A Xbox Sequel Begins
In September of 2017, Phil Spencer was promoted to the Senior Leadership Team at Microsoft reporting directly to CEO Satya Nadella. At the very moment that was announced, astute members of the gaming community felt that Microsoft perhaps closed the book on one era of their Xbox gaming division, and in earnest, would start to write the sequel.
Gone would be the Xbox as the ‘centre of the living room’, the wider business unit reporting to the Windows division, fighting for budget and autonomy. Instead, they would be something else. What this new story would be, however, had continued to be shrouded behind a fog of mystery that has kept even the most enthusiastic fans guessing and debating as to what Xbox was or would become.
Do consoles matter? Does Microsoft still believe in exclusives? What types of games would they prioritize? How are they going to ensure better quality results from their 1st party relative to the past?
Yesterday, nearly five months after the launch of the Xbox Series S and X, Microsoft held potentially their finest gaming production in this digitally distanced era and conveyed some of their clearest messaging in years during a roundtable session with the newly acquired Bethesda studios.
The Question of Exclusivity Leads to Game Pass
The biggest question leading up to the roundtable was whether Bethesda games would be exclusive.
There is a substantive justification for fans wanting exclusives that goes beyond immature bragging rights. For years, console gamers have been trained to know that exclusive content is one of the driving forces for platform adoption. Due to this, exclusives were often where platform holders would swing for the fences with either innovative experiences or genre defining games that you couldn’t get anywhere else.
After a half generation of limited attempts at making these types of games, many fans and media questioned whether Microsoft would have a commitment to still swing for the fences. Keeping games exclusive is a sign that Microsoft believes they are funding content that will drive platform adoption. Once Phil Spencer gets the disclaimers regarding prior contractual obligations out of the way, he says:
In a single statement, Spencer is able to convey a couple of things: Xbox consoles still matter today and that Game Pass is the platform they’re focused on driving the platform forward. The evidence that Game Pass is now the winning horse of Microsoft’s gaming division was already in plain sight.
In this fiscal year, the only gaming metric connected to Satya Nadella’s compensation is Game Pass subscriptions. Not gaming revenue nor console sales. Yet by saying that they will only bring Bethesda games to platforms that have Game Pass, they showed that the Xbox is still an important leg to the stool for Game Pass adoption while remaining committed to platform defining experiences.
Empowering Daring Creators Through a Wider Audience
As Sarah Bond, VP of Gaming Ecosystems at Microsoft talks about how Game Pass will expand across devices, become more accessible and make games discoverable by more people, Todd Howard excitedly jumped in.
“Consumers see Game Pass as give me games but then as a creator, it really unlocks some things that maybe you wanted to do, or will this find an audience or there’s certain types of games that maybe in the past could kind of get lost sometimes..and having that kind of avenue to make a game and release a game opens up so many things that our company and all our studios really, really love to do. From the creator side it’s also just awesome!”Todd Howard, Executive Producer, Bethesda Studios
In that moment, Todd Howard highlights potentially Microsoft’s most significant ‘secret sauce’ of this upcoming generation. Last year, in the lead up to the new consoles launching, gaming enthusiasts often found themselves debating the virtues of more teraflops or faster SSDs within the next generation hardware.
Based on our conversations with developers, it’s a popular belief that the number one thing holding developers back isn’t PC or console hardware. It’s the board room. Taking expensive risks in the current AAA gaming market has become more difficult as costs have risen and consumers tend to opt for more proven experiences.
By reducing the risk and broadening the audience that can try these games, a talented studio like Arkane doesn’t have to worry about whether 5 million people will pay $60 or $70 for their game to be green-lit while expanding their fanbase through discovery at the same time. Spencer emphasizes that variety would also be the key.
“We don’t need 15 games that are trying to do the same thing. We would like to try 30 different things across 15 different games.“Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox
A Culture of Creativity, Community and Collaboration
Matt Booty repeated a theme that has been consistent since he’s taken over as head of Xbox First Party Studios and Microsoft started their acquisition spree. “When you think of the studios we’ve acquired over the past few years, so many of them are creator led, the founders are game designers, the founders are game creators, and most of the culture flows down from that creative aspect, from that game design aspect….as we’ve met with the Bethesda studios, it really has stood out that it’s the same for your studios.” He then goes on to emphasize the messaging from Satya Nadella after the acquisition of Mojang “We have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from us. Our job isn’t to force a culture on them. Games…the environment in which they are designed is so critical and the last thing we want to do is upset that.”
In the early days after the intent to purchase Bethesda was announced, there were questions about how a publisher would integrate. Would jobs be lost? Erin Losi, VP of Marketing and Communications sits next to the Xbox Game Studios marketing lead – Aaron Greenberg – during the roundtable. This is a clear public signal that there are no actual redundancies. Greenberg accentuates the point talking to Losi – “You have not been shy about telling us less of this, more of that!”, which in turn is letting us know: the learning doesn’t stop at the studio level.
Beyond that, Losi emphasizes the personal relationship they want to have with their fans.
“We never want to have our fans feel like they’re being talk to. We look at it as people are just as important of the games”.Erin Losi, Bethesda Publishing
As this presentation continues, there is a continued emphasis on consistently maintaining communication with their fans and including them in their culture. Nothing emphasized this better than when they told how 3000 fans at a Quakecon were the first to ever see the new Doom rather than have it shown for the first time at a large media event.
Everything Bethesda studios bring to the table from a creative and technical standpoint becomes more exciting due to a culture that knows how to collaborate and pass their learnings on to others. Throughout the recorded presentations from studio leaders, the theme of collaboration and teamwork was a constant.
Examples includes a young Machine Games spending three weeks at id Software to learn best practices and borrow their technology, Zenimax Online Studios pitching in with Fallout 76 and Doom 2016; their mid-winter meetings in which all the studios get together to impress each other with early work and share tips or Tango Gameworks having some fun creating a character in Doom 2016.
As Microsoft has been attempting to implement technology sharing and collaboration with their other studios, they now have the opportunity to learn from teams doing it longer in addition to the talent and technology they’ve added to their creative arsenal.
A Technological Embarrassment of Riches
In addition to growing the creative talent through studio acquisitions, an area that has flown under the radar publicly has been the amount of technology Microsoft continues to assemble for game development purposes. Spencer showed a giddiness when talking about ID Tech.
“There’s no studio that sweats every pixel and frame on screen as ID does…When I think of them talking and working with the Coalition and 343, the first person shooter the third person shooter space we have the studios that are there, there’s amazing capability. The future of ID tech and what that could mean inside of Xbox. I love the way Marty talked about how they’ve collaborated with other Bethesda studios and I just think about that to the next level. What can we do inside our organization with ID tech which is one of the worlds best game engines out there and just make it a tool that so many developers can use to realize their vision.”Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox
Microsoft already has an impressive stack of support studios, tools and continues to invest heavily in areas like video game AI. They lacked a versatile game engine prior to the Bethesda purchase. Now it appears their stack of technology and talent covers the spectrum of game development needs and lends to exciting possibilities for all 23 studios as there doesn’t appear to be a technical weakness that at least one studio won’t have an answer for.
Xbox’s Best Generation?
An hour and fifteen minutes after the Xbox Roundtable begins, Microsoft ends their event with a gaming montage. This time it’s focused strictly on their now 23 strong first party studios. As clips from these games roll and the other fifteen studios snap back into focus, you start to think of the possibilities.
Could id Software step in to help The Initiative? What could Arkane do with their sandbox game design working with Microsoft’s AI teams? This talent, tools and technology stack for Xbox Game Studios could become a sum that’s greater than its parts!
Coming off a forgettable generation, Xbox certainly have a lot to prove, but it’s hard to deny the potential of this platform holders sequel. One thing is certain, that finally it’s games. Games are driving the conversation, the investment and the teams at Xbox. A laser focused Microsoft with a clear vision is something we’ve all wanted to see, and while Game Pass subscriptions are the true end goal here, great games is how they’ll get there. During this roundtable, Phil Spencer makes it clear how he believes they’re going to achieve that.
“It’s something Robert and I talked a lot about leading up to this, of how do we go create a world-class creative organization together and kind of in his memory, I want to deliver on that.”