Sunday 15 December 2019

XO19: We’ve bought all these studios, now it’s time to deliver, says Xbox

Xbox head of games marketing Aaron Greenberg outlines how we’re in for a flood of new titles and explains why game streaming won’t replace the console under your TV any time soon

The show floor at X019 in the Copper Box Arena in London was packed with playable games
The show floor at X019 in the Copper Box Arena in London was packed with playable games
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

A year and a half ago, Xbox was on the back foot, trailing so far behind PlayStation it was no contest. Despite having the “most powerful console in the world” in the Xbox One X, a glaring gap remained because Microsoft’s pipeline of exclusive games paled beside that of Sony.

Fast-forward to late 2019 and the landscape has shifted. Xbox has no hope of catching PlayStation this generation but the foundations for a fairer fight in the next one have been laid with Microsoft’s spending spree that added seven studios to its roster.

Xbox games marketing chief Aaron Greenberg at X019 in London. Photo: Ronan Price
Xbox games marketing chief Aaron Greenberg at X019 in London. Photo: Ronan Price

Now, 18 months after the first of those studio acquisitions was announced, we’re just beginning to see the fruits of their labours, as showcased at Microsoft’s ritzy XO19 event in London last week.

On the fringes of the show, at a table looking down over the floor where hundreds of consoles were set up with playable versions with dozens of new games, Aaron Greenberg holds court. The larger-than-life global head of Xbox games marketing looks pleased with what he sees, and rattles off some stats about showing off 12 first-party games at X019, including three completely new IPs.

The time now, he says, is for the Xbox collective to demonstrate all that money was well spent.

“We feel good about the number of studios we have,” he insists. “We're really moving from acquiring to focusing more on execution and delivering. The great thing is that when I talk with these first-party studios, they have the existing project that you know about but there may be another on the go too.

“We've doubled our internal studios. So now we have 15 first-party studios as part of Xbox Game Studios. We're now going to have a massive pipeline of new games that will be coming – more than we've ever had before. So we have our biggest line-up of games coming this spring.

“As part of that, we announced three brand-new games. So there's Everwild, which is Rare's brand-new game which is very, very exciting. We've got Tell Me Why that we're publishing as a first-party title that's being made by Dontnod Entertainment – people know them from Life is Strange. And then we've got Grounded which is a survival RPG coming from Obsidian.

This is the second Microsoft XO event since it was revived after a hiatus
This is the second Microsoft XO event since it was revived after a hiatus

“Those three are, I think, really special. They're uniquely new experiences in games and it'll start with Grounded – that will come first and then Tell Me Why, and Rare's project is a little bit farther out.”

Greenberg confirms that, though some of the studios acquired were multi-platform, any projects going forward will be Xbox/PC exclusives. Anything previously announced will continue to be multi-platform nonetheless: “So there are some existing arrangements, like The Outer Worlds or Wasteland 3. But with future projects, they won't be making them for other consoles.”

Microsoft has made much lately of its commitment to the wider Xbox eco-system, which includes all generations of the console but also the PC and mobile space. Paradoxically, for all the talk about new Xbox studios, it almost makes exclusives less paramount because Microsoft wants to broaden its contact with the gaming community.

Greenberg explains: "What we're trying to do is say, listen, if you've invested in the Xbox console, we want to give you great content that you can only get on that console. That really makes you feel like it's a worthy investment. The fact that we have such a huge amount of first-party studios and big franchises that are going to go create new games, it's great.

“At the same time, as we think about Xbox as our gaming brand, we want to be able to grow and deliver for that community beyond the console. So we are investing in PC games, we have mobile games. I would say our focus has been on console and PC but also on letting people stay connected within that experience.

"So while we'll bring Gears 5, for example, to Steam, we did that in a way that our community can stay connected and play together. So no matter what store they bought it on, no matter where they're playing it, they can still play it with the fans across devices.”

Microsoft showed several examples of its Project xCloud technology running full Xbox games on an Android device
Microsoft showed several examples of its Project xCloud technology running full Xbox games on an Android device

Forthcoming streaming technology will change how players experience their favourite titles – though for now Microsoft sees the cloud as a way to change where rather than what we play. Greenberg admits it’s early days yet for Project xCloud – the company’s play-anywhere technology that enables mobiles to play Xbox games streamed from your own console. At XO19, Microsoft had several of the more than 50 titles on xCloud available to play. It certainly looks a more promising prospect than Google’s undercooked Stadia project, which attempts to do something similar with 4K gaming to the TV screen.

Greenberg believes the traditional console under the TV will continue to provide the best experience for a long time to come.

Read more: XO19: We want to rebuild the world one block at a time, says Minecraft Earth chief

“Our focus on that is getting the tech right,” he clarifies. “So what we're doing is working with our partners, we have it in three markets [the US, UK and South Korea]. Today, we said in the next year, we're going to be expanding it to Western Europe, we're going to be bringing it to India, we're bringing it to other markets.

Naturally, when pressed about where Ireland stands in the roll-out, he demurs. “We were not getting into those specific details yet. I think the key here is that we want to continue to bring it to more consumers and more markets. This is an early technology that we want to make sure we get right. And we want our partners and our customers to be part of that journey.

Thousands of fans attended X019 in the Copper Box Arena in London, where Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order offered a popular photo opportunity with storm troopers
Thousands of fans attended X019 in the Copper Box Arena in London, where Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order offered a popular photo opportunity with storm troopers

“If you want great gaming in your living room, you're going to want a dedicated box connected to your TV. We do not see cloud delivering that type of capability anytime in the near future. For us, cloud gaming is really about gaming on the go and the ability to access console-quality games on your mobile device, on a PC wherever you want to play. But if you want 120 frames per second, you want 4K gaming, you want to play multiplayer games, having a very powerful box next to your TV is going to be the best way to do that.”

With coverage of gaming exploding via video-streaming and the burgeoning number of conferences, Microsoft is committed to more shows like XO19, following the trend of other publishers such as PlayStation and EA staging their own events for media and fans.

“Investing in your own event has a lot of benefits,” says Greenberg. "You own the whole story from beginning to end. You design the venue the way you want it, you think about the fan experience from the moment they walk in – every piece and element of it. So it's like throwing a party and inviting your family and all your closest friends, that's different than going to someone else's party.

“We had success with it last year [in Mexico]. I think the feedback for this year will be equally positive and we'll go and figure out where we want to go next.”

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