The big interview: Xbox boss Phil Spencer

On Xbox One X, exclusives and more.

By Wesley Yin-Poole. Published 13 June 2017

During its E3 2017 media briefing, Microsoft faced pressure to convince the gaming public to fork out its hard-earned cash - £449 in the UK to be exact - on an Xbox One X, née Project Scorpio. With the specs out of the way, it was all about the games. And so the games came - 42, 22 of which with rather vague "Xbox console exclusivity" attached. But while we saw some lovely little games as part of a different side of Microsoft (The Last Night, Artful Escape and Ori 2 spring to mind), where were the big first-party exclusive new game announcements? You know, the kind of announcement that gets early adopters fumbling over themselves to pre-order? There weren't any.

Instead we were treated to better, more detailed looks at games we already knew about: Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2, Forza 7. That was fine. Sea of Thieves in particular looks like a lot of fun and is, let us not forget, a brand new IP from a big Microsoft-owned developer. And yet there was no stunner. No drop the mic moment. No, "and one more thing" to spark tears of joy from Microsoft's entranced hyperfans in the front rows.

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It was with all this in mind that I sat down with Xbox boss Phil Spencer at the Galen Center in Los Angeles to talk Xbox One X. At £449, I'm not sure who the console is for ("there is a customer out there who's looking for the premium experience"). I fear for Microsoft's first-party studio setup ("I do think we have an opportunity to get better in first-party"). And I remain unconvinced that the announced lineup of Xbox One exclusives will convince anyone but the hardest of core gamers to pick up an Xbox One X later this year ("we've signed some things we haven't announced").

Spencer answers my questions on these topics and more with the down-to-earth style that has won him an army of fans on social media - and, I should point out, in the development community. Unlike so many video game executives, Spencer is willing to engage, debate and, crucially, talk like a human being - within the bounds of nearby PR watchers, of course. I left our chat convinced Microsoft's play with Xbox One X is not that it will be home to superstar exclusives - rather, it will be home to the best versions, perhaps the definitive versions, of the biggest multiplatform games. Read on to get Spencer's take - and see if you find yourself convinced.

My first question is about the name. What's the thinking behind the X?

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Phil Spencer: That's so funny! I keep getting this question. We think a lot about the name. The name had to have Xbox One in it, because as we've talked about before it's a part of the family of consoles. Xbox One S, great value console. Then we're going to have this other console that's going to be the most powerful console ever built. So Xbox One something. We can't use Elite because we've already called something Xbox One Elite, which wasn't this. S is obviously the other console. There was some push for us to use Scorpio, and call it Xbox One Scorpio.

Yeah, that would have been good.

Phil Spencer: Getting the trademark for Scorpio is really hard. When we do names, you have to pick global names for things. And frankly, while it seems cool right now, two years from now for somebody who doesn't know where this console came from, it can be a little confusing and off-putting of, why is this thing called Scorpio? Even though I love that.

So, I'm not leaking anything, but I will say we love the name Scorpio. For those of us who have been through this 18 month journey we want to do something to celebrate that. But the name X was, as I said on stage, honestly, the mantra 'there's no power greater than X' was something that drove us early on in the original Xbox days, so we felt like it fit, and I like the name.

Fair enough!

Phil Spencer: You don't like it?

It's fine. I think eventually we'll just forget about the name and it'll roll off the tongue. Onto the price. At $499, who is Xbox One X for?

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Phil Spencer: When we look at our line of consoles it's incredibly important we have value with Xbox One S - HDR gaming, 4K Blu-ray drive, upsampling to 4K for people who want that - and power. Xbox One X is for the customer who's looking for the most powerful console that's going to run every game they're going to play better than any other console.

If you have a 4K television, the fidelity of the experience you're going to get on this console on that television is unrivalled by any other console. If you're a PC gamer who's been playing games in 4K and you're thinking, hey, maybe I'll find a reason now to buy a console, something that's going to play games similar to the way I've seen them on my monitor, here's a great console for you. If you have an Xbox One today, if you've got a PS4 today, you've had them for a couple of years, you're a person who plays games a lot, you've invested in a new TV, or even have a 1080p TV - that's why we added the technology to make supersampling to make this play games better even on your 1080p TV - this is for the person who's looking for a premium experience.

I reflect back to when we did the Elite controller and I got some questions at E3 about, hey, you can't sell a $150 Elite controller. Who's that for? And then we couldn't make enough to satisfy the demand. So there is a customer out there who's looking for the premium experience.

But I will say price is critical. The majority of our consoles that are sold next year will be S. That has always been the plan.

Oh, really?

Phil Spencer: Oh yeah. That's why S launched last year, the way it looks, that is the console that will drive most of the volume for us in pure unit sales. Competitors see the same thing. They're for a large set of the customers. It's why having 42 games on our stage was critical, and a broad set of games, from Super Lucky's Tale to Minecraft to Anthem to Metro. We showed 42 games, 22 with console exclusivity that's going to play across the whole Xbox One line.

If you're a customer who's just looking to get into this console generation, Xbox One S is a great console for you. If you're somebody who wants the premium experience with all the fidelity we can bring with the most powerful console, Xbox One X. So we've got the value and we've got performance and compatibility across the line.

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Are you not worried about being $100 more expensive than the PS4 Pro?

Phil Spencer on-stage during Microsofts E3 2017 media briefing.

Phil Spencer: I look at Pro as more of a competitor to S than I do to Xbox One X. This is a true 4K console. If you just look at the specs of what this box is, it's in a different league than any other console that's out there. When I think about techniques to somehow manufacture a 4K screen like what some other consoles try to do, this is different than that. This is 40 per cent more GPU. The amount of RAM we have in this, the speed of the RAM, the speed of the harddrive, the reaction we're getting from developers... having Patrick [Soderlund, EA executive] show Anthem at the end of our show, which looked fantastic, opening with Forza, but having the third-party validation - when I stood there and went through Final Fantasy and Resident Evil and Ghost Recon and Rocket League, those assets that were running behind me were all in 4K because those developers were already up in 4K on this kit, because that's the box we built. There's not a tonne of work developers are having to do to get to 4K, and then they can spend the extra headroom they have and time to perfect the game they want to build. That's why we're able to say, over 30 games will have 4K updates for Xbox One X when we launch it. That's going to be fantastic. Third-party support's been great.

Let's talk about the games.

Phil Spencer: What was your favourite?

I like the look of Sea of Thieves!

Phil Spencer: Love it! My direction to the team early on was, I want to see it from the eyes of a single player. What we'd shown was this group experience. Working with Craig [Duncan, Rare studio head] and the team I said, let's try to give the view of one player through an experience off the ship, on the ship and we did underwater stuff. We really wanted to show - we didn't show all of it - but show some of the diversity of what's in the game. I really thought it showed well on-stage.

I thought it looked great. The water looks great.

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Phil Spencer: Some of the water scenes are just ridiculous. And then when the storms hit! Anyway, you've got a question! I'm sorry.

You had a lot of games, which was great, but where were the big first-party game announcements?

Phil Spencer: So, our first-party game announcements on stage, Forza 7...

Okay, but we knew about Forza. It was a known quantity, that one.

Phil Spencer: Well, it was our announce. You can take it away from me, but it was an announce. Ori, which looked fantastic. Super Lucky's Tale, did you see that?

I'm talking more about...

Phil Spencer: You're not liking my answer, okay. What do you want us to show?

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You know what I mean. Triple-A, big Microsoft first-party games.

Phil Spencer: Well, you think of Sea of Thieves as that, right?

Yeah, but that had been announced. I'm talking about big first-party triple-A announcements to get us all really excited for Xbox One X.

Phil Spencer: The focus I had on this show was games you're going to get to play in the next year. We're focusing on Xbox One S and Xbox One X and the games you're going to play. We showed Crackdown, which looks fantastic. It's going to be there at launch day for Xbox One X, which will be a great showcase for the box. Obviously Sea of Thieves. I thought State of Decay showed up really well. Some people played State of Decay 1, but a lot of people missed it. Now we're giving that game time to really hit what we want State of Decay to do, because that will be an important franchise for us. We showed Forza.

Frankly, I loved the fact I didn't have to bring out Gears and Halo just to say, hey. People know we have Gears and Halo in our portfolio, and we're working on other things that aren't on this list...

I was going to ask - what's your assessment of the first-party studio setup you have now? Is there enough there for you to be able to provide the kind of games I'm talking about?

Phil Spencer: I've been in this job three years and focused on hardware innovation and I think we've landed two great consoles in the last two years, with Xbox One S and Xbox One X. I've focused a lot on live innovation and getting our developer platform as much as the consumer side of the platform in shape. I'm spending a lot of time on our first-party right now. I do think we have an opportunity to get better in first-party and to grow. We've got great support from the company to go do that.

We've signed some things we haven't announced. I'm not gonna go stand on-stage - I've lived through announcing things too early and then had to live up to the hype while you're trying to go build the game, and I'm learning. I'm not a big fan of that. So I want to give teams the time.

It was teasing - and I'm not throwing this team under the bus because they've made fun of themselves - Cuphead, which isn't the same type of game you're talking about, but it's something you've never seen before.

The release date announcement got the biggest cheer of the night.

Phil Spencer: Exactly! But when I think about our first-party, I want to announce things when I know they're going to launch, when I've got real sightlines into what they're going to be able to deliver for our customers. That's when you're going to hear about games from us.

I could stand up and show some videos of things I think might come in the next three years. We had 42 games, 22 of them with console exclusivity that I could put on-stage that all are games where you could see the dates for them and when they're coming. And that filled up our show. It went longer than we've ever gone.

So I felt great about the lineup. I hear you, though. I'm not saying that what you're saying is wrong. People want to know what the roadmap in the future looks like, and that's my job to deliver it to them. And I will.

I'm getting the sense you're saying you've learnt from the Scalebound cancellation.

Phil Spencer: Not just Scalebound. We're not alone in putting games on-stage early that then have a second E3, a third E3 before they actually come out. That's an industry thing. And I'll tell you, as a platform holder there's tension because, if I had shown Master Chief running around in 4K on the screen, the place would have gone crazy. You know that. I know that. Just to pick on Halo because people know there's Halo. But I also know, as we're working through the creative process of giving the team the time to go deliver the great game we want them to deliver, whether it's Halo or something brand new, the time it takes to just get ready for the screen is real time away from production on the game. And then you set some kind of bar from gameplay, because people will take expectation that probably has very little to do, or might not have anything to do with what you actually land.

So, I love the lineup of games we had on-stage. I thought we had a great lineup of games. We have more things to come. People will hear about that from us. And I'm going to be conscious of putting things on-stage when I know I can make a commitment to my fans and customers that they're going to get to play those games.

Minecraft - cross-platform play is brilliant, but it's not with PlayStation.

Phil Spencer: Yeah, you have to talk to them about that.

Did you ask them?

Phil Spencer: We want Minecraft to be playable on all platforms with cross-play. I'm committed to that. Our relationship with Nintendo has been great. But you'll have to ask them. The team has done a nice job supporting Minecraft on PlayStation platforms pre us owning it, post us owning it. I like the fact it's there. I think the connected world of Minecraft we're building, I'd love to be able to bring it to all consoles.

I'm wondering about the situation you're going to get with big third-party games where Sony has done a marketing deal. Do you anticipate performance and image quality parity between PS4 Pro and Xbox One X for those games because of some parity requirement on Sony's part, or do you anticipate the Xbox One X version will look significantly better and perform significantly better? I'm thinking of the Call of Dutys, the FIFAs, the Battlefields.

Phil Spencer: I know exactly what you're talking about. Here's what I'll say...

Honest answer, Phil.

Phil Spencer: I will give you an honest answer. Xbox One X is the most powerful console ever built, and this fall it will be the most powerful console in the market. There's nothing technically that would keep any game a console game maker is building who wants to take advantage of the capability here from making Xbox One X the very best version of every one of those games.

I don't know what deals get written. I've been pretty open about, I'm not a fan of doing deals that hold back specific pieces of content from other platforms. You don't see that in the deals we've done with Assassin's and Shadow. We'll have a marketing deal on those, but I don't say, hey, I need some kind of Strike or skin somebody else can't play.

I don't think it's good for our industry if we got into a point where people are holding back the technical innovation of game developers based on a marketing deal. I don't know anything about what's in other people's deals. But this, clearly, from a technical perspective, is the most powerful console by quite a wide margin. So, when I stood on-stage and I said this will be the best place to play all those games, there's nothing technically that would keep any developer from not making that true.

I don't know if you answered my question there.

Phil Spencer: Well, I don't know the deals. I can't tell you what a marketing deal looks like on a game like Call of Duty.

Would you be disappointed not to see a significant difference with Call of Duty?

Phil Spencer: Like I said, the capability is in this box to make the difference extremely significant. I think about the consoles in the market today, whether it's PS4, original Xbox One, S, Pro, it's all kind of closer in spec. We've hit a performance spec with Xbox One X that should make those games the most definitive version of those games.

I have one of these consoles at home that I'm using. And I'll tell you, when I'm playing first-party or third-party games, from load times to the fidelity of what I'm seeing on-screen, if it's a game that supports variable resolution to keep frame-rate and stuff, it is just a step beyond anything I've ever played on console. I think the capability is there for every developer to take advantage of that.

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