It is still, eighteen months into his latest role, a little odd to find Phil Harrison at Xbox. He joined Sony before PlayStation even existed in September 1992 to start its European game publishing business, played a vital role in launching the transformative console and went on to become president of SCE Worldwide Studios. He was Mr PlayStation until his departure from Sony in February 2008 – it felt like the end of an era.
It must be stranger still for Harrison. Having launched three PlayStations (and PSP), his job at Xbox is to do battle with the empire – and the firstparty studio system – that he helped build. Times change, and of course plenty has changed for Xbox One in the last few months. It’s clear Harrison isn’t looking back – he’s laser-focused on the impending console launch, and here, he answers some difficult questions with an unflinching, steely gaze. He’s been here before, and knows exactly how to deal with the problems Xbox One has faced. Microsoft was able to change course a little before launch where PS3 could not; with Harrison at the helm, it has recruited a leader with unique, enviable industry experience.
Have you been reading all of the feedback you get online from websites and communities like NeoGAF? How do you react to it?
I get asked that question quite a bit and my first reaction is that I love the fact that our fans care about the industry and they care about what we do and how we do it. I think it’s a relatively small number of people compared to the hundreds of millions of people who will eventually touch and experience Xbox One. But yeah, they’re important and we love that conversation. And with social media and other direct channels of communication you get the good, the bad and the ugly – all feedback is great feedback.
Now that those features that were originally announced have been stripped away, how long before they are reintroduced?
So there has been some change in our engineering priorities as you would expect, but we don’t have any change to our fundamental vision which is that the world is going to be a digital place. We have incorporated some of the important benefits of disc-based games, mainly sharing and trading games, but that doesn’t dull or change our digital vision. We just reordered our priorities a little bit. We have a very significant engineering team – some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with – who are very focused on launch right now. But as soon as we get past launch then there are some really exciting things that are on the way.
So all of the features that you originally announced, are they going to be coming back?
It’s all there – they’re all there now.
So the console you’re launching this Christmas is a temporary thing, essentially. It’ll eventually evolve to be the console you announced in May?
I’m happy to re-state this – all that we have changed is our DRM policy on disc-based games. We include disc-based games as part of our system whereas previously it was a cloud-based licensing system. But all the benefits of being able to download a game digitally, then go to your friends’ house and log in as you, that content goes with you. That’s there.
We’ve had developer feedback that suggests there’s a little still to be decided with title updates and cross platform play, can you give us some detail on that?
Yes, title updates are free, we don’t charge for it on 360 and we won’t charge for it on Xbox One. There are certain technical requirements that some of the content has to be certified but it’s a streamlined process.
So you do have to go through Microsoft certification?
That’s standard as far as I can tell for any platform. Actually let me just clarify that – where the executable is being changed, definitely.
Sony are allowing uncertified servers for PS4, which allow for cross-platform play. We’ve had free-to-play game developers tell us that Microsoft is not allowing that, so they can’t release their game cross platform. Is that right?
I would happily connect them with somebody in our development support team and they can explain exactly what they need, but I don’t have the answer to that.
How are you helping indies to be seen and heard on Xbox One? Are you investing in these games, and how are you ensuring that you get these games on your platform, because Sony has put its marker down on that territory.
So the ID@Xbox program is self publishing – so that allows developers to be completely in control of their creativity and completely in control of their vision for the game – subject to what you would expect in terms of decency and extremes of content. We want developers to literally take their brains through their fingers straight onto the screen and out into the world. We want it to be frictionless.
Microsoft Studios – as a firstparty – has and will continue to invest directly in game development talent where we think we can help bring that game to pour platform and we have done that for many years. And we’ll continue to do that for many years. The ID@Xbox program is true self-publishing, all the power of the machine, the developer has total control, all the power of the cloud all the power of Xbox Live, all of the capabilities of Kinect, and we’re really looking forward to that activity. And maybe we’re taking a slightly different approach to other platforms but we think this is the best approach to getting the most developers and the best games on the platform.
Xbox One right now is very much the football-and-guns blockbuster games console, how are you going to be pushing the indie games on the console? Are indie games secondary?
I think the important thing to recognise with Xbox One is that games are games are games. We don’t actually make a distinction between the size of the game, who the publisher is, who the creator is – the platform itself will allow the best games to come to the top. Either through what we’re doing in the store in terms of trending and what’s hot and what your friends are playing and what the community is playing. Or games that we spotlight ourselves because we think they’re great examples of a particular platform feature or they have some unique creativity to them, so we can easily shine a big spotlight on a game and help connect it with the widest possible audience.
I would also say that we’ve built into the platform the tools to allow the players to control the virality of the game as well. So GameDVR is the platform feature which records gameplay onto Xbox One. Upload is the way in which you edit and share clips with your friends. And so either amongst your friends or publicly across Xbox Live you can take a magical gameplay moment, you can augment it with Kinect voice and video, you can become your own television broadcaster from your living room and you can distribute that to the rest of the world. So we’re putting virality in the hands of the players. So when you get a video from me, for example, but you don’t already own that game and you think it’s a really interesting game, you can press a button and it takes you straight to the Xbox One marketplace where you can download that game. So those virality tools connect games with gamers and connect developers with the widest possible audience. And that’s really powerful – no platform’s been able to do that before.
What about further down the line – are you looking into AR/Google Glass-type technology and VR? Every show we go to there’s a huge queue for Oculus Rift, and developers love it…
We wouldn’t make any specific announcements here but we’ve put USB 3.0 ports on Xbox One for a reason, which is that we want high bandwidth communication with other accessory or companion devices.
Can you foresee a point at which Microsoft releases that kind of hardware itself?
I’m not going to speculate but we definitely designed the platform to extend over time.
Right now all of the debate is around PS4 and Xbox One, but what are your thoughts on Steam Box? Do you see it as a contender?
I know Valve and really respect what Valve does, they’re a great pioneer in this industry so I’m really excited to see what they’re doing. I don’t know enough about what they’re actually doing to comment but it does help prove that the centre of gravity for the best videogame experiences is the living room. The biggest TV in the house, very powerful CPU/GPU, that’s our strategy, and the fact that another competitor’s validating our strategy is fine. It’s all good.”