Per­fect 10?

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox and Mi­crosoft Stu­dios, ad­dresses Games For Win­dows – Live’s le­gacy and the fu­ture of HoloLens on Xbox One


Xbox chief Phil Spencer talks Win­dows 10 and HoloLens

Given that the fall­out from Games For Win­dows – Live (GFWL) is still be­ing felt eight years af­ter its launch, it takes no lit­tle chutzpah to get on­stage at the Game De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence and an­nounce a new Win­dows gam­ing ini­tia­tive. But if Xbox boss Phil Spencer’s GDC key­note is to be be­lieved, things are on the up. Win­dows 10 will bring all of Mi­crosoft’s gam­ing plat­forms to­gether, from high-end PC to mo­bile, while PC play­ers won’t face a re­peat of GFWL’s on­line mul­ti­player charges. Xbox One, mean­while, has seen an uptick in sales thanks to a price re­duc­tion and sev­eral ex­clu­siv­ity coups. We meet Spencer to dis­cuss scep­ti­cism, VR, and the fu­ture of Win­dows gam­ing.

Are you con­cerned that peo­ple will as­so­ciate your Win­dows 10 ini­tia­tive with GFWL?

This will sound funny, but I em­brace the scep­ti­cism peo­ple might have be­cause of Games For Win­dows – Live. It’s in our past, and wasn’t a fleshed-out pro­gramme fully sup­ported by the Xbox team; it was an­other thing that was sep­a­rate. But if you bet on us for Games For Win­dows – Live, I can un­der­stand some­body say­ing, “Hey, you’re go­ing to have to earn my trust back.” And that’s why when I stand there talk­ing about it, I’m not show­ing any fancy videos, I’m not try­ing to pizzazz you with any­thing other than, “Here’s what we are; here’s what we’re try­ing to do. And the SDKs are avail­able now.”

We’ve been ac­tive in sign­ing up con­tent be­cause we also want to use our own tools and kind of live through that pro­gres­sion, so that when other de­vel­op­ers come on board, we’ve got the mile­posts in place to say, “Here’s what we’ve been able to do,” and be very trans­par­ent about the ar­eas that aren’t done, so we don’t try to pull one over on any­body. But GFWL, I don’t want to dodge it, I’m not go­ing to say it’s not some­thing we had be­fore. But the Xbox team is fully com­mit­ted to ex­pand­ing what we’re do­ing across all of the Win­dows 10 de­vices, and we’re get­ting the re­sponse – at least from the de­vel­oper com­mu­nity – that [it] means some­thing.

Win­dows 10’s uni­fied Store pro­motes cross­plat­form apps and games. Where do you see it in re­la­tion to Steam?

I think Steam’s great, and they have a lot of my money – a large part of my games li­brary is in Steam. Steam is very much a gamer’s store, but I think our Win­dows Store will start off with a di­ver­sity of con­tent like the App Store or Google Play. I think there are enough gam­ing cus­tomers to go round, and I don’t ex­pect any­body’s go­ing to delete their Steam ac­count when they buy a game in the Win­dows Store and vice versa. If you’re an Xbox de­vel­oper, there are some tools that we’re pro­vid­ing that al­low you to seam­lessly move from Xbox to PC – Xbox Live and the Uni­ver­sal App Plat­form will be help­ful for those guys. I love what Steam is do­ing – Valve is an in­no­va­tive com­pany, and I don’t think the world’s go­ing to dis­solve down to one re­tailer, ei­ther on the high street or dig­i­tally.

While PC plat­forms can make use of Rift, Vive and other third­party VR head­sets, you cur­rently have noth­ing on Xbox One to com­pete with Sony’s Project Mor­pheus. Is that some­thing that’s on your mind?

It’s more of an an­nounce­ment than any­body re­ally hav­ing any VR stuff right now – and that’s not a shot at Sony. I mean, it’s hard tech, and I think it’s great what they’re do­ing with Mor­pheus. But they’ve an­nounced [it for] the first half of 2016, so a lit­tle over a year from now.

I look at VR as an in­ter­est­ing space. It’s cer­tainly dif­fer­ent to the mixed re­al­ity we do with HoloLens, but there’s noth­ing that pre­cludes us from do­ing some­thing in the VR space. As you say, there are part­ners out there, and while th­ese guys are PC-based to­day, if we want to do some­thing with Xbox… Right now, it’s just been about tech­nolo­gies and things that I think we need to do on Xbox One to make the ex­pe­ri­ence bet­ter, and that’s where our fo­cus has been. And I don’t think VR is a now thing. I’m not say­ing it’s five years from now, but it’s not re­ally a now now thing. Valve’s got their VR thing, which I think is great; Sam­sung has GearVR, too. Fun­nily enough, they are very in­ter­ested in Minecraft and how it could work in those VR spa­ces, so even from a con­tent per­spec­tive there are a lot of con­ver­sa­tions about VR, and I think it’s a very in­ter­est­ing tech for us to watch on the con­sole side as well as the PC side.

“I don’t think VR is a now thing. I’m not say­ing it’s five years from now, but it’s not re­ally a now now thing”

Might HoloLens even­tu­ally find its way to Xbox One, then?

Well, we haven’t an­nounced it as an Xbox ac­ces­sory. But it sits within one team, and we have the con­ver­sa­tions. Right now, we want to fo­cus on a stand­alone, un­teth­ered de­vice and make sure that we can prove out that sce­nario. That’s where we started, and that’s what we an­nounced in Jan­uary: the first fully self-con­tained head­set. The teth­ered

sce­nar­ios around VR I think are in­ter­est­ing, but we were go­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent. Not be­ing teth­ered to ei­ther a PC, Xbox or a phone as part of the so­lu­tion was one of our de­sign chal­lenges for HoloLens, and we did that. Now we can say, “Well, OK, if I do have an Xbox or a PC, what are those sce­nar­ios?” We haven’t pub­licly talked about what those are, but you can imag­ine, as we con­tinue to drive and get suc­cess with HoloLens, those sce­nar­ios will be­come ob­vi­ous and de­vel­op­ers will take ad­van­tage of them.

On the topic of pe­riph­eral sce­nar­ios, where is your think­ing on Kinect right now? Is it os­ten­si­bly aban­doned?

It’s not aban­doned. We just de­vel­oped Upload Stu­dio 2.0, which has green screen­ing that you can do with Kinect. We’ll con­tinue to build func­tion­al­ity to make it a valu­able part of the ecosys­tem. That said, price point’s re­ally im­por­tant for the con­sole – we saw that over the hol­i­days in the UK and US, where we did well when we dropped the price, which was great. And I want to make sure con­sumers have choice on how much they value the func­tion­al­ity of Kinect when they buy a con­sole. If you want to go buy a Kinect con­sole [bun­dle], then they’re still avail­able. I think it’s a great part of the ecosys­tem. And if you want just a con­sole, and ei­ther add Kinect later, or Kinect’s sim­ply not some­thing you’re in­ter­ested in, we give you that choice as well.

The teams con­tinue to look at ways that Kinect makes the en­ter­tain­ment ex­pe­ri­ence bet­ter. I’d say the area that hasn’t re­ally landed – and I don’t know if it will – is, ‘Is Kinect in­te­gral to all of the core gam­ing sce­nar­ios on our con­sole in terms of minute-to-minute game­play?’ There are gen­res where Kinect works re­ally well, but if you’re play­ing Halo or

Call Of Duty, there’s not re­ally a sce­nario that says, ‘Hey, I need a Kinect.’ There is a lot of ex­cite­ment, and there are still an­nounce­ments to come about what peo­ple are do­ing with it. But [Kinect’s] place will be earned through the ex­pe­ri­ences that are out there and the de­vel­op­ers that show in­ter­est. We will con­tinue to build func­tion­al­ity through voice and us­ing the RGB and depth cam­eras, and we’ll stay fo­cused on that, but giv­ing the con­sumers choice is pretty crit­i­cal.

With in­creased con­sole sales, the Minecraft deal and high-pro­file timed ex­clu­sives such as Elite: Danger­ous and Rise Of The Tomb Raider, do you feel like you’re fi­nally clear of the launch back­lash?

I think the Xbox com­mu­nity has been great at sup­port­ing us over the first year-plus since the launch. The feed­back that they give us con­stantly is both sup­port­ive and crit­i­cal, and both are use­ful in build­ing a roadmap. Gamers, as you know, are a vo­cal and pas­sion­ate base, and they will tell you how they feel all the time about things that are go­ing well, and things that aren’t go­ing well. It’s been a good year for us as a team. We feel en­er­gised by the work that we’re do­ing, the new op­por­tu­ni­ties on Win­dows, and the great games that are com­ing to the plat­form. But I feel it’s our duty to earn our cus­tomers ev­ery day, and that’s al­ways got to be crit­i­cal to just what it means to be in the Xbox team.

Xbox One’s up­dated Kinect may have re­ceded in im­por­tance, but Mi­crosoft re­mains com­mit­ted to al­ter­na­tive in­ter­faces, as demon­strated by its HoloLens AR head­set (above, be­low right). Like ev­ery­thing else bear­ing a Mi­crosoft logo nowa­days, the hard­ware will feed into the new Win­dows 10 ecosys­tem

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