The Xbox conference must be tough, because you always go first. Now you’ve seen everyone else’s hand, how’s the mood around the camp?
I liked our conference. We showed a big diversity of games; I think we showed off stuff that shows off the cutting edge of tech on X; I think people wanted to see diversity in genres and creators. Then we closed off with backwards compatibility, which we knew was going to be a huge moment in the show and something I know Phil [Spencer, head of Xbox] and a lot of us that have been around for a long time have been pushing to see happen. I also appreciated, as the guy that was responsible for the hardware, that we spent a little bit of time on the machine, and talked a little bit to people at E3 about the box. Typically that gets pushed to a different event at a different time, so I really liked that we took a moment to talk about it.
How hard was it to talk about? You have to sell it, but must also have to make sure that you’re not alienating people who are happy with their launch console. How hard is it to get that message right?
I’ve been in the games business for a long time – I don’t like to say how long, because it’s a pyrrhic victory. I’ve been around since before we launched the first Xbox, and every generation brings its own opportunities and challenges. We really had to sit down and think, ‘How do we do this right?’ If we’re going to introduce this concept of doing a console in the middle of a cycle, the console business doesn’t work that way, so we’ve got to get this right. It has to be simple. Your stuff has to work. It can’t be some weird case of like, which disc runs where under what conditions. It has to be super powerful, it has to be a big leap from what you’ve got, and everything’s gotta work – you can’t make anybody feel dumb. Grandma’s gotta go in and buy a disc for the kid for Christmas, and she doesn’t want to get it wrong. It’s actually kind of easy to message it when, in the beginning, we started by tr ying to ask ourselves those hard questions. It all started, I think, with the right beginning.
Was the process of getting Xbox backwards compatibility more challenging than 360?
That’s probably a better question for the emulation software team. These guys are amazing. This is one of the nice things about working at Microsoft: you have software people. And the nice thing about working at Xbox is that there are a bunch of us that have been around for a long time. And Phil in particular is a guy who loves games. I still have my ColecoVision, and my Atari – I’m teaching my daughter about games from the beginning. The idea that you lose your games is kind of a bummer about console generations. And so after we reinvigorated 360, we thought, there’s a bunch of great games on the original console. We’re going to bring back some fan favourites. It’s not going to be the same size of programme as the 360 one, but I like the fact that we’re doing it. It really shows that Phil and the team care about content. All of the other stuff we’re doing – Play Anywhere, the stuff between Xbox One S and X, 360 compatibility – it’s about this idea that it’s all about the games. That’s what you really care about, and this device is a thing that you buy and you don’t have to lose your library. That’s where we see this industry going.
It’s an ideological thing really, isn’t it? Backwards compatibility isn’t the most used feature on the console.
Well, it depends on whose data you’re looking at...
Sure, but people aren’t playing
Halo 3 to the same extent people are playing Halo 5. It’s something that you want to offer, rather than something you necessarily need to.
It is. This is always the classic discussion about back compat. My daughter is two-and-a-half, and I play a lot of Geometry Wars with her. It’s a great visual stimulus, and I don’t have to worry about anything, and the music’s great. Then you’ll get cases like what we did with Call Of Duty:
Black Ops II, where it actually went back and charted. So talking about usage is tough, because obviously the newest stuff is always the most used. But as Phil said, over half of Xbox One owners have played a [backwardscompatible] title. So I think it is an important feature, because there might be a time where you’re going to want to go back. Like you said, it’s an important philosophical thing that we really believe in.
After a very rough start to the generation, we sense every year that Microsoft is becoming more confident. Now you no longer have to worry about a power deficiency; you will soon have the most powerful console on the market. How does that change your attitude?
I think there’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. Phil has been in the business for a long time, he has a personality and an attitude towards this that I think permeates the team. A lot of us have been around for a long time; a lot of us are the same people that started at the very beginning. I think what you’re really sensing is, we’re excited. We’ve been wanting to talk about this for a long time. To have worked for so long, to really want to do something special and then have that land [really well]? I think we’re just really excited about it.
You were deeply involved in the hardware. Is there one part of it of which you are particularly personally proud?
For me it’s the compatibility, because I think it’s the thing that people assume was the easiest, but was actually the most challenging. Because yes, they are all based on a family of x86 processors, but they are not PCs. There is a lot of custom silicon. And the thing about consoles is that developers do find ways to trick them, and do things that get every ounce of performance out of them. Building a system that’s resilient enough to not only have them work, but have them work better, and be able to deliver the level of performance needed to do all the new stuff, is actually the least appreciated, but biggest challenge that the team had to hit. And oh, by the way: it was the one thing that you could not get wrong.
We figured you’d say the form factor. Getting that much horsepower into such a small casing is no mean feat.
We knew when we built this thing it was going to be a premium device. And that meant there was not a part of this console that we wanted to underdeliver. That really gave us an opportunity to do things like bring in vapour chambers. Which we did not invent, but they’re usually reserved for really high end cards. They’re very sophisticated, they’re more challenging to manufacture than a typical heat pipe, and we are the first mass-market product to use one. But you’re not going to get that size without one. We talk about the Hovis method; there’s a guy at work named Bill Hovis, he had to invent a process to allow each and every console to get a custom power profile. We needed to eke that level of efficiency out of every box to get the quietness, the reliability and all the things we wanted to get out of the console. The team, they wanted to show off!
To you, Hovis is the cutting edge of tech. To us it’s an old-fashioned brand of bread, conjuring up images of flat caps and cobbled streets.
OK, someone owes me money. You’re the first to bring that up.
“Grandma’s gotta go in and buy a disc for the kid for Christmas, and she doesn’t want to get it wrong”
Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge was confirmed as being among the first Xbox titles to be playable on Xbox One. Spencer, charmingly, referred to the console as “OG Xbox”