Head Of Xbox Phil Spencer Talks Scorpio And Beyond
Editor's Note: The following article first appeared in Game Informer Australia and is written by David Milner. You can follow him on Twitter here.
In his two and a half years as head of Xbox, Phil Spencer has overseen a dramatic change in direction for the Xbox One, going a long way towards restoring goodwill amongst the gaming community. Many of the unpopular decisions that saw the console quickly fall into second place behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 – the inability to trade and share games, a heavy emphasis on Kinect and non-gaming content, and the always-online requirements of the console – have been overturned.
Spencer has brought Xbox’s focus back to its core audience, gamers, implementing numerous popular policies like backward compatibility and the new Play Anywhere program. At this year’s EB Expo, I spoke with Spencer about the future of Xbox, his legacy, and what Project Scorpio means for the wider gaming landscape and traditional console cycles.
At E3 2016 you used the phrase “gaming beyond generations” when you revealed Project Scorpio. Does this mean that in the future, console gamers will need to buy hardware more regularly if they want to play the best possible version of a game?
It’s hard to tell. Clearly in the case of Xbox One, Xbox One S and Scorpio, the answer would be, I don’t know if it’s more regularly, but you’re going to want Scorpio to run the game at the highest resolution or framerate – whatever the developers decide to do with that game.
As for the “more regularly” part, to be completely honest, I don’t know what the next console is past Scorpio. We’re thinking about it. We’re looking at consumer trends and what the right performance spec and price would be, and [asking ourselves], “Can we hit something that has a meaningful performance characteristic that a gamer would care about?”
I don’t have this desire to every two years have a new console on the shelf; that’s not part of the console business model, and it doesn’t actually help us. The best customer I have is somebody who buys the original Xbox and just buys all the games. That’s the best customer for us in terms of the pure financials of it. I don’t have a need to get you to go buy the newest console, or I don’t have the need to create an artificial loop of, “Here’s a new console every two years,” in order to get you to go buy.
The reason I hesitate to say yes to your question in terms of the future is, I don’t know what the next thing is past Scorpio right now... I’m not trying to turn consoles into the graphics card market where every so often Nvidia or AMD come out with a new card, and if I want a little bit more performance I’m going to go buy that new card. I think for consoles it’s different. I think you have to hit a spec that actually means something in an ecosystem of televisions and games.
One of the reasons that people choose consoles over PC is because they don’t like that feeling of missing out on the best possible version on their platform. Is there a danger that you’re introducing that into the console space with Xbox Scorpio?
The best-looking version of Battlefield is going to be PC. Somebody’s going to be able to throw enough hardware at Battlefield to get it to outperform what any of the consoles on the market are going to do. I guess you could say, as a console person, that you feel like you don’t get to play the best version of Battlefield so somehow you’re disappointed.
I would say at the broadest sense that I don’t think most of the console players think about it that way. It’s just, “I get to play Battlefield. It’s fun and I’m having a good time playing it on my television.”
Just to be clear, if you really wanted the best version, you’re going to need something beyond the resolution and refresh rate of your TV. This is why for us, with Xbox Play Anywhere – to flip it back in a skilled PR way to something that’s about us [laughs] – we’re saying, “You should play the game where you want to, and you don’t have to buy it twice.”
Take Gears of War, because I’ve seen Gears of War on a high-end PC rig and it’s crazy. I’ve also seen it in HDR on Xbox One S and it looks amazing on my television. I don’t have to go buy it twice, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on something, I just get to choose where I want to play it. I can play with my same friends whether they’re on PC or Xbox and I don’t have to buy the game twice. My controller can work in both scenarios; I can play keyboard and mouse on PC if I want to.
I understand the feeling of, “I miss out because there’s somebody else that can play at a higher resolution,” but I’m not sure the common player out there has less fun because of that. I hope not.
Microsoft is fairly selective about the technologies it backs. It didn’t jump into the 3D television trend quite astutely, but you’re embracing 4K and HDR wholeheartedly. Is that truly the next big leap in video gaming technology?
Big leap is an interesting one... I’ve been around Xbox since the original Xbox and I remember the shift from SD to HD. I remember seeing Gears of War 1, which for us was the first game that I saw on pre-release 360 hardware, and I went, “Wow, that just looks like something new...” The first time you saw a sporting event on live TV in HD, you went, “Okay, that is something different.”
One of the challenges for the generation we’re in now is the jump from 360 to Xbox One, or frankly PS3 to PS4, is visible on screen but not at that same level. It’s not a 2D to 3D transition or an SD to HD transition. You have to be closer to understanding the content and appreciating the content, because those late-gen 360 games look pretty good.
When I see 4K games, they look demonstrably better, but it’s not the same difference that we saw from SD to HD, or from 2D to 3D when gaming went that direction. HDR is the same way: I love the way movies and games look in HDR, but I don’t think it’s that same transformative thing that we saw with [earlier leaps].
Head on over to Page 2 to read about Spencer's thoughts on Oculus and the strength of Xbox's exclusives.
The difference in the results isn’t as noticeable as the last generational shift, but the hardware grunt in Scorpio is a significant leap. Can you guarantee that in three or four years from now there won’t be games that only run on Scorpio and not on the Xbox One?
It’s not our plan, honestly. Our plan is that Scorpio is part of the Xbox One family and that the games will run on both systems.
I know from a pure console perspective I hear, “Hey, you’re going to drag Scorpio down by making devs continue to support the Xbox One.” But anyone that has played PC games knows that PCs have a minimum spec, a recommended spec and an unbounded spec. And I don’t think anybody says, “Wow, Battlefield at the top-end is somehow held back by its ability to support [low-end PCs].” Devs know how to build scalable games. They already do.
The only teams that only build games for Xbox One are first-parties. Everybody else has a PS4 spec which is sometimes – definitely from an architectural standpoint – different than an Xbox One spec, and probably multiple PC specs. So when we designed Scorpio we said, “Let’s go pick a point on the PC spectrum that we see people targeting already.”
4K on PC is usually a design point for a studio. They’ll say, “We’re going to have 4K versions of our assets; we’re going to make sure we can support a native 4K frame buffer.” [So we said], “Let’s create a console that hits that design point.”
We’re not trying to create a new design point for developers that are already supporting multiple design points out there. The fact that you also support Xbox One when you support Scorpio is really not that different to having a recommended spec and unbounded spec in the PC space.
This implies that Xbox One and Xbox Scorpio share similar architecture...
There is definitely work involved with that promise of your Xbox One games running on Scorpio. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s free. There is technical work that had to happen before we could actually make that promise on stage at E3, because I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. And frankly, we had to work with our partners and say, “Here’s what we’re going to need in order to make this something that we support.”
At E3 you announced two consoles on stage – the Xbox One S and the Scorpio. It was admirable from a consumer perspective, but did you perhaps cost yourself sales of Xbox One and Xbox One S by doing that?
It doesn’t seem like it, because we’re seeing a tremendous response to Xbox One S right now, even in markets where we’ve been behind this generation... Clearly there was a lot of commotion after that reveal, that we just killed Xbox One S by announcing Scorpio. I say by looking at what’s going on in the market now, if anything the opposite is true.
People said, “Well, is Microsoft reeling in Xbox One?” Or, “Maybe Xbox hasn’t done as everybody was hoping – is there some question about their long-term commitment?”
I think the fact that we stood on stage and announced two consoles shows that we are long-term committed to gaming and that this team is designing a product that really hopefully meets a customer demand. I’ll just say it again: the response to the S in Australia, the U.S. and Europe has been incredibly strong.
I think there have been some news articles that have come our recently about the sales success we’ve had, which has been great.
You recently stopped reporting Xbox One unit sales. Now that you’re doing a bit better, are you going to start mentioning figures again?
No. On Xbox One S, we’re only a month into it. I think a lot of people looked at the week that PlayStation 4 Slim launched and said, “What’s going to happen with S?” That’s why I’m seeing news articles of people tracking that. It’s not stuff that we’ve officially announced.
I really think the health of our business is how many people are playing games and connecting to Xbox Live. I fundamentally believe that, and I know I’ll get a lot of push back from people who say, “If you were winning, you’d be touting your 2:1 lead over PlayStation every time you had a chance.” But I just absolutely, fundamentally believe that the health of our business is how many people are playing games.
If I was only set on selling as many consoles as we could, I wouldn’t put our games on Windows and I wouldn’t move Xbox Live to Windows. I’d take Minecraft off every other platform it’s on and only put it on our console – that would totally matter. But that’s not what’s driving us.
The reason I don’t want to get caught in this loop of console numbers is because it’s actually in some ways against the strategy we’re on. If I get the commentary around something that’s not what’s driving our business strategy, then I end up having this other thing that we end up talking about.
We’re trying to drive as many people to play games as possible, connecting them with Xbox Live across all the devices we’re on. We just launched Xbox Live on iOS and Android. You’d never do that if it was all about trying to get people to your console.
You have an established relationship with Oculus and Palmer Luckey. How do the recent revelations that he personally funded racist propaganda in support of Donald Trump affect that relationship?
On the political side with Palmer, I don’t really have much to comment. Not to duck it, I honestly read the same things you read, but I actually don’t know Palmer that well. I’ve met him maybe twice, so I don’t have much to say about that.
Just to be clear on our partnership with Oculus: they license our controller to bundle with their head-mounted display. That’s what we did. And we happen to ship Minecraft on Gear VR and Oculus.
At a working level, we’re as invested in making sure that all the Windows head-mounted displays work. We’re working with Valve and HTC to make sure that device works, too.
I really see the open platform of Windows as a great place for VR development right now. Anyone can do it. You and I could start creating a VR game right now: we buy a compiler, you go use Photoshop and we can go build a game.
I think that’s what VR needs right now – it just needs a lot of people building experiences for it. We’ve yet to find the magic experiences, in my opinion, that are really going to make VR go mainstream.
The first Xbox saw the introduction of the Halo and Forza franchises. The 360 saw Gears of War join that top tier. Do you think the Xbox One generation has managed to add another iconic series to the line-up?
It’s interesting when we think back. This will sound totally random at first, but we just announced that Lost Odyssey is on backward compatibility on Xbox One. There are certain games that become iconic, not necessarily because of how many units they sell, but because of the culture that gets created, and with Lost Odyssey that’s a badge of honour. I love that game – I thought it was a great game on 360.
The reason I say all this is, on Xbox One, I look at ReCore and I’m having a really good time with it. I wish the review scores were higher, but I love the lead character and I love the gameplay. And you can see that, some years from now, people will want to play another version of it because the memories that they have – even though it wasn’t a 95-rated game – stick with them and they mean something over time.
I always chuckle a little bit when people come up to me and say, “Hey, I want Ryse 2!” When Ryse was a launch game for Xbox One it ran into some review headwinds. Now when people think back it’s like, “Okay, there’s something there.”
I do think we’ve probably seen things launch on the Xbox One that we will want a sequel to, which will become – I don’t know about as iconic as Halo and Gears because both franchises are massive – things that are long-term for us.
To pivot forward, I look at something like Sea of Thieves from Rare, and I see something that has – from an internal studio with a great pedigree – them investing and inventing something new that’s getting amazing reactions every time we show it. I think it’s the mix of new things that we’re building and some of the existing IP in our portfolio that’ll be important.
You took over the top job at Xbox in 2014 during a tumultuous period: Don Mattrick had left the company following the poorly received launch of the Xbox One. Are you satisfied with your legacy thus far?
My legacy? I don’t really think about it that way. It wasn’t actually something where I created a career plan that said, “Someday I need to become the head of Xbox.”
I don’t know if this is a great thing to say publicly, but the thing that’s most important to me is the team that I work with and them feeling empowered to do their best work.
Obviously we put the customer at the center of everything we do. That’s absolutely true, but to me, doing that means taking this incredibly talented group of people and making sure that they feel like they have the cover to take risk – that they have the resources to deliver their best.
I don’t know if my legacy plays out publicly. I think about it in terms of me getting to work with some good people that feel like they can do their best. I think we’re on a journey there, and I definitely don’t think I’m done. Every time we sit in a car or plane, we always talk about, “Well, this could be easier, that could be easier, we can do more here.”
The teams are great at giving me feedback about stuff that I can go off and help, because the work happens not at the figurehead level: the work happens at the real work level. And I don’t know if that legacy will mean anything publicly. I will say that walking out on stage at E3 and having the fans cheering is uncomfortable for me because I know how little I actually do [laughs].
The thing I’m most proud of in that Scorpio video we unveiled at E3 is, outside of Patrick [Söderlundand] and Todd [Howard], every person in it is a member of our team, and that’s them representing their product and their pride. If that’s my legacy, that we ship some great games and people had fun and they had a console they loved, then I’ll definitely be satisfied.