[In a wide-ranging interview, Microsoft Game Studios corporate VP Phil Spencer tells Gamasutra that he "feels pretty good" about Kinect pre-release buzz, but admits the camera's success is an unknown "until [it's] out there and people are actually buying."
The evolution of the Xbox brand is officially arriving next week, as Microsoft finally launches the much-hyped Kinect body-scanning camera for Xbox 360.
Years of research and millions of dollars have been spent on the device, which Microsoft hopes will finally capture a casual audience that has, for the most part, eluded the core-focused Halo
purveyor since the original Xbox's launch in 2001.
As with any brand new commercial technology, there's no amount of money that a company can throw towards marketing that can ensure the success of a device like Kinect.
Microsoft Game Studios corporate VP Phil Spencer was candid when he told Gamasutra, "As somebody who’s been in the entertainment business for awhile now, it’s not until you’re out there and people are actually buying" will Microsoft know for sure consumers' reaction.
In a new interview less than two weeks before Kinect's launch, a candid Spencer addresses lingering questions about Microsoft's pursuit of the mass market, the company's dedication to the still-loyal core Xbox 360 gamer, and whether people actually want a controller-free experience.
Now that Kinect is coming out, you guys are obviously putting a lot of your resources behind it. Where exactly do the priorities of Microsoft Game Studios lie right now? How much focus is on the Kinect and more casual games compared to the hardcore games like Halo or Gears of War?
Well, I’m very proud with how Halo Reach
has done in the market. That was a long undertaking. We worked with Bungie really hard to make that game be what it is, and it’s nice to see the review scores and the consumers have definitely showed up, which is nice. And Fable
is shipping [this] week, another one of our core franchises.
The core has been core to our success from the beginning. We get that. It wasn’t by accident. And when I think about how we can continue to evolve our platform, adoption by the core of our new technologies is really important to us.
We know that that core audience is usually made up of the early adopters, and they're people that will give us vocal feedback on what’s working and not working, be that something we do on Live or something like Kinect or a new console or a new controller. This is a very engaged customer who has a voice. So just as entertainment, the core franchises are really important to us and the success that we’ve had. Continuing to push innovation in those franchises is important. And that’s true for Kinect as well as non-Kinect games.
So what do you see, as far as Kinect goes, that is catering to the core audience at launch?
I would characterize myself as a core gamer. I’m somebody who’s really looking forward to playing Fallout: New Vegas
, so I guess that characterizes me as core.
A lot of it is personal taste. I enjoy games that have depth and progression, and I feel like get better at something physically and that actually makes me better at the game over time in the natural game constructs. But Joy Ride
is definitely something that I play, and I feel like I get better and better, and now we have pretty good head-to-head competitions in the office. And you can tell when someone is actually a better Joy Ride
player than somebody else is, and to me that’s kind of part of what being a core game is about.
Same thing with some of the sports games. If Kudo [Tsudnoda, Kinect creative director] and I were to stand up...and even something as trivial as doing the 100-meter dash, we have kind of figured out how to make the 100-meter dash run as fast as we possibly can, and we sweat like pigs...
So there are definitely depth experiences there that catch what I think of as somebody who wants to get better at something and then progress, and I think people like it.
But it’s games, man. You ship something, and sometimes it takes of unexpectedly, and sometimes it doesn’t do as well as you thought. That’s what’s fun about the industry.
So do you feel that you guys are addressing all of the different markets with your launch titles? Do you feel like there’s something for the core gamer, the casual gamer, the sports gamer, etc.?
First of all, you probably won’t believe this, but we didn’t build the launch portfolio that way. We built four of the games, and you’ve got 17 launch games, so obviously third parties showed up with 13 other games. I have no input over what those guys are doing. Third parties will build what they think is going to work on the platform.
For our first-party experiences, really what we did is -- and people probably know this from when Natal started off, using the old code name -- we had a Burnout
experience that we were using to show people how it would work.
And that was taking the shipping Burnout
code and simply hacking the controller interface to allow Natal to control it. And then that’s where driving really works. And we had Joy Ride already in development. Then we took the same technology and applied it to Joy Ride
and we’re having a lot of fun, because your whole body can control the car. It was a cool experience.
But the portfolio was really built around the experiences themselves. I do think there’s something for everybody there. But people will get to try them out. We’re putting stuff in a lot of different places. People can go and try it at a friend’s house or at retail, and they’ll fun the stuff that they like. Or they won’t, and they’ll tell us that.
And we’re committed to this over multiple years, so we’re going to keep building new things, and I hope the customers are there.
So when you look at the PlayStation Move and some of the games that they had at their launch, they’re very similar to what you have. But then they’re also looking to implement their technology in the upcoming SOCOM game or patching it into games like LittleBigPlanet and Heavy Rain -- some games that are aimed at more mature audiences. Are you guys concerned that you haven’t really addressed that as much?
Well, you hit something core earlier on with the question about controller versus no controller, that some of the other technologies out there are basically just another form of controller. So you can think about taking some controls that were mapped in a standard controller and just mapping them to a different kind of controller. And it’s still just another controller, and yeah, that could work.
The best Kinect experiences that we’ve found are things that were really created from the ground up to take advantage of the technology. And there are some things that we mentioned, like Joy Ride
, that we actually kind of found a new path along development, but almost everything else was really created from the beginning. And I think that’s important. People want new. They want new experiences.
With the Kinect games that Microsoft Game Studios is developing -- those are all exclusively for use with Kinect? Or are you guys exploring being able to use the controller in conjunction with Kinect?
There’s nothing about the technology that precludes us from putting a controller into the experience. Early on, when we started Kinect, it was, “Can we really create experiences that don’t require a controller?” And we challenged ourselves creatively. So that’s why you see such a push for that at launch. But obviously the microphones are on in the sensor when you have the controller in your hands, so voice would work. Gesture would work. It understands what your skeleton looks like. So for us, this is just future opportunity for us to do stuff.
The nice thing is, you now have completely controller-free, you’ve got controller -- you’ve really just increased the toolset that the creators have to work with. And I think that’s going to lead to better games.
I've been watching this right here, Kinectimals. It's a pretty interesting game.
That one I think is a sleeper. People have looked at fitness and sports and dance, and those work really well, so I think people naturally gravitate to those, both as consumers as well as creators. And you see, there are good lineups there. But Kinectimals
is a game that Frontier really I think took something unexpected, and it’s nice to watch people light up.
Are you worried at all about people trying to relearn how to walk basically, because we’ve been using controllers for all of 30 years? Even motion controls like the Wii or the PlayStation Move, you have something in your hand.
Yeah, you do.
So even though it is intuitive, are you worried about them still not really getting, "Wait, there’s nothing that I’m holding?"
Well, but let’s be clear: You say that we all know how to use a joystick; that’s not true. Right?
You do, I do. We’ve grown up and we know that gas is right trigger and brake is left trigger, right? We know that. Nobody tells us that. We sit down and play the next racing game. But that's not natural.
But your point I think is still extremely valid. This is the beginning of a platform. And what at launch you see are experiences and creators trying different things and seeing how they work. We have found that the most intuitive experiences are when the game learns what you’re trying to do and makes that happen.
In Joy Ride
, you can steer with your hands next to each other, three feet apart, you can move your upper body to steer left and right, you can twist your hands and it will steer left and right. And this is all from the developers of the game actually asking people, “Well, if you were going to steer a car, what would you do?” And then they actually built the code to [accommodate that]. ... So, unlike “right trigger is gas and left trigger is brake,” where it’s a very direct manipulation, they kind of blur what happens so more people can use the experience.
And I think that’s an opportunity. I think [Tetsuya] Mizuguchi’s game [Child of Eden
] is a perfect example because that’s a very otherworldly experience, and yet it’s incredibly fun. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.
Do you guys have any sort of mandate among your first-party developers [to develop Kinect games]?
So they don’t have to be making a Kinect game at some point.
ships next week, and it’s not a Kinect game. I think I said this a year ago: I think there’s opportunity in Fable
for things that make sense with Kinect. But it’s ... a trivial equation... that people buy great games. And they buy the platforms that those great games show up on.
We’ve been committed -- definitely on the first-party side, and third parties have done a great job here as well -- in making sure that our experiences are as good as we know how to make them. It doesn’t mean they’re always going to be great; we’re human.
And that’s not born out of us putting mandates that a game has to be a certain length, a certain color, use a certain control scheme, “A” must do something, or even dictating Xbox Live.
What we think we do is we unlock potential, and the creators usually want to take advantage of things like Live. And you’ve seen now that Live shows up in almost every one of games, not because I stop on top and say, “You have to.” But they just see the opportunity that’s there.
I think honestly that’s really what you’re going to see with Kinect. But I don’t want to force it into places it doesn’t belong.
Do you guys worry about segmenting the Xbox audience now by introducing this product that not everyone is going to purchase?
You mean the install base.
Exactly. So you’ve got all of these people who have Xboxes, and they can play any Xbox game, but there’s only going to be a certain fragment of people who have Kinect and can play these Kinect-only games. Are you worried about having your development resources focused on these products that not everyone who has an Xbox will be able to experience?
Honestly, we don’t worry about it. Obviously, when you’re building a game, you recognize that some people are connected to Live, some people aren’t, some people have Kinect, some people don’t, some people have two controllers, some people have one. There are differences in a setup in the home, and you just have to be conscious of that. Some people have high def, some people don’t.
So you want to make sure that when you put a game out, it clearly explains to people on the box what’s there, what they’re buying. For us, it’s really about -- especially in first party -- we want to highlight the new.
We’re about moving the ball forward, kind of lighting the path maybe for third party -- that’s probably too egotistical -- but we jumped on Kinect early as the first party, because that’s our role. We’re going to try to build some really great experiences, and not all of them will work, but I think we ended up with some nice games at launch.
And that’s what we will do. Third parties will pick what they’re going to support based on what happens with customers. And the customer reaction to date: nobody’s bought Kinect yet. But what we hear from retail and just the buzz that’s out there, we feel pretty good. But as somebody who’s been in the entertainment business for awhile now, it’s not until you’re out there and people are actually buying. I’m not counting anything at this point.
But that’s where third parties will follow. And we want to move that, and then third party will come.
How do you guys feel about going up against Nintendo as a first-party developer in the motion-control space? They’ve had a few years of experience at this point, and people know their products.
Well, I’m going to step back and just say, Nintendo as a first party is an incredibly talented organization. They’ve historically, as well as today, made some of the best games that have ever been made. So as somebody who’s in charge of a first party, they’re a model to look at, and the franchises that they’ve created and that have lasted for so long. I mean, that’s impressive.
In terms of going up against them in a space -- and you said this -- I think what they do is fundamentally different than what we do. We’re not trying to use a different controller. This is about your body and really your mind, controlling your body directly, completely immersed in the experience that’s onscreen. And that is just fundamentally different than what other people are doing.
Is Microsoft looking to patch any previously released games to be used with Kinect?
You’re not trying to do that, like the Move.
No. I want to create new. I want to create new experiences. I do think existing franchises have opportunities. We showed Forza
as something that we’ve obviously shipped before, and we’re very proud with the track record of that franchise.
But yeah, going back to franchises that people have already purchased and, I don’t know, trying to get them to purchase them again...
Is that something that could be technically possible, say with third parties, if third parties wanted to do that?
They could. There’s nothing that keeps somebody from doing that through a title update. It’s one of the nice things about having an online connection to the customer. Or I guess rereleasing something at retail if they so chose to do that.
What do you see as the future of the controller? Does that become a relic of the past, or do you look at Kinect as almost a parallel path to games that still use the traditional controller?
I think it creates just a bigger canvas, to use that term. Because I’m actually fond of our controller -- of course I would say that -- but I’m fond of other controllers as well. But much like you said, there’s a large population out there that are very dexterous with dual thumbs and can use a controller to do some very unnatural things on the screen very quickly.
And that’s a good thing. I think the controller is going to be an important part of our ecosystem for quite awhile. With the functionality that Kinect adds, I really think you just end up with a larger surface area.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your developers in Japan. You recently announced about five new games at Tokyo Game Show.
All Japanese-developed. That’s the first time we’ve stood onstage in Japan and our whole Microsoft keynote was made up of Japanese developers.
So what was the motivation behind that, behind corralling all of these Japanese developers together? Are you trying to increase your mindshare in Japan, or are you looking at it globally?
You know, a little bit behind the curtain: We didn’t plan it. We did not plan for the keynote to be 10 Japanese creators. What we said was we wanted to go to the Tokyo Game Show -- which is a really important show -- and we’d shown a lot of what we were launching with, and we wanted to start to unveil some things that people hadn’t seen before. And we started to look at a lot of what we had in development -- it just turns out that we’ve actually found a lot of really creative ideas have come from Japan.
So we started to go through the pacing of what we were going to show from first party, and then what third parties were going to be there. And I’ll be honest and say that we thought about, “Well, maybe we’ll add some stuff,” and blur our Japanese message.
But when we ended up with the time that you have, which is an hour, and 10 great Japanese-created games, we decided to run with that. But it wasn’t notional from the beginning. It was actually just something that was born organically out of the games that we had.
Which was nice. It’s nice to see both Kinect showing up in Japan so well in the creative community and getting the support as an American company in Japan for such great creators in Japan. It’s nice.
You were recently quoted as calling 3D television a "science experiment"....
[laughs] You mean my hate on 3D?
I wouldn’t call it hate necessarily....
Some people did. But I did call it a science experiment.
But you also said that Microsoft was still looking into the technology and doing what the consumer might be interested in. What do you see as the relationship between Microsoft and the Xbox and 3D TVs going forward?
That interview we actually did in Tokyo, and it was interesting, the timing of it coming out. I was reading the way people reacted to it, which wasn’t exactly what I meant.
I’ll be very open: We’ve had first-party games running in 3D in the studios. And the console is completely capable of handling 3D gaming. You’ve seen that with things like Batman
and other games showing up that support 3D.
My main point was that for most people on the planet right now, even if the game supports it, their home environment does not. And as a publisher of games, trying to -- I used the weird term before -- “chart the way” and let third parties see what might be possible, you want to go to places where there are actually large markets.
Kinect is something we can actually sell to people at a reasonable price point. And we say we really think this creates something new. 3D, we really can’t do that. I can’t enable your house for 3D. And where the technology is right now, if we’re all going to sit there with our glasses on, I just think.... It’s cool, and I played Batman
all the way through with my 3D glasses on, but it’s hard to me to see this as really being accessible.
But the technology makes a ton of sense. And it’s something that we continue to.... We’re not at all closing our eyes to the technology.
You’re taking a wait-and-see approach.
The market needs to be there. As a content creator, the market needs to be there for the content to make sense.
Have you explored any of the possibilities between 3D and Kinect?
Yeah. And I think it’s an interesting place to think about 3D input with 3D output. It creates some cool scenarios. And this is stuff people in the deep bowels of the studios are working on, just kind of pushing....
That’s where things like Kinect come from. Kinect is something that had been in the works for years, and finally we get to the point where, hey, we think we can come out at a price point that makes sense and experiences that are truly differentiated. And the idea of 3D input and 3D output seems very compelling to me. But it’s got to be at a point where it makes sense in a normal household.