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24 Interviews

Interview: Xbox head Phil Spencer on Tomb Raider and One's digital future

By Andy Robinson on Wednesday 13th Aug 2014 at 6:11 PM UTC

If a single man represented the revamped image of Xbox, it would be the division's head, Phil Spencer

The affable and energetic executive speaks with a contagious enthusiasm for all things gaming, with an engaging tone and refreshing transparency. You'll rarely see him refuse a question and his praise for the positives of the medium are sincere and liberal - even it means bigging up the competition.

Sure, after the deeply troubled launch of Xbox One, Spencer could probably send his dog into work most days and still be taking the division in an upwards direction, but it's difficult to feel too cynical about the positive changes he's made in recent months.

Following the Xbox Gamescom media briefing, we met with Spencer to discuss the Tomb Raider deal, the future of Kinect and Xbox's digital future.


The Rise of the Tomb Raider exclusivity announcement has caused a big stir here in Germany, but there's still some confusion: is it a permanent exclusive or a timed exclusive deal?

We're saying what we said on stage: in Holiday 2015, Rise of the Tomb Raider will be exclusive to Xbox. That's the comment. We had a lot of similar questions around Titanfall and the structure of our deal is a business relationship that's frankly between us and Square Enix. I know Crystal Dynamics has issued a statement and we're going to stand by that. Xbox fans are going to be able to play Tomb Raider next holiday exclusive on Xbox.

The wording of the announcements was "exclusively on Xbox" rather than "Xbox One" - is there an Xbox 360 version?

It's their game, so I think the best person to ask is them. We've seen Tomb Raider on next-gen consoles already and I'd follow up with Square Enix on what their exact SKU plans are. I'm not a spokesperson for their game.

Zoom

The wording of Crystal Dynamics' statement emphasises the partnership between themselves and Microsoft on this game. How involved is Microsoft with Tomb Raider?

One of the things that kind of goes unsaid with many of the games that we work on is how much we partner with studios and development teams. We work every day on Xbox and there's certain things that we learn, improve, make updates to the system, talk about our system updates on a monthly basis... there's kind of two faces to that, there's the consumer facing side and there's a whole other list on a monthly basis on what we're doing for developers to make the platform better.

We spend a lot of time with studios on a technical level talking about how we can get the most out of the platform and really make their games play as well as they can on any console, frankly. So the partnership is deeper than a business relationship.

Do you see third-party exclusives as a core strategy for Xbox going forward?

I think we all know in this industry that third-party exclusives aren't very common. It's expensive from the first-party side because there's a relationship, and if you're a third-party publisher you're looking at all of the platforms which is a way to monetize - and frankly third-party publishers invest a tonne of money in making games that gamers want today. The return can be very high but it's also very risky.

So we've found in certain instances that if we can partner with a team when they want to do something special, and we can partner with them on the game to help it reach that level that they want to see... in terms of a core strategy I think it's something that we can do. I don't know if you're going to see a tonne of them from just availability, because a lot of third-party publishers will just go out and do them on their own.

This was really nice for us. If you look at Tomb Raider and what it is as a game, it fits extremely well for our line-up next year alongside Quantum Break and Halo 5. We haven't announced everything that's coming next, but if you think about the game that Tomb Raider is, it fits really well for us. So the partnership I think is really a win-win.

Is there any indication on when we might see more of Tomb Raider?

We haven't really put our PR plan together - we wanted to get through this. We didn't show any of the game today, we showed clips from E3. We'll kind of sit down and discuss the best time to show the game going forward.

"Rise of the Tomb Raider fits extremely well for our line-up next year alongside Quantum Break and Halo 5"

The other big announcement involved pre-ordering and pre-downloading of digital games on Xbox One. In terms of games, is that a system wide policy, or will titles offer the feature on a case by case basis?

You have to remember that the publishers own their content on our platform. We go out and talk to our partners about what we're building and what features are available, but they get to decide what they want to use on our platform - and this is a feature on our platform.

It's easier for me to say with something like Forza, because we own that game and I can make the decision that that's going to offer the feature. Obviously we talked to EA about having FIFA in the program and we'll talk to all of our partners about how they want to structure the launch of their games.

It's a feature of a platform that everybody can take advantage of and I'll definitely be a big proponent of it because I think it's nice for the digital ecosystem.

What's your stance from a first-party point of view then? Will all Microsoft games support pre-download?

That's a good question. I want to see how gamers use the feature and if they're happy with it. It's kind of why we announced it. I wont call it a 'trial', but we announced a couple of new games and I want to get feedback, just like anything on our platform.

So before I say, 'yes, everything is going to work this way', I'd like to do one before I do two, if that makes sense. But in general, I'd say it's a very good idea.

Zoom

Is this indication that Microsoft will slowly re-implement those ambitious digital features promised and canned at launch, such as game sharing and disc-less installs?

We've said a few times that the digital future is something that's here. If you play games on Windows, then most of the games that you get will be digital. It's the same with music and movies. We support digital and we support retail - we think they're both important. But we've definitely never given up on the features we talked about in terms of the digital distribution of games. They're in our road map and we're trying to make the right trade-off.

We've got a feedback tool up so that gamers can tell us what they want to see and digital pre-downloads was right at the top. If people want to see things I encourage them to go to feedback.xbox.com and let us know, but I'd say we're comitted to a digital future definitely.

And how closely will you be monitoring feedback to EA's Access platform?

I think EA Access is going to be interesting for the industry. You've got these content owners that build 'vaults' - I'll use their term - of content and they want to make them available to their customers and think about a way to monetise them. I think EA Access will be an interesting learning for all of us. It's the first time that we've really had a publisher of that scale decide that they're going to do something as ambitious as EA Access.

We were happy to partner with them on it, I think the pricing came off very well and I think the reaction was nice. But again, we're going to see how it goes off - people started signing up this week. I've been talking with [EA CEO] Andrew Wilson, who is a good friend of mine, about it and also other publishers who I've talked to are interested in watching how it goes as well, because it's an interesting model that clearly works in TV and movies.

This is your second major press conference in charge of Xbox and again Kinect was a no-show...

I find games that gamers are wanting to play on the console show really well on stage. We do have at Gamescom a section of Kinect games that people can go and play.

I don't know, maybe it's me but I always feel that playing Kinect games on stage is always a little tough, because it's just too easy for people to make fun of how people look when they're jumping around playing. And then if you show a Kinect game without somebody playing you sort of lose what the game is about.

We showed Fruit Ninja Kinect 2 on stage because we think that people get how you play that. We think the best way to get fans on with Kinect games is to put them on the floor here and have people come and try them. I just think that's an easier way to show the games. Maybe that's my failing, but that just kind of my feeling on it.

"Gamers always reset their expectations and as a platform holder I think we should do the same."

You announced three new console bundles too - FIFA 15, Call of Duty and Sunset Overdrive - all without a Kinect sensor included...

Some of that has to do with the content that we're bundling them with. Take the Call of Duty bundle, which is a great bundle with a 1TB hard drive and custom console: Call of Duty is not a Kinect game. If I bundled Call of Duty with Kinect I'd feel like it wasn't quite living to what people think about a Call of Duty bundle. I want to make sure that Kinect is available when those people make the decision that they want to have Kinect, if that's a decision that they make.

When you think about Sunset Overdrive as well, I think the white console is great, but Sunset Overdrive is not a Kinect game. And of course that opening price point is important, so I look at these bundles and want to make sure that we're hitting price points that will bring in customers. I think that's an important consideration.

Xbox One had a troubled launch, but since you took over the division in April it's had a few PR wins and policy changes that have been welcomed by the public. Based on this week's showing, do you feel this is the Xbox that fully represents you, or is it still work in progress?

Oh it's definitely work in progress, absolutely. And the team feels that: they're so energised around the customers that we have and how hopeful they are around the new features and fixes that they want to see. I think this platform will be a work in progress until we're done, which will be many years from now.

I always want to treat it that way: I never want to get into a position where we feel overly comfortable. I want us to feel like we're earning every customer that comes to our console. With every game that we ship and every idea that we have, I want us to feel that tension and excitement and maybe a little fear that we need to earn every customer that comes to our console.

People have choice and I'm happy with everyone having choice. A lot of people will end up with all three consoles like me. But I want to put great games on our console and I want the experience of playing games on our console to be the best place to play. That's what I said on stage and I don't really mean it to push our competitors down, I just want you to feel like when you pick up our controller it's a great game on a console that was meant for you to play the game on that console.

The great thing about gamers is they evolve their expectations. You saw Halo 2 on stage as part of The Master Chief Collection - I thought that was a great looking game ten years ago, but when you flip the button on the new version it makes it look like a Flintstones game! And that's great, because gamers always reset their expectations and as a platform holder I think we should do the same.

Close Close

You're clearly a man who pays attention to fan feedback, and one of the growing noises among the community this year has been regarding '1080p-gate' and the constant recurrence of multiplatform titles running at a higher resolution on PS4 compared to Xbox One. You've done a great job of updating the platform on a monthly basis this year... do you feel you'll eventually get to a position where multiplatform games have total parity with you rival?

You know, and I'm not picking on you, but that's the first time I've been asked that question in months, and I always take how many times I get asked something as to how interesting it is to your readers. We have done a lot of work with our partners and we constantly evolve our development tools. We announced that Destiny will have the same resolution and framerate on Xbox One as PS4.

There are a long list of games. Reaching parity with our partners has been important. But in the end I don't want it to be about a number, because 1080p isn't some mythical, perfect resolution. Framerate to me is significantly more important to gameplay than resolution and the mix of those two which brings the right art style and freedom, whether it's on PlayStation or our platform.

I look at games like The Order on Sony's platform and they picked a different resolution - I like the resolution that they picked, I think it's interesting. I want to put the tools in the hands of the artists and not try to math it that there's some sort of math answer for the what the right resolution and frame rate is for a game - because there isn't.

Clearly some genres like with racing sims like Forza, hitting 1080p/60fps is important. So there are certain genres where there's an expectation, but there are also other genres where I'd rather use the cycles to put more effects on screen or better lighting. I've got to put the tools in the hands of developers.

I wanted to ask about the future of Rare. They've just shipped Kinect Sports Rivals and we heard news of a few senior staff cuts there. It feels from the outside that Rare has struggled to find its place within Xbox over the years. But with Xbox now seemingly dipping into its game heritage more than before, what do you plan to do with the studio?

I think that's a good way to look at it. I'm a Rare fan from the N64 days - that's kind of where my relationship with them was built. The range of genres that Rare exceeded at on N64 was crazy; you go from GoldenEye, to Conker and Banjo, Diddy Kong Racing... they were all over the place and they nailed a wide variety of genres. So I don't see them as a 'certain genre' studio: their strength has always been in their diversity.

When they came to Xbox we did Grabbed by the Ghoullies and the Conker remake. They didn't have tremendous success but I think they were fun games. Then they started building out the Avatars - that was really their work - and then frankly Kinect, which they were innovating with before we'd even decided we were going to do something like that. They actually build this kind of wand thing on their own before the Wii came out.

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I know from the outside it can seem like they've been kind of pushed into different spaces by us. They've really kind of followed the innovation. That said, i think you've asked a smart question. Right now with Rare we're at a point where I don't want the Rare brand to mean Kinect Sports. The Rare brand can be more valuable to them, to us and to gamers than that.

I think it's about them thinking about the next game that's going to be the next 'Rare game' and really stand for what they are. I know they've got some great ideas. I've not been up to Twycross for maybe six months, but I'm planning on getting up there this fall and seeing bits for the new game. But I know they're hard at work and Phil Harrison has been up talking to them.

So they've got some new ideas, they're excited about them and I think Rare should, can and will be an important part of our game future.