Phil Spencer and his new console
GameCentral talks to the boss of Xbox about the new console and its upcoming games, as well as flying reptiles and C64 classic Uridium.
He may be the global head of the Xbox business, but talking to Phil Spencer always feels disarmingly like discussing games with your friends.. He may be the boss of one of the biggest games companies in the world, but he’s always proven perfectly happy to praise both his competitors and games that have nothing to do with him.
We spoke to him on Monday, directly after the Xbox media briefing, but before Sony’s pre-E3 press conference. Since it was used to introduce the new Xbox One X console to the world it was a big event for Microsoft, but Spencer seemed very relaxed and confident in both the new hardware and its games.
We asked him about that line-up, and the lack of major new first party announcements, as well as the various uses of the Xbox One X’s power and how it would change the future of the brand. As ever he was impressively forthright about most issues, and obviously passionate about not just the Xbox but gaming in general…
(We enter discussing the reception to the Xbox media briefing and the considerable amount of whooping and hollering that accompanied it, which Spencer is upset we did not join in with.)
GC: It’s a very un-British thing to do.
PS: [laughs] That is true, that is true!
GC: [fiddling about, setting up the recorder]
PS: You been well? I haven’t seen you in a while.
GC: Yes, I should say so. Although I did get terribly drunk last night.
GC: Now, as for your briefing. I have to admit it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
PS: That’s not bad!
GC: Not, it’s not bad. But we were all discussing this beforehand, as you can imagine, and my guess was that you’d sign up a bunch of upcoming games to some kind of exclusive or promotional deal, and also announce one or two big name new games, ideally new IPs, that showed off the power of the Xbox One X. But you didn’t really do either. I thought maybe you’d announce a new studio too, or an acquisition. All of that seemed to make sense to me at the time, so how comes I was so wrong?
PS: I don’t know. Wrong’s a strong word.
GC: Don’t worry, it happens all the time to me.
PS: [laughs] I think about our E3 stage as a time for us to inform and entertain people that are interested in Xbox. That’s why they tune in. So the two high level things I wanted to convey to people that were tuning in, people that were in the arena, was the line-up of 42 games, 22 with console exclusivity on Xbox One – which I know people care about – and obviously talk about Xbox One X, the world’s most powerful console.
When you talk about further in the future, when a console’s coming out on November 7th, it’s important for me to land content that’s coming either at launch or close to launch. So talking about something that could be a couple of years away feels like it’s taking away from, ‘Hey, you’re gonna make a decision, probably in this viewing, on whether this thing is interesting’.
Now, while that doesn’t necessarily mean day one, I want to show great content that’s gonna look amazing on this. I want to show the box and the technical specs behind it, and how you can go get it. I also don’t usually do a lot of business stuff on stage. Because it’s hard to entertain with that.
GC: I can see that when it comes to having a new studio. But in terms of announcing new games that are maybe a couple of years away, that’s something that’s worked very well for Sony. And I’m not suggesting they’re right or wrong in doing that, but I’m curious as to why you chose not to do something similar.
GC: Your key first party games are Crackdown 3 and Sea Of Thieves, but neither is photorealistic and their stylised visuals don’t seem like they’d benefit as much from the extra power as something like Anthem. But that’s neither first party nor exclusive.
PS: But take Ori! Ori looks fantastic at 4K, they just chose to use the horsepower of the box differently than a team like Anthem. And I think that’s an important part of both game creation and why we built this console, and frankly the Xbox One S with its HDR capability and 4K upscaling. Because developers will chose to use the power in different ways. Some will go for hyper realism, some will go for humans in environments that look fantastic, but other people will take that same capability and do something completely unique and different.
GC: But just on that point about first party games. Are you not interested in expanding your first party development? I really expected you to have ramped that up considerably by now. In terms of big internal studios.
PS: Well, we have big internal studios. Rare is a big internal studio that’s working on a brand new IP that no-one’s ever played before. That’s a big investment, it’s a big risk. Games are a hits driven industry like movies, like music, like anything else. The majority of things that are built will not succeed. Your hit rate’s usually 25 to 30%.
That’s why you see so many sequels coming out on things, because it’s safer. But the two things we didn’t put on stage were Halo and Gears. I like that we could go through our whole show and not have to bring out prematurely a Gears or Halo video trailer.
GC: One thing we discussed last time was expanding the Xbox’s appeal outside of the US and UK, but I’m not sure that this new line-up of games is really going to change anyone’s opinion in Europe and Japan. Especially if you assume indie games will hold less sway with more casual gamers.
PS: We had Super Lucky’s Tale, that’s a big first party game. And we showed Minecraft in 4K on our screen, one of the biggest games on the planet. And I know that sometimes when people are sitting inside of an E3 briefing it’s kind of easy not to put Minecraft into the same realm as other games. But more kids play Minecraft than almost any other game in the world. So the fact that we were able to show what was capable with Minecraft on the console is a great proof point.
You talk about expansion… Xbox One is in a healthy spot. It’s a good console, it’s a good business, we’re investing in it, it’s growing. We show that growth, quarter over quarter, in terms of the number of people that continue to play the console. I think a lot of times this whole world gets obsessed with, ‘Hey, you gotta go beat this one other thing’ and that’s what defines success or failure for business. The console business at the moment is incredibly healthy, Sony’s doing great. Absolutely. Nintendo with their launch of the Switch, assuming they can build enough of them, seems to be doing great.
I’m always striving to improve what we’re doing with Xbox One, but you shouldn’t take away that Xbox One is in some kind of position where if it doesn’t remake something at E3 that the business is in a bad place, because it’s absolutely not.
And we’re investing a lot in the games, we’re investing a lot in Xbox Live, we’re launching two pieces of hardware in two years – which is not a cheap endeavour. We’ll continue to invest in first party. So there is not this kind of, ‘Hey, if somehow in Japan – you mentioned in Japan – we’re not beating the competition then we’re in some kind of trouble…
GC: Is that the number one problem on your whiteboard though? Expanding out of the US and UK? I’m sure you saw that report about the PS4 selling three times more than the Xbox One on the Continent.
PS: I think you’re ignoring Latin America when you’re talking about the whole planet. I’d ask you to think about markets like Mexico and Brazil, where we do incredibly well. I’ll say, I want to do well in all markets. I was proud of the Japanese games I had on the stage, it’s been a focus, I’ve been to Japan.
And having global success with your platform, when you’re working at a company like Microsoft, is critical. But I wouldn’t turn any one of the E3s, or the launch of an individual game, into trying to create this moment in time to say, ‘Hey, this is the thing that has us winning in Japan or winning in Spain or something’.
You asked what’s number one on the board? What’s number one on the board is to make Xbox One customers happy with their purchase. And what do people care about? They care about the console and the power of it and the value of it. They care about the games that they’re going to get to play, about the experience of Xbox Live. That’s got to be job number one.
GC: I’m sure you noticed that the biggest roar of approval from the crowd was for original Xbox backwards compatibility. But is that entirely healthy? That is not a feature you can advertise to the mainstream, and there’s already been questions over how much people actually use Xbox 360 compatibility. Is there not a danger here of the message behind Xbox One becoming too niche?
PS: I don’t know that you should take reaction to…
GC: I would be worried if the thing my core fans were most excited about on my new console was playing 15-year-old retro games.
PS: When you invite Xbox fans into an arena, many of those people who have been Xbox fans for 15 years, you can’t take their reaction in the arena itself as market reaction to the features that we announced. And I always think Minecraft’s the best example of this. The biggest game that will be shown by anyone at E3, is Minecraft. Minecraft will not get the biggest fan reaction in the arena. Now does that mean Minecraft’s not big? No.
You and I know a huge game is FIFA, but when they show FIFA at E3 it’s not the thing that people get most excited for. But some of the other biggest games in the world are not even here. Clash Of Clans is not here, League Of Legends is not here. This is a show that is about consoles and fans and you feel that when you’re in the audience. And that’s great, I love those customers. But you shouldn’t take that reaction to dictate what’s most important.
GC: Those are very good examples. But on a different point, and this goes for both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X… I think you might have gathered from before that I’m not very technical. I want the graphics to be good and that’s the end of my interest in the conversation. I’m sure you’ve seen the beetle picture used to illustrate the improved graphics on Xbox One X?
GC: If someone had told me that was a parody I would’ve believed them, the differences are absurdly minor. There were some engineers taking questions on that and someone asked if the console used HDR 10 or the other one… I forget it’s name. It was HDR 10 so I asked the guy next to me, who I knew worked on a tech site, if that was the best one and he said it was and that, ‘I think you can tell the difference’. Like he wouldn’t have bet on it.
To me that just summed up the entire situation we’re in right now, where people are exchanging their love and appreciation for games for an obsession with numbers.. ‘My number is bigger than your number.’ ‘My console’s got two pterodactyls more than yours.’ And yet despite all that the most visually arresting game at your event was The Last Night…
PS: Great game.
GC: And that looks like it could’ve run on a Commodore 64.
PS: It couldn’t, but I understand your point. We have two consoles in our line: Xbox One S, now for sale for $249 in the US, and Xbox One X, the most powerful console. And the majority of consoles we will sell next year will be the S. There’s no doubt about that. Because most of the people are like you. Most of the people will say, ‘I want a console that plays the games I wanna go play, and I feel great about the experience…’
And this is why people push us on something like, ‘Why do you have the Blu-ray drive on it?’ ‘Cause normal people just wanna grab a disc, throw it in, and play. And a lot of the hardcore people say, ‘Well, who watches movies off a disc?’ Our Xbox One S will sell the most because most people are not into how many pterodactyls does this have versus someone else.
Most people just want to go play games. And the breadth of games we showed was critical to me, for young and old, male and female. I wanted to make sure we had a great cross section, because at the end of the day the majority of people just wanna buy a console, put a controller in their hands, and play games they’re gonna enjoy. And the number of pterodactyls in it isn’t important to them.
GC: I really hope you’re going to say pterodactyls by mistake to someone else today.
PR guy: We’ll have to wrap this up now.
GC: What also frustrates me is that the only number I do care about is the only that you and Sony don’t obsess over. Which is 60fps, which I understand is easier to do on the Xbox One X than any other console.
PS: That’s correct. But… [laughs] Why do you care about 60fps?
GC: It’s the only number that affects gameplay and yet it’s the only one you two never go on about! No-one can tell the difference between 4K and 1080p and all that nonsense…
PS: You just broke your whole argument now!
PS: You just said these games could run on a Commodore 64, they would not run at 60 frames per second on a Commodore 64.
GC: Uridium did.
PS: [laughs] I’m not disagreeing with you. But it’s a subjective opinion that that’s the only one that matters.
GC: It’s the only one that affects gameplay.
PS: …visuals do affect gameplay.
GC: Not the resolution though. Not in any manner close to the difference a good frame rate makes.
Phil Spencer knows the difference between teraflops and pterodactyls
PS: Don’t get me wrong. I love frame rate. I love Ori, it’s one of the reasons I love playing Forza Motorsport. But you have to go back to what you said before: most people. What frame rate does Minecraft run at?
GC: I know, but if the frame rate is below what it needs to be – and it does vary for different games – they do notice. They might not identify the problem, but they know something’s wrong.
PS: Some people do. Some people just want to have fun playing Lego Batman.
GC: You could teach them! Show them: this is the difference it makes! Xbox One X alone is bringing this to you!
PS: [laughs] You have a cause, I love it! I was not expecting you to go from, ‘I don’t care about HDR10 vs. Dolby Vision but I care about 60fps! [laughs]
PS: But you’re right, this console will make it more possible for developers to drive the resolution and frame rate consistency than any other console on the market.
GC: I would love to see 60fps mandated as a standard…
PS: I will tell you, as someone that’s run a platform now for a while, mandating gameplay decisions is a bad place for a platform holder to go in. Developers are completely incentivised to give you the best experience they can. We can both agree on that. So if they think it’s 60fps and that’s gonna help them, in terms of selling more copies of the game, they’re gonna be all in. Not everybody understands what 60fps vs. 30fps means. They’re not all as technical as you are.
GC: Nobody’s as technical as I am.
GC: And just finally, can you ever imagine taking influence from Nintendo Switch in terms of hardware?
PS: I love watching what Nintendo does in hardware innovation. It takes a real strong first party and brand to be able to build yet another form factor small screen product that people will buy, but Nintendo can do that and I think it’s great. I love having Minecraft there.
GC: But you wouldn’t consider doing something like an Xbox One Switch?
PS: I’m probably more focused on making sure our games are playable in that form factor. I think that’s good. Whether I need to go build a tablet-like device… there are tablets out there.
GC: Switch isn’t that far off Xbox One S in terms of power…
PS: No, it’s below the Xbox One.
GC: Sure, but if you did your own version I’m sure you could make it as powerful. Especially if this was something that was coming out in a couple of years.
PS: [laughs] I like what they’ve done, I think it’s good.
GC: [laughs] Thanks a lot for your time, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
PS: No problem, thank you.
Source: xbox one – Google News