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Interview: Xbox 360's head honcho looks toward the future

1:00 PM on 06.29.2012 // Allistair Pinsof

Want more Halo sequels? Do you demand a Mass Effect Fitness game for Kinect? Did Call of Duty closing, instead of opening, Microsoft’s E3 press conference this year leave you confused and violated?

In any of the above cases, Phil Spencer is the man you want to talk to. His name might sound like a doctor’s, but he is actually the head of Microsoft Studios, which overlooks all the upcoming first-party games for Xbox 360.

Good luck talking to him, though. He works in Microsoft’s fortress of money and Steve Ballmer will tackle you before you ever reach Spencer’s office. Luckily, I got to sit down with Spencer at E3, rudely interrupting his intense Deadlight play session where I addressed the above concerns and other hot topics at E3 this year.

[Looking around the room] So what games do you have to play here?

Phil Spencer: We’re playing Deadlight! It’s a lot of fun. You ever played Shadow Complex?

My wish this year was that Shadow Complex 2 would be announced.

You should tell Epic that.

Now that we have some distance from your showing at the Microsoft press conference at E3, how do you think the reception went?

Well, I get a skewed view of it because I sit in on these interviews all day, so I get my impression from all these questions people ask. I thought the work the teams did to put their products on stage was great. Just from a visual-audio fidelity standpoint, it was a high-quality show. We are always walking this line between mature content and some more broad stuff which makes it an interesting dance. We are more show, less talk. We don’t want to hear ourselves. We want to show as many products as we can.

What kind of thought process do you have when putting together this show, trying to please the mainstream market as well as the Halo fans?

I think the Halo fans are mainstream. We sometimes try to classify core gamers as if they live on an island and just play core games all day.

I can attest that this is true!

[laughs] We all have phones and we do browse the web and watch TV. Our mission is to create unique entertainment properties for everybody, including Halo 4 fans, someone into Nike who wants to get more fit, and car enthusiasts that want to play Forza. I think there is an opportunity now that Microsoft sits as the #1 console globally. We can think about a real diverse set of products and know that the audience is on the platform.

People love to pick apart these press conferences online [cue audible sigh from Spencer]. There was a lot of debate over why Halo 4 opened and Call of Duty closed this year, since usually Call of Duty has opened. Is there a grand conspiracy at play?

[laughs] I’ve been asked this a couple times! I get it because I was on stage the last two years and I know what the order was. You and I would probably guess those two would open and close; you want to bookend the show with the two biggest games of the year and we are the only platform that has both those games. The order is more of a programming thing. I thought the live action Halo 4 clip was a really interesting thing to open E3. We talk a little about what is E3 and where it’s going, so it’s an interesting juxtaposition to start with something that isn’t a game but is related to a game. And I thought Call of Duty had a really strong showing.

In the past, Microsoft seemed pretty firm about Kinect being a hands-free experience. Now we are seeing games like Steel Battalion, Mass Effect 3, and Skyrim that are using the controller. Why the change of mind?

It’s never been a policy that you can’t have a controller and Kinect at the same time. From a first-party perspective, we challenged ourselves to create a Kinect-only game like Kinect Sports, Dance Central, and some others -- games that seemed to work and do incredibly well. I always thought that over time things like voice and intermittent gesture would be used in a more persistent way. But, I never thought people would stand up and play Mass Effect for 25 or 30 hours.

Hey, that can be your new Kinect fitness game right there!

[laughs] That’s right! It could be! Mass Effect Fitness!

But Splinter Cell showed, Madden showed, I thought FIFA was strong. I think you will see more Kinect-only games in the future. No one is questioning why Nike Fitness is there. It makes sense, right? But even with something like Wreckateer, I didn’t hear any questions about “Why is that a Kinect game?” “That shouldn’t have been a Kinect game!” People look at it and say, “Of course that is a Kinect game!”

For me, It was a real validation of Kinect this year that it showed up across so many different things that we didn’t have to create a Kinect section of the show to get attention. It’s just become part of our platform. With 19 million Kinects out there, it’s not hard for developers to look at it as a viable place to target.

Developing games for something as new as Kinect must be difficult. Have you seen developers take a stab at it and things not pan out? Any specific ideas that didn’t come to fruition?

Yeah, all of the time. 3D motion for someone standing in a room is still a challenge for Kinect. We’ve seen games where you move your shoulders or put a foot forward to move, while with a controller you just push the thumbstick forward.

There are certain things Kinect is really good at, like saying “Hey you!” in Splinter Cell and having AI characters turn around. It makes sense and it's better than pushing a button to whistle. It’s more immersive because it comes naturally. Standing in a room and trying to simulate a 3D environment is still an unsolved issue with Kinect that creators are still trying to work at.

I guess the other big talking point of the press conference was SmartGlass. I assume game developers are going to use this to some extent, right?

In a lot of ways our announcement of SmartGlass is a developer announcement. We put some concept videos on stage to show some things we’ve been thinking about and we have some things in development that will come this year. We are launching something into the ecosystem, like Kinect, where people will try some things at launch, but it will evolve over the years. Frankly, in this case, it’s the creative TV community, ESPN, and companies like Activision [who will experiment with it]. It is applicable across media.

Will there be any policy on what developers can and can’t do with SmartGlass? Can they have a SmartGlass-required game?

I don’t know why you wouldn’t be able to. We’ll have a set of [Technical Certification Requirements] around it. Like anything, we want it to have a certain amount of functionality that makes it consistent for users on Xbox. But, I don’t see why you couldn’t have a SmartGlass-required game.

I can see it now: Square Enix will make a game that requires 100 SmartGlass phones that have to be lined up in front of the player.

They could! I can’t imagine the market would be very big for that, though.

We announced Ascend on stage which has a mobile game component. It’s an online game that is persistent and always changing. If I attack you, you will get a notification on your phone. You can send AI characters into my world to fight me back for your land, even though you are not near your console. I think we’ll see more things like that. I think the opportunities are pretty great.

This conference was mostly made of sequels. Are you ever concerned with that limiting the potential audience? How can you pull in new people with another Halo and another Forza?

New IP [intellectual property] is incredibly important. There is no doubt about that. I know not everybody loves this, but one of the areas I love is introducing new IP through digital. Which is why I think about things like Ascend, our acquisition of Twisted Pixel -- those guys have a great track record of creating new things -- and Press Play which is a smaller developer we’ve worked with on Windows phones. They have a creative vibe and make new things.

It’s not just in our space: We think about movies and TV series, too; as humans, I think we like new stories and ideas. That said, we also like things we like, and I like cars and playing a new open-road Forza game sounds fun to me. “We should build that game and we should get the guys who did DiRT and GRID to make it.” I think that makes sense. We support both. The creation of new IP is really important, though.

As a journalist, it’s shocking when I hear that Minecraft sold two million or that Trials is selling well. Do you guys ever have a pulse on that sort of thing? Do you ever think that this one game will be the indie game to rule them all?

It’s incredible isn’t it? So I have a funny “behind the curtains" story on Minecraft. It was about a week before E3 last year when we made that deal as a first party. I believed in the project and we knew the studio. The graphic behind me last year on stage -- if you were like, “What is that?” it’s because it was created in one night. Even the people inside Microsoft, as they were looking at it, were thinking, “What is that Minecraft thing and why are we putting it on stage?”

It’s not that I’m smarter than everyone else. I just probably play more games than most people at work. I said, “No, trust me this is something we want on stage.” Just like Limbo the year before. And then the thing comes out and sells two million copies in a month. Did I know that? No. Even Mojang didn’t know that.

There’s as much passion and effort put into the games that don’t succeed as the ones that do. There are so many contributing factors of why something becomes Halo or why it becomes Brute Force (no one probably knows what that is). If there is ever an equation for what will work, I don’t want to be in this industry any more. It is luck in a way. You can be smart lucky but it’s not formulaic. Who would have thought a show like American Idol would work? And now it’s the #1 show on television. Or that Minecraft would take over.

As awesome as it is to see Minecraft succeed, some consumers are worried that it will open the floodgates to $20 Xbox Live Arcade games.

The original Trials was $20 and that did incredibly well. The nice thing about digital is that there are multiple price points. Content creators are going to charge the right price that they think their content is worth whether it's a book, painting, or something else. One thing I’m playing right now is the Walking Dead game and that was 400 or 500 points, I think. It’s a nice marketplace where there are different options.


And with that, I bid Spencer farewell and left the room but not before I saw him pick up the controller and get back to his game of Deadlight. These are strange times for Microsoft, as the company stretches a console cycle to its breaking point while trying to find new ground in the most unexpected places (mobile, motion controls, indie games).

Given Spencer's passion for games, both big and small, I have faith in where Microsoft Studios is heading next, as long as they continue to put interesting stuff between those familiar bookends.

Allistair Pinsof,
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