First published on GameSpot.
Phil Spencer has been at Microsoft for 28 years, currently leading the global creative and engineering teams at Xbox. He's overseen the launch of the Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and now he is guiding the company's launch of its new, upgraded Xbox One console, codenamed Scorpio.
We sat down with Spencer at Australia's EB Expo convention and asked for his thoughts on the announcement of the PS4 Pro, how development is shaping up for the Scorpio, 4K resolution gaming as the new standard, and more.
GameSpot: Sony recently announced the PS4 Pro. What was initial your reaction to the announcement? It's coming out a year before Xbox Scorpio; how does that affect your plans, if at all?
Spencer: It didn't affect our plan at all. About two and a half years ago we started to look at a hardware refresh that we might want to do, which in the end led to the Xbox One S and Scorpio in terms of designs. We'd looked at doing something that was higher performance this year, and I'd say the [PS4] Pro is about what we thought--with the GPU, CPU, memory that was here this year--that you could go do, and we decided that we wanted to do something different. So we looked at Scorpio and 4K and what I thought was a bigger step in terms of performance. It was something that we wanted to focus on.
I watched their event, I thought they did a nice job. It's hard to show 4K and HDR over an internet stream in general. It's something frankly that I'm trying to watch and learn. For these kind of graphic and visual technologies, seeing is believing.
I want to make sure that when people see the games and if they want to see 4K and HDR that we're able to give them that experience, and I think as I look at E3 and stuff it's like okay, how do we make sure that people can get the full experience that these devices can offer. Sometimes the internet and streaming solutions that are there can't support it. Announcing a new platform is always both risky and challenging.
Speaking of which, when Xbox first discussed its iterative model for console gaming, there was some backlash from the core audience, who questioned the vision. How do you feel now that Sony have revealed they're following a similar path?
I think that it'll always play out in the product truth that we're able to deliver. Right now, we've shipped an Xbox One S that's doing incredibly well in all markets, which is nice to see. Because I know when we announced Scorpio right after the Xbox One S, some people criticized that we'd cut the legs out of the Xbox One S and that we wouldn't see it do well. Because everybody would just wait. But I think we've almost seen the opposite. We've seen a lot of interest and frankly, sales, of the Xbox One S, globally.
When I look forward though, I think on the Scorpio; people are still going to evaluate it not based on our video announcement or interviews like this, but getting their hands on it and saying, "This is something for me. Does it do something that I find different than what I'm playing today?" And that's our responsibility. To live up to that bar and exceed that bar with the games and service and platform that we build. The criticism will come or not based on our ability to deliver there.
With the S, people seem to be really happy with the 4K UHD drive, the games, HDR, the 4K streaming, the stuff that we put in the box, and it kind of peps us up when we think about what we want to go do with Scorpio.
One thing about gamers I always value is that they're direct with you about how they feel. Both before something comes out, and after. So I know I will feel how the gamers feel about the product set that we're launching. But I have a lot of confidence with what our plan is with Scorpio, and if anything with the launch of Xbox One S and watching what's gone on in the last month or so, I feel even more confident about our plans.
How is Xbox Scorpio development shaping up? You said announcing at E3 in June was in part to give developers time to get themselves familiar with the hardware. How is that coming along?
Really well. Actually, with the hardware timelines right now we're a little ahead of plan. We'll see, there is a lot of time to go, but we feel good about how the things are coming together. The teams understand the performance spec that we're building. We went through some of the high-level specs at E3 in the video. And it gives the teams time to make sure that they're targeting that performance for their games. Luckily so many of both our internal teams and partners are also building on PC.
So it's not hard for us to say, "Okay this is the PC spec that you can expect with what we're building on Scorpio," so it allows them to make sure they have the assets and capability to deliver. Since we're focusing on a box that can support true 4K and a 4K frame buffer and a lot of PC games already support that; it's not a new language or asset base for them in terms of things that we're asking them to go do. I'm also pretty confident in the content line-up that we'll see.
Microsoft GM Shannon Loftis recently said all first-party games launched in the Scorpio time frame will run be rendered natively at 4K instead of upscaled--do you think third-party games will generally follow suit?
I want to put the tools in the hands of the creators and let them decide. Even for our first-party games, and Shannon owns a large portion of our first-party portfolio and I know she's got a vision that she wants to drive in gaming, and I'm glad she's got her voice and is setting a vision for her teams… even on the launch of the original Xbox there was some push to say "Okay, shouldn't we mandate HD, that everything is 1080p?" and I just think that the best games aren't defined by their resolution or framerate, frankly. I know a lot of people say that 60fps is the holy grail of frame rate. But I'll just say, give the developers the power and the tools to develop the best realisation of their vision and their game, and they will make the right decisions.
On the third-party side, a lot of the teams already have a 4K version of the game because of PC and what they're building. And they'll decide on Scorpio and what they're going to go do. I definitely think we're going to see native 4K games, but you'll also see teams take different approaches and I think that's absolutely fine.
We shouldn't let gaming turn into an artform that's defined by a number. Nobody asks when you look at a painting, how many colours were used? Even the standards in the way movies are shot, there's also a lot of flexibility and artistic flavour in what's put in TV and movies and we should allow that same freedom in the gamespace and not try to excel or review things based on X plus Y equals how good something is.
You've described Xbox Scorpio as the "most powerful console ever made" and also as a "premium product" so what can we expect in terms of pricing?
We're not announcing price here. I guess I'd just say we announced the Xbox One S and it's out in market at $399 [in Australia]. We expect both of these products to be in market at the same time, and that there's a clear performance difference and obviously there will be a price difference between the two things. But I also want people to understand that Scorpio is going to be a premium console. Like, I'm not trying to sell you a high-end gaming PC rig for a couple of thousand dollars or something. We look at consumer price points of consoles and definitely our target is to hit that. But it will be a premium version of an Xbox One and we'll talk more about pricing as we're cutting it closer to the launch and everything else. But I'm confident that we'll be able to deliver a product at a price point that gamers will feel like is worth it.
After Sony announced PS4 Pro, the Xbox social media channels jabbed at the console's lack of a 4K Blu-ray player. Does this erase some of the goodwill you were trying to build up by being anti-console war?
I am of two minds on this one. We have a 4K UHD blu-ray drive in our Xbox One S. I think us stating a feature that we have in our box that we think is an important selling feature of our box is completely within fair game. It is a feature of our box and for somebody to look and say that talking about the features that you decide… I mean, we made a bet on a 4K blu-ray disc, and they didn't. And I'm not saying they made the wrong decision and we made the right decision, but if somebody wants a 4K UHD blu-ray drive we have a console that has one, then we're going to make sure that people know that. And if people say that that's console wars, I think they're wrong.
We should be able to talk about the features that are in our box, but I also want to be respectful of what other companies are doing. And I don't think we crossed the line there, but as it was going on I also made sure that we remain respectful. Confident, but respectful of what other people are doing. But I don't want anybody to ever try to put us in a box of, "Hey, you've got a feature but because somebody else doesn't have it you can't talk about it," and somehow that's unfair and console wars-like. Because I don't believe that. I will always be respectful of my friends at the other platform holders; Nintendo, Sony. I have a lot of friends at Sony and Nintendo and both those companies are doing their best to deliver products based on their vision and I respect that. We're doing the same. You won't see me bad-mouth what the other platforms are doing but I am proud of the product decisions that we make and I think that we should be able to talk about it.
Social media is a funny thing. I think gamers like to see that sort of banter go down.
And I don't. I've been vocal about that as well. I'll turn it around now. Like, when ReCore came out and there were some of the lower scores that were given, I would have PlayStation fans tweet me, happy that ReCore wasn't getting great review scores from some outlets. I just thought it was such a negative thing for our industry for somebody to be gleeful that somebody gave a game a review that was lower than what the team expected. And I don't just think about that in terms of the games that we build. I can look at Hello Games and No Man's Sky. I've known Sean Murray for years, and I said I want them to be successful with the games that [the industry] builds. The games industry gets bigger and better as more people enjoy playing games. And I also think about the teams behind these games, and these are people who spend years of their lives, so committed to the artform of building games. And then when it comes out, for somebody to kind of fold that into a "My console is better than your console" in a very petty way, I find it completely distasteful.
I don't have more fun with my Xbox based on the review scores of games that are on PlayStation, or vice versa. If you have an Xbox, I want to ship great games for you and have you have a great time on that console. And that is our focus, right there. It's not about what somebody else is out there doing with their platform. I know there's pockets in every community, I'm not saying Xbox is completely clean here, but as much as I have any influence on it at all, that's not something I will support or entertain. Sorry, that's just something I needed to get out.
How do you feel about the response to ReCore from critics, given it was highlighted as one of the major Xbox One exclusives?
I feel great about ReCore. About being able to work with with Inafune-san and Armature. And I'm very proud that it's in our portfolio. I wish it reviewed higher, but I don't necessarily look at the reviews as a reflection of the game's importance to us. The game is selling well, which I like. The gamers' response to the game has been positive, which is the most important thing.
And we priced ReCore lower than a full triple-A game because we knew the game that we were building and the size of the team, I wanted to make sure that people felt like it was fair value for what it was. I think in the end that was a good decision, because I think trying to get people to buy a $60 game when it's not a $60 game short-term might feel like a money-making thing but in the long run I don't think it helps the game or the IP.
On the reviews, honestly I thought some of the reviews were a little harsh in terms of their view on the game. But for us, inside, again I feel really proud to have the character, the story, the gameplay style, and the partnership with Armature and Inafune-san as part of our portfolio.
I didn't try to tell anybody that it was a ten. I think we knew, as with any games, that there are certain things… if we started from the beginning and we knew what we'd get, there's a couple of things we would've done slightly differently. But we're very proud of how the game ended up. And I think seven, eight, nine, like anywhere in there is fine. Three or four… I mean somebody gave Forza Horizon 3 a four. I think there's certain reviews that are written more to get clicked on than they are to actually accurately reflect the quality of the game, and that kind of bums me out.
ReCore was one of the first new Play Anywhere games. How has the adoption of Windows 10 gaming been?
It's been really strong. Obviously as you said, with the Play Anywhere feature ReCore was first and Forza Horizon 3 was second. I think we're seeing thousands of people that are playing the game on both platforms. In the case of Forza Horizon there's multiplayer, you can actually play together. [With] the Play Anywhere for ReCore, the feature that obviously most people take advantage of is that the save game is compatible [between platforms].
I think those features are strong. And now I look at Forza Horizon 3 and I see people on both platforms and I see people playing at the same time across Xbox Live. I think in Gears of War 4 you'll see people playing the co-operative modes together across both platforms. I feel good about the adoption early on and I feel good about the roadmap with the games that we have.
Speaking of multiple platforms, what did you think about Nintendo bringing Mario to iPhone as a way of broadening its reach? Would Xbox consider doing something similar?
Well we have Minecraft on iOS and Android. Obviously we bought it after it was already there but we've expanded--we put it on Wii U after we owned it. I think having games where people want to go play those games makes a ton of sense. And I applaud Nintendo. We put Minecraft on [the Wii U] and they actually put the Mario skin pack into Minecraft. It was great to be able to partner with them on that.
There are technical limitations to certain devices that may make them not appropriate for all games, but the idea that I can stay connected to my Xbox Live community on any device whether it be iOS, Android, Gear VR, PC, Xbox, whatever it is, I can connect to the games that makes sense on the devices that I'm on. If I already bought the game it just runs on the device, the Play Anywhere stuff makes a lot of sense. I think for Nintendo, and I have nothing to do with their strategy or moves, but I think it's a smart move for them.
Do you think there would ever be a day where we see Xbox IPs on mobile devices?
Yeah, I actually do. We've had Age of Empires, other things show up. I think we did Viva Pinata on the DS. You've seen us do things on those other platforms. The thing that has been a barrier to us in the past is the fact that we didn't have Xbox Live on those platforms, which we do now. Without Xbox Live on those platforms we end up shipping these games kind of into a vacuum. Meaning that we ship them but when you play it you're not connected back to the community of friends and the achievements and other things that you have with Xbox Live. So now that we've launched Xbox Live on iOS and Android, we have millions of people that we see on those platforms connecting to Xbox Live that gives us a good basis to do more things there with our franchises. And I expect that we will, because we want to put the IP where people want to play.
Moving on to a different subject, we have not heard much about Kinect in a long time--what future does Kinect have for the Xbox brand?
We made a decision on Xbox One S in terms of how we were going to support Kinect plugging in. We wanted to make sure that the hardware support for Kinect was there. We didn't have the custom Kinect controller plug-in because it allowed us to kind of double-up and have a USB connector in there as well, which I think is just a good feature for the box. For me, Kinect will succeed based on how much people enjoy using it. We're investing in things like Cortana coming to Xbox, which gives people voice control and in which obviously Kinect is a great way for voice to come into the box.
As games come out, Fru was a game that came out recently that I wanted to promote because I thought it was a nice Kinect game. But I also can't be in a position of making gamers care more about Kinect or less about Kinect. It's kind of like any technology in our ecosystem--its success and popularity will come from how people use it. And I like what Kinect brought to the 360, I like some of the games that have come to the Xbox One. We're going to continue to focus on making sure it's a supported part of the platform, but we also won't force it on people and say that we're somehow going to make it something that's a required part of the platform.
What are some industry trends today that excite you? What are the ones that keep you up at night?
In a good way?
Yes, in a good way.
You know, I love how the social phenomenon of games and the way that people can kind of share their experiences… it was interesting to watch Pokemon Go, and I know it went up and went down, but gaming is just such a more mainstream part of society than maybe it was when I was a gamer back as a wee lad. The fact that as people have these fun experiences in games they're able to so easily share and create community around those experiences--I mean, all you have to do is watch the League of Legends World Championships and you see millions of people online and thousands of people in an auditorium just getting so excited about what's going on in gaming. I think it's really great that we've hit this mainstream capability as an artform but also the technology of today let's me share that experience. We recently acquired a small company called Beam that does very low latency streaming of games so that the interactivity between streamer and people watching the stream is usually sub-one second so you really get a direct interaction there. And it's not so much about Beam because there's other streamers out there like Twitch and stuff, but I'll just say that whole community now that has been built, I think you're going to start to see games that actually get created around that community of streamers and viewers and social. Where now you have more the game and then people kind of sit on top and stream.
I just think that's so cool because our artform and our medium is this combination of art and interactivity. The interactivity in my mind makes us care more about the art because we feel like we impact it in some ways by where we move Joule around the screen and what we decide to go do. And then you add the social component on top of that and I think gaming just has such a massive opportunity in front of it to become bigger than any media the planet's ever seen.
Do you mean like games where the streamers controller what's happening? For example, Twitch plays Pokemon.
Or maybe even the other way around, because you might say that was the stream viewers controlling what the streamer [can do]… we're seeing that with Beam already. Not to make this an ad for Beam but because of the low latency, we can have streamers that are actually setting up an Xbox controller and the community can actually hit the buttons on the Xbox controller in real time and play a game like Killer Instinct, which I think is fantastic. And that's taking a game that was never built thinking that that's what would happen. And so it's kind of this add-on. Even Twitch plays Pokemon was obviously something the team would have thought about when they created that. So now you open it up and say creators knowing that this is a possibility are going to integrate that directly into their creative process. And instead of these bolt-on experiences I think you're actually going to say community-driven games that are part of the core game loop that you play, as opposed to something that sits on top. I think that's going to be fantastic.
We did a game a few years ago called 1 vs. 100... and it was an avatar-based game show that you played real-time online. It was kind of a trivia game. But I think about now, and we could do it in a very non-interactive way because it was questions that you answered because we didn't have streaming and the capabilities that we have now. But I think you're going to see game genres get built up around the social connection that I think will be just really, really cool.