Sunday 26 March 2017

E3 2016: Xbox plots a rocky course to the next generation

Microsoft Studios head of publishing Shannon Loftis talks to Ronan Price in LA about what lies ahead for Xbox

Shannon Loftis, head of publishing at Microsoft Studios, interviewed in Los Angeles after the Xbox E3 press conference
Shannon Loftis, head of publishing at Microsoft Studios, interviewed in Los Angeles after the Xbox E3 press conference
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

THE American flag flew at half-mast over videogame extravaganza E3 in Los Angeles this week, an awkward juxtaposition of mourning for Orlando with an event that traditionally worships the shooter genre.

Within hours of the horrific mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Florida last Sunday, games companies were scrambling to judge the appropriate response as they prepared their blockbuster showcases ahead of E3.

Xbox head Phil Spencer was one of several industry bosses to tackle the tragedy head on, opening his address to the company’s press conference on Monday with a note of condolence:

“To everyone affected by the recent tragedy in Orlando: our hearts are with you, and you should know you are not alone,” said Spencer. “The gaming community mourns with you.” 

Like the other majors, the showcase then continued with a roster heavily featuring popular violent shooters, such as Gears of War 4 and Dead Rising 4. 

Later in the day, Shannon Loftis, head of publishing for Microsoft Studios, was adamant that the Xbox presentation was otherwise unchanged and not toned down in sympathy. However, all the presenters wore a rainbow LGBT pin in solidarity with the 49 victims of killer Omar Mateen.

Microsoft announced plans to allow you to customise your Xbox controller, costing approximately €90
Microsoft announced plans to allow you to customise your Xbox controller, costing approximately €90

“What happened in Orlando weighs heavily on everybody who was here today,” said Loftis. “And we all are heartbroken about it. We didn't make changes to our presentation with respect to that. But we did want to show support. My thoughts are with the families of the victims.

“The obligation that we feel is not a corporate obligation, we feel an obligation as humans. Everybody on the team was shocked and stunned by what happened. The decision to wear the (rainbow) pins was one that we took as people not as a corporation.”

Loftis rejected any suggestion Microsoft has a violence problem.

“With respect to the games that we make and ship, our goal is to offer a diverse and expansive portfolio of games,” she said. “We have non-violent games, we have Minecraft. We have (driving sim) Forza Horizon.

“We have games too that empower users to defeat monsters. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I love that we have the power and resources to allow a lot of people to have life-changing experiences through our console and our games.

“Our obligation to deliver games that are respectful, that give gamers choice and that are super high-quality.”

The Xbox E3 conference detailed plans to a raft of upgrades to Minecraft across all platforms
The Xbox E3 conference detailed plans to a raft of upgrades to Minecraft across all platforms

Microsoft has already committed to tackling another issue that has bedevilled gaming: the treatment and representation of women, minorities and the disabled.

“We believe strongly that broad representation in games of diverse characters, differently-abled characters, all genders,” Loftis explained. “This is a crucial component to broadening the game community.

“Within Microsoft we have been investing quite heavily in an initiative called Games for Everyone. It's an articulation of values that has already driven quite a bit of our decision-making in the past. We got really explicit about doing things like giving gamers choice about character customisation similar to Sunset Overdrive.

“We are very committed to making sure that when we make games there's something for everyone.”

Loftis is confident that gaming is no longer as hostile an environment as in the past, when women were attacked on social media for speaking out about sexism last year.

“There's never been a better time for trying to be a woman getting into game development,” she said. “First of all, the array of tools available for game developers to tell their stories has led to a tremendous opening for everything from text-based games to the AAA super highly rendered games.

“Communities have formed and strengthened both before and after the events of last year. For instance, for more than 15 years Microsoft has been the sponsor of a group called Women in Gaming. It started out as a single event. Then it has expanded now to a year-round initiative.

The new Xbox One S must hold the fort until Project Scorpio arrives late next year
The new Xbox One S must hold the fort until Project Scorpio arrives late next year

“If you're a woman in games, the best thing you can do is connect with other women in games. The more we can do as a company to make it possible, and the more I personally can do, the better I think it gets.”

Microsoft is, of course, hoping E3 2016 won’t be overshadowed by the latest gun outrage but it didn’t help itself with a mixed message around its launch of two new consoles.

On the one hand, it proudly took the wraps off a pretty redesign of the Xbox One machine, trimming the size and weight by 40pc and introducing support for 4K video and high-dynamic range for future games. The new Xbox One S goes on sale in August and comes with hard-drive options up to 2TB.

Xbox boss Phil Spencer talks Project Scorpio at the E3 press conference
Xbox boss Phil Spencer talks Project Scorpio at the E3 press conference

But then Phil Spencer closed Monday’s press conference with the tease of much more muscular (and probably much more expensive) addition to the Xbox family, going by the code-name Project Scorpio. With a release date up to 18 months away, Microsoft is either very naive or overly-optimistic to think such a dramatic upgrade will not hold back sales of the existing Xbox range.

Lofts demurs, saying: “The thing we really want gamers to take away from what we talked about today is that Xbox One is a great console. We continue to build for Xbox One. The games that you're playing now are the games that you're going to play on S and Scorpio as well."

Sony will face a similar dilemma with its updated PS4 console, the PlayStation Neo, which is expected to launch before Scorpio. 

The water is further muddied by Microsoft’s decision to ensure every one of its own games will be available on PC as well as Xbox. The strategy is called Play Anywhere, ensuring that if you buy one version (Xbox or PC), you get the other free. Game saves, multiplayer and achievements will become cross-platform but the plan rules out any exclusives for Xbox in future to drive sales of the console.

Microsoft has also dismissed any idea that games could be designed only for Project Scorpio, which means the only advantage to owning the new console would be a visual upgrade. It’s a curious strategy but one that Spencer, Loftis and co have clearly given a lot of thought.

Loftis sees it as an expansion of the gaming space to suit more players.

“The overarching theme is there's probably never been a better time to be an Xbox gamer,” she said. “We're increasing the number of ways that people can become Xbox gamers.”

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