In the new issue of Edge magazine we take an in-depth look at how Microsoft turned Xbox One from a crisis console into a contender. As part of that feature, we spoke to Ken Lobb, Microsoft Studios’ partner creative director, to get a sense of what the platform holder’s policy reversals mean for developers and Microsoft’s position in the next gen race. Here’s what he said.
Xbox One now works offline, but is there a presumption from the studios that you’re working with that generally people will be online?
Today we’ve got 40 million people on Live, or something like that, and I’ve been at Microsoft now for over 11 years. I worked on Project Gotham 2, I was there when MechAssault shipped, I was there basically when Live came up on [the original] Xbox. And ever since then, we’ve been making games that are online. I’m old school, I started learning how to play games from the arcade [and] I want to play with people. So Live is important to me. Playing online is important to me. I build games that are going to be fun for people to play online.
So your teams can still produce the same games the same way they always do?
Yes. If you think about Killer Instinct, it’s unique in that we’re shipping it with six characters and then the other two come after. And if someone’s never connected? First of all, it’s a digital game so if you’re never connected you can’t get it anyway. It’s no difference to [my being] in Germany where I don’t have wireless in my room: I can’t play Clash Of Clans! So what did I do? I played a whole bunch of Plants Vs Zombies 2. So it’s like, yes, the game will run if you’re not connected but we’re going to refine it, ship new stuff and it’s going to be good, so connect! The box will even update silently in the middle of the night. So you will never see a Title Update. Ever.
And if you’re not always online?
Let’s say you’re only playing Killer Instinct offline and six months later you connect: you’re going to have to download that stuff before you can play with it. You can still play the version without the download but I just felt, as a developer, that I got a bunch of toys that I get to play with. And one of those toys is connected. And one of the new toys is connected and seamlessly updating. Connected to cloud computing? Yes, thank you. That’s powerful. That’s my perspective.
But for games that depend on the cloud for computation, surely those teams are having to rework the games they’re working on?
It depends on what you’re trying to do, right? If I’m making a game that’s only for play online? [Then] use all the cloud computing you want. I think we’re giving you a massive amount of compute for free. I think I [would] want to use that as a developer. I think I [would] want people to be able to connect and see the benefit. You make assumptions about someone’s family: are they literally turning the box off at the switch? You have to be prepared for that. But if your game only runs with a massive amount of cloud computing in the background then you’re going to have to be connected to play. [With] Clash Of Clans you have to be connected to the server or you can’t play. It won’t even load. So I connect.
Do you think the comparisons with PS4 have hurt you in the long run? And did they hurt you in the short term?
I do like people that are on the side of ‘all games’. I like playing on my Vita, I’m buying a PlayStation 4 and I have a Wii U. So the kind of bickering between people of ‘this versus that’, to me that feels… not like a waste of time – I understand why people are passionate – but what was sad in my mind is we’re shipping a box with a tonne of features and what you can’t really do any more is say, “Here are the five bullet points!” Because someone’s always going to ask you about seven, or 12. In terms of where the box [is] and how are our games, I couldn’t be happier. And all I can ask from the fans is to take a look, and play our stuff!
Are you happy with Xbox One’s price and power in comparison with PS4?
Your question is dangerous so I will answer it in a nice, safe way. Should all boxes be free and all power be infinite? Of course. This is what every consumer and developer is going to tell you. Period. We’ve got a box that’s very powerful. Not to step on anybody –because I love all of my toys equally – but this [smacks of] 2005: “We’re way more powerful!” I don’t know who thought which [console] was more powerful last generation. A lot of it will come down to developers. And there are some amazing PS3 games. The Last Of Us. Awesome game. And clearly Naughty Dog pushed that machine. [Xbox One] is a very powerful platform – I guarantee you that we’re going to see amazing things out of that.
How did the plans to turn every retail Xbox into a development kit manifest?
If you peer into the past, just take everything we did right and learned from on XBLA, everything we did right and learned from on XNA, and combine them together: that’s the indie story we’ve got for Xbox One. And some of that is: how can you let everybody become a developer? At one end of the spectrum you get Project Spark, where it’s Kodu – six-year-olds can make games. It’s one of the best level editors I’ve ever played with. It’s so easy to sculpt levels in Spark. We use Kodu to basically teach you everything about how to be a developer. Then jump to Unity, make your machine a devkit, make a game and put it on our store. Bring it. Go ahead and make millions. That’s what we want.
Why the wait to turn retail boxes into development kits?
So at first we have dedicated devkits [and that’s what we’ll send to developers]. But the existing devkit is just an Xbox that’s locked into development mode. The reason [for the delay] is that there’s some work we had to finish on the back end before we could enable it. But the boxes we ship on day one are all ready to be turned into development kits right away.
How many of these changes that have been implemented in the past few months were not changes at all, but in fact were all part of the plan?
That’s exactly the point on this one. The plan to turn a box into a devkit is [from] two years ago. It had to be. You don’t just decide that we’re just going to unlock the box magically and everyone can run unsecured code. We can do amazing things with this. We can whitelist players. We’re doing this with Killer Instinct. I’m going to be shipping characters after we launch and I’m going to invite about 10,000 people to be the ones that help us balance them; the same way that we’ve been inviting Evo people to Double Helix.
I want to invite 10,000 really great players to help me lock down the balance on those last two characters. The way we do that is sort of like a mini version of what it means to be in devkit mode. What we’ll do is send them a code that’s whitelisted. They’re the only ones that can play it. And, again, you don’t architect that in minutes, this has been planned for years. So, yes, a lot of our ‘alterations’ in the last few months have just been us saying, “Now we get to explain to you [the things] we’ve had in mind all along.”
One of the recent changes is that the clockspeed on the GPU has been cranked up. Where does that come from?
Because we can. And every generation of hardware has been no different, except for this time we’ve been a little ‘look under the sheets’. I’ve been doing this since 1988, and every machine I’ve ever worked on gets refined before it gets launched. That’s all that was. Everything’s more transparent these days. So it’s the fact that we told you that it was 800[MHz] that makes 853[MHz] news. If we hadn’t told anybody it was 800, we would have shipped with 853 [and nobody would have known different].
Again, that sort of speaks to Microsoft’s messaging problem. Getting the message out that Xbox has changed – how do you do that at this point?
We – us, Sony, anybody who launches a new piece of kit – are going to sell a certain amount to people that are passionate and build up hype. After that point, you buy based on what people are liking, not on [hearsay]. So my expectation is that, once we get just weeks after launch, people will be making the decision on PS4 and Xbox One not because of something somebody told them but because they went to a friend’s house and they played. Or they saw some video online. It stops being about speculation and it starts being about, “Dude! did you play such-and-such?!”