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Microsoft game chief Phil Spencer on openness, HoloLens, and Xbox 1.5

Microsoft has had its fair share of criticism about its platform strategy. Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, recently blasted Microsoft’s commitment to an open Windows platform. HoloLens may not do much for games at a time when rivals are betting on virtual reality. And Sony continues to lead in hardware sales in the console wars.

But last week’s was the company’s chance to fight back at its own Build conference in San Francisco. Three Microsoft executives responded to Sweeney’s criticisms about openness, including Xbox head Phil Spencer. Spencer went on stage at the Build to defend Microsoft’s commitment to keeping Windows open for third party developers.

I wished Microsoft had taken on the criticism head-on during the keynote. It didn’t. But Spencer stuck around afterward and answered every question we asked. He didn’t answer all the details Sweeney wanted, but he provided the answers that he could.

We were part of a small group of journalists who interviewed Spencer after the Build keynote speech on Wednesday. We pressed Spencer for details, asked him about games on HoloLens, and queried about whether an “Xbox 1.5” might be in the works to respond to Sony’s rumored PlayStation 4.5. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Above: Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: I like having all the context here – seeing how games fit with broader applications, with entertainment, with HoloLens.

Phil Spencer: That’s why we do it. The retail-to-devkit announcement, on the E3 stage, would have felt wrong in the middle of Halo and Gears of War. Without the context of our focus on a platform developers can target across all these devices, and Xbox is going to be one of them—We did an event here last night with a Windows insider group. At first they didn’t know what to ask, but once they got rolling on the retail-to-devkit stuff, there was a lot of excitement around app developers that have had ideas for things to come to TV, but don’t have a good way to target a large-scale TV platform. Most of the TV platforms, ours included, have been closed. You have to get a publishing license and figure out how to navigate third-party relations. I thought this would be a good place to talk about that. There have been a lot of questions about Cortana as well, and I thought people would also see everything what’s going on with Cortana.

GamesBeat: With Cortana, there’s already Kinect voice integration. Will Cortana change that?

Spencer: The way to think about Cortana—The microphone is the same. The device is the same. Cortana is basically an input layer for voice, natural language. “Cortana, order me a pizza.” All of the analytics on the backend figuring out the intent of what you say, we don’t have that on Xbox today. You say, “Xbox on,” it literally does a string match and we trigger the power switch. Our dictionary is fairly closed as far as voice interaction on Xbox.

Bringing in Cortana, you’ll have the same mike, the same ability to parse what you say, but the opportunity to get a broader hit base – “Hey, Cortana, what’s the weather” – Xbox today doesn’t even know what weather is.

GamesBeat: You’ll say “Cortana” instead of “Xbox”?

Spencer: We’ve toyed with that back and forth. I think it’s going to work that way on your desktop, because the icon’s the same. But when we started with “Xbox On,” Cortana was over here and the Xbox team was over there. We don’t want it to have to be “Xbox, Cortana…” and you end up saying 15 things to make your point. So it’ll just be “Cortana.”

There’s a lot of potential there to streamline the process of getting from one place to another on Xbox. Something pops up and you say “open that” and you have to snap to something. Cortana could eliminate all of those snaps by just opening that party, joining that party.

This work we’ve been doing around this functionality—The semantic understanding of what’s happening on Live – “Cortana, is Mike online now?” – goes through and knows that I probably mean this particular “Mike.” Is he online? Yes he is. What’s he playing right now? Okay, join his party. My ability to go back and forth with Cortana and understand the context in Live—We’ve even looked at games. Things like, “Cortana, how do I get through this level?” We know what game you’re playing, what character you are, where you are in the game from achievements and what’s happening in the frame. We can bring up game DVR clips of where you are and show how other people have completed the level you’re in.

There’s navigating Live itself. It can show you what’s trending in The Division right now and bring a hit list of the best things going on with that game. Or things about the games themselves and how you get through them. It’ll open up a lot of opportunity.

GamesBeat: I thought the keynote was inspiring, but it was also very tame. It’s missing details on some controversies that I thought could use some illumination. I wanted to hear more about Tay. You talked about privacy, but not the FBI. You talked about openness, but not Tim Sweeney.

Spencer: I almost wore an Unreal shirt out there. I figured you would be the only ones who’d understand.

Quantum Break Strikers can zoom around the battlefield in an instant.

Above: Quantum Break Strikers can zoom around the battlefield in an instant.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: There was a level of detail I was looking for and didn’t get. I’m happy with it, but I wonder where I’m going to get those details.

Spencer: Most of the people who were on stage are going through more direct interviews. This is my first Build, so I don’t know what altitude they usually fly. The Tay one in particular, because we knew the back half of our keynote would be about bots and interaction. I could feel the snickers every once in a while when someone would talk about a bot with a personality. We talked about what level we could directly address it.

It came up slightly in certain conversations. But the feedback is sound. We could have more directly run through those things. We thought about it and decided to look more forward in what we’re doing, not backward. But I take your point.

GamesBeat: Are there any more details that are going to settle the issue with Sweeney, do you think? He was looking for a lot of technical details on sideloading.

Spencer: We showed that. I basically sent Tim what I was going to say last night. We’ve been going back forth. He’s come to Redmond and walked through our plans. Some of the specific things he wanted to see—Kevin Gallo showed some and I talked about some. One, he wanted a public statement about Windows being an open development platform. He felt that us coming out and stating that would be important. Terry said that right at the beginning, the head of Windows. Satya said it and I said it.

As for sideloading, Kevin showed double-clicking an app .exe on the desktop and installing a Windows application without any store UI. It could have just as easily come from the web. We just happened to launch it from the desktop. We wanted to show that. I also took the Steam package for Age and wrapped it running as a modern desktop application to show that we’re not trying to lock out Windows apps, games, from being able to use Steamworks or be deployed in other stores.

It’ll be interesting to see what Tim says. Tim’s an important guy in the industry, somebody I have immense respect for. He’s great. The thing I always love about Tim is he comes from—Call it a virtuous place. He has a principled view in how he thinks the industry – the games industry and the Windows ecosystem – should work. I never worry he’s saying something for his own competitive reasons or some other thing. It’s what Tim really believes.

We don’t always believe the same thing, but the motivation behind his beliefs has never been a question for me. I’ll always listen to him.

GamesBeat: I heard the one word “submit.” That was one of his hot buttons.

Spencer: On Xbox or–?

Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, on stage at GamesBeat 2015 with Dean Takahashi.

Above: Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, on stage at GamesBeat 2015 with Dean Takahashi.

Image Credit: Michael O’Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: The UWP app, I think, when he was demonstrating a Win32 install. [Sweeney was concerned that submitting an app to Microsoft for certification would mean that it would have power of approval or disapproval, and that’s not very open].

Spencer: You have to submit to our store if you’re going to sell through our store. But you don’t have to sell through our store. Obviously I would love it if our store became successful. That’s a goal. He knows that’s a goal. Gabe has even come out and said, hey, there will be areas we compete and areas we cooperate. Obviously Valve has a very successful store in Steam. I want that to continue to be successful. But I’ll bring up the Killer Instinct launch, because Killer Instinct did really well for us on Windows yesterday. We’re going to build a first party store in Windows. I won’t preclude others from running a store, but we’ll build muscle there.

If you put a game or an app in our store, you will have to submit it to us. I do that, especially on Xbox, because—You guys know this because you’re in our industry. I have five-year-olds through 95-year-olds on the platform. I need to know that my parental control systems are going to work. I need to know that IP protection is there. I can’t have somebody ripping off Mario 64 and throwing it in our store. Apple does the same thing.

Whether that’s open or not, you can debate that. I will protect the safety of the Xbox One experience, because as a parent myself I want to know that when I say, “This is what my kids can see and play,” that will be the case. There has to be some control in that. Beyond that, I’d love to see a ton of applications and games come to Xbox through the ID program. We have thousands and thousands of developers and an amazing set of games.

I’m getting the feedback from guys like you that I should curate the game that are available, like with Live Arcade. I get that. It’s almost like there’s too much content. But you don’t have to submit to our store if you’re going to deploy through another store. Something can be a universal Windows application without going through the store.

GamesBeat: What if those games were sold on other stores, like Steam? They’d have to have a way to distribute their executables that doesn’t exist for them right now.

Spencer: No, they can distribute those executables themselves. When Kevin showed the install and launch of the game directly from a double-click on the desktop, they’d be doing the same thing. Now, there are a couple of caveats. UWPs today run on Windows 10. It doesn’t run on Windows 7. For Steam you’d have to say—Just like anyone has to do with Steam, you have to be clear about what your device requirements are. If it requires a discrete GPU you have to state that in the manifest of the game. But you can deploy UWP through any mechanism. We’d love other stores to take UWP applications and games and distribute them.

As to the requirements, there are two levels. Let me start at the bottom. Win32 is what all of us on PC buy and play today for the most part. It’s what Steam sells, what GOG sells, what Origin sells. Some of the issues we’ve seen with Win32—It was designed 20 years ago. It’s built specifically for desktop as an API set. There’s nothing that keeps a Win32 app from sniffing the file system or the registry anywhere it wants. It has complete freedom of your whole PC when you double-click and run it. Nothing we can do with the platform will keep it isolated.

That’s not a problem per se, but we’ve seen malware and other things out there that do things on the platform that aren’t what the user intended. We created what’s called a modern desktop application. That’s the equivalent of a Win32 that runs in a sandbox mode where we virtualize the file system and registry. It has access to the things it should have access to and we have an alert if it starts snooping outside that protected space. What I showed was Age II and The Witcher being converted, via our desktop application converter, from a Win32 install to a modern desktop install.

The next level is a universal Windows app. That’s an API that’s designed to run across multiple devices. Win32 was never designed to do that. That’s what we unlock with the retail dev kit on Xbox One. Your ability to write a universal Windows app that runs on an Xbox, a phone, a tablet, or a PC. It has more protection because we aren’t taking something that was a Win32 and trying to protect it. It’s our most protected runtime environment.

Those UWAs can be deployed in any store. Modern desktop applications can be deployed in any store. Win32 apps obviously can be deployed in any store.

GamesBeat: Tim can speak for himself, but if you view what’s being talked about here today through his lens, what is making him happy?

Spencer: The statement of openness—Likewise, I don’t want to speak for him, but I know he’s specifically asked Satya, Terry, and myself to say that Windows is an open platform. The success Windows has had has been based on anybody being able to write a game—I’ll use Minecraft. Notch wrote this Java game, stuck it on a website, put a Paypal link next to it, said “click here to download,” and now he’s a billionaire. There aren’t many ecosystems out there where something like that can happen.

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Above: Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

You have a USB port, or a serial port in the old days. You can plug a hardware peripheral in. If you have the device driver, you can plug anything you want into a PC. It’s an open ecosystem. It’s been an open ecosystem. What Tim wanted us to say is, “We’re not making these changes to the app framework to lock down anyone’s ability to distribute games and applications on the platform.” It was a verbal affirmation. That’s not what we’re doing.

Then he wanted to see it. He wanted to see somebody install one of these apps without having to come through our store. At first he came out and said you can’t do it. With TH2 we had actually—It’s always been a checkbox item for you to go in and say, “I want to enable sideloading.” We’ll change “sideloading” to a more normal term. Anyway, it’s the ability to install from anywhere. That’s on by default in TH2. Anybody can go do it already.

Then he started asking, “How as a developer do I build one of these things?” That’s why we had Kevin going through a bunch of code. The best code example to go look at on the video is probably the Sage example, where he showed Sage converted into a modern desktop app, and then it had access to notifications and Live tiles and all the protected runtime.

GamesBeat: I think he got into the question of how easy it is for the developer to create and how easy it is for the consumer to use.

Spencer: On the consumer side—That’s why I ran Age of Empires and The Witcher 3. I wanted to show that I could run the app. I don’t have to log in to a Microsoft account. I don’t have to go to the store or something. I just double-click on The Witcher and it launches. Then there’s the question of whether it’ll be gimped on framerate and other stuff. We have been working through, on our UWAs and our store, things like Gears—Even KI yesterday. Funny enough, our issue with KI today is it runs too fast. If you have an unlocked monitor running at 144Khz right now, your game will run at 144 frames per second. You get destroyed. We need to put a framerate cap in the game.

But when Gears launched and people said, “Hey, I can’t mod this thing easily”—You’ve never been able to do that. It has nothing to do with the app framework. You’ve never been able to mod Gears. But people wanted to use overlays. They were worried about performance. Some of this is just bugs and stuff we were working through because it’s early days. Gears was the second big game we shipped in the store. KI is the third. Quantum Break will be next week. I’ll be completely transparent. Just like the launch of the console—We’re shipping things. We’re taking feedback. We’re learning and moving forward. I feel like every launch has gone better. KI yesterday went really well. I have high hopes for Quantum. But on the consumer side you’ll just click an app and it runs.

GamesBeat: Can you elaborate on the modding stuff you touched on a bit with Age of Empires II? What’s the difference between a game with built-in mod support and something like, say, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines? Tons of people loved this broken-as-hell game and so they were hacking into it and doing their own stuff inside. Is something like that playable now?

Spencer: You’re right. What I showed was a fairly—Steam Workshop is what it is. Some people call them mods. Some people call them additions. Two things I’ll say on this point. I’ll use some of the injection tools that people use, the overlays, I’ll lump everything in that same base. Call them legitimate modifications, or endorsed modifications to the runtime environment.

Some of that is just those tool providers learning how to move their tool set over to work on a modern desktop application. They built it for native Win32 and, like I said, Win32 runs a little differently than an modern desktop app, the virtualization stuff we do. There’s nothing hidden from them. A developer could go enable it. It could work. There’s just work that has to be done. We’re partnering with all the people out there who want to work on this, but there’s three games out there right now. They’re prioritizing their new work. The overlays and injection guys have looked at what we’re doing and they’ll move in that direction.

The mods where we’ll probably have some discussion is, I go in and change the executable, reorder the code and inject code paths the developer didn’t originally intend. The problem is, I don’t know if that modification was to fix a broken game or to add some kind of phishing tool to the app so that now it’s capturing my passwords. I don’t know, as a developer or as a consumer, which of those it is. I’d always try to find an endorsed path by the game creator to say, “Here’s how we want people injecting code and modifications into the game and we’ll support that.” This idea that things can run amok on the machine and put malicious code—It’s hard to differentiate.

We see this today. If you go install a Windows app from the web, the number of times you just get the app you’re looking for and you don’t get the 15 other things that are—Some toolbar edition, some search default change, some taskbar icon. That’s the kind of thing we’d love to break. When I want to go buy Killer Instinct I’d rather not also download a web browser. Through our store we’ll have a very direct—When you say you want Killer Instinct we’ll give you Killer Instinct. You won’t also get five screensavers. Outside of that, people will be able to do the things they want to do.

Microsoft HoloLens dev kit debuts at Build 2016.

Above: Microsoft HoloLens dev kit debuts at Build 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: The HoloLens reel went by pretty fast. Are you showing any game experiences yet?

Spencer: No, I don’t think so. We put a couple of demo-like games in the dev kit. The thing’s $3000. We’ve tried to be clear that it’s a dev kit. I’m curious to see what the community builds with HoloLens.

As a pure game platform—I look at game platforms more in the realm of a couple hundred bucks. Those are the things that get to scale, that people play. They don’t start at $3000. It’s an early technology. Augmented reality and holograms will be a game platform. It’s just early right now. I’m not trying to tout it and say that everybody should go play HoloLens games. You see the videos of the vertical applications of where it is.

GamesBeat: Is it safe to say that all Microsoft first party games will be PC and Xbox One? Or is it still something to decide from game to game?

Spencer: I come from running first party. While certain people would love for me to say something as clean as “all of them,” the problem is—Ashes of the Singularity, a game we showcased. That’s a hardcore RTS on PC. It’s not a great controller experience. It probably requires a keyboard and mouse. Now, if I enable keyboard and mouse on a console, which we will do, and then you download that and you’re playing on a monitor, is that a PC or a console game?

I get out of saying “all” because I think there are games people want to play in front of a monitor with a keyboard and mouse and I want to be somebody that builds those games. I also think there will be games where I want to sit 10 feet away from a screen with a controller and a great sound system. I want to play those console games.

Our intent is for genres and where the creative makes sense in both spaces, we’ll put our games in both spaces. You see us doing that. But I don’t want to make it some kind of artificial mandate. Then we end up with Frankengames that weren’t meant for a certain platform. Because some suit said, “Hey, everything has to run on both platforms,” you end up with something people don’t want. You see our intent with Forza. We’ve talked about that franchise. You should expect it when franchises look like they belong on both platforms. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a mandate on the studios.

Microsoft HoloLens

Above: Microsoft HoloLens

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: What would that mean for something like Halo, a popular shooter that drives Xbox sales?

Spencer: We’ve done Halo on PC before. We did the Halo free-to-play thing in Russia. People have been trying to get us to bring it to different regions. Let me first talk specifically about Halo 5. Halo 5 shipped as a console game. Going back to what I was saying about Frankengame—The whole motion around Halo 5 was around building a console game. It was started long ago.

If we were going to do something forward and plan on both platforms—It would be like Halo Wars 2. I knew I wanted to ship that game on both platforms. Even without all this, it’s a good RTS game. It reached millions of people, the first one, by shipping on Xbox. I think it can reach tens of millions of people if we put it on Windows and console. It’s great for that game.

In terms of Halo FPS on PC, there’s a ton of opportunity for us right now, but I don’t want to get in a world where we’re looking back. It doesn’t mean there’s nothing there that could ever end up on PC, but I’d rather look forward as far as what our plans are. 343 has done a great job maintaining and growing the base for Halo on console right now with all the content updates they do, and that’s where their focus is.

GamesBeat: Bringing in mouse and keyboard, how do you account for that in something like Halo or Gears or Call of Duty on Xbox?

Spencer: I want to be clear about this, because some people ask questions about this. I’ll never force someone, in our games, who’s playing with a controller or a mouse and keyboard, to play against someone with a different control scheme. Mouse and keyboard rotation speed is faster. We know that. You’ll lose. I shipped Shadowrun. That was part of that.

But as a platform, I want to enable developers to make the choices they want to make. If we’re playing co-op together—Say we’re playing The Division. It’s not my game, but say it was a game we were running as a first party. There’s no reason you and I can’t go through a raid with me on mouse and keyboard and you on controller. We should be able to talk to each other. I want to completely enable those scenarios.

But for people who don’t want to get destroyed in, say, Halo arena matches because some guy drops in with a mouse and keyboard—We’re not going to do that. This is about putting tools in the hands of studios to make smart creative decisions on when it makes sense and doesn’t make sense.

I play Rocket League right now. I think it’s true that when I’m playing on PS4, I’m playing against PC players too. But I have the ability to filter in and out. You’ll see people go that route. You’ll see other people, if it’s in the traditional hopper playlist scenarios, who might say, “Hey, this is mixed controllers.” We’ll have to come up with a name for it. “This is keyboard and mouse only.” “This is controller only.”

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Above: Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: What about the possibility of cross-platform thinking around smartphones and tablets?

Spencer: Live is on mobile today through Smartglass. It’s on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. It does well. I look at the numbers of people who get on Xbox Live through the Smartglass app and it’s quite a few people. But they’re obviously not playing a game.

In the longer term, I want anybody who’s building a game, regardless of what device they’re on, to be able to look at Xbox Live they can come in and connect all their inputs. In the near term, our focus is on the Xbox console. We’re going to have a nice E3. The next focus is how we come to desktop. I’ll call it that. A lot of our franchises map better to desktop. A lot of our players play on both console and desktop. So let’s go after that and see what issues we run into, like control or voice communication or cross-buy, things we’re trying to enable. Let’s solve one big issue first and then look at the next wave of touch in mobile as a place we can go.

Long term strategy clearly rolls out to any place that somebody wants to play. We’re just taking a focus now on console to desktop and then moving out from there.

GamesBeat: What does dev mode on Xbox mean for developers? Do you expect that to bring in more indie devs and make that a more available platform?

Spencer: I don’t know if it will necessarily bring in more indie game devs, mainly because we have so many now. Charla and the team at ID have done a good job. When teams needed dev kits we sent out dev kits. We have thousands of indie studios building games. It seems like you can’t go a week without a few of them launching. We did our indie showcase at GDC. It’s not because I don’t want to embrace indie game devs coming in. I just think they’ve figured out how to navigate the territory.

What we’re likely to see is a lot of apps. When Apple TV opened up the app store on their fourth version this last year, there was some excitement around that. Then I looked at our Xbox base and how big it is relative to that base. I said, “We should have an open app platform.” If I’m a creator and I build a weather app, a home automation app, a traffic app—There’s a bunch of cool scenarios that app developers will go off and drive. Instead of sending dev kits out, we just figured out how to turn every Xbox into a dev kit.

My expectation is that the app category will grow. Like with any app store, you’ll have some vertical things. Somebody builds things for a specific widget or scenario in their home. Then I think you’ll have other things that are like stock tickers, or news feeds that get fed in an interesting way. That’s what I’m hoping for.

We teased this almost three years ago. Our problem was that the app model on Xbox was proprietary to us. We call it SRA, shared resource application. Those are the apps that, if you were going to go build a Netflix or YouTube app, you would build. We had to handhold you. We didn’t have a good dev platform. It wasn’t integrated into Visual Studio and all the tools developers would use. Or it was, but it was kind of a duct tape and baling wire thing.

We stepped back and said, “If app developers really want to target tens of millions of TVs, we should have it work like building any other application.” The reason we waited so long was because I wanted to get UWP to a point where I could say, “Hey, Windows developers, the millions of you that are already out there, instead of having to learn something else to put your app on Xbox, we’ve just moved Xbox over so it supports the apps you’re already building.”

We’ll see the app traffic pick up. I’m excited to see what people build. We’ll see some interesting things. We’ll probably see some games. But I expect the bigger interest will be from app developers who’ve wanted to get to television at scale. We’re going to offer a scale television platform that I don’t see in the other ecosystems right now, given the number of users and the engagement we have.

GamesBeat: This is different from ID, right? That’s the better route to go make a game.

Spencer: That’s a great question. ID@Xbox gives you access to building native Xbox games. If you’re an indie developer today and you want to build Flame in the Flood, say, go ID. Apply to the ID program. We’ll let you in. Go get the ability to build native Xbox applications. But if we look forward, I want to enable those UWA games to run as well as Flame in the Flood does as a native Xbox game in the future.

Today, the application space that a game runs in on an Xbox one is different than the full games. If you’re going to build a Unity or Unreal or some other big game, do it that way. But you’ll see UWA games coming to Xbox sooner rather than later. Using the ability to take their code base, as Kevin showed in his dialogue, and build UI layers for different platforms—What’s a lighter-weight game? One of our biggest games on Xbox Live happens to be Microsoft Solitaire. It’s massive on Xbox Live. If I was going to move Solitaire over to Xbox I probably wouldn’t move it over to be a native Xbox game. It’s just dragging cards around. I’d leave it as a UWA and run it on Xbox that way. But longer term I’d like to bring those things together.

GamesBeat: Do you have any more details on the G-Sync and FreeSync stuff you mentioned?

Spencer: We said May. We almost had it in April, but it moved, so it’ll be in May. Then support for other things—We’ll announce the dates for other things as we can. MGPU support, we have a lot of questions about SLI and CrossFire. That actually works today. There’s two modes in DirectX 12 for doing MGPU support, explicit and implicit. With implicit you take more control as the game dev on where the GPU is being used, as opposed to the standard SLI where I just flip frames back and forth. But it requires more work. A lot of the work that’s happening now is on the driver and game side, but technically MGPU already works in DirectX 12 for both Win32 and UWP. Turning off Vsync, support for G-Sync and FreeSync, that’s May. Then we’ll deal with mods and injections this summer.

A lot of the injection stuff is just us working with the third parties that do this stuff, like Overwolf. I met with them at GDC last week. They’re all excited about supporting it. It’s not against our religion. It’s just time.

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Above: Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Build 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Is there any insight you can offer into why G-Sync didn’t work at first and what it takes to make it work?

Spencer: I wish there were. It would make the story better. If you look at DirectX adoption on any generation, regretfully it takes a year-plus before you really see all of the games that are coming out fully using whatever the new one is. Sometimes up to two years. The early games that come out, whether it’s 8 or 9 or 11, they suffer through some of the early learning how to use the new technology. Most people are porting the previous version and dealing with differences.

It’s really no different this time around. The community questions are more because they see this UWP thing at the same time. Some of the conflict is, “Hey, what is UWP? What’s the store? What’s Windows 10 and what’s DirectX?” We haven’t gone through and explained whose fault is the lack of Vsync. We don’t look at it that way. But I think we’re going through the natural adoption curve of a new version of DirectX. You’ll see it take months for devs to work through all the issues because things work differently.

Some of it was just that we could have been more on top of some of the core things that PC gamers expected. My biggest concern when Tomb Raider launched was that I was going to see a review of the Win32 version next to the UWP version and the UWP version would be running at half the framerate. I knew that would be dead in the water. We didn’t see that. People bought it. It got downloaded and installed on their PC. It ran at framerate. It was a pretty game. Crystal did a great job. It was a good port. A lot of things went well. But there were things like Vsync specifically and full screen that I would loved to have seen get to that point too.

I’ll take where we landed and the misses we had and the overall scope of us moving this platform forward. I appreciate the gamers’ feedback. I listen and I’ll continue to push forward. But really it’s just the natural adoption curve of the new tech.

Beth Wilder (Courtney Hope), Jack Joyce and Nick in Quantum Break.

Above: Beth Wilder (Courtney Hope), Jack Joyce and Nick in Quantum Break.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: “Feedback” is a kind description.

Spencer: As someone who’s been in this industry for such a long time, banging my controller on the table when I die for the 50th time—This is a passionate space. The moment last year at our E3 conference where we could announce backwards compatibility and pop the roof off—You can’t take the positive passion that comes in this industry if you don’t also take the passion of people telling you what a failure you are. That’s the industry we’re in, and I love it.

The anonymity of the internet, I will say, allows people to sometimes say things that—I wish people would just understand that there are real people on the other end. But the feedback is great. I hope people keep it coming.

GamesBeat: Can you talk about your T-shirt?

Spencer: My shirt’s pretty simple. It’s a Killer Instinct shirt. We launched season three yesterday. I’ll tell the story. I’ll do it quickly, without naming names.

I’m horrible at Killer Instinct, first. I love the game, but to use a Rare term I’m rubbish at Killer Instinct. When we bought Rare, most of the people at Microsoft didn’t really know what Killer Instinct was. But Ken Lobb and I always had this idea that we would bring it back at some point. We did Perfect Dark at the launch of 360 as our revival. We also did Kameo as a new IP. But we wanted to do a new Killer Instinct.

When Xbox One was just an idea, we decided that this was our time. We wanted to rethink the model a little bit. We’d sell it in different way than a traditional fighting game, which has worked really well for us. But in the early Xbox One game reviews, where we could come rolling in with the games—This was two years or a year and a half before we launched the console. We’d start showing some of the games we wanted to bring. We showed Killer Instinct.

There were certain people on the leadership team, I will say, that were none too pleased that it was this—It felt like a 20-year-old genre that we were trying to bring back. But we’d say–First, we wanted to hit framerate. Framerate in fighting games is critical. If anybody wanted to take our platform apart, that was a great proof point. We had to keep it hidden after that meeting. It was an easy one to say, if we were trying to set priorities, that’s one we should stop.

But we kept it going and it hit launch. It hit launch and it was a good re-emergence for Killer Instinct. We had to change studios. The studio got purchased so we moved the game to a new studio. They up-rezzed the lighting models for all the arenas and they look amazing. We did season two. We added new characters. We did season three and added the Arbiter and Rash. We started to add IP from our other games. Someone teased that it’s our Super Smash Bros. now.

This worked.

Above: This worked.

Image Credit: Amazon

When they launched yesterday as cross-buy and cross-play on Windows 10, I was just so proud of Shannon Loftis and the team that’s off driving this. It was the little game inside the studios that could. It was something that people didn’t always bet on. They bet against it a little bit. Here it is having a great impact for us, as I’m standing at Build and we’re talking about cross-buy and cross-play and what it means. The reaction to it has been incredibly positive.

So for me it was just for that team. They’ve trudged along and always been the game where it’s like, “Oh, we’re still doing Killer Instinct?” I sent mail to the team last night after seeing all the reports. “Long live Killer Instinct!” And that’s why I wore the shirt. Sorry. Kind of a long insider story.

I was going to wear the Unreal shirt, like I said, but I thought somebody might—Tim would have been fine with it. He would have laughed. But I figured most of the room—There are other game engines, too. I didn’t want to be seen backing one game engine or another. John Riccitiello’s down there somewhere. I probably don’t need that.

GamesBeat: What about Xbox One and a half?

Spencer: I don’t know. Not a big fan of one and a half. I think about what happens in most spaces. If I’m going to move forward, I want to move forward in big numbers.

GamesBeat: Twenty-seven!

Spencer: There you go. But I don’t know anything about any of the rumors out there. I can understand other teams’ motivations, why they might want to go do that. But for us, our box is doing well. It performs. It’s reliable. The service is up. If we go forward with anything I want to make it a substantial change.


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