build 2016

Phil Spencer Discusses Microsoft’s Unpopular PC Moves And Xbox One Evolution

by Kyle Hilliard on Apr 01, 2016 at 08:59 AM

Microsoft’s Build 2016 Developer conference is a developer-focused gathering that expands its reach well beyond Microsoft’s Xbox division to talk about the technology surrounding all of Microsoft’s products. With the Universal Window Platform causing so many of Microsoft’s departments to overlap, though, Spencer was on hand (his first time at a Build conference) to talk about Xbox One and Windows gaming. After showing off some new details on stage during the keynote, Spencer took part in a round table discussion to answer questions about everything from his plans for the Xbox, to what goes through is head when he selects his wardrobe.

Will all first-party Microsoft games release on both Windows and Xbox One moving forward?

Certain people would love for me to say something as clean as, “all.” Ashes of the Singularity, a game we showed at Showcase for those who were there, a hardcore real-time RTS for PC, is probably not a great controller experience as it requires keyboard and mouse. If I enable keyboard and mouse on a console, which we will do, and then you download that and you’re playing it on a monitor, is that a PC game, or is that a console game? I get out of saying “all” because I think there are games that people want to play on a monitor with a keyboard and mouse and I want to be somebody that builds those games. I also think there will be games where I want to sit 10 feet away from a screen with a controller in my hand with a great sound system and I want to play those console games.

Our intent is where genres and creative makes sense in both spaces, that we’ll put the game in both spaces, and you see us doing that already. But I don’t want to make it some kind of artificial mandate because I think we end up with Franken-game that really wasn’t meant for a certain platform because some suit said, “Hey, everything’s got to run on both platforms,” you end up with something people don’t want. You should expect it when it looks like a game belongs on both platforms, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a mandate for the studio.

Will we see Halo 5: Guardians on PC?

In terms of Halo FPS on PC, I think there is a ton of opportunity for us right now, but I don’t want to get in a world where we’re looking back. It doesn’t mean there is nothing there that would never end up on PC, but I would much rather look forward.

With cross-play becoming a priority for Microsoft, how will it handle controller versus mouse and keyboard multiplayer?

I want to be clear on this one – I will never force someone in our games, who is playing with controller or mouse and keyboard, to play against somebody with a different control scheme. Mouse and keyboard rotation speed is faster than controller. We know that. You will lose. I shipped Shadowrun. I was part of that. But, as a platform, I want to enable players to make the choices they want to make. If you and I are playing a co-op game together […] there’s no reason you and I can’t go through a [Destiny] Strike, for example, you on mouse and keyboard, me on controller playing together, and we should be able to talk to each other. I want to completely enable that scenario. But for people who think, I don’t want to get destroyed because some guy drops in with mouse and keyboard and he’s just running a rampage over every match because he’s moving faster – we don’t want to do that. This is about putting tools in the hands of smart creators to make decisions on when it makes sense and when it doesn’t make sense.

How will addition of Cortana change how we control the Xbox One with our voice?

Cortana is basically an input layer, which is voice, so natural language. “Cortana, order me a pizza,” or whatever they said on stage. And then there are all of the analytics on the back-end, to try and figure out your intent on what you said and to map it, etc. – We don’t have that on Xbox today. When you say Xbox On, it literally does a string match with Xbox On and it knows, trigger the power switch. Our dictionary is fairly closed on Xbox today with our voice interaction. Bringing in Cortana, you will have the same mic, the same ability to parse what you say, but the opportunity to actually get a broader hit base on and be able to say things like, “Hey Cortana, what’s the weather like today?” Xbox doesn’t even know how to find the weather.

So you will say Cortana instead of Xbox?

Yeah. We toyed with that back and forth, and I just think if it is going to work that way on your desktop it would be weird if it didn’t on Xbox, because the icon is the same. But when we started with "Xbox On," Cortana was over here and Xbox team was over there. We considered, should it be “Xbox, hey Cortana…” but then you end up saying 15 different things, so we’re just using Cortana.

The semantic understanding of whether what’s happening on Live… “Hey Cortana, is Mike online right now?” It goes through and considers, “He probably means, Mike Ybarra? Yes. What’s he playing right now? Okay. Join his party.” My ability to go back and forth with Cortana and understand both the context implied, and we’ve looked at games with things like, “Hey Cortana, how do I get through this level?” We know what game you’re playing. We know what character you are. We know where you are in the game from Achievements and the mapping of what’s happening in the frame, so we’re actually going to able to say, bring up all the game DVR clips of the area where you are and say, “Here’s how other people have completed the level you’re on.” There’s both the navigation of Live itself and everything that’s going on. “Hey show me what’s trending in The Division right now,” and we can instantly bring up a hit list of the things going on in The Division, or things about the actual games themselves and how you get through them. I think a lot about those opportunities.

Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney recently spoke out against Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform. How have you responded to his criticism?

Tim and I are actually good friends and have been for some time, and still are. I basically sent Tim what I was going to say [at the Build keynote] and we’ve been going back and forth. He came out to Redmond to review our plans. Some of the specific things he wanted to see, we showed some [on stage] and then I talked about some. He wanted a public statement about Windows being an open development platform, and Terry Myerson [executive VP of the Windows and Devices group] said that right at the beginning. The side-load, Kevin Gallo [VP Windows developer platform] showed double-clicking an app exe on the desktop and installing a Universal Windows Application without store UI and that could have just as easily come from the web we just happened to launch it from the desktop itself, and we wanted to show that. And then I wanted to show taking the Steam package and wrapped it running as a modern desktop application to show we’re not trying to lock out those apps and games from being able to use Steamworks or to be deployed in other stores, so we wanted to show that directly.

It will be interesting to see what Tim says, because Tim’s an important guy in the industry and someone I have immense respect for, and still do. I think he’s great. The thing I love about Tim and you will know if you spend any time with him, is he comes from a virtuous place. He has a real principled view on how the games industry and frankly, overall Windows ecosystem, works, and I never worry that he is saying something for his own competitive reasons – it’s just what Tim really believes. I’m not saying we always believe the same thing, but the motivations behind his beliefs have never been a question for me. I’ll always listen to him.

For Spencer's hopes regarding every Xbox One's ability to turn into a dev kit and his t-shirt choices, head to page two.

How will the option to make every Xbox One a dev kit impact the Xbox Live store and game publishing?

My expectation is that the app category will really grow. Just like in an app store you will probably have some vertical things, like somebody built a specific widget for a scenario in their home, and then I think you will have other things like good stock tickers and good The Division news feeds that feed through an app on your screen. That’s what I am hoping for.

We looked at when we teased it three years ago, and the problem then was the app model on Xbox was something that was proprietary to us. It was SRA [shared resource applications] which were the kind of apps where if you were going to build a Netflix or a YouTube app, we kind of had to handle you. We didn’t have a good development platform. It wasn’t integrated into Visual Studio or had the tools a developer would use – well, it was, but it was covered in duct tape and wire.

So, we stepped back and said, “If app developers really want to target tens of millions of TVs, we should have it work like building any other application.” The reason we waited so long, was because I wanted to get UWP to a point where I could just say, “Hey, Windows developers. The millions of you that are already out there, instead of you having to learn something else to go put your app on Xbox, let’s just move the Xbox over so it supports the apps you’re already making.” And I think we’ll see the app traffic pick up. I’m really excited to see what people build. Just like any app store, we’ll probably see some really interesting things. We’ll probably see some games, but I suspect that the bigger interest will be from app developers who have wanted to get to television at scale. We’re going to offer up a scale television platform that I don’t see in the other ecosystems right now, just given the number of users and engagement that we have.

Is ID@Xbox still the best route for publishing a game on Xbox One?

ID@Xbox gives you access to building native Xbox games. And if you are an indie developer today, you want to use ID@Xbox. If you want to build a game like The Flame in the Flood, like Molasses Flood, go ID. Apply to the ID program, we’ll let you in. Go get the ability to make native Xbox applications. But if we look forward, I want to enable those UWP games to run as well as Flame in the Flood does as a native Xbox game in the future. Today, the application space that runs on an Xbox One is different than the full games. If you’re going to go build a Unity or Unreal or a big game, yeah go do it that way. You will see UWP games coming to Xbox sooner rather than later.

How do you deal with the feedback the Internet so readily supplies for every announcement?

As someone who has been in this industry for such a long time, and banging my controller on the table when I die for the 50th time in Ori, this is a passionate space. The backwards compatible moment last year, where we could announce a feature and have the roof on the Galen center pop off its hinge – you can’t take that passion, the positive passion that comes with this industry, without also taking the passion of people telling you you’re an utter failure at your job. That’s the kind of industry we’re in. I love it.

I will say, the anonymity of the Internet I think allows people to sometimes say things that I wish they would realize there are people on the other end, not so much me, I’m in the job I chose to be, but overall, the feedback is great, so keep it coming.

Why a Killer Instinct t-shirt?

My t-shirt is pretty simple. It’s a Killer Instinct t-shirt. We launched season three yesterday. I am horrible at KI, first. I love the game, but I’ll use my Rare term and say I’m rubbish at the game. When we bought Rare, Microsoft didn’t really know what Killer Instinct was, but Ken Lobb and I had always had this idea that we were going to bring this thing back at some point.

We did Perfect Dark at the launch of 360 as kind of our revival. We also did Kameo, which I thought was a great game, a new IP and I though that was important. But we wanted to do a new KI, so when Xbox One was just an idea we said, “Okay, this is our time to bring back KI.” We wanted to rethink its model a little bit and sell it in a different way than the traditional way fighting games are typically sold, which has actually worked really well for us. But in the early Xbox One game reviews, where we would coming rolling in with the games we wanted about two years before we were launching the console, we would start showing some of the games we wanted to bring, and we showed KI. And I will just say there were certain people on the leadership team that were none too pleased with, like a 20-year-old genre we were trying to bring forward. We’d say first, we wanted to hit framerate, because framerate is so critical for fighting games. If anyone wanted to take our platform apart, that was a good proof point.

We kind of had to keep it hidden after that meeting because it was an easy one for them to say, “Oh, if we’re trying to arrange priorities, that’s one we should stop,” but they kept it going, and they hit launch and I thought it was a goo reemergence for KI. We had to move the game to a new studio, and they just up-rezzed all the lighting models for all the arenas and I think they look amazing, and we did season two and added new characters, season three we added the Arbiter, we added Rash so we kind of added new IP from our other games. I saw somebody teasing that it’s our Super Smash Bros. now. And then when they launched yesterday as a cross-buy cross-play on Windows 10, I was just so proud of Shannon Loftis and the team that’s off driving this, because it’s the little game inside the studios that could. It was something people didn’t always bet on, and some bet against a little bit, and here it is having a great impact for us as we’re standing in Build and I am talking about cross-play and cross-buy and what it means, and the reaction to it has been incredibly positive. The GAF threads have been good, the feedback from the community has been good.

So for me, it was just for that team, because they have always trudged along as being the game of, “Oh, we’re still doing KI?” and I sent mail to the team last night after seeing all the reports kind of saying, “Long live KI!” Sorry, I know that was kind of a long story. I also had an Ori shirt, and I thought about wearing an Unreal shirt. Tim would have been fine with it. He would have laughed. There are other game engines, though, and I didn’t want to be seen backing one engine.

For Spencer's thoughts on the idea of Xbox One and a half in relation to the PlayStation 4.5 rumors, head here.