With thousands of developers under his remit, Matt Booty is Microsoft's new head of first-party. In an exclusive interview he talks about Xbox's strategy on the eve of his first E3 in the role

While he can’t put an exact number on it, Matt Booty, head of Microsoft Studios, now has “into the thousands of developers” working for him. “It might be a little bit cheesy but I do like to frame it more that I work for them,” he says. Which sounds like Booty is providing a service to his studios and providing a service is certainly key to Microsoft’s thinking here.

Those studios include 343 Industries, The Coalition, Mojang, Turn 10, Rare, plus oversight of the global publishing team, which manages exclusive franchises like Forza Horizon from Playground Games. However he perceives his role, he’s certainly taken on responsibility for some enviable resources.

Until recently, Booty headed up the Minecraft team in Stockholm, so he’s certainly used to managing huge communities on a live title. He cemented his career working his way through the ranks at Midway to become CEO, having started as a designer and programmer on its arcade games.

“I have a pretty strong principle that I need to keep my frustrated game designer nose out of their business,” he tells MCV in an exclusive pre-E3 interview. “The last thing the teams need is me telling them to make something red or make something bigger!” And in order to do that he “dabbles” with development in his spare time instead. Recently he’s made Unity VR demos for his HTC Vive and modelled a tank in 3D Studio Max before 3D printing it at 1:35 scale.

What’s clear is that Booty is an executive who really gets how games are made. But what we’re hoping he’s going to clear up is just what is Microsoft’s plan for first-party development in the games-as-a-service era?

FIRST SERVE

The traditional reason to fund first-party development was to create cutting edge exclusives, which maximised the hardware at their disposal and shifted consoles. These were usually grand single-player campaigns, and looking at PlayStation exclusives such as Uncharted, Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War and Spider-Man, you’d think that nothing had changed in that regard.

Microsoft meanwhile hasn’t released such a title since Gears of War 4 in 2016 – and there’s no sign of anything of that ilk coming in the foreseeable future either. Instead, by signing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and State of Decay 2, while developing the likes of Sea of Thieves and Crackdown 3, it’s firmly shifted towards more open-ended games.

“There will always be single-player games with maybe 20 to 30 hours of gameplay, we love those kinds of games and there’s a place for those, but it’s also certainly the case with the focus on watching, streaming, broadcast and esports that it’s really important to think about the longevity of a game,” Booty explains.

“It’s really difficult for anybody to think about making a large scale triple-A game these days without having in mind a content and service plan that goes one to two years into the future out of the gate,” he adds.

“There will always be single-player games with maybe 20 to 30 hours of gameplay, we love those kinds of games and there’s a place for those"

Booty’s outlook was reinforced during his time on Minecraft: “It just drove into me more than ever, that every conversation about what our games, our platforms and our services should be doing has to start with the player. And what we see is players engaging more with streaming, with broadcasting, with community, with wanting to play together.

“Games really have become much more social, much more mainstream, much more widespread. We know that the games industry is growing, and that’s taking nothing away from what you call the ‘single-player, narrative, cinematic game’ but we see a lot of interest from our players in more community-driven ongoing franchises. I think that is in alignment with a lot of the trends we see in gaming overall.”

He later puts forward ID@Xbox as a place to find a broader selection of titles. “We see this really exciting trend with people like Team17 and Annapurna – I guess you could call them smaller publishers – who are able to work with indie developers and deliver things that are above the level of what you might think of as an indie game.”

THE ESTABLISHMENT

It’s hard to argue with that analysis of the gaming market, though Booty is also keen to talk up Microsoft’s slate of big franchises. “We’re very lucky to have a number of established franchises, when you think about Minecraft, Halo and Forza, each has over a decade or almost a decade of foundation underneath them. We need to use those franchises as a home base from which we can expand.

“That strength lets us branch out and take risks with them,” says Booty, possibly dropping a hint of what may be next from the studios, and making it clear that even if the company announces a new Halo, much like the campaign-less Black Ops 4 it may not exactly resemble its predecessors. But that should be applauded, as turning out games slavishly-based on the templates of the last generation does no one any favours. But don’t expect a battle royale mode from Microsoft this E3, with Booty taking a longer-term view on executing Microsoft’s strategy.

“With games being as large as they are... It is difficult to pivot quickly and try to chase after trends that might happen even on the scale of a year" 

“With games being as large as they are, with the move to games as an ongoing service... It is difficult to pivot quickly and try to chase after trends that might happen even on the scale of a year. In business terms a year can be a long time, but development time being three to four years these days, that’s the span we need to think about.

“We’ve got to get our strategic long-term bets, our game development cycles and the things our players like to do in sync. And that will set us up for success.”

SERVICE STATION

On a strategic level then, Microsoft is happy to think long-term in order to get everything lined up right. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not aiming to blaze a trail at the same time.

“The main focus for first party is to get there first, work closely with the platform at Xbox, with other teams at Microsoft, and make sure we prove out the viability of something,” Booty says.

Whether that something is a device like Xbox One X, a technology such as HDR or a service such as Game Pass.

“And if we’re successful we should show that something works well and so be a lighthouse for it, be pathfinders. Then third-parties should quickly come along and say: ‘This is viable, how can we get onboard as well?’.”

343 Industries, The Coalition, Mojang, Turn 10, Rare... It's an impressive line-up studio talent.

343 Industries, The Coalition, Mojang, Turn 10, Rare... It's an impressive line-up studio talent.

He uses Sea of Thieves’ simultaneous launch at retail and on Game Pass as an example: “There are concerns in that you’ve got two different channels bringing the game to players, maybe two different kinds of players. Will the sales of one affect the other?

“We’ve found it was a benefit across the board, we had great engagement from folks discovering the game in Game Pass but we also had really encouraging sales both at retail and digital. And it was a case that the exposure and the access within Game Pass created more excitement for the game overall which helped the top line units.”

From a business point of view that’s great and, boiling it down, using great games to promote a service such as Game Pass or Mixer, is simply a modern take on
the traditional console-shifting role of first-party titles of yesteryear.

“When I think about the specific role of first party, it’s our job to lean in and be first on the ground, first to try things out. Again you’ve got a beacon or lighthouse, where the things we’re bringing online are great for our players and also great for all our partners.”

THE GAME LEAVING FROM PLATFORM...

And Microsoft’s list of partners is pretty impressive – even including Sony and Nintendo – then there’s the ever-growing crossover between its Xbox and PC output. So when first-party is no longer exclusive to a single console, how do you choose your target platforms?

“The way we think about platforms is really to take more of a game-centric, player-centric view, where if we’re going go off and do something for PC or mobile, we start with the individual game,” Booty says.

“It really depends on the franchise and the game,” he continues, before explaining that structurally in Microsoft they don’t break down services and platforms “into separate verticals” and that helps make the right decisions for the right reasons. “A certain kind of game that’s best on Windows we’re going to really try to make a great experience there, and a game like Sea of Thieves, where it’s about community and playing together, it makes sense for that game to have equal attention on both PC and console.”

The ultimate example is, of course, Minecraft.

“We actually ship Minecraft on close to 20 platforms. We have a principle that we want the game to be great and playable for all our players but we’re going to dial that in depending on [the platform]. We just announced that we’ll be bringing the latest version of Minecraft to the Switch, and we’re going to focus on the ability to crossplay with other players on Xbox Live but at the same time we’re also going to make sure it takes advantage of that particular platform.”

“When we acquired Mojang, Minecraft already existed on multiple platforms, and we would never want to go backwards or take something away from people."

Talking specifically about the PlayStation versions of the game, he explains: “When we acquired Mojang, Minecraft already existed on multiple platforms, and we would never want to go backwards or take something away from people.

“On the other hand Minecraft really has hit a critical mass, we’ve 60m monthly active users, Minecraft: Education Edition is going really well, and we partnered with NetEase to bring the game into China and at this point it’s hitting a scale where its relevance in pop culture really pushes it above simply what platforms it’s on.”

Booty won’t be drawn on whether Microsoft Studios will follow the successful strategy of products such as Microsoft Office and release more titles on its biggest rival’s hardware. If it sticks to that decision though, Microsoft may never match the reach of Minecraft again.

GETTING VERTICAL

Never doubt Microsoft though, the company as a whole has boomed under the four-year leadership of Satya Nadella, and gaming is now front and centre in its ambitions.

“Creating the role of a first-party leader is a vote of confidence and a signal to the future that our first-party work is aligned with the strategic bets that we’re making. It also echoes a vote of confidence from the company in terms of elevating gaming up to a vertical that sits with some of the other big parts of Microsoft,” Booty says.

“I look at my role as providing some overarching direction, making sure the studios get clear direction about where we’re going. I have the opportunity to provide value, coordination and integration across our studios,” he adds.

“We’ve got great studio leaders, but when you’re head down working on your own game, it’s not that easy to pop up and see what your peers are doing. So hopefully we can add some more formal connections across the studios. I think it’s a big opportunity to have the studios work together and share some of the things that they’ve learnt.”

For many years Xbox was perceived by critics to sit outside the core Microsoft business, and rumours of losses and a possible sell-off dogged the division. Now within a broader gaming group, with Phil Spencer’s promotion to the senior leadership team, and Booty overseeing its internal output, it certainly looks like Microsoft is backing gaming more than ever. Which makes sense, given that the industry’s shift to a live service model more closely aligns gaming with services such as Office and cloud computing in general.

“It’s been very exciting in the last year to see our company get behind gaming in such a serious way and really treat it as part of Microsoft overall,” Booty says. “I think Phil has put together a fantastic team that is focused on gaming across all of our platforms and, of course, we have all the resources and technology that is available to us as part of Microsoft.”

In short, the strategy is now looking better thought out than in years and the hardware has undoubtedly picked up with Xbox One X. It only remains to see what Spencer and Booty have to announce at E3.

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