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Phil Spencer's new vision for the Xbox One

The Xbox chief on the change of direction that will help Xbox in its fight against PlayStation.

Things have been looking up for the Xbox One, and you can place much of the emphasis on the console's upturn following its troubled incubation and faltering early months on one person: Phil Spencer, the man appointed the head of Xbox on March 31st last year, and who's spent the past year changing the course of the console and setting it towards calmer, more promising waters.

The latest part of Microsoft's new plan for gaming has slowly been emerging over the past month: its unification of PCs and Xbox One with Windows 10 as it looks to harness the power and reach of both platforms. The plans were firmed up during Phil Spencer's GDC talk, where details were made clearer of how it will work, with cross-platform play, purchases that are eligible across both PC and Xbox One and games moving more freely between the two.

It's in the immediate aftermath of the talk that we meet - Spencer still wearing his DirectX 12 t-shirt, very much the in-look for the season - for a tightly marshalled 15-minute interview. He's looking relaxed and confident, and although he talks with the considered cadence and verbose, sometimes hollow speak of a senior executive there's something reassuringly genuine about him. That confidence, too, seems authentic.

"As the games team inside of Microsoft, we're first class citizens in the direction the company's going," he says as he reflects on the talk he's just finished. "It's been great to get that affirmation from the CEO on all the work that we're doing. We feel a commitment and a responsibility with that, and we're trying to live up to it."

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What's it like working alongside Kirstie, Phil?

Having the backing of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella certainly helps, as does a unified approach to gaming that's never really been the case at the company before. It's a far cry from the message the Xbox One was introduced with, the disappointing, unconvincing and often confused rally call around a universal media machine and an always online console. The message has changed for the better since then, and simplified: the consolidation of Microsoft's gaming services across PC and Xbox One feels like the work of a company working in unison rather than one tearing itself apart. Was the unification that Windows 10 is bringing always planned as part of the Xbox One's offering?

"Honestly, it's new," says Spencer. "The original vision around Xbox was to deliver a great gaming console that would also be useful for TV and other forms of entertainment, which could lift it to a huge install base and success. There are still great media functions inside the box, and we stay delivering on those features.

"It's been, what, 11 months since I came on board as the head of Xbox and try and get refocussed on that game vision, showing both the company and ourselves what's going on in PC and the huge communities that are there and the opportunities for us on what's going on this screen and on this screen in a first-class, first party way, it's a unique opportunity for us that we can step into. It's something we've built out over the summer, and that's why Minecraft made sense - it's a viral thing across so many screens, and it's a conduit for us to learn about what does it mean when people touch your service across all these different screens and what do they expect - it's something that's come together over the last year."

That last year spent assembling a new philosophy on the fly has presented something of an open goal for Microsoft's console rivals. Sony's made the most of the opportunity - hours before Spencer's talk, the company announced that some 20.2 million PlayStation 4s had been sold through since its launch.

"That's great," says Spencer, before addressing how Microsoft is going about catching up. "We had a great November and December both in the UK and the US. Sony's off to a tremendous run with the PS4, and it's kudos to them and the vision they've had with that machine. And it's not in a teasing way - I applaud them, it's great to see. Here, it's interesting as I see so many companies coming to console.

"Three years ago, it was why would anyone buy a dedicated device plugged into a TV, everyone's playing on their iPad. Now you've got nVidia creating a console, Valve's creating a console, Sony's having huge success with PS4 and we're selling more Xbox Ones than we sold 360s at this point. It feels like the space is active. In terms of the question of does this help us, I think it does. What it really does is bring in a larger community of game developers who want to bring their game to our platform, because you're looking at hundreds of millions if not a billion people you can touch through this common core operating system, core application framework, DirectX, Xbox Live.

"We're trying to create a common set of tools and technologies that game developers can use to get to all the screens. We're seeing the benefit now on Xbox One of that bringing more games in - in our video, we said if you're going to develop for Windows why wouldn't you develop for Xbox One, it's basically a checkbox in the compiler. I think it's all about the games, and in the end you've got to have great content, and that's how I look at it."

The flow between Xbox One and PC could herald an influx of new games on the console, but it's also a two-way street. Fable Legends is one of the most high-profile games being launched across both PC and Xbox One. Could other big ticket Microsoft Games Studio productions get the same treatment?

Spencer touted Xbox's showing at GDC as the most important since the brand was first announced.

"I think the opportunity to reach your customer wherever they are, it's gaming today, but it's definitely the future," says Spencer. "Game developers have become so good at engagement and retention and the monetising of that time - the opportunity to engage with the customer regardless of what screen they sit down on, you want to have a game that's appropriate for the screen they sit down on. You want to have a game that's appropriate for the screen they're on. But I think the opportunity is tremendous.

"It's not something we're forcing, that a game has to support all the platforms, but more developers than not when we talk to them about the opportunity see it. Why wouldn't they want someone playing their game whether they're at home or at work, on their laptop on their television. I want that television experience to be unique and special, and you can do that with the Xbox One, but I also want them to be able to play it wherever they are."

It's possible to play Xbox One games on PC thanks to the local streaming capabilities that Windows 10 brings - and a demo later during GDC shows it working in practice, even if the execution is currently a little way off of being perfect - but will series like Forza have native ports in the future?

"There isn't a tremendous request today for racing games like Forza on PC," says Spencer. "Obviously through the streaming we showed in January you'll be able to play on any of the PCs you have in your home. I don't want to build things because you can build them, I want to build things that our customers are asking for.

"We obviously put Halo on PC before - you go back and look and there's obviously strong... The first-person shooter space on PC is a little bit different than on console if you look at the business model and other things that work, so we'd want to land the right experience. If you play this out - so let's not talk about the next 6 months but talk about the next three or four years - you'll see more and more developers that are building these games that are appropriate for any screen that the gamer's sitting down on. And that's just more opportunity for gamers and developers."

Microsoft's message at GDC has been a positive one - a world away from its muddling of 18 months ago, and suggestive of a bright future for the Xbox One as it draws nearer its rivals. The message can feel a little out of step, though, with what's happening outside Microsoft's serene, thick-carpeted booth, where Sony is showcasing its near-final build of its Morpheus VR headset, Oculus draws ever nearer and the world gets its first sampling of Vive. Microsoft has its own new toy for the world to get excited about - Hololens, the AR technology that was debuted earlier this year - but has it locked itself out of the VR ecosystem that's fast emerging?

"I don't think we've locked ourselves out," Spencer replies. "We've looked at a mixed reality space that we could do with Hololens and think about it as a unique set of features and technologies to enable, that doesn't preclude us from doing anything in the VR space either from a first-party or partnership perspective. I've used Morpheus, I've used Oculus, I'm going to see more of the demos here.

ID@Xbox, as well as the porting of games like Shovel Knight, show that Microsoft is catching up when it comes to hoovering up interesting indies.

"The conversations between all of us in this space remain strong, a lot of them look at Xbox, and obviously with Oculus on PC and other things, and the discussions are great as all of us look forward into where this space is going to go. I don't think - and this isn't a shot at VR in any way - I don't think it's landed yet on what it is and how it's gong to go to market, but the innovation work is amazing, and it's something the games industry has always done, whether it's AI or voice. The games industry is always a place for innovation."

The other story that dominates GDC is Valve's play for the living room. What started as a nebulous front with the Steam Machines that were revealed early last year has begun to take a very real shape, with their re-reveal alongside Steam Link and the final Steam Controller presenting something more tangible ahead of their November release. There's a chance that the much-vaunted scrap between Sony and Microsoft will be for naught if Valve can convince its registered users to bring their 125 million Steam accounts to the living room. Does Spencer see Valve as a very real threat?

"I think they've got a great vision," he says. "I've said it before, the work they've done on the Windows gaming side for 15, 20 years has been amazing. They've been the shepherds of that ecosystem while we've been a little bit absent. They have a great vision for where they're trying to take Steam and the whole connection, and giving away Source is a smart move.

"I think right now I see it as upside opportunity for both of us. I think there's enough both innovation and modernisation in gamers - I have a Steam account, I don't think I'm deleting it tomorrow. Ori, one of our games we're shipping this month, we're shipping on Steam. Five years from now you'll be able to buy Steam games and be able to buy games on the Windows store. The conversations we have on a regular basis with Valve - I consider them a critical ISV... er, that's independent software developer - on Windows, and very open to the feedback that they're always active to give. Are they a competitor? I see it as upside opportunity now."

Spencer's first year in charge at Xbox has been a good one, even taking into consideration some of the bumps along the way - he's lent the company a more human face, and given it some of the impetus that previously felt lacking. It's the next 12 months, with Valve becoming a closer competitor and with a Christmas period that, with Sony's current dearth of first-party titles, seems to be there for the taking, that could yet turn into a great one.

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