For all his achievements in commissioning great games, many know Phil Harrison best as a great showman of games.
When the lights go down and the curtains go up, E3 or GDC presentations have taken on a dynamic level beyond any other when it has had him as their ringleader.
To some people, he’s synonymous with ducks, after all. And somehow, with the audience in the palm of his hand at press conferences, he has talked many of us into accepting target render videos as ok for public use.
So no wonder his appointment as vice president at Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business is already being warmly welcomed as good news for Xbox.
But of course the decision goes deeper.
This is the man who championed SingStar into existence. And EyeToy. And Killzone. And took a bet on LittleBigPlanet when it was just sketches on paper.
Ultimately, his creative and commercial nous was so highly valued at Sony it created a role for him overseeing all the SCE studios. Polyphony, Naughty Dog, Media Molecule, Evolution Studios – they all answered to him.
You can see, then, why it’s natural that the European Xbox studios role is ideal for him.
But we have to look beyond his Sony legacy to see the real signal of intent here.
Since leaving SCE, Harrison has looked at opportunities others missed, ignored, or haven’t noticed yet. Atari. Gaikai. Gunshine.
Even during his time at Sony, he was talking about things other format-holders were missing. Kart Rider’s success as a microtransaction game in Korea. The fact that the PS4 might not even have a disc drive.
It’s this attitude that Microsoft sorely needs right now.
Xbox 360 is the best selling console in the world, and its top execs reckon it can maintain that lead. But the disc-based console won’t be the leader forever. Especially when the transition to the new machine kicks in. Those execs need forward thinking leaders that know what’s happening next outside of their bubble.
People like J Allard are long-gone, after all – and the expensive experiments that is Kinect has been good, but it hasn’t had the Wii-style cut-through MS probably wanted, it hasn’t even had the cut-through Harrison’s own EyeToy project had five years prior.
Will Harrison’s passion and insight into things like cloud games, HTML5, apps and social change Microsoft’s game plan straight away? Don’t count on it.
MS is the most corporate of beasts. Forget ‘turning the tanker’ there – ‘turning the lights on in the tanker’ is the bigger achievement. Its execs are so well media trained they can be like robots to talk to. Xbox’s top dog Don Mattrick is so protected he will really only talk to USA Today or TIME when it comes to interviews, and even then it might be once every year or two.
Harrison is no such robot. He is not afraid to speak his mind. No doubt his mere existence in the role can inspire some change, if not inform it immediately.
In the meantime, he now has Lionhead, Rare, that still-in-stealth London studio plus any new European third-parties to look after.
The MS games made in the UK and Europe are more casual than ever – Fable Heroes plus Fable for Kinect, Forza Horizons, plus whatever that secret social team is cooking up – and that’s a great fit for his talents on things like EyeToy and SingStar.
That’s where we should look for those ‘Phil’ touches once the Molyneux ones start to fade away.
But even if the only first noticeable change for Xbox is a gripping E3 presentation – a briefing many expect we will see that new Xbox at – then Microsoft will have already started to win the next round of the console war before it has even started.