandably, is Xbox One right now. We are also in the middle of reorganising Microsoft, where the divisions are realigning the studios business unit with the devices business unit.

So, moving forwards, you will definitely see more joined-up thinking across devices.

And Julie Larson-Green is now in charge of Xbox then?

Julie Larson-Green is in charge of the devices and studios group, and she is assembling the new structure as we speak. But we were very focused on maintaining the structure of the Xbox One team, and we're not going to make any changes there.

So does PC still have a future at Microsoft?

Absolutely, yes.

You've also hired Jason Holtman, who helped manage the Steam business at Valve, who will presumably focus on the PC business.

Yes he's a very smart guy.

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So, Valve announced family sharing, and everyone says they love it. Is that a feature you want back on Xbox One?

There has been some shuffling of the technology deck, but we have a great road map, we have a really excellent set of features that will continue to evolve over time, but right now we're focused on launch.

Do you consider the Steam Box part of the competition?

To be honest, it's too early to tell, I don't have enough facts to properly evaluate it yet. I don't know their approach, I don't know enough about their business model, or their financials and so on.

But, Valve is clearly a smart company. I admire what they do, I admire how they do it. I would add though, that their approach helps validate ours. The biggest screen in the house is the living room, the console which you have connected to that is also usually connected to the most sophisticated sound system. That's the centre of gravity for games in the home.

There's also talk of inexpensive microconsoles, like Ouya and GameStick, picking away at the market share. How much is this competition too?

Well I said last year at the London Games Conference that all competition is good in some sense, because it helps grow the market. More people playing games is good for the industry, because there's a more healthy ecosystem for developers, there's a more healthy landscape for gaming and games culture.

That's what I like, because it makes games relevant to as wide an audience as possible. Then you have games like GTAV come and completely validate our model, because it becomes the fastest-to-a-billion-dollars product of any entertainment product.

Looking back on the current cycle, what defines it most is probably high definition graphics and advanced connectivity. What do you think defines a next-generation game?

I think it is, connectivity amplified by the cloud. Not just using the CPU and GPU in the box, but also amplifying your experience in the cloud. We are establishing 300,000 servers on launch day for Xbox One. So I think developers will have a great opportunity harvesting that.

Secondly, adding a Kinect to every Xbox One means developers are free to use voice and gesture controls in their games because they can be confident it now addresses one hundred per cent of their Xbox audience.

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