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Interview: Microsoft's Kevin Unangst On New IP, 'Building PC Exclusives'

Interview: Microsoft's Kevin Unangst On New IP, 'Building PC Exclusives'

March 22, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

March 22, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC

[Gamasutra sits down with Microsoft exec Kevin Unangst to talk about the importance of new IP against solid franchises, chasing core and casual markets, and how "You don’t want to just sequel, sequel, sequel."]

Microsoft has built a number of solid franchises on the Xbox 360, with the likes of Halo and Forza keeping the core gamers coming back time and time again.

Yet there is always room for innovation with new IP, and with Xbox Live Arcade now the leading platform for downloadable games on console, Microsoft is bumping up its efforts in the move to digital.

The company is also looking to focus on delivering more PC exclusives to its Games For Windows Live service, and hopes the service will evolve into what PC gamers are looking for.

In this interview, Microsoft senior director of PC and mobile gaming Kevin Unangst talks to Gamasutra about Microsoft's upcoming plans for E3, Xbox Live Arcade and Games For Windows Live.

So how has the strategy for the core gamer changed over the years? Or has it?

The strategy of focusing on the core gamer has not changed -- the Xbox 360 was born as a core system. I think where you see it evolve is the addition of Kinect, and with Live becoming a common thread between the platforms.

Things like having the mobile experience tie in... it’s always been how can you extend, but not compromise the original?

So we’ve continued to invest in core franchises at the same time adding Kinect. We’ve continued to expand Live to become a better entertainment [platform] and offer more entertainment choices. But at the same time, we still care deeply, deeply, deeply about making sure it is the best multiplayer platform.

Is it important for you guys to launch new IP for core games and new franchises? I know you built up a solid core; Gears of War has become a massive franchise, Forza's really taken off -- can you talk about that from a first-party perspective?

Where there’s an opportunity to bring new IP into the fold, certainly it makes sense. But I think we’ve got such strong IP in our stable " with Forza, with Fable, with Halo, with Gears " that we’re going to continue to build on and innovate on those.

But yeah, of course where it makes sense we'll bring in new IP. And there’s things we’re talking about so far and there’s things that we haven’t talked about, so…

At this point, Xbox Live Arcade has become the leading platform for downloadable games on the console side, and you've got a tremendous number of developers who are clamoring to get into the program -- more than there are spots, essentially. How do you deal with that?

In a way, that's a reflection of two things. One is that the move to digital is happening... we were there at the beginning and we’re accelerating that. But it’s also a reflection of how we look at the console overall. As a platform holder, we always try and look to bring the best IP to the platform. And so it’s a good problem to have, that there’s so much great content that we’re always looking for ways to service that more easily.

We’re always looking on Live about ways we can service more games to more people, but by and large I think people have been very happy about what we’re doing.

And now you're doing more promotional periods on Xbox Live, as opposed to just a certain week or month of the year. Like with Summer of Arcade...

Summer of Arcade is a six-week program, and then we’ve also added things like House Party. How do you create these peaks of interest... good games come all year round, you can’t save every single good game just for the holiday. And so how do we find ways of making more people aware at different times of the year?

And certainly those programs like that…we’re already starting to see that again on the phone, and eventually we’ll see something like that on the PC as well. That’s the other thing we haven’t talked about, I think, is that we’ve got a lot of really interesting and huge franchises. Things like Age of Empires that, you know, after us focusing on the console for a while, being able to bring in folks like Chris Taylor who works with Gas Powered Games, who just announced is coming over to add their collective talent to Age of Empires Online.

The PC’s a good bed for us as well. Bringing Fable III to the PC coming in May, adding NVIDIA’s 3D tech with that, working with them. But again, there’s one common denominator which is that Live service.

Right, Games for Windows Live has certainly gone through some ups and downs and it’s changed shape a few times. How do you feel about getting the PC gamer excited about it now and getting it more integral to them?

When I look right now, we are at the better point in history on having our Live service with high quality games. Bulletstorm came from Epic, incorporating Live. Age of Empires, of course we’ll be talking about Flight at some point. The games themselves are what define that service, and the games push the service to be better.

And as we’re focusing our PC efforts on building PC exclusives -- building games that are designed for the PC -- we’re going to see the service continue to evolve and take on the characteristics that PC gamers are going to want. This started with things like separating the Marketplace from our service when we launched that late last year.

Because you had to go get a client, you could only buy games that use the Live service. At the end of the day users said, "Look, I want to be able to buy great games. I don’t care if they’re using a Live service or not. That’s what a PC store should be." So we said, "Great!", and we did that. [The] launch [of] Games for Windows Marketplace has seen a great response so far. So the games are really going to drive that.

And you guys are likely holding back some stuff for E3, so perhaps your fall lineup isn’t exactly 100 percent known at this point?

This is not the sum total. Although I love what we’re doing... there’s games that we’ve already even talked about coming this year. Games like Forza 4, games like Kinect Star Wars that we’re not yet talking about. That, and some other surprises I’m sure you’ll see and hear from us at E3 about.

When we look at the way Halo's expanding with 343 and Waypoint and all that, we see a lot of effort applied to maintaining a huge blockbuster franchise. Is that going to be where we see Microsoft take first-party games -- placing big bets on properties with wide universes as opposed to a number of shorter-term franchises?

You could ask the exact same question of a Hollywood studio, right? And there always has to be a balance... you have to bet big and develop the franchises and universes that you know people care about, and take those and grow those in new directions. You don’t want to just sequel, sequel, sequel, you have to be pushing the envelope; you've got to invite new people in.

So yeah, we’re still going to double down, you’re going to see us do more with Forza, with Halo, with Fable; all the franchises. But we’re also, of course, looking to bring in new IP, looking to bring new things. As a first-party studio, our job is also to experiment, also to lead the way, set the example... things like the integration between Kinect and the phone.

Having a strong lineup of first-party Kinect games, not just use Kinect because it was a big platform show for us. That’s the role of a first party studio. At the same time, we've got millions of faithful fans for each of those franchises; we’re going to take these in some pretty exciting directions.

It's the fifth year for the console, and in previous generations platforms have sort of gone grey at that point. It doesn't feel like that's the way you see the Xbox 360 right now.

No, it’s the exact opposite of how we feel, and I think the sales speak for themselves. We’re selling more consoles, we’re selling at a faster rate, more people are coming on to the Live service. Even as we added Kinect in to the mix…you know, before Kinect we were on a great trajectory -- with Kinect we added a whole new group of possibilities.

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