Right from the moment Phil Spencer asks if I picked my jumper to match my shoulder bag, I like him.
He has that easy confident charm that plenty of American executives exude – we're sitting in a cramped Gamescom meeting room, a couple of months before the release of his multimillion-dollar games console and yet he is relaxed and affable, slouching back on a low arm chair with calm detachment. Maybe it's a front – we haven't met before, and he must have faced plenty of identikit games journalists prying into Microsoft's Xbox One mistakes, looking for their click-bait headlines.
But right now, we're both just sort of looking between my red bag and red jumper.
'I also accidentally packed a green jumper that matches my trainers,' I shrug. 'I look like a children's television presenter.' He nods damningly.
So far, Gamescom has gone well for Microsoft. The day before the conference, the company held a low-key hands-on event for the press; development teams showed off their games, everyone got hands-on time – and then there were the announcements of Fifa and Call of Duty deals, and exclusive content in games like The Division. Plus, the most talked about game at the show so far is Titanfall, a sci-fi shooter that will not be appearing on PS4 – at least for a while.
But I want to find out more about what Microsoft hopes to achieve here and in the weeks leading to the launch of Xbox One. And can the company really put all the negativity behind it?
What were your aims at Gamescom this year? What message did you want to get across?The games lineup we're going to have at launch is the strongest we've ever had. There are also more games in development than we've ever had. And you really have to look at what we've done with Fifa – football has a home on Xbox now, and I think that's critical, especially here in Europe. As well as the day one edition pre-order that comes with Fifa 14, the Ultimate Team Legends mode is important.
And also there's the independent developer program which we've been working on for two years. If you look at our plan to turn every retail Xbox One into a dev kit – it's not something you turn on late in the development cycle, you have to build the platform with that concept in mind. And we've had a great reception based on our conversations with hundreds of developers over the last few months.
What do you really need to tell people outside of this event about Xbox One, especially in the next two months?
The critical thing is, what games am I going to be able to play? What will they feel like? The nice thing about Gamescom is that gamers get their hands on the games. It's different from E3, which is more press and retail. In the end, this generation will be defined by great games and great experiences, none of us should get confused about that. It's not really about the hardware itself, or even the controller, it's about what's gonna be on screen. That's why people buy a gaming console.
We focus on a broad entertainment vision – television, gaming, music, video, movies – all in one box, but when you're at Gamescom, you're going to talk about games … and games are critical. We know that the people who are going to line up at midnight to get their box from GameStop are gamers – this is a gaming message. We'll have more entertainment beats in our story between now and launch, but I feel that the gaming promise that we deliver – that's just got to be there.
Looking back to the announcement event in Redmond, you led with an entertainment beat ...
That was on purpose.
But was it the right idea? Was there anything you could have done differently?
Sure. Am I going to say everything perfectly to you during this 20-minute interview? No. But we knew right after the announce event that we had E3 coming, and we wanted E3 to be about games. We knew we had a lot of gaming content from first and third parties to show, but [at Redmond] we wanted to announce Xbox One, show the hardware, talk about its full entertainment capabilities, following up days later at E3 with the full games line-up. When you combined those two, you had a more complete picture on what the box was. People say, 'Why didn't you talk about the indie developer programmer?', 'Why didn't you give us a launch date?' You can't give 15 different messages simultaneously. You want to make sure you're telling the complete story at the right time. And I feel good about where we are now … but it is a journey.
It's weird because there are two stories that came out of E3: one that Sony won with its very aggressive press conference, and then another, where Xbox One took a huge number of E3 Games Awards… Do you feel that one interpretation got overlooked in favour of the other?
I guess I just have a fundamental belief that gamers buy games consoles to play games, and they don't buy them for press events. We're going to lead with the content that we think gamers want – and all of the people on stages, myself included, that's just part of a show. When you land it, the questions people ask are: what am I going to be able to play? What does this console do for me? What are my friends playing? What games are coming? And you know, we have Titanfall coming, we have Halo coming, we have our relationships around Fifa and Call of Duty, and our exclusive games. Those experiences, what the box is capable of … in the end, that's what it is. All of this, this is for people who look inside the business. That's great, I love feedback – and our ability to listen to the feedback and respond has to be a strength while building this platform, it has to be, I can't see it any other way.
One thing that's really coming across from both Xbox One and PS4 is that ideas and creativity are important rather than technical specifications. No one seems to be counting polygons anymore ...
When I stood on the stage at E3 last year announcing Minecraft for the Xbox 360, I had no idea we'd be pushing close to 9m units. But yes, it's really about entertainment. I mean the Blair Witch Project is some guy running around with a handheld video camera – ideas from all over the place become very important. We started indie development with XNA and Live Indie Games – and we didn't do everything perfectly with those two programs, but we learned a lot and we listened a lot and when we wanted to release the independent developer program on Xbox One we wanted to make sure we had all the feedback and learning from them. Then we talked to hundreds of developers and they said it's about discoverability, it's about cost, it's about access to the full platform including cloud and Kinect – they want full access and a team to support them. We're going to listen and come up with the complete program.
There are plenty of pundits out there who say all console wars are won on price. You have the more expensive console because you've refused to remove Kinect from the equation. So how do you respond to those people?
I think it's always about experience in the end. I'm not discounting price at all, the economy is tough, and buying into the next generation, whether it's us or someone else, is not an insignificant amount of money. I get that. What I say is, we're committed to Xbox One in the long run – we have a long roadmap of features, of games that we're going to bring – and Kinect is critical. We've given Kinect to the biggest developers on the planet and they've integrated it in some very interesting ways; along with Smart Glass which has created some really compelling scenarios.
And now we're going to unlock those same creative capabilities in the independent developers. You may remember, when the original Kinect got into the hands of the Windows development community, there was this explosion of creativity. I've really been excited by the number of indies coming to me as part of ID@Xbox and telling me what they want to do with cloud and Kinect – they can only rely on that if they know Kinect is a consistent part of the platform.
Pundits have also been predicting the death of consoles for a couple of years now – we're all supposed to be playing on tablets and smartphones now.
I start from the perspective of whether the television in your house is a relic. I love playing games on my Surface, I play games on my iPad and on my phone, but when I come home, I want to play games on my plasma TV, I want those games to be immersive, with sound and visuals that are commensurate to where I am. We've probably got more gamers on the planet now than we've ever had, which I think is great for us. And when you think about how fast you switch between apps and games on your phone – we want to bring that same capability to a television set through Xbox One. That was core to us when we started designing it: how do we make your TV screen a smart screen like any other screen you interact with?
In a year's time do you think games will look fundamentally different from how they are now?
The part I'm really excited to see is the use of the cloud, and how that changes. Think back to when the Xbox 360 first came out with the blade interface, and look at it now – well that's dramatically changed. Now we're putting hundreds of thousands of servers behind the capabilities of Xbox One which is going to allow game developers of all sizes to really think differently about how they deliver their products and their services, and frankly how we architect the platform as well. That union of the capability of the box and what's behind the box will mean we'll see an even more dramatic change in this generation than we did in the last, as the years go by.
Can we ever have a console as successful as PS2 again, one that achieves that level of omnipotence?
Omnipotence? I like it.
I meant omniscience! I got the wrong omni word!
Absolutely. If you look at the smartphone markets, you have huge scale – they sell these numbers every year. Look at the growth in the console business, the amount of profit that's created – it's a vibrant business. And I'll say again, the influx of more gamers through all these different devices just creates more opportunities. We want to be a platform that enables that.
You may disagree on how much of the Xbox One proposition has changed since Don Mattrick issued that statement and reversed some of the digital concepts …
Which concepts did he reverse?
Well, the idea of daily online authentication, the control and restriction of pre-owned game sales …
Okay, so those two specifically.
Yes. And the idea of being able to share digital games …
We didn't reverse that.
But they're in the background now. I wonder how much of that proposition, which was very Steam-like, will come back?
We're committed to the digital ecosystem that we talked about at the beginning of Xbox One. Absolutely. That's why I wanted to be clear on what you were referring to with the word 'reversal'. Other people have tried to twist this a little bit, but it's important that we remain in a two-way dialogue with gamers and potential customers about what they would like to see. Consoles today are as much a service as they are an individual purchase – our commitment through Xbox Live and updating the software and keeping the games coming is a long-term service commitment. The service gets better through direct feedback with the people who are using it.
What we heard from gamers is that they enjoyed the physical DRM they had with the 360 ecosystem and they wanted to add that to Xbox One. So we added physical DRM to the digital DRM plan that we had. When we did that, maths takes over and some things had to move out. But the core of that digital ecosystem is absolutely something that we believe in, and we haven't reversed it. You'll be able to buy games as physical and digital goods, you'll be able to share games with everybody in your house, and other features that we talked about will definitely be coming down the line.
Do you see a future that is purely digital?
Well I'm a big Steam fan; you talk about your phone, your tablet, those are all digital ecosystems – it's not like, as consumers, digital ecosystems are foreign to us. But we heard from consumers that they wanted us to also support a physical system as well. So our plan was to continue to grab a lot of the advantages of a digital system while adding in physical. Now, there are some differences that you need to understand: in a digital world, we know which games are yours – as you purchase them online, the license is associated with your account and that gives us unique capabilities in terms of what we can do with that content. When the DRM is on the disc, we don't know that you own that disc and so the capabilities are different. If you're a digital customer and you're comfortable with that, you should invest in being a digital customer on Xbox One, because those advantages will be coming, some at launch and some later. But we're giving you a choice. It's like movies: I happen to be more of a digital customer, through Netflix and pay-per-view, but you can still go and buy Blu-rays and DVDs.
What do you think about the idea of pervasive games – are we heading toward a future where there's no such thing as multiplayer and single player, where everything is seamless and organic? I'm really interested in that.
Yeah, I share a similar hope. I know not everybody does. I get feedback all the time when any game that was once natively offline gets any kind of online addition. I'm a big Clash of Clans player, a big Dota 2 player – those games are natively online. In the world you're talking about, which I think is very compelling, I want to play a game across every screen I have, wherever I am, and have it all matter. In many service-based games today, the gamers are creating as much of the content as the developers – I think that is extremely compelling. I'm very excited to see Project Spark – it's putting that creativity in your hands. And I want to see that across platforms, I want to play the worlds I create in Spark on my smartphone. I think that whole concept is going to lead to a ton of games that just blow people away.
And lets talk about November – the prospect of two consoles going head-to-head. Is that scary? Exciting? Is it good for the industry?
I love it. If you think back a couple of years, there were questions about whether big shows like this were meaningful and about where the business was going. I think about E3 this year as one of the most exciting I've been too, and 300,000 people will come through here! It's good for the industry that there's such high awareness – and competition is good for gamers. Head to head in the same month? It's going to be exciting. Maybe you and I could meet in a few years and see what happened?!
And with that, I'm whisked out of the meeting room and Phil waves me away politely and with considerable charm. I would very much like to meet him again, after the launch, and see what happened. Microsoft has made some mistakes, but you know, so has Nintendo, so has Sony. Maybe we'll laugh about all this in a few years. But I'll wear a different jumper next time we meet.
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