Microsoft is renewing its PC gaming focus, exploring VR and open to feedback on launch parity, says Phil Spencer

Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer.

Microsoft will soon renew its focus on PC gaming, is looking into virtual reality and continuing to assess concerns over ID@Xbox’s launch parity clause, said Phil Spencer at GDC this morning.

Speaking as part of a wide-ranging ‘Fireside chat’ session hosted by Gamasutra editor in chief Kris Graft, the Microsoft Studios boss was also quizzed on a range of other topics, including the Xbox One policy reversals of the last year and the recent departure of Marc Whitten, who left Microsoft for Sonos earlier this week. Spencer said that Whitten’s departure was “for family reasons as well as some professional reasons – he wanted to do something else.” He joked later: “I better get some free speakers.”

During a discussion of Xbox One’s storied launch, Spencer argued that the last year hadn’t been as difficult as some might imagine. “The launch actually was great,” he said. “I went through the launch of the 360 so if you think about where our hardware is and where our software is – and frankly game line-up as well – I think it’s a great time to be an Xbox customer. A launch is never without its trials and tribulations but getting there with the number of consoles we had and all of them working was a great accomplishment.”

Recalling the reaction to the Xbox One’s reveal event last May, Spencer said that Microsoft’s focus on the console’s wider entertainment capabilities was entirely deliberate – if a little misguided. “We did that knowing that we wanted to focus at E3 100 per cent on the games we were building,” he explained. “In hindsight, in how we rolled out and introduced our product, we could have been more clear and concise about what the soul of the product was. I took a lot of the learnings myself about how consumers heard us, both what we were saying with the policies we had in our minds and how we said it. There were things we had to listen to.”

Spencer acknowledges that Microsoft could have explained ‘the soul’ of Xbox One a little better last year.

Since that event, Microsoft had famously changed several of the policies originally outlined, and the opportunity for indies to self-publish on Xbox One is seen as one of those reversals. Spencer disagrees. “I wouldn’t have called that a reversal. You have multiple parts of the program you want to talk about…there’s a lot of messages and a lot of story to tell and you have to think about how much you can say at one time to have a clear message. Our plan around the independent development program has been actually been in place from the beginning.”

The theme of indie games on Xbox One resurfaced a little later in the talk, when Spencer spoke of how the nature of selling games on consoles has changed, with digital storefronts encouraging smaller developers while big blockbuster games continue to be important at retail, though there are less of them. “This need for us to have a publisher layer is less prevalent than it was on the 360, because we know there’s going to be a lot of content coming in that doesn’t have to be curated by us,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing for the platform and a good thing for gamers.”

Spencer said that he couldn’t reveal a timescale on when the promised ability to turn any Xbox One into a devkit might arrive, explaining that much of Microsoft’s resources are focused on fulfilling demand for its ID@Xbox program right now. Information on improvements to the process behind game updates was also touched upon, and while no specifics were revealed, Spencer said that the platform holder was constantly learning from developer feedback, which started with the launch of games like Minecraft and World Of Tanks on 360. “We want to build a program that supports what the game developers need,” said Spencer, acknowledging that some high profile industry figures have been critical of Microsoft on social media. “We’re learning about these mechanics and from those experiences with 360.”

Microsoft’s learnings having launched games like Minecraft and World Of Tanks on 360 have fed into how it is dealing with developers today, said Spencer, referencingf criticism on social media from the likes of Notch.

Spencer said that Microsoft had noted the trend for paid Alphas on Steam, and hinted that a similar system could eventually arrive on Xbox One, too. “I think there’s an area of evolution that as a platform holder we’ll go through with this generation, helping developers to fund their games,” he said. “We don’t really have that in place on console today but we have that in other places. I think in order for great, diverse content to exist it’s going to be important that we as platform holders think about how gamers can invest in things they want to see built, so developers have the funds to bring their games to market.”

There were caveats to that promise – Spencer highlighted the need to be transparent and honest so that it was clear that they are buying an unfinished game, and suggested that a paid alpha-like system on Xbox One was a longer-term prospect. “The plan’s not in place today,” he said. “We see this as something that’s pretty critical in unlocking as the generation evolves.”

Moving onto how digital storefronts operate, Spencer said that there were positives and negatives to both open, Apple-style marketplaces and a more curated approach, which he considers more suited to games consoles. Discovering games on some stores has become increasingly difficult, though, and referencing the App Store and Steam, Spencer said that Microsoft is “watching that other people are trying.”

“I don’t know if anyone has the perfect model yet,” he said, suggesting that the solution will be social recommendations. “It’s linking it to what my friends like and the people that play the kind of games that I play like – that is the capability that needs to be native in the platform,” he continued. “Fundamentally, that will win.”

Speaking more specifically about Valve and its Steam Machines, Spencer praised the company, and suggested that its success will see Microsoft redouble its efforts in PC gaming. “They’ve been the backbone for PC gaming for the last decade when you think about the work that they’ve done,” he said. “As the Windows company I appreciate what they’ve done. In a lot of ways they’ve focused more on PC gaming than we have, and for me that’s something inside the company that we’ll have a renewed focus on – Windows and PC gaming inside of Microsoft is definitely happening – you saw the DX12 demos here and you will see more from us over the summer.”

Valve has defined PC gaming for the past decade and Microsoft will soon step up its own efforts in the space.

Spencer also welcomed Valve’s move into the living room, what is clearly prime Xbox territory. “What they’re doing with Steam Machines makes sense for them,” he continued. “They’ve got a great storefront and 64 million accounts and consumers that buy a lot of content. It’s very smart for Valve to take the installed base of the customers they have and get them on the [living room] screen. Competition is a good thing, we learn a ton from what Sony and Nintendo do, and we learn a ton from what Valve does too.”

Spencer also tackled the thorny subject of the ID@Xbox launch parity clause that has come in for criticism lately, though no solution was offered. “I think there are a few policies out there between the different platforms that create some difficulties for independent developers and parity is a real concern that I hear about from people,” he said. “As the platform holder we want to make sure that the best games come to our platform and make sure we’re supporting the developers creating the best games for the platform.

“Platform parity is obviously about making sure that when people buy an Xbox they know that the best independent games are on there, and they’re state of the art and new. We’ve taken feedback and changed course before and today I’d say this is an ongoing discussion with the independent developers and I’ve had discussions here at GDC. So really I want to hear from them on what policy they want. They’re going to have to understand that as a platform holder we have certain things that hold true to what we want to be as a platform, and they have some business needs and bandwidth needs that they need to deal with in order to survive. We want to meet them.”

Virtual reality’s presence at this year’s GDC was unavoidable, and it is technology that has impressed Spencer so far, he revealed as the session came to close. He suggested that, as reported here and elsewhere, Microsoft’s own wearable tech has been in the works for some time.

Microsoft has been “playing with” virtual reality for some time, said Spencer this morning.

“We have this huge Microsoft research organisation that’s pretty important to us as a platform holder in helping us think about what might be next,” said Spencer, who later questioned whether it’ll truly go mainstream. “I think the technology’s really interesting, and it’s something we’ve been playing with for a while.”

Looking forward to E3, Spencer added that there would be plenty more to come from Microsoft at that event, and that it would be taking on board all of the discussions and feedback it had received this week at GDC. “It’s great to see a place like GDC so vibrant so important and so relevant – it’s an amazing event and the kind of technologies and games being talked about here are really inspiring.”

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