Xbox: ‘We’re finding the world’s greatest teams and allowing them to operate independently’ - MCV
Xbox’s GM of marketing Aaron Greenberg talks about a huge Q4, how Fortnite has grown gaming, why Game Pass benefits its partners and the outlook for all those newly acquired studios

Xbox is the platform holder most committed to Gamescom, with a big presence in terms of both the consumer and business halls. All of which will help with its bid for a “record holiday” season in 2018, GM of games marketing at Microsoft Aaron Greenberg tells MCV when we catch up with him at the show.

“We prioritise Gamescom as a big beat for us,” says Greenberg. “It’s really great as it serves that midpoint between post-E3 and holiday.”

That was clear, as Xbox hosted its first livestream of announcements from the show, including live game updates, plus newww peripherals and console bundles. And this Christmas, with Xbox One X having been in full production all year, he confirms that stock will not be an issue: “We’re not going to be constrained. It’s the world’s most powerful console, and for anybody who wants to buy it, we will have one available.”

Two consoles means lots more bundles, Greenberg tells us: “We’re announcing eight new console bundles… It’s a big selling season, so we’re doing both new Xbox One S and Xbox One X bundles. Plus we have a limited edition, Gold Rush Special Edition Battlefield V Bundle, the first one we’ve ever done with an Xbox One X.”

Xbox-One-X-Gold-Rush-Special-Edition-Battlefield-V-Bundle-Box-Shot

Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Forza Horizon 4 will both come in One X and One S bundles, while Fallout 76 has a One X bundle, and to complement the limited edition, there’s a stand alone Battlefield V bundle with a One S.

Greenberg is ebullient about the sector in general. “Everyone is doing well right now, gaming is growing its category, more people are engaged with it.”

Part of that growth he attributes to the “massive phenomenon” which is Fortnite. But what’s most impressed Greenberg is how the game’s success hasn’t come at a great cost to others.

“We were watching for the impact: is this going to impact our other third-party partners? And we largely haven’t seen that, for the large part Fortnite seems to have been additive, it has definitely grown gaming. It’s a game that has brought a lot more people into gaming, and then the people that came in went and spent more time playing games.

“The hardcore gamers who were playing all their favourite games didn’t stop playing to go and play Fortnite, but it did take people who were casual or very light gamers and they’re now spending more time playing. It just brought a lot of new people, which is great, it diversifies the population. Many of them were not ‘core gamers’ they were just people who were looking to spend time, and money, on entertainment – it could have just as easily been TV or music. Instead it was Fortnite which became ‘that thing’ for them, and that’s what’s most interesting about this phenomenon,” he explains.

And it’s a phenomenon with some phenomenal returns: “It’s been great for Epic and it’s great for the platform. We had a record Q4, really strong growth year-on-year, we ended our fiscal year with the biggest year we ever had, over $10bn (£7.8bn) in revenue.”

And Microsoft’s own efforts at service games haven’t seemed to have suffered from the battle royale’s popularity: “We launched Sea of Thieves, which was our biggest live game launch yet. That now has over five million players. State of Decay 2 launched with over three million players. Both those titles exceeded sales targets, engagement targets, and did really well in Game Pass.”

Despite that, it would still be reasonable to think the huge free-to-play success of Fortnite might have turned Microsoft’s head somewhat, but Greenberg is cautious: “The ability to get scale and to remove as many barriers as possible is definitely attractive, but you have to be careful about just focusing on a business model, as that alone doesn’t generate success. If you take a paid game and make it free-to-play that doesn’t mean it will be more successful, in many cases it could ruin a game. You see how many people are trying to do battle royale right now.”

PASS IT ALONG

Of course Microsoft is looking to remove barriers in its own way, with Xbox Game Pass, which has been popular in the territory, Greenberg tells us: “In Europe the uptake of Game Pass has been particularly strong, people have responded really positively to the value. It just depends on the market, some markets are more ‘I want to own these games as part of a collection’ and others are like ‘I want access to a huge library’.”

That take-up means Game Pass can offer a new opportunity for publishers looking to get their franchises in front of new players.

reanmed not zipped

“There are strategic benefits for partners,” Greenberg says. “Think about Bethesda putting Fallout 4 into Game Pass, they’re able to take that huge base of people who are Game Pass subscribers and introduce them to that, in advance of Fallout 76. It drives great engagement for them so it’s an opportunity to create new fans and drive that engagement further.”

And all that adds up to a rosy future for both Microsoft and the industry, which benefits from having numerous successful platforms to sell on. “It’s just been a great time for the games industry, we’re seeing it for our third-party partners and we’ve experienced it as well, with our games and our financial results.”

THE E3 STUDIOS

If Game Pass is to be a success then, like Netflix, it will increasingly need must-have content. Which brings us back to that huge multi-studio announcement from E3 and some insight into how that came together.

“It was special to be able to do that,” Greenberg tells us proudly, having worked with all the studios in the lead-up to the big day. “We knew we were growing our first-party investment, but to be able to time it right, there’s a lot of contracts and process you have to work through.”

Even more impressive was that the deals hadn’t leaked, making it a massive surprise: “That’s the fun part, people want to be surprised, and it was great when Phil [Spencer] went up there and announced first one, then two, three, four… five! I can’t think of an E3 were anyone’s announced even one acquisition.”

Phil Spencer E3 Xbox studio acquisition

Announcing business acquisitions shows how consumers care more and more about the industry and the teams that make their games. Greenberg thinks there’s been a huge rise in the “detail and enthusiasm” that fans share with each other for their favourite games: “When we said Ninja Theory, everyone knew their pedigree, the same with Playground. And that makes it more appropriate for a show like that.”

We ask if the raft of simultaneous acquisitions amounted to a grand change in strategy, even an admittance that the breadth of the line-up wasn’t all it should have been in recent years.

“We were really deliberate in that we wanted to grow our investment in our first-party studios,” he replies cautiously. “And we were really thoughtful about how we wanted to do that, part of it is to go find some of the world’s greatest creative teams, which are independent, and which make a fit for us.

“If you think about the teams we acquired, these folks are best in class, they make really high-quality games, but the games they make are very different to our existing franchises. Of course Playground is making Horizon, but they’re also going to have a second team making something entirely different. We have a centre of excellence in the UK, we have Rare, we now have Ninja Theory and Playground, and those teams can work together to share tech and infrastructure, that has a lot of benefits.”

Plus, it puts a huge amount of Microsoft’s first-party output into a relatively small area in the middle of the country – factor in Sumo Digital’s work on Crackdown to the north and it’s an incredible concentration of creative investment. That’s not just a coincidence either. Britain’s got talent for sure, but a historically weak pound versus the dollar, plus tax incentives, are also big factors in expanding in the UK. “At a high level the government has been very supportive of the games industry and made it advantageous for companies to do games development in the UK, and we’ve definitely taken advantage of that,” Greenberg agrees.

He’s keen to impress upon us that all the new studios will remain creatively independent: “This was first and foremost about finding the world’s greatest teams, who can bring new types of content to our first-party studios, and allow them to continue to operate independently,” he tells us, before adding: “If you think about a game like Hellblade, how many big companies would have greenlit a game like that? But it’s brilliant and it addresses a lot of important issues. Those are the types of teams that really inspire us and it’s a privilege to be able to work with them. For them to become part of our team provides financial security, access to resources and tech capabilities, and still the creative independence to go and do what they want to do. These teams they would have never wanted to partner and work with us if that wasn’t part of the conditions. I think we have a good track record of doing that: look at Mojang, which has stayed independent and stayed focused.

“It’s an exciting time, we’ve essentially doubled our creative studios overnight, and it just shows that commitment to
invest more.”

Related

ID @ Xbox

Finding success with ID@Xbox

As ID@Xbox celebrates another successful year, we speak to European regional lead Agostino Simonetta about making developers’ lives easier and how to find your own success.