The big Xbox Gamescom interview
Mike Ybarra on X's launch line-up, the fate of Crackdown and much more.
It's fair to say Microsoft's Gamescom offering left us underwhelmed. For Xbox One X's last big showing before its November launch, we expected announcements and footage to make the console a must-buy. Instead, we got reheated E3 assets and that same old mantra: the most powerful console in the world. Sure, it's accurate, but also accurately followed by 'great, now what are you going to play on it?'
So, on the first proper day of Gamescom, I was keen to find out if Microsoft had taken any feedback on board. I wanted to hear about the games we didn't see - like the delayed Crackdown. And I wanted to find out if Microsoft was happy with its line-up this Christmas, which leaves X to launch without a big new exclusive alongside.
Step up Mike Ybarra, corporate vice president of Microsoft's gaming division across Xbox and PC, who gamely replied to all of the above, plus talk on PUBG's exclusivity, the lack of COD and Destiny announcements as Xbox One X enhanced games, pig controllers and stickers. Read on for the full chat.
Mike Ybarra: So you saw the stream?
I did, I'm guessing you saw Eurogamer's coverage.
Mike Ybarra: Sure, I read Eurogamer.
Martin's opinion on the conference was mixed, it's fair to say. We were impressed with some of what we saw but we were expected more. And then today I was just on the Xbox Gamescom booth and looking forward to seeing some of the enhanced titles - they're not there either. Are they not ready to be shown?
Mike Ybarra: Well, we just released the Tomb Raider asset [a trailer showing off Rise of the Tomb Raider's Xbox One X enhancements] and everyone was like 'wow, why wasn't that in the show?' For us it's a balance - of time, what we want to show and when, and keeping things going until launch day in November. For Gamescom we wanted to focus on Age of Empires - I don't know if you went to that -
We were travelling at the time.
Mike Ybarra: That was a crazy conference there. And then I think here we have 10 games across 70 stations with Xbox One X on it. Those developers have the kits, what they tell us is things are going well. It's a balance of when they want to come out and say 'here it all is' versus when we say 'we need [to show] some titles'. We're very confident of where we are from a developer standpoint on the games. And you'll see more between now and November, sort of like Tomb Raider.
So, 'more to come before November'?
Mike Ybarra: For sure. I mean, at E3 we announced 40 titles for Xbox One X. Here we have over 100. That momentum will keep going.
But those 100 titles aren't here.
Mike Ybarra: Not all 100 titles, no.
One game in particular that's not here is Crackdown. I have to ask you what's going on with it.
Mike Ybarra: Well, like they said, and Shannon [Loftis] is here so is the perfect person to speak to on that, but they need a little more time. Time makes great games versus releasing early. That's kind of the scenario she's at.
We saw a bit of it at E3 and it looked good but that was all single-player. Is it the multiplayer which is taking longer? One part of the game which is ready and one not?
Mike Ybarra: I'd have to ask Shannon, I'm not super close to the title outside of the themes of making it the game fans want. Certainly I played it at E3 and there have been some internal builds - I'm a Crackdown fan and play it with that filter on. I look forward to it too!
It was announced with some pretty lofty ambitions - is it a case of needing to reach those, or reign those in to be able to release it?
Mike Ybarra: The pillars are there now - it's just a matter of optimising it. The multiplayer, the cloud effects we've shown and the single-player campaign, the expectations fans have for a game like Crackdown. I think... they just need a bit more time.
Looking towards the end of this year then, you guys have Forza obviously but otherwise the first party slate... well, are you happy with the amount of titles you've got coming out?
Mike Ybarra: Yeah, when I think about now through the end of December we have the biggest game in the world right now on our console - that's PUBG. It's funny, to me, and I play a lot of that game, to me people aren't really recognising that game as the game it is. Eight million copies in four months. That's like Bethesda, Blizzard type numbers. Maybe Rockstar-type velocity. It's the world's biggest game right now and it's on the console. Forza 7, if you want to play racing games you'll do it on Xbox, between Forza Horizon and Forza Motorspot, it is the place for racing.
The game I'm super excited for which I played a few days ago is Cuphead - it's so different and unique. I'm into different art styles and approaches, I think that game will be strong as well. And then Lucky's Tale, if you think about the diversity of the games, we have PUBG for me and core people who like competition, to Lucky's Tale, Cuphead... I love what that looks like. Four exclusives through the end of the year, I think that's great.
Are they console exclusives which will sell Xbox One X?
Mike Ybarra: Any exclusive gets people excited. Of all those games, I think all of them will have an interest to people, whether they say 'wow, I'm going to buy an Xbox One X' is up to them. Bluehole's announced an Xbox One X-enhanced version of PUBG on the console which I think gives people a lot of confidence. I think our line-up proves itself out. And when I look at six months beyond December, I see Crackdown which has a lot of excitement and I'm happy with the reaction to the delay - people saying 'quality is what we want, take a few more months'. State of Decay 2 is coming. I like what that next six months looks like past December.
Traditionally, consoles launch with a game that sells the system. Switch did this year with Zelda, and in the past Xbox has had Halo. Does Xbox One X need to be sold with a killer app, or is it more of an upgrade and we should just be thinking of it as that?
Mike Ybarra: What Phil [Spencer] said is right on this - it's additive to the family we have. Our volume seller will be Xbox One S - it's $249, it'll be the thing most people buy. X is designed for the hardcore gamer who wants to play the best versions of those games. When I look at the Xbox family I don't feel like we have to come out with six new games just for X, it'll play everything that's come out, back compat will work on it, elements like that. I don't know if we're still in the world of having to have big, exclusive titles just for one box, versus the promise that games you buy will work and look even better on X. It's up to the user to choose. And for us it's more that choice element, rather than holding an exclusive and throwing it out with a console there.
What does your marketing tell you will be the group of people buying X the most? Is it people upgrading from Xbox One or S, or people for whom it will be their first Xbox One console?
Mike Ybarra: From an engineering standpoint we built it for the high-end gamer who wants the best version of the games - so that's who we are targeting with the box.
So do you expect it to be people's second Xbox and they are upgrading, or for people who haven't played Xbox One and its exclusives so far, coming in wanting the best Xbox there is?
Mike Ybarra: I think it's a mix of both. Most hardcore gamers out there are multi-console. They've got Nintendo, Sony, us. They probably have a PC in there too. So for them, they want the latest and greatest. The tech enthusiasts, they'll get the X. Whether they trade in the S or not, I don't know. For the family audience out there, the S is great and we are coming out with the Minecraft edition targeted at that audience - it looks great.
I do like the pig controller.
Mike Ybarra: I've got like 40 controllers at home. They need to stop making them. [laughs]
PUBG - there's some confusion around the exclusivity. Is it a console exclusive? Or is it just that you are exclusively publishing it on Xbox?
Mike Ybarra: We're publishing it on Xbox and it's a console launch exclusive. For anything else - we don't like to answer on behalf of developers, so you'd have to ask Bluehole. I've got a large portion of my team working with them to optimise it and their [Bluehole] focus is entirely on the PC and Xbox, period, to get that done. And I'm addicted to the game. [laughs]
So there's nothing to stop it launching on another platform in the future?
Mike Ybarra: You'd have to ask Bluehole.
But just to be clear, by console launch exclusive you mean timed exclusive.
Mike Ybarra: It's up to Bluehole. We're not the developer.
Sure, but I mean, you know those guys, it's coming out on your console...
Mike Ybarra: As a launch exclusive.
OK, it's a launch exclusive. I sense we're not going any further than that!
Mike Ybarra: [laughs]
Back at E3, my colleague Wesley chatted to Phil Spencer about cross-network play, and then spoke to Sony's Jim Ryan about it who basically said PlayStation didn't want to play ball. Microsoft has always said the ball is in their court and discussions could still continue. So, in the time since E3, has anything changed?
Mike Ybarra: This started a while ago for Xbox when Rocket League came to us and said, 'hey, we really want to have cross-play with Steam', but really with everywhere they had the game. So we sat down and said 'look, our fans are asking for this, developers are asking for this, multiplayer tools need to be as big as possible, how do we make this all work?' It's something I'm a huge proponent of. It's my team that sits down with Valve or anybody and asks 'how do we actually make this work?' I'm 100 per cent behind that. I would love a world where everyone is playing together on the games they love.
But no more news on your end since E3?
Mike Ybarra: I haven't been in any discussions with Sony. Developers have come to us and asked 'hey are you open to this' and we've said, 'yes, lets sit down and talk about it'.
I think you're on the right side of history with that one. Changing topic, there's been some discussion lately online of whether the Xbox business is profitable. So - is the Xbox business profitable?
Mike Ybarra: Well, we don't disclose the financial details of the business. I've seen the same reports you have and all I can say is right now all we're focused on is the games and the platform and we're committed to driving them forward. We're continuing to invest more than we ever have in the platform.
Does it need to be profitable?
Mike Ybarra: Uhh. What do you mean?
Well, if it's profitable right now, then OK. If it's not profitable then it's still going strong anyway. So, does it need to be, or is it just part of Microsoft's overall ecosystem for games?
Mike Ybarra: Any business strives to be profitable. So for us, when you see us continually investing, it's a good sign with how confident we are. When you see our CEO talking about games almost too much as a pillar for the company, I don't see our investment level dropping over time. I think everyone from Phil to every employee is very confident of where we are as a business.
Change of topic again - something which got a lot of people talking on Monday night - the Xbox One X vertical stand. Will you be able to buy it separately?
Mike Ybarra: You can buy it, yeah, people will be able to buy it. With the special edition it comes with it, basically for free, or you can buy it separately.
People want to know these things.
Mike Ybarra: People want it vertical. I'm a horizontal.
I'm a horizontal too.
Mike Ybarra: It's like the sticker/no sticker debate [referring to the safety sticker on the front of the console you take off as soon as you get it out the box].
Why would you ever keep that sticker on?
Mike Ybarra: I'm with you. I'm no sticker. But I get yelled at for being no sticker on social. [laughs]
Your Xbox One X enhanced titles list - you've said it's a work in progress. There's 100 plus games on it right now -
Mike Ybarra: Major Nelson dot com, he has the list on there -
Yeah, or we've copied and pasted and put it on our site -
Mike Ybarra: [laughs] That's okay.
There are games on there like Shadow of War and Assassin's Creed Origins which you'd expect, and you have the marketing deals for. But then there's games like Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: WW2. Now, I can't see a situation where they aren't Xbox One X enhanced, eventually, but they aren't on the list right now. Is there anything you can say for Xbox fans who want the best versions of those games?
Mike Ybarra: I'd say we are working with all developers, including the ones you named to make sure the best versions are on Xbox One X and it's up to them when they want to actually talk about what, if anything, they are doing.
Is there anything stopping you guys from discussing that? People have pointed out that those two games have marketing deals with your rival.
Mike Ybarra: Mmm.
Are your hands tied?
Mike Ybarra: I would say, we work with those developers all the time. We want to align with their messaging and what they want to say, when they want to say it. We work with them on timing, how we can help them optimise... there's a group in my organisation called Advanced Technology Group which works with these developers on Xbox One X. We dock to their timelines and align to their communication plans. I can't comment on any limitations they might have.
It sounds a lot like Sony's telling them that they can't say they have Xbox One X enhanced editions. And now you're shrugging your shoulders.
Mike Ybarra: I have no direct knowledge of that.
It's just a shame. Why not just let people say.
Mike Ybarra: What I like is that all developers, when we first announced X, all developers wanted that extra power. They want to make their games look the absolute best they can. I love the momentum there, I love we have developers saying it's easy to get up and running, we fixed a lot of the dev tool issues we had. I like the momentum we have and I'm confident all the big games will be great on Xbox One X.
[I notice a bunch of quick flashes on the TV screen where Mike is signed in to the Xbox One X. They are screen-filling notifications telling Mike he has new friend requests, of a new design I haven't seen before.] You're getting a lot of friend notifications there.
Mike Ybarra: I forgot to turn notifications off... And that's actually a feature we haven't disclosed yet that you just saw so I immediately thought 'that's nice that's up there'. [laughs]
I was going to say, I haven't seen design before and I'm in the alpha preview group.
Mike Ybarra: I saw your eyes immediately go there. [laughs]
The new desktop is a big improvement but I have some suggestions.
Mike Ybarra: We're listening, we're making changes.
[I'm told I have one more question.] How do you make Halo and Fable great again? To the point where they were. To the point where they sold consoles.
Mike Ybarra: Wow, well... you'd probably want to ask Aaron Greenberg that.
I'm talking to you right now...
Mike Ybarra: Yeah, and I'm the platform person... I think Halo 5 is great and the usage is fine. That's one for the studio heads.
I'll have to ask them. For now, thank you very much for your time.