The lights are on
Earlier today, Microsoft dropped a huge bomb at its Gamescom press briefing. The company has locked up exclusivity for Rise of the Tomb Raider, and we had the oportunity to ask Xbox boss Phil Spencer more about the deal, how things are changing at Xbox, anticipated features, and what it means to be behind the competition in sales.Right now, Microsoft isn't confirming lifetime exclusivity (we used Titanfall as a comparison when inquiring), but lining up even the crucial holiday 2015 release window for a coveted third-party exclusive could be a big win. It all depends on how long the exclusivity window is, if it's limited. Regardless, this shows that Microsoft is working to sure up Xbox One exclusive content outside its own walls.The language that Microsoft is using around the exclusivity right now is "exclusive to Xbox in holiday 2015." This hints at a window rather than permanent, but Square Enix will be the ones to share more details on that later (should there be any). [Note: Spencer later confirmed that the Tomb Raider is only exclusive to Xbox One for a duration of time.]Microsoft has delivered on many of its promises from the original Xbox One reveal (and has repealed a number of system pillars to please fans). One feature that was understandably left on the cutting room floor when Microsoft dropped online check-ins following E3 last year was the ability to share game libraries with family members.Spencer tells us that another new feature, pre-ordering and pre-loading of games, may be a step toward that goal. "It's actually not that tricky," he says. "Family sharing is a little bit [like] pre-order and pre-download, as well. You notice when I talked about it on stage, I didn't stand up and say it's for all titles. Fundamentally, the publisher of the game owns the rights around how that game will work."Microsoft is piloting the pre-order/pre-load program with Forza Horizon 2, a title it owns. FIFA 15 is up next, and working with publishers will bolster those offerings. Family sharing would be a similar situation."You want to content owners and be respectful to them," he says. "I want to make sure that the program is delivered in a way that makes a ton of sense. So when we talk about any rights around digital content, it's something I believe about long-term. I think some of the digital features available over the life of this generation (both for us and Sony, Sony's doing a nice job here as well), will really transition how people think about what they own." Spencer hasn't committed to making family sharing a reality, but it's certainly not something he's ignoring either. Another major announcement that emerged recently was Microsoft's exclusive partnership with EA.The EA Access program delivers early game time, discounts, and free-with-membership back catalog titles for $5 per month or $30 per year. We asked Spencer what happens if other major publishers like Ubisoft, Activision, and Take-Two decide to ape EA's model. "Frankly, EA Access is going to be one of those things the industry is going to learn from," Spencer says. "They're interested to see what happens when you offer back catalog on a subscription basis."An increase in the number of individual subscription types would drastically impact how the Xbox platform might operate. Spencer offered some thoughts about how things might change in the industry if this were to happen."Clearly in the movie and television space, there's a meta-subscription like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or whatever they might be," he says. "In the game space, I don't know that would play out. I say 'I don't know' not that's not leading, I honestly don't know." Some of the concerns come from independent developers who would be left out of a system that emphasizes publisher-level subscriptions. Those studios simply don't have the back catalog to offer the same value. "As a platform holder, I think there are going to be some big content publishers out there that have enough weight in their portfolio to offer something," Spencer explains. "Frankly, it's different media types, like movies and games, if you think about somebody like Disney. But if you're Moon Studios with Ori and the Blind Forest, and you've got your third game and want to monetize the first in some way, maybe that's us as a platform holder that we would offer to do something similar."Spencer sees opportunity for the gaming industry to evolve as new business models emerge. "Building big, AAA games is expensive. It's high risk." he says. "One of the things that we need to do is think about as an industry are the windows of the content and how to monetize better. There are different ways to monetize the back catalog. EA's trying here. Us platform holders have Games with Gold and Sony has PlayStation Plus. Movies do a good job of this, TV does a good job of this. I think it's a space the [games] industry has to evolve, because the people who own the content need to continue to monetize in interesting ways. Subscription's a good business model."With regard to the standalone Kinect, Spencer says timing is a matter of inventory and working with retail partners. The device (which isn't included in any of the three bundles announced this morning) is still on track for a solo retail appearance. Those planning to purchase a standalone Kinect should expect to spend slightly more than $100, though."We need to get the prices [set]," Spencer said "I want consumers to make decisions when they're fully informed. The price difference will be more than between the console (bundles)."The Kinect unbundling was one major part of Spencer's work to turnaround the Xbox brand after a rough 2013. The company is behind in worldwide sales, with our last known shipped number at 5 million as of March 31 (and a total of 1.1 million Xbox One and Xbox 360 units the next quarter) against Sony's newly announced 10 million PlayStation 4s sold. "At some level, it is a competition, and I've said before I want to win," Spencer tells us. "At the same time, I want to build a great platform for gamers. If somebody else does that to, and they do really well? Hats off to them, but I can have success in our own space if we're selling a lot of consoles and people are buying games."Spencer knows that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will continue to be compared. "We shipped at the same time and we're in direct competition with the PS4," he admits. "I'm not going to duck that. I want to win. I want to win this generation, but I want to win more than I want the other guy to lose. I own a PS4, and it's not like I want it to get dusty or not have games. But I do want to sell a lot of Xbox Ones, and for many people that's a direct competition with the PS4. As the Xbox team, we are the underdog."He acknowledges that his team is building its momentum against a Sony that currently is rolling forward. "They beat us in June. They beat us in May," Spencer says. "These months are small if you look at the sales. I think the whole month of June is about one week in November. They're winning, and they'll do their PR around it, and that makes sense. The battle is really September, October, November, and December."The Xbox team is looking ahead to a big fall with Forza Horizon 2, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Sunset Overdrive, and Ori and the Blind Forest. Microsoft may not complete its recovery in 2014, but for Spencer, the generation is only just beginning.
Email the author Mike Futter, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.