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Microsoft's Spencer shines a light on Xbox One's evolution

Spencer sat down with Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft for a fireside chat about the platform -- but his answers, when taken as whole, point to the fact that the Xbox One is still a work in progress.

Christian Nutt

March 21, 2014

10 Min Read

How does Microsoft look at game developers? That question was never explicitly asked in Kris Graft's fireside chat with Microsoft Studios' Phil Spencer, but it lay at the core of the majority of their conversation. The Gamaustra editor-in-chief repeatedly pressed the MS man to clarify the Xbox One platform holder's policies and plans moving forward. That, however, revealed that the company's thinking around the platform is still evolving -- and that while change is sure to come to its policies and the Xbox One itself, that change is still very much under consideration, and in many cases is not soon to happen. There was a fair share of evasiveness or glibness to some of Spencer's answers: The bad pre-launch period is pretty much a closed book for him: "I took a lot of learning myself," said Spencer, and that was really that. The inevitable Steam Machines conversation contained anything but a discussion of how Valve's entrance into the living room might affect the viability of the console business. And he wouldn't speak about whether Titanfall did anything for the success of Xbox One as a platform, as was obviously intended by signing that exclusivity deal with EA. VR? Sony's Project Morpheus? It's "cool," but that's about it.

What He Did Talk About: Developers

That said, Spencer was also reflective on the company's relationship with developers, and aware that the company's policies and the Xbox One platform will need to evolve to meet their needs this generation. Some important parts of it, like the ID@Xbox platform allowing for independent developers to self-publish on Xbox one, are simply, obviously not ready. "Our plan around the independent developer program has actually been here since the beginning," said Spencer. The problem is that it could only launch "when we were going to be ready to support these developers completely." "As a platform owner, our strategy is to bring the best games to the platform. That's success for the platform. It's about selling as many consoles as you can," he said. Indies are a big part of that, he maintained. But the ID@Xbox program is at present overtaxed, he admitted. "To some extent -- this isn't an excuse -- but the response that we've had and simply servicing the people who have signed up for the program is taking all of our bandwidth." He said that its director, Chris Charla, and his team are doing good work -- but right now, they're also doing all they can to keep up. He outlined the company's plan as first concentrating on servicing the developers who have already been accepted into the program -- playing their games, giving feedback -- and "further down the road" implementing things like the ability to devleop for Xbox One using a retail console and improving discoverability options for indie games on the platform.

No More Xbox Live Arcade Thinking?

The advent of the independent, self-sufficient developer is upon us. That makes Xbox less important as a publisher, said Spencer. In the prior generation, Microsoft funded a lot of independent games. "You now have developers who are able... through other means of funding" to create their games, Spencer said. "This need for us to have a publisher layer is less prevalent than it was on the 360 generation." "We know there is going to be a lot of content coming in at those price points that doesn't have to be curated by us," he said. "The developers will have a more direct relationship with the consumer." "We treat games as games, regardless of who brought them to the platform," Spencer said. This implied lack of content control is great for developers who have ideas Microsoft would never have funded in the first place, but it's less of a compelling answer for developers who need money to make games. While he didn't explicitly say the company won't be funding games -- and it still is -- it does imply there may be a hole there. While "smaller games from us that have come out and done incredibly well," he said, "the need for us to platform-fill in that space is gone." Ironically, the success of independent developers Microsoft helped foster last generation means that it's not as interested in doing so during this one.

Evolving What a Console Platform Can Do

On one hand Spencer was very open to evolving the platform and called out relationships he's built as being fundamental to gaining a new understanding of what consoles can do. For example, he said he's learned a lot from Mojang with Minecraft on Xbox 360, and its needs as regards updates and ongoing development. The World of Tanks relationship has taught him a lot about free-to-play. He spoke of "business model innovation that requires a different relationship between platform, consumer, developer" being a focus of Microsoft on Xbox One. But he also spoke about the need to present a polished console experience to players who expect one. "One of the benefits of console gaming traditionally has been that when I turn on the box, it boots up and it plays, and I'm not really worried. There's a certain stability to the OS for a console that we consider sacred," he said, to both consumers and developers: "A tighter control over what software is running on the box" which exists not for a "nefarious goal, just making sure the box is running stable." On the other hand, Spencer recognized that in the "traditional console space, we're going to have to step forward into the current generation of gaming to support that completely, and it's all part of the program." PC and mobile developers are wildly innovating on business and distribution, and the closed nature of consoles makes it hard for them to keep up. He specifically outlined analytics and BI, social channels, and different business models as areas to address with Xbox. Microsoft is "learning through our relationships with people," Spencer said. "Games that have a very tight update cycle, what is their internal mechanism? How we, as a platform holder, can learn from their cycle... We want to build a program that actually supports what game developers need." When working with developers who have innovative ways doing things, "you start with a fundamental, just trying to build trust," said Spencer. Then you begin to show them what you can offer: "Can you bring the things that come traditionally from the console space and make us more successful on console?"

Paid Alphas on Xbox?

Everyone knows that DayZ and Rust are hugely successful paid alpha games right now. Could the Xbox platform support something like that, one day? He understands the reasons developers love these models: They're "a way for developers to get some oxygen in -- a.k.a. money -- while they're developing their game," he said, and there's an advantage in the fact that "the community defines what the game turns into." Spencer spoke of "an area of evolution that we platform holders will go through during this generation where we help developers fund their games," which sounds tantalizing. "We have a large community of gamers through Xbox Live who came to our platform every day," said Spencer. "Letting them have a voice in what games get built is a great opportunity." "It's not something ... we have a firm plan for today," he admitted, however. "That's one of the areas that will definitely evolve." But he's also leery of exposing console gamers to rough, uncompleted games. "Today, a game is a game is a game. There's some expectation of what a game is, and the state of its completeness" on consoles. "You'd want to be clear, you'd need to be clear to the consumer that these are things in a different state than the things that sit over there." Still, even with that fear, "we see that this is something pretty critical to us unlocking over the course of the generation," Spencer said.

A Fearful Embrace of the Market

Spencer knows that console marketplaces need to improve -- but Microsoft also hesitant to open up the floodgates. "The free store when anything lands and you compete on quality is fundamentally a good thing," he said. "We want to get to the point where we support that. We're not there yet." On the other hand, he said, "when I turn on my TV, I want to make sure there's a consistent, curated experience -- which has been fundamental to what consoles is about." He joked about "1,000 iFart apps" on the iOS App Store as a problem he doesn't want to have. But console development is more complicated and focused than iOS development, he recognized: "the universe of people who create consoles games is a little bit smaller." From Microsoft's perspective, "It's about focusing on those people, servicing those people." That does not, however, really give a good indication of just how things will evolve. He hopes that Xbox can "increase the surface area between developer and gamer as much as is possible," to engender close relationships between them. He wants to deliver "tools for the relationship with gamers" via the ID@Xbox program. "I think the power here is in social," said Spencer. "Finding he tools that lock to what the gamers and your friends are saying." "We want people to find Super Time Force, but it probably won't be the same way that you find Titanfall," he said. Still, an answer is far from ready -- or even being concretely discussed, at least publicly. He also said that the launch parity policy -- in which games can't launch via ID@Xbox if they're already out on other platforms -- is of much discussion at GDC, though he was careful to even imply that it would change. "The platform parity is about making sure that when they buy an Xbox," players get "the best independent games" which are "state-of-the-art and new," he said. But he also recognizes that some developers "can't afford to develop on both platforms simultaneously." And if they pick another, they may be locked out permanently. That's a real problem for Microsoft in the long run, he and his colleagues must realize, and it isn't clear whether they do truly understand that just yet.

Contradictions and Evolutions

Overall, Spencer gave the continuous impression of wanting everything -- sometimes seemingly contradictory things -- but promising not too much. He directly addressed indie developers but seemed most excited by triple-A games, calling them "unique to the console space" and talking up their "massive, massive consumer demand." He said, "we want to be a place where those big games can succeed." And while he said that GDC is great, he also said that right now his eyes are on the battle ahead at E3. This makes sense -- he's Microsoft's software guy, not its platform guy. His problem is making that stage show sizzle. Maybe putting him on stage at GDC just wasn't the right call. Regardless, we could pick up on this: The Xbox One is in a larval state as a platform, despite its massive launch. Many of its more sophisticated services aren't ready yet, and truly nuanced platform thinking seems to be still a ways off for the company. Right now, for all of its technical sophistication and talk of convergence and evolution is a box pitched at the audience of gamers the company cultivated in the last generation, who want Halo and Gears of War. That prevents Spencer from talking solutions, and that mentality also prevents him from making meaningful promises.

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