Xbox Studios boss: 'Hats off to Sony. They've got great momentum right now'
It's not every day that you get to interview the big cheese of Microsoft's Xbox Redmond Game Studios. But in-between playing all the latest and greatest games at this year's E3 expo in Los Angeles that's exactly what we did.
These gigs usually go as so: media-trained chap in dapper suit reels off company policy with political sharpness. But E3 isn't like any old gig. Interviewing Matt Booty, the general manager of Xbox Redmond Studios (and former CEO of Midway Games), had a dash of that, but was a more unusual experience: amid the continuing rumble of subwoofers from the show floor beneath us (showing off Evolve on Xbox One) we fired off the questions with more rapport.
The big message at the Xbox press conference this year was that Xbox is a company that listens. Sony's press conference had a similar message. Is Microsoft on the back foot with the Xbox One and what's up various sleeves to see it gain ground against the PS4 - if it can?
How does Microsoft intend to gain ground on the PS4, to sell more? Can the Xbox One win in the sales count or is winning not just about shifting units?
"First off, hats off to Sony. They've got great momentum right now and they are off to a strong start. At the same time I think it's just encouraging and awesome how much energy different consoles have overall. Right now Xbox One is selling faster out of the gate than Xbox 360 did for us and we are really excited about where we are given how far we are into the generation. Going forward - particularly as we head into the holiday - I think for us success is going to be measured in terms of how do people enjoy our games and how they're engaging with the games over Xbox Live. We've got people on their Xbox Ones right now spending five hours a day on the console on average. That for us is a great indicator of engagement and that's really what we're going to look for going forward."
With Xbox One is its future primarily as a console or a combined multimedia centre - has Microsoft changed its stance since launch?
"Our vision remains that Xbox is a console for gamers, but also a console to have in your living room for people that want entertainment. We have not changed that big picture. It is, however, a big picture; a big story. And what we've done is really focus on just, what I'll call, one step of that: which is making sure we land the console for gamers and for our fans. There are a lot of steps to get to where we want to be, but at the end of that we really see it being not only a great gaming console but also a great entertainment box. And what we're focused on right now for the show [E3 2014], and where our immediate focus is, is on is making sure we land the great console for gamers part.":
The Xbox keynote's underlying message - and it was similar to Sony's, perhaps surprisingly - was that Microsoft is listening and taking feedback on board. What happened to the stance of defining the new? - is our social media driven world of 2014 a new tool or an obstacle when it comes to progression?
"I think listening means really taking to heart the stuff that we hear from fans and gamers that is going improve the console. And making sure that we smartly take in that feedback.
"I hear what you're saying: we run the danger of kind of randomising or kind of bumping into a lowest common denominator. Our vision for the console going forward is that we're going to deliver a decade of value. So we really want things to continue to move forward. So I think it's a balance being smart about listening to feedback but at the same time staying true to that vision of Xbox One that we've got.
"Some things that I think are an example of that are allowing real names to be used in Xbox Live, you know we've just announced external storage, a lot of the innovation that we're doing about instant matchmaking - seamless multiplayer as we call it - you know these are the things that really fit into our bigger vision for Xbox One as we go forward. We're only just starting with this generation, right? We launched not even a year ago.
"I do think that particularly now, though, and we really wanted to make sure that we landed it at this show: that this is about games, that this is about giving fans and gamers what they want. Everything from exclusives that you can play this holiday to blockbusters that you can play this year, to stuff on our iD@Xbox programme which kinda boggles my brain with how quickly that's gained momentum; how many developers we have on board and how quickly we've been able to get games out that you'll be able to play this year."
Q. What about the optional removal of Kinect so games can pull on more power? Will Xbox be more powerful without it?
"We're committed to Kinect going forward. So you're going to continue to see games that are built on Kinect at the core. Games like Dance Central.
"You will also see Kinect being used in imaginative and innovative ways within games. So everything from the way it was used for voice commands for Ryse when it came out at launch and, there's some really innovative iD@Xbox stuff like the FRU, the game where the silhouette of your body is being tracked and it actually becomes part of the level where the character is able to run along the outline of your body that you're creating. An interactive platformer. So Kinect is going to continue being at the core of what makes Xbox One magical and we really think that the Xbox One with the Kinect is the best experience overall.
"That said we have really have been listening to fans over the last year and we've also really been listening to developers and I think what you were hinting at is that we've recently made available 10 per cent more of the GPU to developers. So that's something that will have to be enabled within the game - it's not something the player does by plugging in or unplugging their Kinect. It's something very much separate where we're trying to make available more power of the box."
Is that available now?
"It is. It's available now, which means it's available to developers now. And you're going to start to see it show up in games down the road. So for example, I know this because I work with teams every day, the Forza Horizon 2 team is busy at work thinking about how they're going to make the most of that. The Sunset Overdrive team is busy at work thinking about how they're going to make the most of that."
On the multimedia side of things. Sony has laid out details of its exclusive series, Powers. Xbox has Halo on the way, but details are still thin - anything more you can tell us? Is this just the beginning of Xbox as an all-encompassing multimedia device and do you think we will see more of this kind of content outside of gaming?
"You brought it up, and I'll just use it as an example, but Halo: Nightfall is a great example of using linear content to move the story along. We're in the great position of having franchises like Halo that have a really, really rich tapestry of characters, a huge amount of history behind them and just a very engaging story to tell. And that means that we can leverage things outside of just the core gameplay to move the story forward. We're going to use the linear medium of this digital series to move the story forward and build a bridge between Halo 4 and Halo 5. I don't have anything else to share today, about any other specific examples. But I think you nailed it [in the question]. That is exactly what we hope to do with our big franchises: use linear media, use some of the various other platforms to help move their platforms forward."
A bit like Hollywood with its movies, we're seeing more remakes and sequels in gaming. Killer Instinct, Phantom Dust, Crackdown 3 - what is it about these reworks and revisits that attracts do you think?
"I think it comes back to what fans and gamers want. I think that there is a genuine interest in some of the things that have come before. And also as a games player I love to imagine and think about what it would it be like to have that game playable and those characters playable given the power of the boxes we've got today. I also think it's indicative of the industry as a whole maturing a little bit, right? I mean we've got 20-30 years of video games behind us. There's a huge history there of things that are possibly primed from before to exploit the boxes we've got now."
Q. How important is mobile integration? When will we see Microsoft leverage Windows Phone more thoroughly into the gaming mix?
"If you look at the history of gaming at Microsoft we've always had the mission of bringing our games to our fans on as many devices as we can. So we want people to be able to engage on the device that is right for them, and where they're comfortable playing games and other things that excite them. We've got a big history there and I think that you'll see us continue.
"Particularly going forward I'm excited about the idea of using our big franchises. Think about our pillar franchises, things like Halo, Forza, Fable - these things that have got a long history - of those being used as a central core of source material to take out on other devices. Think about things like Halo: Spartan Assault and how that came from the core of Halo, but is something you can play on Windows Phone and Windows 8. That is a really good example of where we're going to go forward in how you're going to see content show up on Windows Phone."
Q. Do you think the current second screen a mere fad?
"No, I don't think it's a fad. And I think you're going to continue to see things like that. Overall, right now it's just an awesome time to be a gamer. I'm hard pressed to think of places I can't go and play, so we want to make sure that everywhere that you're playing games you have a chance to engage with our big franchises."
Q. To finish it's a futurism kind of question. Do you think console gaming will forever be a presence or will we be running everything from the cloud in the future? Will hardware in each home die?
"I don't know… It's a great question. I think we can probably both agree that in 10-15 years people will still be playing games. And there will still be Xbox. Xbox is a great word and a great brand because I think it encompasses so much of gaming. It encompasses a great console, it encompasses a great service, it encompasses games and entertainment. So whatever is down the road I'm pretty confident that Xbox will be part of it."