interview

Microsoft's Shannon Loftis On The Xbox One X Future, Minecraft Exclusivity, And Scalebound

by David Milner on Oct 17, 2017 at 10:35 AM

The launch of the Xbox One X this holiday season is a crucial moment for Microsoft. Lagging behind the Sony PlayStation 4, the Xbox One never managed to escape its poorly received launch, clouded with mixed messages and unpopular policies that Microsoft has spent the last four years winding back. The Xbox One X – referred to as “the most powerful console ever made” in its marketing – is a chance for a clean break.

If it’s to be a success, Shannon Loftis will be one of the people most responsible. In her role as general manager of Microsoft’s Global Games Publishing, she partners with development studios and publishers across the world to bring their titles to Xbox. We caught up at Gamescom to talk about the cancellation of Scalebound, the Play Anywhere program, the impending launch of the Xbox One X, and if Microsoft has enough exclusives to stand tall with the competition.

Game Informer: You work closely with numerous studios. Is there a particular trend at the moment that developers are excited by? Looking towards the future, is there one thing that stands out to you?

Shannon Loftis: I think there are several things. First, and probably most obvious to me, is we started the raw distribution of the Xbox One X development kit, and the development community is just in love with these kits.

They have incredible features that are super developer-friendly. It’s got a programmable front plate so you can track debugging, track literally line by line through code on that front plate; it’s even got a software switch to move from One S to One X.

You can stack them if you don’t have very much room, and there’s extra memory so you can run a debugger at the same time, so it’s just a really friendly environment. So the uptake on things like game enhancements, people adding Dolby Atmos and more 4K textures, has been a lot faster than I would have thought.

So that’s one thing. And then the other is more and more I think we see developers thinking about games like digital hobbies: a game that has some sort of a mechanic that you can engage with deeply and at multiple levels, and then it allows you to self-express; it allows you to create things and maybe share your creations and even just capture great gameplay moments and share those.

It feels like more and more developers want to be part of a meta-social experience as well as whatever the games themselves are. We’re seeing quite a bit of that.

At Gamescom you announced more than 100 titles will be “enhanced” for Xbox One X. Is that mandatory for developers who want to publish on Xbox One, or is it entirely up to their own discretion?

It’s completely up to developer discretion. The truth is, the way that game development works, many developers will start with what’s called a vertical slice of their game. This is like an idealized super high-end version of what they’re trying to create – and then when you add more content and you add more game systems it becomes more complex and you end up having to simplify it sometimes.

And so floating around somewhere, most developers have higher resolution assets than the ones that they actually ship. So it turns out to be relatively straightforward to just turn that into a 4K rendering process, and we’ve definitely benefited from that.

But even developers that, for whatever reason, aren’t doing enhancements specifically for Xbox One X will see their games play and run better on this console just because it has so much power.

The One X is many times more powerful than the One S. Why did you tether it to the One S and not just start a new console cycle free from any lingering baggage?

We have a huge vibrant community on S and not everybody in gaming right now is ready to make that 4K leap. It can be quite expensive to buy the television. The prices have come down amazingly, but it still is a major investment. I haven’t convinced my own husband yet to let me buy one.

Surely it’s a tax write-off for you.

I haven’t investigated that angle, but it’s a good tip. We just want to honor the people that have been with us all along since we launched Xbox One.

The other thing is I think buying a game and knowing that there’s a promise that that game is just going to work in the future, and as we continue to evolve the console, that’s a great consumer value proposition.

The compatibility work that we’ve put in to bring 360 and now original Xbox forward into this generation has been incredibly well received, and if we architect the future correctly, we won’t have to do that custom work anymore. It will just happen.

Is there the danger that by tying the X to the S you’re holding developers back from what they want to do with this powerful new console?

I would say that we have yet to scratch the surface of unlocking what all the power of Xbox One S can do. We’ll see if we ever get to a point where we feel that it’s necessary to evolve console generations – and I don’t know if that point is ever going to come. We made a promise to gamers, and their capabilities are going to come forward with them and their content.

At E3 2016 you announced the Xbox Play Anywhere program. How do you think that’s impacted the Xbox brand? There does seem to be the perception in certain parts of the Internet that Xbox doesn’t have any exclusives anymore.

It’s interesting that you tie those two together. Xbox Play Anywhere is just a commitment that our major IPs are going to be available on both Windows 10 and on consoles, and that seems to be incredibly well-received by people.

I’ll tell you the truth: most of the time what we’re seeing is people buy a game on console, they’ll try it out on PC and maybe go back to console. Or they’ll buy it on PC, give it a shot on console, then go back to PC. By and large, I think just knowing that you’re safe no matter which device you want to enjoy that content on has been a net positive.

In terms of exclusives, I’ve heard that rumor and I’m a little bit confused because we have a really good line-up this holiday. We’ve got the most popular game on the planet in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – the Xbox console is going to be the only place where you can play that. We also have Forza Motorsports 7, which every single year reinvents the racing genre and basically owns racing in the video games industry.

We have Super Lucky’s Tale, which my team’s working on, and it just makes me happy – it’s a beautiful 3D platformer. And of course we have Cuphead, which is long-standing, beautiful, handcrafted IP.

Plus all of our previous exclusives are getting Xbox One X enhancements as well. And then into 2018 we’ve got Sea of Thieves, we have Crackdown 3, and State of Decay 2. I think it’s pretty good – there’s a huge amount of experiences for people to have.

Do you think this is a strong enough line-up to launch a console with?

I think it’s an incredibly strong line-up, especially when you take into account the fact that all of the 100 plus enhancements that we’ve already seen are free to gamers that already own the games, and the backward compatibility program, the continuing exclusives, and the fact that all the blockbusters, like Destiny and Star Wars Battlefront 2, are just going to run way better on Xbox One.

For more game-focused chat with Lofits, head to page two.

How close to being completed was Scalebound when the decision to cancel it was made?

We’re not really talking about the state of the game. It was an incredibly difficult decision to make to discontinue it. Platinum is an amazing, incredibly talented developer.

When we make game decisions, we ask ourselves: Is this the right game? Is it the right experience? Is it the right time? And unless we can answer yes to all three, we won’t continue on with a development cycle.

And you know, Platinum is obviously doing great. They came out with Nier: Automata, and I thought that was an incredible game, and I’m super excited to see what they do next.

Which of those three categories that you listed did Scalebound fail?

Yeah, that’s one of the things I’m not really talking about.

You purchased Minecraft in 2014 for 2.5 billion U.S. dollars. Is that game showing any signs of slowing down?

It’s incredible how Minecraft just continues to expand. One of the things that’s nice about it is that it’s ubiquitous, so you can play Minecraft on a Nintendo Switch, you can play it on a Sony PlayStation, or on your smartphone, and because I think it’s so ubiquitous, and it’s so infinite in its play variety, it doesn’t age.

What I’m particularly excited about is our expansion into education. We’ve recently launched a product called Minecraft Education Edition. We actually got to demonstrate it for Angela Merkel, which was really cool. That was a bucket list item.

It’s taking an organic grassroots movement – teachers were using Minecraft and creating lessons anyway – and then giving it a forum to then share lessons and pick up lessons from other teachers. I think that is an incredible expansion of the capabilities of the game.

This is probably a horribly cynical question, but why don’t you make Minecraft an Xbox exclusive?

Because Minecraft players don’t want that. Minecraft is a game that unites communities in a way that I think is very unique in the games industry, so we’re embracing it.

We just announced Rise of Nations, which is a game we released six years ago – it’s been on Steam for the last several years, and we just announced that we’re bringing it to Windows 10 and we’re actually supporting cross- network play between Steam and Xbox Live. So we’re experimenting with really bringing gamers into the family from everywhere.

Sony has 16 studios under its umbrella. After the recent closures of Lionhead and Ensemble, and the departure of Bungie and Twisted Pixel, Microsoft only appears to have seven. Has Microsoft invested enough in internal development talent to compete with PlayStation on the exclusives front?

My role is to work with partner studios. We refer to it as first-party development: Age of Empires is obviously our property and it’s a first-party effort, and Crackdown is a first-party development effort.

I can only speak from my perspective. My charter has actually expanded significantly in the last several years, so I am pursuing multiple markets, multiple platforms, with the Age of Empires and Rise of Nations work, and the sky’s the limit really... it’s sort of intentional for me to expand our partnership relationships, so I feel great about the output and productivity of our internal studios.

I mean, Minecraft is in a continuous innovation cycle, and Sea of Thieves I think is going to be a real scene-changer. When it comes to the general public across the board, Turn 10 I think is probably one of the best studios in the entire world, just in terms of continuously creating and recreating games that define the racing genre. I think we have a great amount of first-party output.

Remedy exclusively made Xbox games for 10 years, but recently Sam Lake revealed that his studio is now working on multi-platform games. What does that mean for Microsoft and Alan Wake and Quantum Break?

We have a great partnership with Remedy. I support any studio’s growth and change. I think this is an incredibly healthy thing for Remedy to do, and we still talk to them all the time. We have two really great products in the market with them with Quantum Break and Alan Wake.

We mentioned [at Gamescom] that Quantum Break is coming to Xbox One X with the 4K enhancement this holiday, and we continue to explore opportunities with Remedy and many other great developers.

We got Halo on the original Xbox and Gears of War with the Xbox 360 – do you think that you’ve added an iconic IP of that caliber in the Xbox One generation?

Wow, that’s a really interesting question. IPs in my observation seem to be developing a little bit differently this generation than they did in the previous generations.

In the previous generations, you had these massive blockbuster hits that a lot of the time were kind of telegraphed up front by the budget that was spent on them, and people would wait out in line to get the game
and everything.

But there’s just an incredible amount of content right now that moves through every single gaming ecosystem – whether it’s Steam, PlayStation, Apple – and it’s harder and harder for gamers to know where the quality is going to come from. So some of the biggest hits of today actually started really small. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a great example of a game that didn’t launch with a massive marketing campaign or anything like that.

And we have a few IPs that my team brought to the table over the last [generation] – I think Quantum Break is a really good example of a world and a phenomenon where there’s still a lot of story that we can tell.

Announcing ReCore: Definitive Edition was a little bit of a signal to people that got into the world of Far Eden and fell in love with these characters that we believe that that’s an IP with a lot of legs.

I think that the key to developing these IPs into something really special and something really monumental is sticking with them.

For more on Xbox One X, head here.