Today at the GeekWire Summit, Todd Bishop interviewed Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox at Microsoft. Spencer talked about a range of issues concerning the past and future of Xbox One. Hot topics included the Xbox One vs. PlayStation competition, Minecraft, the rise of esports, Halo 5, and the Hololens.
How Customers Feel About Xbox One
Xbox One had a difficult launch. Customers were upset about a number of features of the new console—including the idea that Xbox One would not accommodate playing used games—which was a false perception. “Xbox One has always played used games,” said Spencer. “But the perception gets set early on.”
Spencer said that Xbox’s most loyal fans came to them “almost in tears” because they thought the direction of the product didn’t include them.
Then, earlier this year at E3, Microsoft pleased gamers to no end when they announced that gamers would be able to play Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One. “More than the actual feature of backwards compatibility…was the sentiment that we were listening to what the customer wanted,” said Spencer. “It was a great moment.”
It was also a great moment for Spencer’s team. Although the PlayStation 4 has outsold the Xbox One every quarter since launch, market share is not as important to Spencer as serving the customer and having a viable business. “We’re not motivated by beating Sony, we’re motivated by pleasing as many customers as we can.”
How Will Minecraft Evolve?
Microsoft bought Minecraft last year, and Spencer said Minecraft is a great opportunity for Microsoft. But, he said, “I’m not sure you own Minecraft.” It’s very much driven by the community that already exists.
Where Microsoft sees opportunity is in the ability to make all the different Minecraft platforms work together, so that Minecraft creations on the computer can also be accessed on mobile devices, for example.
Microsoft also sees an opportunity to help the mod-creating community and to beef up the education aspects of the game. “As Microsoft, we can accelerate,” said Spencer.
How big are esports going to get? Spencer said esports is a “great opportunity for gaming.”
But the big news is about Microsoft plan to make new games. Not only will esports will be a big thing for current Microsoft games like Halo and Killer Instinct, but Xbox will someday have new games designed specifically for esports. “I want to have the content that can light that up.”
“Halo is Xbox,” said Spencer of the long-lived franchise. Halo 5: Guardians is the next game in the series, and it’s due to come out October 27. It will be the first full Halo game for the Xbox One. Spencer says that Bonnie Ross’s team at 343 Studios has gone back to the core of the series to build a “true next gen experience,” which will run at 60 frames-per-second all the way through. This is “amazing” for a game like Halo, Spencer said.
The release of Halo 5 is, “as much an entertainment event as a game event.”
He also shed some light on the rumors of a Halo movie. “Others before me were probably more interested in a movie than I am,” said Spencer. “Halo has a unique place in the gaming industry. It’s one of those games that has a rich story to be told. Telling it in a linear fashion makes sense, but first and foremost it’s a game franchise. It’s too precious to ever exploit in a way that would damage the franchise.”
He acknowledged that the 343 team and Bonnie Ross are still excited about the prospect of a film or television series, but he made it clear that the games came first. With Halo 5, he promised that 343 had “really buffed out the story,” and that it will reinvigorate interest in the Xbox One.
“There’s a lot of rocket science in this device,” Spencer said of Microsoft’s upcoming augmented reality headset. That’s probably a deliberate exaggeration, but Spencer seems very excited and optimistic about the future of AR—especially where it interacts with virtual reality.
“I’ve lived through some of the years where maybe a project this risky wouldn’t have been seen all the way through,” Spencer said frankly. “I think you’ll see VR and AR coming together. The ability to put real-world holograms, real-world 3D assets into mixed reality so you can stay connected with people around you, I think it’s going to unlock huge potential.”
Spencer didn’t give away much about the future of gaming when it comes to HoloLens, but indicated that they have creators working on different ideas. Minecraft may have turned out to be positioned as the killer app for HoloLens, but Spencer said that wasn’t planned when Microsoft acquired Minecraft, but instead seemed like a “natural fit.”
“The ability to play with the world around me and stay connected with the people and the places around me really opens up a lot of opportunities for us,” Spencer said. “I want to give gamers choice, and a device like the HoloLens gives gamers a choice whether they want to be in the real world or the virtual world.”
Microsoft has worked to make sure that VR devices like Oculus and the HTC Vive will be compatible with Windows. Spencer doesn’t see this as an area where businesses need to be highly competitive at the moment; since it’s a nascent industry, it’s “too early” to be fighting over market share. “It’s really about the opportunity in front of us and learning from each other, because there’s a lot of learning that we can do.”