E3 2018: Microsoft gets back in the game by listening to the players
Xbox executive Mike Ybarra tells Ronan Price how Microsoft plans to win over gamers as the next generation looms
THE consensus is that Xbox ‘won’ this year’s E3 game show in LA with a strong showing that delivered a broad slate of upcoming games, as well as the addition of five studios to its development team.
PlayStation remains the overwhelming leader in the current generation and nothing Microsoft can do will shift that noticeably in the couple of years remaining before we inevitably move to new hardware. But the message from Xbox was that it was not giving up the fight and clearly positioning itself for the next generation.
Microsoft’s game boss Phil Spencer even announced from the stage at his E3 press briefing that his engineers were already “deep into architecting the next Xbox consoles”. A few hours after the briefing in a booth overlooking the stage at the Microsoft Theater in downtown LA, Xbox executive Mike Ybarra reinforces his boss’s message: “Every single day we're looking at what's coming next. Phil was reiterating our commitment to the living room and to gamers.”
Ybarra, a corporate vice-president of gaming at Microsoft, is responsible specifically for services such as Game Pass, Mixer and Xbox Live. He’s a hardcore player who voraciously consumes games and often invests hundreds of hours in a single title (“I have a very understanding family”). He acknowledges Microsoft has a lot of ground to make up on its big rival Sony. This comes after several corporate missteps, not least of which is the lack of exclusives on the Xbox platform in recent years. It’s almost as if Microsoft stopped listening to the players, which is why many of Ybarra’s answers are peppered with references to giving gamers what they want.
“That briefing was pretty incredible – we had 50 games in the show, 18 with some level of console exclusivity and the biggest thing is just us listening to our fans about ‘exclusive games are important’,” he says. “I think that exclusives in anything matter in terms of a person's affinity for what they wanna play and where they want to play it. For us, it's more about being gamer-led and saying what do you want? Gamers want great experiences. They want diverse experiences. You see us buying studios that just don't all make shooters, for example. Gamers expect a global worldwide perspective.
“I always tell my teams: We're going to have two billion people playing games soon. We have to think differently both from a business and tech standpoint about what that means for us. So getting all these game studios joining us is about broadening that appeal.
“We've got to focus on the gamer. With two billion people playing games at least once a month, the market is gigantic and its growth rate is double digits every single year. We believe if we listen to what the gamers want and deliver what they want, that they'll see Xbox as the best place to play."
One of the biggest announcements to come out of this year’s briefing was Spencer’s acquisition of four studios and the creation of a fifth new one. Microsoft now owns PlayGround Games (the Forza Horizon series), Compulsion Games (We Happy Few), Undead Labs (State of Decay series) and Ninja Theory (Hellblade among others). It is also setting up a new developer in Santa Monica called The Initiative, led by Darrell Gallagher who spent 10 years working on Tomb Raider.
Ybarra explains what went into the selection process that doubled the number of studios under Microsoft’s umbrella: “At a very high level, we look for teams that have incredible creativity. And how can Microsoft remove blockers they have in achieving their goals? We look at what kind of studio is gonna build a game or an experience that complements our portfolio. We don't want all shooters, or all indie action games, or adventures games, or sports games only. We want to make sure we have the right breadth in terms of value that we offer.”
Nor does he rule out Microsoft going on a further spending spree: “We're open to all kinds of scenarios but we don't have anything else to announce here today.
“When I look back at Xbox's innovation there, first with (an Ethernet port), first to connect people together, first with the hard drive, I'm 100pc confident in our team's ability to actually listen to gamers and what they want and deliver that. We have those plans in place and this is the first step, in doubling the number of teams we have in first-party studios to really give gamers the creative experiences they want.”
One thing you almost certainly won’t see is VR on the Xbox platform. Ybarra says Microsoft is for now focused on mixed reality on the PC.
“We definitely are listening to gamers as to what's there,” he says. “Me personally, I think there's a price point challenge, there's a consumer experience challenge there. Our investments right now are on the Windows side. We're learning a lot from that. That's the extent of our investment model.”
He acknowledges the future of console gaming is changing but reckons streaming won’t take over for a long while yet. “We're fully committed to the console experience that exists today,” he insists. “There's tens of millions of people that engage in that content.
“As for the cloud, the more the gamers tell us this is the kind of experiences they want, the more we'll go invest in looking into delivering that, whether that be on any device or any screen.”