Phil Harrison reveals new London studio, plays down Valve’s threat and details the future of Xbox

Phil Harrison on the future of Xbox

It’s ten months since Microsoft hired Phil Harrison, but the one-time president of Sony Worldwide Studios had to wait until yesterday to make his public debut. During a cosy briefing in central London yesterday Harrison announced a new studio, introduced his new-look leadership team, and shared his vision for the future of Xbox. He took the time, too, to issue a stark warning to Valve ahead of the Steam maker’s entry into the hardware market.

Microsoft made it clear last year that Xbox was to become much more than just a games console, that it would instead be Microsoft’s premium entertainment brand – something we’ve already seen with the launch of Spotify-alike Xbox Music. “You will see more of this,” Harrison said. “You will see increasing use of Xbox as a brand that means entertainment for Microsoft. It means more than just games for us, and it will touch multiple devices, expanding our ecosystem beyond the living room.

“As we look to the future of our industry, increasingly content is going to sit on the cloud, powered by Xbox but accessible through a variety of devices. Rather than our games being device-centric they will become cloud-centric.”

“The key thread that runs through this and our future is the shift from packaged products to connected entertainment services. It’s not a change we’re going to make immediately – we’ll continue to support retail products with our key releases – but everything we do will have increasingly deep social and additional features that are reliant on the network.”

The new studio, Lift London, is to focus primarily on tablets, with an understandable focus on Microsoft’s own Surface – though studio head Lee Schuneman didn’t rule out releasing a game on rival hardware. Schuneman, a 16-year Rare veteran whose first game was Diddy Kong Racing, was hand-picked by Harrison and asked to build a “21st century studio” – one that symbolises Microsoft reducing its reliance on shipping games in boxes to retailers.

“The traditional game release model, which has a massive upfront design, development and marketing cost and a relatively short, 16-week window after the game comes out for returns, is changing,” Schuneman said. “Of course we’re still going to see the blockbuster games, the Halos, the CODs – they’re not going to disappear any time soon – but for the larger networked majority of gamers we plan to use a much more nimble, streamlined development cycle.

“The studio’s mission is to be bold, and brave, and lift the reach of the Xbox service beyond the console. If you look at the size of the tablet market today, it’s measured in the hundreds of millions, and that’s where we aspire to be.”

As well as developing its own games, Lift London will also serve as an incubator for indies. Shoreditch-based Dlala has already been brought in-house, given office space and support, and others will follow – providing Lift has the space, anyway. It shares a premises with Soho Productions, the company behind Kinect-powered two-way TV and Xbox Live entertainment apps, whose studio head Brian Stone was also introduced.

With Lift London added to its ranks, Harrison’s Microsoft Studios line-up appears to have all bases covered. Lift on tablets; Soho on Xbox Live; Press Play on mobile; Rare on family friendly games like the seven-million-selling Kinect Sports series; and Lionhead focusing on story-driven games for a traditional audience. Both Rare and Lionhead are under new management, too. Scott Henson, head of Rare for over two years, is now running Lionhead, replacing co-founder Mark Webley who is moving on. Rare’s new studio head, Craig Duncan, has actually been in post for nine months already. The newest recruit is Roger Walkden, formerly of Activision and Electronic Arts, who joined Microsoft Studios as chief of staff at the beginning of this week.

With the business stuff out of the way, the real question now is about the games themselves; about whether standards can be maintained with such a greatly expanded focus. Harrison made it clear at the outset that no new IP would be discussed – he would later interrupt Duncan when he looked in danger of giving away too much about what Rare is up to – and he batted away questions about Microsoft’s plans for E3, too.

He did, however, eventually address the elephant in the room; here he was talking about Microsoft looking beyond the living room in the same week Valve finally confirmed that it was moving into it. Did he see the long-rumoured Steam Box as a threat?

“Entering the hardware business is really tough,” he said. “You have to have great fortitude, deep pockets and a very strong balance sheet. It’s very rare for a new hardware entrant to get to scale – and I mean tens or hundreds of millions of units. There are a very small number of companies that can make that happen.

“And it’s not just [about] having a great brand or a great software experience. It’s about having a supply chain and a distribution model and a manufacturing capacity and all the things that go with it. It’s a non-trivial problem to solve, and it takes thousands of people to make it a reality.”

That, one suspects, wasn’t so much a comment on Valve as it was on Microsoft. Harrison told us last year that it wasn’t solely the company’s vision that compelled him to join, but that it had the means to actually make it happen – a sentiment he echoed here once again when explaining that cloud-centric, player-focused ethos.

“This kind of vision is what really influenced my decision to join Microsoft in the first place,” he said. “Microsoft has the tools and components of technology, and people, and money required to really deliver on this vision probably better than any other company on the planet.” Now we know what that vision is, the only question remaining is whether Microsoft will deliver on it – and whether, with Xbox now so much more than a games console and Harrison’s remit so wide-ranging, any of it will be of interest to the core audience that gave that brand such credence in the first place.

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