It’s now been over six years since the troubled launch of the Xbox One and another 10 months or so until we see the release of Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. Yet despite all that, we’ve never seen a platform holder less in need of a next-gen boost than Microsoft is now.
That confidence came through in every interview, and casual chat, we had at Microsoft’s X019 meeting late last year. Across the board there’s momentum, fresh ideas and a sense of focus around Microsoft’s gaming arm at present. The platform is buzzing.
The current Xbox One X is among the best console designs of all time, the new console looks ground-breaking, the xCloud preview is progressing well, Xbox Game Pass is the closest thing gaming has to Netflix, and the company’s swathe of studio acquisitions are starting to bring their creative firepower to bear.
In charge of the latter is Matt Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios, who we caught up with to discuss how Microsoft’s now 15 internal studios were faring, how they fit into the plan for the Series X and whether any more acquisitions were on the cards.
It would be easy to think that Microsoft’s veritable army of developers would be targeting the Series X’s launch day. But Booty agrees with us when we propose that this will be a very different kind of console launch, with first-party games being compatible across all Microsoft’s hardware, existing and new, ending the usual platform reset we’ve seen in the past with such launches.
“As our content comes out over the next year, two years, all of our games, sort of like PC, will play up and down that family of devices,” Booty explains. “We want to make sure that if someone invests in Xbox between now and [Series X] that they feel that they made a good investment and that we’re committed to them with content.”
And that means it’s also unlikely that there will be much pressure, from Microsoft at least, on third-party publishers to turn out hardware-exclusive titles for the relatively small day-one audience of Xbox Series X owners. In short, Microsoft is rewriting the rules of the console launch.
Of course, the company will still be wanting to show off its new hardware to best effect. “Our approach is to pick one or two IP that we’re going to focus on and make sure that they’re there at the launch of the console, taking advantage of all the features. And for us that’s going to be Halo Infinite, which is a big opportunity.
“It’s the first time in over 15 years that we’ll have a Halo title launching in sync with a new console. And that team is definitely going to be doing things to take advantage of [Series X].”
We’re yet to see in what ways Infinite will utilise Series X’s huge rumoured power. But it will be the first test to see if Microsoft’s new first-party army can compete with Sony’s current-gen masterclass of first-party releases.
We frankly ask if the Master Chief and Xbox Game Studios are ready to go toe-to-toe and compete with Sony this time around. In reply, Booty immediately acknowledges the huge role that Sony’s first-party has played in this generation.
“First of all, Sony’s done a fantastic job just across the board in terms of what they’ve done with building an audience, selling consoles, obviously, a number of amazing, great games that have come out of their first party teams. I try to stay away from framing things as a head-to-head bout with Sony, instead I think that it’s just up to us to focus on three things. First of all, we need to deliver on the promises that we make. So if we say a game is going to ship at a certain time, we’ve got to get that done, we just need to get better at executing.”
This is an intriguing statement as Xbox hasn’t, publicly at least, missed many release dates in this generation. Though Booty did oversee the delayed and then cancelled Minecraft Super Duper Graphics Pack. But maybe this just shows that the platform wanted more of its own titles out earlier in Xbox One’s lifespan.
Booty continues: “We need to make sure that we hold the bar high on quality, and that we’re releasing games that we can be proud of and that the fans can be proud of as Xbox exclusives.” So while Booty isn’t keen to make this out as a head-to-head, most Xbox fans will be measuring the games against Sony and any pride will come from being at least in parity with PlayStation.
“And then lastly, we need to continue building characters, stories and worlds that can transcend generations, devices and platforms. You know, if you look into things like the Marvel characters or Lord of the Rings, when those Marvel characters were first invented in the 1960s, nobody knew that there was going to be a thing called Netflix.
“But yet, here we are. And, you know, the Marvel library figures heavily into video streaming. And so I think we are lucky to have worlds and universes like Halo, where there’s characters that can support TV series, books, comic books and all kinds of games. Things like Minecraft that can ship on 23 platforms, and is in schools, and we just need to stay focused on building those kinds of things that really will be generational and last for a while. And I think that if we do that the rest will take care of itself.”
Such grand ambitions are admirable, but there’s just a touch of the Xbox One launch in this kind of transmedia talk, which makes us somewhat nervous. After all, you can’t try and create characters like Minecraft’s Creeper, Pikachu, Mario or Lara Croft, you just try and make great content and (sometimes) they come along.
THE RULES OF ACQUISITION
Of course, having a mind-boggling fifteen studios at your disposal certainly tilts the odds in your favour when you’re trying to create something that will stand the test of time. That said, more is always helpful, so is Microsoft planning any further acquisitions?
“We may or we may not acquire more studios down the road,” says Booty, hedging. “But I think that we hit a point where we had gone through a phase of adding new studios. And that’s a lot of work to make sure that we get the studios onboarded correctly, that we make sure that everyone feels secure.
“Every studio has its own culture, their own way of thinking. We put a lot of energy into making sure they understand that their culture will be preserved, they’ll be unique,” he says reassuringly. “We’ve done enough of that and now we need to just shift over to working on the games.
“That’s then a whole separate process to make sure that they have the right resources – that they’re well supported. So it’s really just been to make sure that we’re being deliberate about both phases. Because I think that we could, not that we would do this, but we could just keep going and buy more-and-more studios, and then maybe wake up one day and realise, like, ‘wait a minute, we need to focus on making the games.’ We need to keep the end goal in mind, which is to make sure that we have a steady slate of games.”
Pressed on what a steady slate is from his point of view, Booty replies: “The capacity to deliver, say, a game every three or four months, which is our goal.” Which goes a long way to explain his previous comments on “ship[ping] at a certain time” as with a release schedule that busy, games need to launch in their chosen windows or else things will get very messy, very quickly.
Another reason to pause that acquisition process is to help build relationships between the teams.
“We have this amazing collection of 15 studio leaders, and if we’re always acquiring new things, there will always be somebody who’s the new person, you always have the the older studios and the newer studios, and what you don’t get in that situation is them treating each other as peers and sharing information or expertise.”
Booty wants Microsoft’s studios on a level playing field then, rather than having a tiered feel?
“Yes, we’d rather think of them as a group of peers.”
PRAISE AND APPRAISE
The studios might be set up on a level playing field, but someone, Booty in this case, still has to manage and appraise their progress. So how involved is the executive in the games of his charges?
“As a principle, I try to stay out of the creative process as much as possible The last thing our studios need is me coming in. I enjoy making games, I enjoy the craft of games. And I’ll sit in our studios, if they let me, all day and talk to the people making them. But I think it’s my job to be more neutral, and really make sure that the studios are supported, and they have the resources they need, as opposed to me trying to play game designer.” An approach that will come as some relief to any team that’s laboured under intrusive management.
Now, while Booty isn’t pushing his personal take on the games, he is instead bringing to bear a wide variety of feedback tools to gauge where the teams are at.
“Now we’re fortunate that we have a lot of ways that we can check on the progress of a game. We have a very sophisticated user research group inside Xbox in Redmond, that’s available to test the games and get people to come in and play them, in a very systematic, scientific way, so that we can measure the progress.
“We also have a number of people with 10-20-25 years of experience that will play things along the way and start to give us an opinion. And then we also work with journalists and people that can come in and say: ‘Hey, compared to other games like this, here’s how I think this one is shaping up.’
“I’d much rather work with other groups to give feedback on the games and make sure that I’m supporting them to build the game that’s in their head and see their vision through, because the last thing they need is the executive people coming in and playing game designer,” be reiterates.
With Halo Infinite leading the charge for the Xbox Series X, it’s intriguing to find out if the game is pulling in resources from other studios in the group. But Booty is definite that this isn’t the case, with each studio having its own IP (or IPs to work on).
“The answer is no. We do have studios that have multiple teams within them. So for example, we announced Everwild, a new IP from Rare; that is a second team that we’re spinning up under Louise O’Connor’s leadership and creative direction, that will be a second team that exists in parallel to the team at Rare that’s already working on Sea of Thieves and will continue to work on that game. So there will be two teams. While at 343 they’re working on Halo Infinite. But they’re also working on bringing things like Halo Reach to PC to join the Master Chief Collection.
“But what we aren’t doing right now is for example, saying, ‘hey, could half of the Minecraft team go work on Sea of Thieves?’ I think that would just be very tough with the way we run our studios. They each have their own cultures, they each have their own toolsets, their own technology. And they certainly are sharing a lot of information, techniques and expertise. But we’re not at the point where we would want to move people around from studio to studio.”
Instead the studios will use the typical external development resources to assist them. “All of our studios will work with outside development help. Games have just gotten so big and so complicated, and I think it’s really very rare for any studio to not have development partners.”
THREE PART PASS
So with fifteen studios all working on their own IPs. That’s a lot of content, and all that content, as we’re all aware, is there to feed the voracious maw of Xbox Game Pass. We ask Booty about his take on a comment made by Phil Spencer, about how Game Pass was a great place for games with a “a beginning, a middle and an end” as opposed to the shift to service-type titles in recent years. So does Booty feel that there should be more such titles?
“I don’t think that there should, it’s a little bit like, should there be more sci fi movies, or should there be more spy novels? I don’t know. It’s based on what people want to watch and want to read. We don’t try to be directive on the content, but the great thing about Game Pass is that we don’t have to actually worry about that question,” he states intriguingly. “That’s because Game Pass becomes the service, Game Pass becomes the structure. And now, in our green light and concept review process, I don’t need to ask: ‘What’s your service plan, what’s your monetization plan, are you going to offer any DLC later, what is your monetization?’ We don’t have to ask any of that anymore, the teams can just go design the game that they want. And we can let Game Pass end up being the service.
“So to return to your question, should there be more standalone single player games that take about 20 hours to play? It seems like Outer Worlds is doing pretty good. Maybe there’s a lack of those titles right now, and that people like a game that’s about 20 hours with a beginning, a middle and an end.
“But I think on a higher level, it’s something we don’t have to worry about anymore, because whether it is a game like Bleeding Edge, which structurally starts to look more like a free-to-play game, more like a service-based game, that will do fine in Game Pass. And if we end up coming out with another game like Hellblade or Outer Worlds, which is a 12 hour or a 25 hour game that you play and enjoy, and then it kind of has an ending. That’s great in Game Pass too. So that’s really the power of Game Pass.”
It’s a persuasive point. For while many have been identifying Game Pass as a renaissance for the double-A game, the largely linear titles that gamers traditionally played consecutively in the heydays of physical retail, it also has huge potential as a provider of service games, without the need to monetise players in-game at every turn.
“So really, there’s the type of content there for just about any kind of gamer. And I think that’s what gamers should now expect.”
Xbox looks to have its thinking straight and its ducks all in a line. It’s often the case that the approach of the parent company to a gaming arm can be disruptive, but Xbox seems to have applied Microsoft’s customer-centric, platform-centric, service-first philosophies to its gaming business with some flair.
Whether Game Pass ends up being the stable, long-term, development-funding goliath that everyone wants it to be is very much an ongoing question. As is whether a platform holder possessing this broad a range of development firepower is healthy for the industry as a whole. But Microsoft is undoubtedly in a good place and one that’s easy to understand from the outside. And that clarity, more likely than not, bodes well for its partners.