The big Xbox interview - Project Scarlett, cross-gen Halo Infinite and the lack of Fable

"We're not emptying the tank, getting everything we've got and just throwing it on stage."

Microsoft kicked off E3 in style today, with a memorable press conference that had Keanu Reeves and a car made out of Lego. Oh, and we finally got a few morsels of information on the next Xbox, codenamed Project Scarlett.

But while the corner was teased off Scarlett's covers, nearly everything else about Microsoft's next box remains under-wraps. We know it will launch Holiday 2020 with Halo Infinite - but we also now know Halo Infinite is a cross-gen game for Xbox One. What about the rest of Scarlett's software line-up, like the long-awaited next Fable? And what does Scarlett having 'four times the power of Xbox One X' really mean?

I sat down with Matt Booty, Head of Microsoft Game Studios, to at least try and prise more information from him.

You've finally put a name on Project Scarlett and started talking about it. To me, that name sounds like Project Scorpio, a big beefy new console, singular. But last year Phil Spencer talked about new Xbox consoles, plural. What should we expect next year?

Matt Booty: Everything we're talking about - we talked about today. We're not talking about more than what we showed in the video, and what Phil talked about. Project Scarlett is our console plan headed into 2020.

You did say console not consoles plan there.

1
Matt Booty, Head of Microsoft Game Studios.

Matt Booty: Scarlett is our console plan going into 2020. What I'd like to share a little more relevant to my world on the game studios side, is what [Scarlett] will open up in terms of game design. Going all the way back to the early 2000s with streaming, what you do when things are streaming, even some ways Unreal Engine is architected to allow for certain things - going into a room through a little hallway - people have been designing games around load times for so long.

To be able to have the power, the SSD to unlock a new approach to game design... We're probably sitting on a pivot point in game design, when you add up the new console's speed and performance, what cloud streaming will offer up when all the instances of a multiplayer game are running in one location, what it means to be running a game in a data centre... all that in combination with some of the hardware stuff could be as big a transition as when we went from 2D to 3D.

Think when the first 3D console first showed up. A lot of games were 2.5D. It took a while for people to figure out, y'know, how do you make a fighting game in 3D? How do platformers work? I feel we're sitting on a pivot point equal to that because of what the hardware will unlock.

Microsoft's big game for next year is Halo Infinite. It's launching for Xbox Scarlett - whether that refers to one console or several - but it's also coming out as a cross-gen game for Xbox One and X. So, what can adopters next year expect for it on Scarlett they can't get elsewhere?

Matt Booty: We're not talking today about features in Halo Infinite but what I can share is our first-party studios have direct access to the team working on Project Scarlett, and the Halo team gets first access to what's running on the hardware. So they are in prime position to take advantage of the things Scarlett will offer, but as you pointed out we also want to make sure people who own an Xbox One get a game which runs well up and down the Xbox family. But it plays best on Scarlett.

So would any of the things you mentioned previously - getting around game streaming, faster loading times - benefit those playing Halo Infinite on Scarlett?

Matt Booty: I don't want to steal any of Bonnie [Ross]'s thunder on Halo Infinite but I think you saw a little bit of it during the video we showed today. But start to think about things like bringing a bigger density of life to a world. We know the kind of game Halo is, the kind of detail in there. Think about bringing more density and variety to the light inside its world. Think about not having to create artificial design things to mask some of the limitations of the hardware and just bring things off of the SSD as fast as they're needed on screen.

Perhaps speaking more generally then, for Halo: Infinite you'll have a box on a shelf which says its for Scarlett and a box on a shelf which says its for Xbox One X. Do those titles have to have a parity of features? Will it just be they differ visually?

Matt Booty: Well, we already have a space where we need to navigate this, and that's PC games. You can have a PC with two Nvidia 1080s with SLI and 64GB of RAM, while I have a hand-me-down laptop. The game needs to be smart enough to take advantage of what's there in the best possible way, but also set itself up to run on the hardware which doesn't have those capabilities. The fact we have direct access literally across the soccer field to the Windows team working on DirectX and all the gaming features on Windows means we have experience navigating up and down the hardware continuum. And a little bit of that is going to be coming to our world on console, but again our lens on this is always from the player's point of view. How do we make sure our game is opened up to as many people as possible, and invested into our console family?

How do you market Infinite, and much of the Scarlett launch line-up, which I imagine will be similar, as games designed to sell your brand new box, that will look best on it - when they're also cross-gen, and available on consoles people may have at home already?

Matt Booty: I think we'd say it just like you did -

I don't think you should hire me!

Matt Booty: There's close to two billion people who play games, the audience is incredibly broad, and our ambition is to connect those players with the thousands of games in the Xbox library, the 60 million people on Xbox Live, and now with streaming, the ability to take those games everywhere. We wouldn't want to exclude anyone playing games.

Our first-party teams are highly-empowered to make the games they want, but also to target the right platforms. Just last week we saw Minecraft at Apple WWDC, and right now an iPhone is a great platform to chase AR on. We thought that was a great place to demonstrate what we're doing with Minecraft. Minecraft ships on 21 platforms. That doesn't come from a mandate, that is driven by where the community is, where players are.

Those studios who have games like Halo, Gears of War, the next Forza, they have great access to the people working on Scarlett. And like you said, it'll be available to everyone but plays best on Scarlett.

You had a massive number of games on show today - a very broad offering. But in terms of exclusives, I got the feeling you were holding some things back for next year to show off. Maybe some of the studios you've signed recently, we'll see the fruits of those further down the line?

Matt Booty: We showed up with 60 games on stage, 14 of which were from Xbox Game Studios. We need to pause and give some recognition to the studios which, less than a year after we did the acquisition, we're already seeing things on our stage. Equally, I'm excited for the things waiting in the wings. We have a lot of stuff we did not show. Stuff which, as you say, will be coming online as we get further into this.

It's interesting you brought that up as we had that discussion during rehearsals. We have 14 games here from Xbox Game Studios but we're not emptying the tank, getting everything we've got and just throwing it on stage.

I get it, you have a big console to market next year and you have to come out then swinging. But I know a lot of Fable fans today who were hoping for a little something...

Matt Booty: [Laughs] Like I said... a lot of great stuff waiting in the wings for next year. Hope to have you back in a year.

If you let me back I'll be here. Back to Scarlett... you mentioned it has four times the power of Xbox One X, which certainly sounds good. But what does that mean?

Matt Booty: It's a few things - it's the combination of speed, not just of the SSD but of the processor, the performance of the GPU and RAM, but we're also in a world where speed is starting not to matter. You can make RAM faster either by speeding up the way you access it or by adding more access points. Just think, what are all the things right now which take you out of a game? You're playing then suddenly *bloop* a load screen pops up and drops you out. Our goal is to get rid of those things, that's what we're after.

What do you think about the state of the industry right now? When you look around, who's here, who's not, what trends are you seeing in the industry?

Well, if I could turn this into a question for you... In terms of where the industry is at, we're at the turning point of a new generation, and a couple of new consoles will come out next year. Both of them have said things like 'we have an SSD' and 'we're going to be X times as powerful'. Why is Scarlett going to be the one which stands out?

Matt Booty: You have to look at the whole package. Games, and games you really want to play. Community, the people you want to play with, a robust community, the ability to bring people together to play. And the way you want to play. Scarlett is a constellation of those things. It's where you play games in your home, maybe where you stream games from to wherever you happen to be, where you can play a library of games built up across four generations, where you can discover games through Xbox Game Pass, and play games elsewhere via xCloud.

I think the next two years in games are going to be some of the most dynamic and pivotal in 20 years or more, with the new technology which will come online, the change in play habits being enabled, the broadening audience of people play, the ability for games - like film and music - to follow you around wherever you are. I'm really excited to see where it plays out and because of our approach to content, to community and to cloud, we've got a good shot at it.

You also have a software business which releases games for other platforms - rival platforms. How will that change?

Matt Booty: That decision comes down to 'what is the player expectation'? How do we deliver what fans and players are expecting? We're not going to go in and dictate a certain game go and target a certain platform. It's where can we find those players. So, today we saw Microsoft Flight Simulator, there's a huge process we go through to decide what gets in the show and you can imagine we start with more than we end up with...

...You had Fable and you took it out?

Matt Booty: [laughs] We decided it would be a good statement to have Flight Simulator in there because it's a game with deep connections to Microsoft's roots - the first game we ever published - it makes a statement. But you could say it's a PC thing, the folks who get into them often buy specialised joysticks, throttles, multi-monitor setups. They're some of the most passionate about building rigs. But at the same time, we're also going to bring that game to Xbox consoles. Why? Because people want to play it on Xbox and we'll figure out a way to make it work. So, platforms, even competing ones, comes down to us following the players and seeing where they want that content.

So you're saying if there's enough Halo fans who own a PlayStation...

Matt Booty: Well, I can't speak for Sony but I can point to the work we've done on Minecraft. We've kept it at pace so Minecraft on Xbox and PlayStation - neither lags behind the other. Our relationship with Sony as it relates to Minecraft is very healthy, it's fantastic. Nintendo is quite literally just across the street from us in Redmond and Minecraft has done great on Switch.

My time's up, but one final thing on Scarlett. Fans like the choice of being able to play games digitally and physically and want to know if they will still be able to do choose - will Scarlett offer that?

Matt Booty: Yes, Scarlett will have an optical disc drive. I still have films at home on physical media - not many, but a few of my favourites. We know people have an attachment to buying games on disc, to building a collection.

Thank you. I am looking forward to buy the new Fable on disc.

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Tom Phillips

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Tom is Eurogamer's news editor. He writes lots of news, some of the puns and all the stealth Destiny articles.

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