In a small room on the upper floor of the Galen Center, Phil Spencer is waiting for the press.
Two hours ago, this vast arena saw Microsoft's pre-E3 press conference, a 90-minute event in which Spencer, now head of Xbox, laid out the future of the company's console business. It was something of a success, a barrage of game demos from big-hitters to indie newcomers.
Getting to see Spencer requires a walk into the bowels of the building accompanied by PR staff, then a service elevator up to the second floor, another long corridor, and finally a room filled with more PR people. As ever he smiles a big charming smile while the Microsoft staff tap away on laptops, not looking up; they will have briefed him carefully on who I am and what media outlet I write for. There is no natural light in here.
"The second year for any console is an important year," says Spencer as we chat about the conference. "The first E3 is always challenging because the developers are working on early dev kits for a console that hasn't launched yet. Just thinking about last year in terms of what we showed …" he pauses and changes direction. "This year we brought a great line up. We wanted to show Xbox One owners, and potential owners, what games they're going to get to play in 2014 and beyond. There was a lot of game content - I don't need to see more of me talking on stage."
Inside Sony's E3 headquarters
Two days later, I'm over at Sony's traditional E3 enclave, the JW Marriott hotel, right next to the convention centre. Andrew House, the head of Sony Computer Entertainment, is holed up in a suite on the third floor, a much brighter room, looking out over the eight-lane flyover that snakes out toward South LA. Assured and understated, he is much more of a businessman than Spencer. When he talks he glances at a page full of handwritten notes.
I ask if there's a sense of self-congratulation at Sony. PlayStation 4 has come into E3 with 7m units sold and a clear lead over Xbox One. "Seriously, we've been absolutely delighted with the success," he says. "I set a target at the Tokyo Game Show for 5m units. There was considerable skepticism about the role of consoles, given the massively changed device landscape that consumers have. It was important that we were able to exceed those fairly aggressive goals.
"But also, we were able to exceed the launch period of PlayStation 2, which is really significant. People maybe underestimated the fact that, although PS4 is primarily a game device, it did arrive fully baked as a multifunctional entertainment machine, which is kind of what PS3 migrated into over time. I think there's a primary user motivated by great games, but I think there's a secondary user who also wants a great Netflix device, or a great video streaming device, or a great catch-up TV device."
The return of multimedia
While Microsoft completely sidestepped the whole multimedia angle in its presentation, Sony spent time discussing tertiary features like the streaming games service PlayStation Now, the mini secondary console PlayStation TV, and the exclusive Marvel TV series, Powers. This is the sort of demographic-widening stuff that Microsoft relied on for its original Xbox One unveiling event last year – the event that gamers hated.
House shrugs away concerns. "You have to continue to innovate at the system level, at the multifunctional element, to reach other audiences," he says. "I announced at CES that our intention this year is to deliver a cloud TV service in the US. This is almost the final piece of the puzzle. You've got music, you've got streaming video, you've got games, now you can have a service that elegantly combines live TV and video-on-demand with a really slick user interface that is, with all due respect, far ahead of the television manufacturers because of the native processing power of PS4."
So where does television and video-on-demand sit in the Xbox plans at the moment? "We've got to win with the core gamer first, that is the most important customer for a games console," says Spencer. "I wanted to make sure that we weren't only putting an E3 show together, because E3 will come and go, but that we're building a program that supports that customer.
"However, Xbox Live is important, not only for games but also for the way all entertainment is consumed; we pulled the entertainment apps out from Gold membership because I wanted everyone to be able to use them. And the focus we have on television, on the HDMI In functionality, this is a long term focus. But it's about sequencing – making sure we win with gamers every single year and that the other functionality supports that, it doesn't drown it."
The allure of indie
The two executives are aligned in their apparent keenness to broaden the range of games available on current platforms. For Sony, that has always meant embracing indie development, something it has done since releasing the Net Yaroze hobbyist dev kit back in 1997.
"It came very organically and from the ground up," says House. "There were individuals in both the Europe and US offices who were passionate gamers and really interested in the indie scene, and fortunately they were well placed to engineer that outreach.
"For me, I was starting to get worried that the industry was trending towards a concentration around fewer and fewer major franchises; you've got to worry about the long-term health of the business if there isn't new talent, new creativity and new IP coming in. Don't get me wrong, I love the big blockbusters, but it's great for the health of the business to have the quirky, the new, the different, and to have experimentation in narrative and technical design. Our goal as a platform holder is to be in the business of A&R, of talent development and nurturing. We have to bring these guys in and say we can connect you with an audience. No Man's Sky is a great testament to that. Seeing the feedback it is garnering, it's been universally positive. That team is six people."
Phil Spencer has clearly been using his own tastes and contacts to broaden the Xbox One output. He talks about going to dinner with Platinum Games during last year's Tokyo Game Show to secure the studio's first Xbox exclusive, Scalebound ("it turns out that our team working with them on the game is just around the corner from me - they get tired of me turning up"). He also mentions indie titles like Ori and the Blind Forest as a priority in his plans.
"Brothers was my game of the year last year - the ending was so emotional," he says. "Those are the kinds of thoughts we need to embed in terms of how we're building for this platform. I want to have a great line-up, I want to make the tools that allow developers to build on Xbox, to enable the breadth of content."
During the Xbox press event, Microsoft shows a trailer of Inside, the latest game from Playdead, the team behind cult monochrome platformer, Limbo. "That is one of my favourite games of all time," says Spencer, who wore a T-shirt bearing its name on stage. "Last time I was at Playdead I got to play Inside and talked to the guys about it. I thought, I really want this on Xbox One. It's so interesting."
As for the future, both men agree that the social element will play a major role, with games evolving away from transient anonymous online matches. "Multiplayer co-op feels like it's going to be important," says Spencer. "Sunset Overdrive, Assassin's Creed Unity, Fable Legends - these are games that friends will play together. And Dave Jones is talking about what he wants to do with Crackdown, bringing people together via co-op but using the compute CPU capability in Xbox Live to make it a different kind of experience. The physics and destruction calculations around buildings and other objects will happen in the cloud, freeing up the local capabilities to do something that looks better.
"Our investment in Live and in servers will continue. You'll see more teams making use of that cloud capability to handle AI and dedicated servers for matchmaking. And multiple years later, when those games sunset, and gamers move on, we're handling the whole backend for those developers. If you're a small studio and you don't know how many servers you'll need or how long you'll need them, our service gives them the capability to build a server-based game without having to invest in all the infrastucture."
House talks about how, during the development of the PlayStation hardware, there was a moment where he had to decide whether or not to hardwire in the console's sharing capabilities; ensuring that the machine automatically records footage, adding the 'share' button on the controller which uploads highlights to the web. It was a risk. "I said to the engineers, 'I only have one question for you guys, there's a lot around the community, what if we throw the party and no one shows up?'
"But we made the right call, tapping into this idea that gaming could become more social, that people would want to share their experience. I don't think we envisaged that Playroom would be used by people to broadcast themselves from their living rooms, but if that's what people want to do fine, so be it – we jumped on it. So there are now visual tools to help you do that. There's a sense of a vibrant community around the games and that's helped PS4 enormously."
"I'm particularly intrigued by what will happen with the games share functionality [of PlayStation Now]: for the first time ever you can be playing a game and lend it to someone else effectively, have them play with you - that creates this whole new social dynamic."
After 10 minutes with House, a PR rep sitting at the far end of the suite's vast conference table tells me I have one more question. I'll be shot by my readers if I don't ask this, I say – but what is happening with Last Guardian? The long-awaited and much-delayed title from Team Ico, the studio behind classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, has become something of a metaphor for the unfulfilled and unfulfillable promises bandied around at this event. The news site IGN has just posted a rumour that the game has been quietly cancelled.
"It is not cancelled," says House, slowly and deliberately. So what's happening with it? There is a long pause. I sense that the PR manager at the end of the table has momentarily stopped tapping at his keyboard. These interviews are carefully stage-managed and controlled – sometimes you get more from them if you are belligerent and insistent, but that's rarely the case. Sometimes you have to play the game. Spencer and House are both good players; you get what they want and no more. But then, they too are under the control of a business which insists on the micro-management of information. Games are multimillion dollar bets these days, and no one wants to show their cards.
"I'll just say … active work is ongoing," House says at last. "I'll get shot by my studios if I say any more."
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