Phil Spencer, head of Xbox at Microsoft, says that his company’s push into Windows 10 gaming isn’t coming at the detriment of the Xbox One video game console. Rather, moving titles such as Remedy’s upcoming Quantum Break to run on both Windows and Xbox is good for the gamer, Spencer said at a recent Xbox spring showcase event.
Sony has sold more PlayStation 4s in the console war, with about 36 million sold versus Microsoft’s 19 million Xbox Ones. But Spencer says that’s a more limited view of the competition, considering Microsoft’s presence on Windows 10 computers and mobile devices. If you look at it more expansively, Microsoft has more than 48 million monthly active users on Xbox Live (as of the fourth quarter), a figure that is up 30 percent from a year ago.
In contrast to past years, Microsoft isn’t favoring one platform over the other. More Xbox titles are in development than ever before, Spencer said, even as the Windows 10 push gathers force.
“This team inside Microsoft is the gaming team,” Spencer said in his introductory remarks. “It is 100 percent committed to the success of every platform our gamers want to play on. The gamer is at the center of every decision we make.”
Spencer is focused on the universal Windows platform, which allows apps to run on Windows 10 or the Xbox One game console.
“This allows us to decouple the software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs,” Spencer said.
We caught up with Spencer at the company’s Xbox spring showcase event in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. (See our preview of Quantum Break here and our video captures here).
GamesBeat: I imagine that Quantum Break is one of your biggest projects for Xbox. What sold you guys on the idea originally?
Phil Spencer: You’re the second person who’s asked me that. The other person asked more bluntly, “Why would you re-up with Remedy after they took so long doing Alan Wake?” The first time you work with a studio is always the most challenging. You’re learning each other. We worked with them on Alan Wake and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare and learned a lot about our relationship. We built a very strong relationship.
I have a ton of confidence in [Remedy creative director] Sam Lake and that team’s creative capability. There’s something about Remedy that’s very unique in the industry as far as what they like to do and the way they tell stories. As a first party, when they pitched us the idea of live action with games, I thought first parties should be investing in things that are uniquely challenging, that can be fraught with issues. We’re best positioned to try those things. And the pitch made sense at the time.
GamesBeat: Was the story fairly complete back then? Having to do 40 versions of this TV show, I can imagine that takes a long time.
Spencer: The story was fairly complete in fact. To be honest, our ideas around how you were going to get the show in the game — even if you watched our messaging, it kind of evolved over time. Would you be able to get the show as a stand-alone? Do we put that on Xbox Live as a download and then the game is something else? We’d always talk about how, no, it’s going to be more cohesive than that. Maybe we didn’t know the exact way it was going to be cohesive, but we knew that.
I like where we’ve landed as far as the point of view the live action gives you and your ability to influence the live action with the decisions you make in the game, the replayability that creates. One of the things about Quantum Break, you don’t see a lot of single-player narrative triple-A games anymore. The used market and everything else chews those up. Replayability is important. It’s a genre that hasn’t quite been left behind, but it’s more challenging. Tomb Raider is another one, a game that doesn’t have a big multiplayer component. They have to think about reasons why you keep the disc in the tray so to speak.
GamesBeat: How were some of those decisions made as far as style goes?
Spencer: Style is a good question. In the end, decisions about style reside in the studio. I always want it to be that way. Sunset Overdrive is a very stylized game. I’ll give feedback and teams will get feedback around how we respond to the style as someone who doesn’t necessarily live with it every day because we don’t work in the studio.
In Quantum’s case … if you play through the whole game, you’ll get a sense of what they’re alluding to about time being broken and people being close to time. But the stylistic decisions that teams make are driven by those teams. The creator has an internal vision of what they want to build. Creativity by committee is probably not a recipe for success.
GamesBeat: Quantum Break looks like it helps your platform, but I also feel like at this point, exclusives are only really part of the picture. There are all kinds of other things that matter now as far as who sells the most consoles.
Spencer: When we invest in an exclusive, either a first-party team or an independent studio like Remedy, I want to make sure we’re doing something that’s unique and stands out. It makes no sense for us to try to compete with the third parties on our platform. We have a financial relationship with those games on our platform already. Why would we try to erode that? And in a limited capacity, you want to go do something that’s new.
It’s different from just saying, “How many consoles does Quantum Break sell?” I think about the brand impression you get from our platform by looking at the games that you can play on the platform. I’m very proud of Quantum in the same way I’m proud of Ori and the Blind Forest and what that means for our platform. All these create a brand perception and reality for gamers as they look at your platform.
I spend zero time on, “Hey, what game can I build that a PlayStation fan can’t play?” That’s not part of what motivates us. The core of console fans will have both. It’s not about keeping somebody from buying another platform. For us, it’s about having things on our platform that people want to play, want to use, and want to engage with on our service.
GamesBeat: I’d agree with the comment that monthly active users is what any modern game company really should care about, especially if you’re crossing platforms.
Spencer: Even if you’re a single platform. It’s funny. You’re closer to the business aspect of console. The person who goes and buys five Xbox Ones for their house and buys one copy of every game and has one Live subscription is not a great customer for us, right? The hardware is not the fuel of the business. In that case, from an installed base standpoint, I’ve sold five consoles — look at me — but if they’re only engaging one person, I’m not saying that’s a likely scenario. But focusing on how often people use your platform and your service and how engaged they are — how many games they own, how many friends they have, like I said, any modern service focuses on those. It’s a much better way of gauging success.
Even if Xbox Live was only on Xbox One, if somebody buys an Xbox One to play one game and then they put it away, that’s not a great sale for me. It doesn’t help my development partners. They want more engaged customers because that’s who they can sell games to.
GamesBeat: When Activision bought King they talked about having 500 million users.
Spencer: Look at Minecraft. The engagement on Minecraft, even more than how many units it’s sold life to date. The engagement on those properties is the thing you’re looking at.
GamesBeat: I’d still appreciate a little transparency on how many consoles you’ve sold. It’s additive information for me.
Spencer: Sure. I understand. I don’t mean this in a flippant way. If we shared the full [profit and loss] of what the console looks like … the thing I try to get away from is this idea that in order for us to succeed, Sony has to lose. You’ve mentioned console wars. I don’t believe in that. I believe that gaming and gamers are a very engaged, very deep audience. That’s why we love them on Windows and on console both. To try to say, “Hey, somebody’s only going to play on one console, so if somebody else sells a console you don’t,” this idea that there’s a win-lose in the console space, I don’t think that reflects the realities of the business.
GamesBeat: The flame wars on the Internet seem to suggest that console wars still grab the attention of players, though. That’s why they care that Quantum Break is also on the PC.
Spencer: What I find, when I engage with the community — which I do pretty directly — is that the concern around something like Quantum Break is about our focus on Xbox One. Are we, as Microsoft, losing focus on console and trying to move elsewhere? Is the next Xbox just going to be a Surface that has an HDMI port on the side?
What I was trying to say here is that the decisions and actions we’re making today set us up for future consoles in a much more strategic position than we’ve ever been. That has buy-in from the top down. [Microsoft CEO] Satya [Nadella] talks all the time about the Xbox One console. He said something yesterday [about it] in one of his speeches in Spain. He knows the engagement we have on that device, the content, the developer relationships. All of that is critical to our long-term success.
The console war thing, and I’ve said it before, I don’t have a lot of time for it. I don’t hate the guys at Sony. I don’t hate the guys at Naughty Dog. I hope Uncharted is a good game. I don’t see this as a zero-sum game between the two of us, or the three if you want. I’m looking forward to the [Nintendo] NX. The health of the overall gaming business is more important than any winner-loser tradeoff.
GamesBeat: Is one of the endgames getting people to play on Xbox One, Windows, and mobile — being that kind of gamer that plays across a bunch of platforms with Microsoft content?
Spencer: We want to have a service that reaches every device with Xbox Live. For specific games — I’ll use Minecraft because we happen to have it — Minecraft is a natural experience on mobile and console and PC. Being able to connect all of those Minecraft players together is something that makes a lot of sense to me.
I don’t think every game becomes a game that has to play on phone and PC and console. Clearly there are creative and technical differences. But I want our customer, our Xbox Live member, to feel like they’re at home on a phone, a PC, and our console. The experience for them in each one of those places should exceed their expectations.