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Interview: Microsoft's Spencer On Kinect, The Core And Pre-Launch Anticipation

Interview: Microsoft's Spencer On Kinect, The Core And Pre-Launch Anticipation

October 26, 2010 | By Brett Bates

October 26, 2010 | By Brett Bates
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[In a wide-ranging interview, Microsoft Game Studios corporate VP Phil Spencer tells Gamasutra that he "feels pretty good" about Kinect pre-release buzz, but admits the camera's success is an unknown "until [it's] out there and people are actually buying."]‭

The evolution of the Xbox brand is officially arriving next week, as Microsoft finally launches the much-hyped Kinect body-scanning camera for Xbox 360.

Years of research and millions of dollars have been spent on the device, which Microsoft hopes will finally capture a casual audience that has, for the most part, eluded the core-focused Halo purveyor since the original Xbox's launch in 2001.

As with any brand new commercial technology, there's no amount of money that a company can throw towards marketing that can ensure the success of a device like Kinect.

Microsoft Game Studios corporate VP Phil Spencer was candid when he told Gamasutra, "As somebody whos been in the entertainment business for awhile now,‭ ‬its not until youre out there and people are actually buying"‭ will Microsoft know for sure consumers' reaction.

In a new interview less than two weeks before Kinect's launch, a candid Spencer addresses lingering questions about Microsoft's pursuit of the mass market, the company's dedication to the still-loyal core Xbox 360 gamer, and whether people actually want a controller-free experience.

Now that Kinect is coming out,‭ ‬you guys are obviously putting a lot of your resources behind it.‭ ‬Where exactly do the priorities of Microsoft Game Studios lie right now‭? How much focus is on the Kinect and ‬more casual games compared to the hardcore games like Halo or Gears of War‭?

Well,‭ ‬Im very proud with how Halo Reach has done in the market.‭ ‬That was a long undertaking.‭ ‬We worked with Bungie really hard to make that game be what it is,‭ ‬and its nice to see the review scores and the consumers have definitely showed up,‭ ‬which is nice.‭ ‬And Fable is shipping [this] week,‭ ‬another one of our core franchises.

The core has been core to our success from the beginning.‭ ‬We get that.‭ ‬It wasnt by accident.‭ ‬And when I think about how we can continue to evolve our platform,‭ ‬adoption by the core of our new technologies is really important to us.‭

We know that that core audience is usually made up of the early adopters, and they're people that will give us vocal feedback on whats working and not working,‭ ‬be that something we do on Live or something like Kinect or a new console or a new controller.‭ ‬This is a very engaged customer who has a voice.‭ ‬So‭ ‬just as entertainment,‭ ‬the core franchises are really important to us and the success that weve had.‭ ‬Continuing to push innovation in those franchises is important.‭ ‬And thats true for Kinect as well as non-Kinect games.

So what do you see, as far as Kinect goes, that is catering to the core audience at launch‭?

I would characterize myself as a core gamer.‭ ‬Im somebody whos really looking forward to playing Fallout:‭ ‬New Vegas,‭ ‬so I guess that characterizes me as core.

A lot of it is personal taste.‭ ‬I enjoy games that have depth and progression,‭ ‬and I feel like get better at something physically and that actually makes me better at the game over time in the natural game constructs.‭ ‬But Joy Ride is definitely something that I play,‭ ‬and I feel like I get better and better,‭ ‬and now we have pretty good head-to-head competitions in the office.‭ ‬And you can tell when someone is actually a better Joy Ride player than somebody else is,‭ ‬and to me thats kind of part of what being a core game is about.‭

Same thing with some of the sports games.‭ ‬If Kudo [Tsudnoda, Kinect creative director] and I were to stand up...and even something as trivial as doing the‭ ‬100-meter dash,‭ ‬we have kind of figured out how to make the‭ ‬100-meter dash run as fast as we possibly can,‭ ‬and we sweat like pigs...

So there are definitely depth experiences there that catch what I think of as somebody who wants to get better at something and then progress,‭ ‬and I think people like it.

But its games,‭ ‬man.‭ ‬You ship something,‭ ‬and sometimes it takes of unexpectedly,‭ ‬and sometimes it doesnt do as well as you thought.‭ ‬Thats whats fun about the industry.

So do you feel that you guys are addressing all of the different markets with your launch titles‭? ‬Do you feel like theres something for the core gamer,‭ ‬the casual gamer,‭ ‬the sports gamer, etc.?

First of all, you probably wont believe this,‭ ‬but we didnt build the launch portfolio that way.‭ ‬We built four of the games,‭ ‬and youve got‭ ‬17‭ ‬launch games,‭ ‬so obviously third parties showed up with‭ ‬13‭ ‬other games.‭ ‬I have no input over what those guys are doing.‭ ‬Third parties will build what they think is going to work on the platform.

For our first-party experiences,‭ ‬really what we did is‭ ‬--‭ ‬and people probably know this from when Natal started off,‭ ‬using the old code name‭ ‬--‭ ‬we had a Burnout experience that we were using to show people how it would work.‭

And that was taking the shipping Burnout code and simply hacking the controller interface to allow Natal to control it.‭ ‬And then thats where driving really works.‭ ‬And we had Joy Ride already in development.‭ ‬Then we took the same technology and applied it to Joy Ride and were having a lot of fun,‭ ‬because your whole body can control the car.‭ ‬It was a cool experience.

But the portfolio was really built around the experiences themselves.‭ ‬I do think theres something for everybody there.‭ ‬But people will get to try them out.‭ ‬Were putting stuff in a lot of different places.‭ ‬People can go and try it at a friends house or at retail,‭ ‬and theyll fun the stuff that they like.‭ ‬Or they wont,‭ ‬and theyll tell us that.

And were committed to this over multiple years,‭ ‬so were going to keep building new things,‭ ‬and I hope the customers are there.

So when you look at the PlayStation Move and some of the games that they had at their launch,‭ ‬theyre very similar to what you have.‭ ‬But then theyre also looking to implement their technology in the upcoming SOCOM game or patching it into games like LittleBigPlanet and Heavy Rain‭ ‬--‭ ‬some games that are aimed at more mature audiences.‭ ‬Are you guys concerned that you havent really addressed that as much‭?

Well,‭ ‬you hit something core earlier on with the question about controller versus no controller,‭ ‬that some of the other technologies out there are basically just another form of controller.‭ ‬So you can think about taking some controls that were mapped in a standard controller and just mapping them to a different kind of controller.‭ ‬And its still just another controller,‭ ‬and yeah,‭ ‬that could work.

The best Kinect experiences that weve found are things that were really created from the ground up to take advantage of the technology.‭ ‬And there are some things that we mentioned,‭ ‬like Joy Ride,‭ ‬that we actually kind of found a new path along development,‭ ‬but almost everything else was really created from the beginning.‭ ‬And I think thats important.‭ ‬People want new.‭ ‬They want new experiences.

With the Kinect games that Microsoft Game Studios is developing‭ ‬--‭ ‬those are all exclusively for use with Kinect‭? ‬Or are you guys exploring being able to use the controller in conjunction with Kinect‭?

Theres nothing about the technology that precludes us from putting a controller into the experience.‭ ‬Early on,‭ ‬when we started Kinect,‭ ‬it was,‭ ‬Can we really create experiences that dont require a controller‭? ‬And we challenged ourselves creatively.‭ ‬So thats why you see such a push for that at launch.‭ ‬But obviously the microphones are on in the sensor when you have the controller in your hands,‭ ‬so voice would work.‭ ‬Gesture would work.‭ ‬It understands what your skeleton looks like.‭ ‬So for us,‭ ‬this is just future opportunity for us to do stuff.‭

The nice thing is,‭ ‬you now have completely controller-free,‭ ‬youve got controller‭ ‬--‭ ‬youve really just increased the toolset that the creators have to work with.‭ ‬And I think thats going to lead to better games.

‬I've been watching this right here,‭ Kinectimals‭. ‬It's a pretty interesting game.‭

That one I think is a sleeper.‭ ‬People have looked at fitness and sports and dance,‭ ‬and those work really well,‭ ‬so I think people naturally gravitate to those,‭ ‬both as consumers as well as creators.‭ ‬And you see,‭ ‬there are good lineups there.‭ ‬But‭ Kinectimals‭ ‬is a game that Frontier really I think took something unexpected,‭ ‬and its nice to watch people light up.

Are you worried at all about people trying to relearn how to walk basically,‭ ‬because weve been using controllers for all of‭ ‬30‭ ‬years? Even motion controls like the Wii or the PlayStation Move,‭ ‬you have something in your hand.

Yeah,‭ ‬you do.

So even though it is intuitive,‭ ‬are you worried about them still not really getting,‭ "‬Wait,‭ ‬theres nothing that Im holding‭?"

Well,‭ ‬but lets be clear:‭ ‬You say that we all know how to use a joystick‭; ‬thats not true.‭ ‬Right‭?

Fair point.

You do,‭ ‬I do.‭ ‬Weve grown up and we know that gas is right trigger and brake is left trigger,‭ ‬right‭? ‬We know that.‭ ‬Nobody tells us that.‭ ‬We sit down and play the next racing game.‭ ‬But that's not natural.‭

But your point I think is still extremely valid.‭ ‬This is the beginning of a platform.‭ ‬And what at launch you see are experiences and creators trying different things and seeing how they work.‭ ‬We have found that the most intuitive experiences are when the game learns what youre trying to do and makes that happen.

In Joy Ride,‭ ‬you can steer with your hands next to each other,‭ ‬three feet apart,‭ ‬you can move your upper body to steer left and right,‭ ‬you can twist your hands and it will steer left and right.‭ ‬And this is all from the developers of the game actually asking people,‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬if you were going to steer a car,‭ ‬what would you do‭? ‬And then they actually built the code to [accommodate that]. ...‭ ‬So,‭ ‬unlike ‭‬right trigger is gas and left trigger is brake,‭ ‬where its a very direct manipulation,‭ ‬they kind of blur what happens so more people can use the experience.

And I think thats an opportunity.‭ I think [Tetsuya] Mizuguchis game [Child of Eden] is a perfect example because thats a very otherworldly experience,‭ ‬and yet its incredibly fun.‭ ‬And I think theres a lot of opportunity there.

Do you guys have any sort of mandate among your first-party developers [to develop Kinect games]?

PS:‭ ‬No.

So they dont have to be making a Kinect game at some point.

No.‭ ‬Fable ships next week,‭ ‬and its not a Kinect game.‭ ‬I think I said this a year ago:‭ ‬I think theres opportunity in Fable for things that make sense with Kinect.‭ ‬But its ... a trivial equation‭... ‬that people buy great games.‭ ‬And they buy the platforms that those great games show up on.

Weve been committed‭ ‬--‭ ‬definitely on the first-party side,‭ ‬and third parties have done a great job here as well‭ ‬--‭ ‬in making sure that our experiences are as good as we know how to make them.‭ ‬It doesnt mean theyre always going to be great‭; ‬were human.‭

And thats not born out of us putting mandates that a game has to be a certain length,‭ ‬a certain color,‭ ‬use a certain control scheme,‭ ‬A‭ ‬must do something,‭ ‬or even dictating Xbox Live.‭ ‬

What we think we do is we unlock potential,‭ ‬and the creators usually want to take advantage of things like Live.‭ ‬And youve seen now that Live shows up in almost every one of games,‭ ‬not because I stop on top and say,‭ ‬You have to.‭ ‬But they just see the opportunity thats there.

I think honestly thats really what youre going to see with Kinect.‭ ‬But I dont want to force it into places it doesnt belong.

Do you guys worry about segmenting the Xbox audience now by introducing this product that not everyone is going to purchase?

You mean the install base.

Exactly.‭ ‬So youve got all of these people who have Xboxes,‭ ‬and they can play any Xbox game,‭ ‬but theres only going to be a certain fragment of people who have Kinect and can play these Kinect-only games.‭ ‬Are you worried about having your development resources focused on these products that not everyone who has an Xbox will be able to experience‭?

Honestly,‭ ‬we dont worry about it.‭ ‬Obviously,‭ ‬when youre building a game,‭ ‬you recognize that some people are connected to Live,‭ ‬some people arent,‭ ‬some people have Kinect,‭ ‬some people dont,‭ ‬some people have two controllers,‭ ‬some people have one.‭ ‬There are differences in a setup in the home,‭ ‬and you just have to be conscious of that.‭ ‬Some people have high def,‭ ‬some people dont.

So you want to make sure that when you put a game out, it clearly explains to people on the box whats there,‭ ‬what theyre buying.‭ ‬For us,‭ ‬its really about‭ ‬--‭ ‬especially in first party‭ ‬--‭ ‬we want to highlight the new.‭ ‬

Were about moving the ball forward,‭ ‬kind of lighting the path maybe for third party‭ ‬--‭ ‬thats probably too egotistical‭ ‬--‭ ‬but we jumped on Kinect early as the first party,‭ ‬because thats our role.‭ ‬Were going to try to build some really great experiences,‭ ‬and not all of them will work,‭ ‬but I think we ended up with some nice games at launch.‭

And thats what we will do.‭ ‬Third parties will pick what theyre going to support based on what happens with customers.‭ ‬And the customer reaction to date:‭ ‬nobodys bought Kinect yet.‭ ‬But what we hear from retail and just the buzz thats out there,‭ ‬we feel pretty good.‭ ‬But as somebody whos been in the entertainment business for awhile now,‭ ‬its not until youre out there and people are actually buying.‭ ‬Im not counting anything at this point.

But thats where third parties will follow.‭ ‬And we want to move that,‭ ‬and then third party will come.

How do you guys feel about going up against Nintendo as a first-party developer in the motion-control space‭? ‬Theyve had a few years of experience at this point,‭ ‬and people know their products.

Well,‭ ‬Im going to step back and just say,‭ ‬Nintendo as a first party is an incredibly talented organization.‭ ‬Theyve historically, as well as today, made some of the best games that have ever been made.‭ ‬So as somebody whos in charge of a first party,‭ ‬theyre a model to look at,‭ ‬and the franchises that theyve created and that have lasted for so long.‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬thats impressive.

In terms of going up against them in a space‭ ‬--‭ ‬and you said this‭ ‬--‭ ‬I think what they do is fundamentally different than what we do.‭ ‬Were not trying to use a different controller.‭ ‬This is about your body and really your mind,‭ ‬controlling your body directly,‭ ‬completely immersed in the experience thats onscreen.‭ ‬And that is just fundamentally different than what other people are doing.

Is Microsoft looking to patch any previously released games to be used with Kinect‭?

No.

Youre not trying to do that,‭ ‬like the Move.

No.‭ ‬I want to create new.‭ ‬I want to create new experiences.‭ ‬I do think existing franchises have opportunities.‭ ‬We showed Forza as something that weve obviously shipped before,‭ ‬and were very proud with the track record of that franchise.

But yeah,‭ ‬going back to franchises that people have already purchased and,‭ ‬I dont know,‭ ‬trying to get them to purchase them again...

Is that something that could be technically possible,‭ ‬say with third parties,‭ ‬if third parties wanted to do that‭?

They could.‭ ‬Theres nothing that keeps somebody from doing that through a title update.‭ ‬Its one of the nice things about having an online connection to the customer.‭ ‬Or I guess rereleasing something at retail if they so chose to do that.

‬What do you see as the future of the controller‭? ‬Does that become a relic of the past,‭ ‬or do you look at Kinect as almost a parallel path to games that still use the traditional controller‭?

I think it creates just a bigger canvas,‭ ‬to use that term.‭ ‬Because Im actually fond of our controller‭ ‬--‭ ‬of course I would say that‭ ‬--‭ ‬but Im fond of other controllers as well.‭ ‬But much like you said,‭ ‬theres a large population out there that are very dexterous with dual thumbs and can use a controller to do some very unnatural things on the screen very quickly.

And thats a good thing.‭ ‬I think the controller is going to be an important part of our ecosystem for quite awhile.‭ ‬With the functionality that Kinect adds,‭ ‬I really think you just end up with a larger surface area.

I wanted to talk a little bit about your developers in Japan.‭ ‬You recently announced about five new games at Tokyo Game Show.

All Japanese-developed.‭ ‬Thats the first time weve stood onstage in Japan and our whole Microsoft keynote was made up of Japanese developers.

So what was the motivation behind that,‭ ‬behind corralling all of these Japanese developers together‭? ‬Are you trying to increase your mindshare in Japan,‭ ‬or are you looking at it globally‭?

You know,‭ ‬a little bit behind the curtain:‭ ‬We didnt plan it.‭ ‬We did not plan for the keynote to be‭ ‬10‭ ‬Japanese creators.‭ ‬What we said was we wanted to go to the Tokyo Game Show‭ ‬--‭ ‬which is a really important show‭ ‬--‭ ‬and wed shown a lot of what we were launching with,‭ ‬and we wanted to start to unveil some things that people hadnt seen before.‭ ‬And we started to look at a lot of what we had in development‭ ‬--‭ ‬it just turns out that weve actually found a lot of really creative ideas have come from Japan.

So we started to go through the pacing of what we were going to show from first party,‭ ‬and then what third parties were going to be there.‭ ‬And Ill be honest and say that we thought about,‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬maybe well add some stuff,‭ ‬and blur our Japanese message.‭ ‬

But when we ended up with the time that you have,‭ ‬which is an hour,‭ ‬and‭ ‬10‭ ‬great Japanese-created games,‭ ‬we decided to run with that.‭ ‬But it wasnt notional from the beginning.‭ ‬It was actually just something that was born organically out of the games that we had.

Which was nice.‭ ‬Its nice to see both Kinect showing up in Japan so well in the creative community and getting the support as an American company in Japan for such great creators in Japan.‭ ‬Its nice.

You were recently quoted as calling ‬3D television a‭ "‬science experiment"....

‭[‬laughs‭] ‬You mean my hate on‭ ‬3D‭?

I wouldnt call it hate necessarily....

Some people did.‭ ‬But I did call it a science experiment.

But you also said that Microsoft was still looking into the technology and doing what the consumer might be interested in.‭ ‬What do you see as the relationship between Microsoft and the Xbox and‭ ‬3D TVs going forward‭?

That interview we actually did in Tokyo,‭ ‬and it was interesting,‭ ‬the timing of it coming out.‭ ‬I was reading the way people reacted to it,‭ ‬which wasnt exactly what I meant.

Ill be very open:‭ ‬Weve had first-party games running in‭ ‬3D in the studios.‭ ‬And the console is completely capable of handling‭ ‬3D gaming.‭ ‬Youve seen that with things like Batman and other games showing up that support‭ ‬3D.‭ ‬

My main point was that for most people on the planet right now,‭ ‬even if the game supports it,‭ ‬their home environment does not.‭ ‬And as a publisher of games,‭ ‬trying to‭ ‬--‭ ‬I used the weird term before‭ ‬--‭ ‬chart the way‭ ‬and let third parties see what might be possible,‭ ‬you want to go to places where there are actually large markets.‭

Kinect is something we can actually sell to people at a reasonable price point.‭ ‬And we say we really think this creates something new.‭ ‬3D,‭ ‬we really cant do that.‭ ‬I cant enable your house for‭ ‬3D.‭ ‬And where the technology is right now,‭ ‬if were all going to sit there with our glasses on,‭ ‬I just think....‭ ‬Its cool,‭ ‬and I played Batman all the way through with my‭ ‬3D glasses on,‭ ‬but its hard to me to see this as really being accessible.‭

But the technology makes a ton of sense.‭ ‬And its something that we continue to....‭ ‬Were not at all closing our eyes to the technology.

Youre taking a wait-and-see approach.

The market needs to be there.‭ ‬As a content creator,‭ ‬the market needs to be there for the content to make sense.

Have you explored any of the possibilities between‭ ‬3D and Kinect‭?

Yeah.‭ ‬And I think its an interesting place to think about‭ ‬3D input with‭ ‬3D output.‭ ‬It creates some cool scenarios.‭ ‬And this is stuff people in the deep bowels of the studios are working on,‭ ‬just kind of pushing....

Thats where things like Kinect come from.‭ ‬Kinect is something that had been in the works for years,‭ ‬and finally we get to the point where,‭ ‬hey,‭ ‬we think we can come out at a price point that makes sense and experiences that are truly differentiated.‭ ‬And the idea of‭ ‬3D input and‭ ‬3D output seems very compelling to me.‭ ‬But its got to be at a point where it makes sense in a normal household.


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