“I’d love to see Mario on Xbox,” enthuses an excitable and thoughtful Phil Spencer, head of Xbox for Microsoft. We had the chance to speak to the man, who makes a lot of the decisions around what is intended to engage you and
maintain business growth around the Xbox brand, while he was in Australia recently, alongside one of his Xbox cohorts, Aaron Greenberg, who we spoke to earlier. Both of them don’t shy away from the Nintendo on Xbox question, regardless of how far-fetched it might seem.
“If your question is if Nintendo gave us all of their franchises and asked us to put them on Xbox One… it would be a very interesting conversation,” Greenberg says with a wry smile.
We’re asking the question because Mario and Pokemon have now found their way into the mobile space, on non-Nintendo hardware. The Wii U hasn’t come close to replicating the early success of the Wii, and punters are demanding more Nintendo, more often. But it’s something the company simply never delivers on. Even the heavily hyped The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild -- an intended launch title for the recently unveiled Nintendo Switch -- has been allegedly delayed. Of course, we want that
Nintendo quality when it comes to their beloved franchises, so we wait, but it’s almost an abusive relationship at this point, and given Nintendo’s shaky history with Sony, if
they were to ever “do a SEGA”, Microsoft would surely be the partner of choice.
“As someone who’s been in this industry and played games forever, I’ll still say it: Nintendo has the strongest first-party of anybody,” Phil adds with no filter, making the PRs around him squirm in their seats a little. “They’re just fantastic and the memories that they have instilled in so many of us, who’ve played their games and had those delightful experiences... having those on Xbox would be great. Obviously we have Minecraft on Nintendo and when that opportunity came up to work with them, you know, some people might look at it and say “why would you even do that?”, but with Nintendo, it’s been a great partnership on [Minecraft].
“In fact they put Mario in Minecraft on Wii U with the mash-up skin pack,” he adds. “And continuing to work with them on that and building a stronger relationship… I mean if that paid dividends down the road that led to something else, that would be fantastic. I know I get questions all the time on would I ever like to see Banjo in Super Smash Bros. and I’m, like, “yes, I would do that in a second”. And certain people think I’m saying that as some sort of PR answer and I’m, like, “why wouldn’t you?”.”
Our concern for Nintendo aside, the question is also raised because ReCore is a very Nintendo-like experience and we’ve been talking about the budget release with Phil. Obviously at its core
is design from industry legends Keiji Inafune (Mega Man, Dead Rising) and Mark Pacini (Metroid Prime series), and playing it reveals how detached the Triple-A design process has become to those classic, timeless principles. It’s almost alarming in a way, and it’s something Phil agrees with.
“ReCore is one of those games that makes me remember why I fell into gaming in the first place,” he says fondly. “Joule is a great lead character [and] I think the series doesn’t take itself too seriously, you know, it’s how gaming started, right? And this is going to seem like the weirdest transition, but it’s similar to how I actually feel about Gears [of War]. With Gears, people can kind of look at it on the outside and think it’s a very serious game, but those of us who’ve played through the game
realise that it kind of makes fun of itself at many points, but then you actually get to these really high-tension points in the game where there is real emotion and I think it does a nice job playing off of that, and I think ReCore does the same thing.”
It’s been a good year for Microsoft. The Xbox One platform has been enjoying a number of first and third-party exclusives and the launch of Xbox One S was met with more optimism than derision. Moreover, the idea that we’ll be playing games with HDR moving forward is a huge plus as more and more people adopt up-to-date TVs and screens. PlayStation 4 Pro obviously ushers in HDR and
native 4K on particular games like the mouth-frothing Horizon: Zero Dawn, while Xbox One S is still ‘technically’ confined to 4K Blu-ray and streaming only, but Microsoft has performed hardware miracles in the past such as the once thought impossible backwards compatibility program, so it might be premature to assume there won’t be 4K games running on Xbox One S between now and Project Scorpio.
The Xbox One Game Preview program has also been a huge plus for the platform, with games like Unreal Worlds’ Subnautica
and CD Projekt RED’s Gwent
sharing between both PC and console. It’s also something Sony doesn’t have, allowing Microsoft to gain a content edge over their key rival in the space.
“Obviously Greenlight is out there on Steam and it’s something we looked at a lot as we tried to build out this program,” Phil reveals. “You know, there are other things that are specific to console that might kind of modify how things work, [so] we’re probably not going to see a thousand games sitting in Games Preview -- not because we’re limiting it, but just because I think the console audience, given it’s on your TV and there’s a certain expectation about reliability and other things with games, limits that. For us then on the platform side, you might be aware that over the past few years we’ve upped the amount of feedback you can give us about what’s going on on Xbox, both through web and on console, and people can be in Preview Program on the console and give us a lot of feedback. And this was kind of in our thinking in that we can extend the Platform Preview Program we have to games, while at the same time looking at things like Steam’s Greenlight and then trying to bring that together.”
I can see the PRs squirming again, because in a perfect world, everything is innovated in-house, right? But this is one of Phil Spencer’s strengths -- he’s just so passionate about games; about making them and getting them into people’s hands, and about acknowledging innovation and where it stems from, that he can’t filter that passion away for the sake of a company line. Likely though, Microsoft enjoys this part of his character -- they might not have outwardly said that the Wii’s controllers directly influenced their Kinect R&D, but if you asked Phil he’d probably tell you straight up that it was a launching point, for sure. And so acknowledging Steam’s Early Access and Greenlight programs as the genesis for Game Preview is a fair point. But it’s the Microsoft iteration on those adoptions that is starting to help the Xbox and Windows brands emerge as reliable, forward-thinking platforms. From Preview to Play Anywhere to Cross-Platform -- there’s a genuine sense of growth about the business, with players reaping all the rewards.
“I think what you’re hitting on -- at least for us -- is that we’ve tried to take an eco approach to how we think about iterating,” Aaron says when we ask about Microsoft’s current build-to-release setup. “And then also, [our] focus, first, is putting this gamer (you) at the centre of everything we do. And if we make our decisions based on that [then] we want as many people as possible to play our games. And so being able to bring big franchises to both the console and the PC gamer is a big opportunity [for that]. And we could have just stopped there, but we wanted to be able to allow Cross-Platform Play, Shared Progress Saves, Achievements -- all that stuff -- linking together.
“But then, you know, we started to get into the business elements of it and you realise “wait a minute, today people who’re playing games on console and PC -- they charge for those games twice”,” he adds. “And so if you want to play your one game on both console and PC, you know, most gamers don’t just play on one device, and so for us to be able to enable that [single purchase] made sense. We think it’s a gamer-centric kind of approach. At the same time being able to innovate with Project Scorpio means we’re [also] gonna innovate with hardware [and] traditionally in the console space, when you brought a whole new set of functionality to the console you would sacrifice compatibility, but we’re saying your games, your accessories -- they’re all going to be forward-compatible with Project Scorpio. So whether you bought something when Xbox One originally launched or you’re just buying one now, that compatibility will be there.”
That last point is both telling, and a little PR in its delivery. It stems from us asking both big Xbox heads if they were concerned about oversaturation where hardware is concerned. Specifically, we’ll have gone from Xbox One to Xbox One S to Project Scorpio in the space of just four years, in what was being touted as a 10-year console lifecycle plan, in the early rumblings of both the PS4 and Xbox One. Clearly we’ve seen some major advances in graphics cards and basic CPU performance recently, especially centred around top-end VR, and Sony has had the power-edge the whole time between Xbox One and PS4, so there’s at least plausible justification for wanting to gain both the power advantage and to remain relevant, but there’s also the basic cost to the consumer to equally remain relevant. So there’s also value in the idea of everything being forward-compatible and therefore not entirely essential for everyone.
“With Scorpio, we started with just seeing the growth in 4K,” Phil reveals. “Whether it was for video content, 4K on PC which, you know, you’ll look at PC players and they want a device that can support 4K on a 4K screen and/or they want higher frame-rates, and all those things. So we looked at all of this and talked about what console we needed to build to be able to support all of this, and then we saw what was going on in VR in the PC space, and we’re working with HTC; we’re working with Oculus to make sure those devices run well on Windows. So we see that and we say “we’ve got the capability of also building a console that has an important device, hits an important performance spec for VR, so let’s make sure we’re taking that into account when we’re closing on what the Scorpio spec is”. In terms of how much of the business [VR] is going forward, honestly, I don’t know. Like, I’m using all of the devices now and I’m liking the experiences, but I’m finding them more ‘demoey’ than anything else.”
“I think what you’re going to see is for the first time ever in the console space we’re going to get true 4K games,” says Greenberg. “And as we’ve seen with people who have super high-end PCs, the visual fidelity; the immersiveness of these worlds, you know, graphically can be pretty incredible. But at the same time, more performance means people get to do other things, too. And so we’ve put that into the hands of the developers and it’ll be exciting to see what they create but being able to have that ‘runway’ and being able to work with them so far in advance… I think gamers are going to be really, really pleased with what comes out [of Project Scorpio].”
The interesting part of this dual discussion is on this concept of basic power -- not VR-specific power, which we think might have been a misconstrued byproduct of Scorpio’s initial reveal, given the strength of “VR-ready” rigs at the time and Sony’s own unveiling of PSVR -- after all, Microsoft was touting HoloLens while the rest of the world was trumpeting VR.
“HoloLens, from a long-term business perspective, still remains… well ‘mixed-reality’ is still the end goal here,” Phil says revealingly. “A device that can go from fully opaque like we see in current VR to overlaying information in the real-world -- I fundamentally believe that’s where we’re going. I’ll also add ‘untethered’ is where we’re going. Like, the fact we’re all going to walk around… I mean, you’ve played all of these right? With cords hanging off the back of your head? It’s cool, I have a Vive, I have an Oculus, I’ll get a PlayStation VR, but the setup is for some specific tech enthusiasts -- it’s just not a normal thing to shield myself from the world with a cord hanging off the back of my head and play games. I think it has to evolve, and I love the evolution that is going to happen.
“So, I still see a mixed-reality device similar to HoloLens as the final destination,” he says. “And everything we’re doing in the interim are all great learning opportunities for the industry.”
The truth is, there really aren’t a lot of gaming experiences you can completely acknowledge as groundbreaking, from strictly a VR sense. To Phil’s point earlier, a lot of ‘games’ simply feel like demos at this point. In fact, the only games we’ve come across for VR that feel entirely catered to that specific platform are the brilliant Headmaster for PlayStation VR and Batman: Arkham VR. But really, both of those games -- immersive as they are -- are absolutely hamstrung by the tethered limitation of modern VR, again, to Phil’s point. So, the reality is, we’re still some way away from that unplugged, “mixed-reality” experience, however, this realisation gives us hope for Project Scorpio in that the new console won’t pitch its tent around the VR pole as its sole purpose.
“The [development] investment in [the experiences] is going to be year-on-year, but I don’t think I’m going to find the Super Mario 64 of VR tomorrow,” Phil says in conclusion of our VR discussion. “But we might [soon], I’m just kind of watching and it takes creators a while to understand a new medium and to kind of figure out what the design language is, and so many of these are kind of ports of what I did on a 2D screen into 3D, and they’re accessible because as a player I know what to go and do, but I don’t think that’s going to be the magic of VR. But you asked me how much of a business directive it is for us in order for Scorpio to take off and I don’t bake it into that at all. But if it does [take off] and that’s what gamers want to do, I want to make sure we have a console that can support it.”
“[And], whether it’s our internal studios or third-party partners, a lot of them are already making games in 4K on the PC side, so it’s not a big leap for them to think about “how do I bring these true 4K games to the console space?”,” Aaron says about the other major development factor behind Scorpio, as discussed earlier -- true 4K gaming on a console. “So there’s a lot of content already to work with. But at this point it’s way too premature to say anything about content or partnerships or anything like that, but I think the ability to have that amount of power in a console -- to bring 4K gaming at scale, with a really big audience in the console space, is something we’re really excited about. We’re very deliberate about what we’re building, how we’re building it; what the specs of that product will be.
“The response from developers we’ve spoken to has been overwhelmingly positive, also,” Greenberg adds. “People were really, really excited about the specs and the performance, and in particular for the console space. You know, you saw in the video we released at E3, folks like Todd Howard from Bethesda, Patrick Bach from DICE, they were talking about how excited they were for Project Scorpio, and so the development reaction has been really positive. You know, a lot of these developers want to be on the cutting edge, they want to create stuff that’s in their mind that maybe they didn’t have the [technical] capabilities to before, and so giving them more power and more capability to do that I think is very good.”
“When you talk to me about Scorpio, the term I use about the architecture isn’t the six teraflops which is obviously what we’ve announced, it’s balance,” Phil concludes. “Really what it is, is you want a platform that is balanced between memory bandwidth, GPU power, you know, your ability to move memory and [an] amount of memory around in many ways is more inhibiting to the performance of your game than absolute teraflops on any one of the individual pieces, and when we designed Scorpio we really thought about this balanced rig that could come together at a price-point. Like, I want Scorpio to be at a console price-point, I’m not trying to go and compete with a high-end rig. And because we’re building one spec, we’re able to look at the balance between all the components and make sure that it’s something we really hit that matters to consumers and gamers.”
Gaming is in a very good, albeit Moore’s Law, space right now. Curation of content is at its refined best with the basic quality we’re seeing across mobile, console and PC of games being very high, while ventures such as VR, 4K gaming (on console), HoloLens and that “mixed-reality” Holy Grail are driving us into new and inspired areas. Competition is good, and with Sony’s intimidating list of exclusives for next year and the PlayStation 4 Pro and PSVR burning the consumer candle ahead of Project Scorpio -- along with that Dark Horse Nintendo Switch looming as a potential mobile game-changer, well, you wouldn’t want to be in any other medium, really. But to play to Phil’s final comment about architecture balance, it’s in balancing
all of this that we, the consumer, will emerge as clear winners.