4 Interviews

Interview: Mike Nichols on a humble new beginning for Xbox One

By Andy Robinson on Tuesday 10th Jun 2014 at 1:29 PM UTC

Although the months since launch have been undeniably rough for Microsoft and its Xbox One, its E3 2014 press conference showed signs that the company had weathered the storm, and come out the other side with a clearer vision for the future of its console.

Unlike previous Xbox One media briefings, which either leaned to heavily into the multimedia features of the system, or showed a handful games pitched at everyone and no one, Microsoft's E3 2014 effort was a focused and confident procession of game reveals targeting the core gamer.

The titles announced included new projects from the likes of revered Japanese studio Platinum Games, returns of classics such as Phantom Dust and Crackdown, as well as an impressive Halo re-release package.

Microsoft feels like it's learning from its hard knocks and, following its E3 press conference, we caught up with Mike Nichols, corporate VP for Microsoft Studios, to discuss the thinking behind its presentation, and its vision for the future.

CVG: It felt like a more humble affair than previous years, almost like a fresh start for the company, do you think that's fair to say?

Nichols: Yes, I think it's fair. I do think it started before this particular event, even prior to the launch of Xbox One. What we have been focused on is what we're hearing, our visions, what gamers are telling us about it, and what we needed to evolve as a result.

Insomniac's Sunset Overdrive was feature prominently in Microsoft's conference

You've seen it in our actions over the last nine months. We launched with one thing, but we're continually listening and improving. Certainly with today's show we had games, games, games. That was the focus, leading up to the show there were a lot of other announcements around improvements to Xbox Live, options to buy the product at different prices, that sort of thing.

But I'd say that if there was one theme along with games, games, games, it was listening to our customers and acting based on what it is that they want.

It also felt like the Xbox agenda was to get fans on side, was that the mantra when putting the presentation together?

I think it goes far beyond that. Really the thing that inspires us is the fans. We're really lucky to have a rabid, vibrant fanbase, and we think about what we can do to get them excited. The event right now, post-show, we're doing a Q&A with a bunch of the team, even though this is a media briefing, we have fans we want to reach out to directly and talk to them.

So yes, appealing to the fans is something we're super focused on, but I'd say it goes beyond just this event. It's a theme of the entire Xbox team.

It was games, games, games, for your presentation. Do you think your line-up best represents your audience?

Yes, we're really excited about the line-up, in particular for this holiday.

Although we showed a lot things that are going to be coming to Xbox in the future, we're certainly invest in making the Xbox the best place to play this entire generation. But the focus was around Xbox One, gaming and the best place to play this holiday.

If you love blockbusters, Assassin's Creed got a lot of good response from the crowd. Or if you love completely new IP there's Sunset Overdrive; the biggest cheers from the crowd were from Halo.

Certainly, that has been guiding our focus - the question of what appeals to our audience. We're really excited about the breadth of the titles we showed today. Unfortunately we only had 90 minutes for the entire briefing, we could have gone a lot longer with all the games. This is a selection.

Harmonix's Alex Rigopulos took to the stage to announce Dance Central: Spotlight

The absentee was Kinect titles, where is the camera and how does it fit in to Xbox One?

Sure. We did talk about Dance Central Spotlight, we're very committed to Kinect. There's no question that it offers a whole bunch of value to customers. The things that I love about it is the biometric sign in, I really like Skype video calling, and games like Kinect Sports Rivals. All those things, you can only get with Kinect.

Today, the focus has been on the games themselves, rather than platforms. That's what we chose to do, but we're committed to Kinect and to improving it across all those dimensions that I talked about.

Your new tagline is 'more fun on Xbox'. Is that indicative of your shift, can you promise an ongoing commitment to that kind of entertainment?

The focus was to put games at the center of that entertainment, and that continues. The focus, certainly for this event, was to provide the best games this holiday and really appealing to the hardcore gamers that really care about E3. That's our focus for this show and in general: how do you provide amazing gaming and make sure it's at the center of all the entertainment. That continues.

It's certainly the focus we have, particularly early in the generation. But gaming is at the center of what Xbox is about.

"Listening to gamers and delivering the content and services that they deserve and want, that's our focus every day"

Do you think your shift in focus makes it even more important that you're seen to be providing value to Xbox Live Gold subscribers. There seemed to be a big focus on multiplayer titles today.

You bet. You got it. There's no question that we've got to. With Xbox Live we pioneered online multiplayer gaming, a decade ago and that is one of the things we believe the most in. Certainly, we invested in it and will continue to. Almost all the titles we showed had some manner of multiplayer, and that's going to continue for sure.

When announced changes to bring apps to a broader set of Xbox Live customers, whether you have a paid account or not. We also announced improvements to the Games with Gold titles that are being given each month and introduced Deals with Gold so you get discounts on titles each month if you want to buy them in store if you're a paying member. We think we've got the best games, and the best platform to play with your friends this holiday. With the content you get and the discounts, we think it really provides a great value.

It was great to see old franchises coming back, do you think that the great heritage that Xbox has didn't get the attention it deserved before now.

I think a lot of the titles that we discussed have been in the works for a while. Phil Spencer has been a real shepard of many of these initiatives. He's talked about Crackdown in the past, for example, so we've been committed and will remain committed to fans, listening to gamers and delivering the content and services that they deserve and want. That's our focus every day.

Crackdown will make its return, with original creator Dave Jones heading up development

How much is Microsoft investing in first-party game creation. There was a long period through 360 where there was a lot of collaboration. How much is now being created internally?

We believe in a mix. You saw a lot today, for example with Halo, and with Halo 5: Guardians, you're going to see a lot of investment there. You saw Fable Legends too.

We are hugely focused on being the best platform for third-parties too. Because really the focus is with consumers, like 'how do we make Xbox the best place to play?'. And we think the answer is a mix of exclusives along with making sure that the blockbusters that are available across consoles look and play best on our console. We're certainly very much committed to first-party creation of games, but I think it's a mix.

How important would you say new IP is in particular at this point in the console's life?

It's very important to have exclusive content that really inspires customers to stand up and go 'woah, that's fantastic, I want that'. Games are ultimately why people buy the consoles, so it all really comes down to who has the best games. For the regular consumer, that's what's going to inspire them to pick what console to buy. That's why we focused solely on games this show, and even at last years E3 we had a show that was largely about games.

What we hope to do this holiday and what we believe we're going to do is provide the best collection of blockbusters and exclusives for consumers to enjoy this holiday.

Which games do you feel are going to be the system sellers for Xbox this year?

We have a lot of good options today. I was following the Twitter stream and viewer applause throughout the show and there were certainly factions of fans saying 'woah, I get all the Halos in one disc?'. We're proud that it's only going to cost people $59.99, which is a great value. And yet there's a whole bunch of people that love Sunset Overdrive.

We'll see. There's Assassin's Creed too. Personally, the one's I'm most excited to buy are Halo: The Master Chief Collection, because I played a lot of Halo back in the day, and I'm really excited to play on Xbox One with the remastered maps. I'm really excited about Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 as well. It's beautiful and going to have much more realistic weather, you get to play in this beautiful European setting, open world driving. Those are the reasons I'd buy an Xbox One, of the many, but the nice thing that there's a lot of options depending on the genres they prefer.

Ori and the Blind Forest was one of the standout indie titles shown, drawing comparisons to Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away

Which titles do you think will go beyond the core gamer demographic, the ones that will be mainstream champions for Xbox One this year?

I'll tell you what I think could really be the sleeper hit of the show: Ori and the Blind Forest. This is the one where you have this beautiful cinematic trailer. The gameplay, is between story and and the actual playing of it, you really feel this game. I was looking around during the show and people were like 'wow, that's great'. That's not the traditional FPS game, a story about giving life to a dying forest. It's just a little non-traditional. I think that's going to be interesting.

One of the big exciting new announcements was Crackdown. What can you tell us about that game? There's was a promise of innovative multiplayer.

We were incredibly excited to have Crackdown coming to Xbox One, Dave Jones being on board is huge for us. Phil started the journey saying 'we'll bring the game to Xbox One when we've got the right team to do it', and we got who we think is the perfect person to do it.

We talked a lot about dedicated servers, I think Crackdown will take big advantage of the cloud infrastructure in exciting ways. You saw at the very end [of the trailer] the explosion.. there will be many explosions. The graphics are going to be fantastic when it's released, personally I'm really pumped about that. It's got a nice mix of attitude and gameplay. You take all those concepts, with Dave Jones at the helm and bring them to a box as powerful as the Xbox One - I think it's going to be great.

What can you tell me about the development process of the game? You've said Dave has been working on it, does he have a team? Is he forming one? How long has it been in development?

The idea has been in development for a while, we've got Dave running the show. From there I don't know what we can share yet.