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Analysis: Will Harrison hire boost Microsoft?

If Microsoft was looking to ratchet up the stakes in its ongoing battle with Sony, it sure managed to do so with Tuesday's hiring of Phil Harrison, says Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris.
If Microsoft was looking to ratchet up the stakes in its ongoing battle with Sony, it sure managed to do so with Tuesday's hiring of Phil Harrison. In addition to filling the Redmond-based company's quota of tall, bald game industry superstars, Harrison brings an insight into how things work at Sony that Microsoft has had to guess at for years. And, after being out of the spotlight for the past few years, he's likely coming in hungry to make his mark. Harrison, after all, has essentially been a ghost for this console cycle. In 2008 -- just 15 months after the launch of the PlayStation 3 -- he confounded the video game world by leaving his position as president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios to work for Atari. After two turbulent years at that company, he left to join fellow Atari alum David Gardner at London Venture Partners to explore the venture capital world, eventually becoming a member of the advisory board at David Perry's Gaikai. (He has since resigned that position, according to Harrison's LinkedIn page.) Now Harrison has a chance to reclaim the standing of his glory days -- and Microsoft will be eager to help him do so. The next generation console war will kick off in the next few years, depending on how you define the start of that battle. Wii U should hit shelves this year. Microsoft's next system will likely land in holiday 2013, while Sony's PS4 is largely expected in 2014. That's not a lot of time, but it's sufficient for someone like Harrison to make some key moves. Content has always been key in the gaming world, but with constricted publisher budgets and new competition in the market, the need for consoles to have hit properties is more crucial than ever. The days of third party publishers launching a title exclusively on one system are largely gone, since the economics no longer make sense. That leaves it up to first party publishers to offer catalogs that will lure fence sitters, which means first-party teams are going to have to be top rate. One of Harrison's chief strengths is his ability to spot new talent and game ideas. Assuming he hasn't lost that touch, it could give Microsoft a leg up as it explores new IP and strengthens its internal development. Need proof? Just look at his track record. We in the press corps might all have scoffed a bit on his fondness for SingStar several years ago, but it was, in many ways, the launch of the mass market music game genre (predating Guitar Hero by a year). His full support of Little Big Planet developer Media Molecule ushered in an era of user generated content that's still expanding. As for his love of rubber ducks, well... some mysteries are best left unanswered. What's especially encouraging for Microsoft is Harrison chose to stick with gaming's old guard in his return. His advisory role at Gaikai seemed to indicated another traditional gaming mind was on the cusp of leaving consoles behind and moving onto a new area. That was further foreshadowed by his evangelism of the future of social, mobile and browser-based games and platform. "If this conference was called 'Game Publishers Conference' I think everyone would be in the bar crying into their beer and being just miserable," he said at last year's GDC. "Without naming names, if I was a chief executive at one of the major traditional publishers, I'd be really challenging my leadership team as to how to change the company." Going from that frame of mind to one that embraces traditional gaming machines is not a move Harrison would have made casually. Whatever Microsoft showed him in rumored Xbox 360 successor "Durango," it was enough to get him to reconsider his past comments -- and his future. Of course, the flipside to that school of thinking is even more intriguing. Could Harrison have convinced Microsoft that this new model was something Durango should embrace -- as well as core games? In that 2011 GDC talk, he pined for a packaged goods company that was willing to reinvent itself -- and underscored the threat that Apple presented to the industry at large. We'll know more in the months and years to come. But with his thoughts on the future and his historical knowledge of what went right and wrong behind the scenes at Sony, Harrison could help Microsoft be an even bigger force to be reckoned with in the gaming industry in the next generation.

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