Phil Spencer on parity, controllers & why Sony does such a good job in Europe

Sony's nostalgia-infused conference aside, Microsoft had one of its strongest E3 showings in years. In the latest issue of Edge, the team sat down with the head of Microsoft's Xbox Division, Phil Spencer, to discuss everything from backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games to that expensive Xbox One Elite controller...

A lot of people who’ve migrated from Xbox 360 to Xbox One have relegated their old hardware to the loft or sold it. What does that mean for backwards compatibility?
This, for me, as a gamer and as somebody who cares so much about the brand, has been the hardest thing about not leaking it. I’ve wanted to tell people, "Hold onto your 360 games!" There were a hundred times where people had to stop me from tweeting that out over the past six months, because as I would see a game that works I wanted to tell people: "Keep it – don’t sell that! Even if you sell your 360, keep your games!"

How does it work?
The team took the approach of effectively running the whole 360 OS on the Xbox One, which is why you can play with Live and everything else. That was the most difficult thing: could we get the 360 OS to boot so it thinks it’s running on native hardware? The nice thing is that the developers don’t have to do anything. They approve the game, we run it through a test pass, obviously, to make sure everything’s fine, then we have to wrap it up as an Xbox One game so the Xbox One knows you’re actually running a game

Will you be encouraging publishers to create more collections, packing in previous releases with new ones?
With Games With Gold and things like EA Access Vault, there are a lot of areas. I love seeing Ubi going back and revisiting Rainbow Six, including their last two games with the new one. And there was the Fallout 3announcement – that Fallout 3 will be there for people who buy Fallout 4. The third-party support for this has been great. I think it’s something that we’ve missed in our industry. You watch what’s happened with the Star Wars re-release just recently on digital, and people are able to go all the way back to 1977 when Episode IV was shown. And they can go and revisit the whole story. In our past, we have lost some of that because of the divide that happens. With Rare Replay, we were able to take the history of Rare and put it on disc for Xbox One, and I think letting gamers understand the artform and how it’s progressed and getting to experience those things is critical for our industry.In the past, Xbox has had quite a traditional videogame image – all sports, broad shoulders and guns.

How important is it to change that?
I noticed just as we were doing the show the number of characters of colour that were playable in the games you saw. We have a lot of work to do as an industry in this space, but in this case, we’re talking female leaders that are authentic. Whether it’s Kiki Wolfkill [from 343 Industries] or Lydia from Mojang, we bring people out and they represent the game as well as anybody. We don’t have to say, “OK, let’s find somebody in the Halo team that’s a woman to put on stage” – you pick the leader of the Halo team! I was incredibly proud of the way that diversity showed up, but I think as an industry we have more work to do, and we’re committed to that.

Is the Elite controller something you were asked for by the community, or is it an internally driven thing?
Definitely from the community. There’s a lot of innovation that happens in the controller space – people want more customisation when they’re at the higher end, and they want to be able to make it their controller. Whereas for me I take the default setup that I’ve learned. But you think about your eSport pro gaming, which is a very, very strong growth category: those people – a growing segment of our population – really care about making the controller feel exactly the way they want it to feel.

Is there a danger now that people will see the vanilla controller as being somehow sub-par?
I think that controller, especially with some of the recent modifications we made with the audio jack and the shoulder buttons, is the best controller, obviously, that we’ve made up until the point the Elite controller comes out. We look at the Elite controller as being for somebody who feels they’re an elite competitive gamer, and that’s great for them, but we’ll continue to be very supportive of our Xbox One controller. It’s what a vast majority of our gamers will be playing on for the life of the console. In terms of Game Preview, the problem with Early Access and so on is that games released through those avenues can often leave a poor taste.

Is the demo the answer to that?
The alternative is a refund system. The demo is critical, and that’s why we’ve made it part of the programme. It’s also a curated list. We know the developers have a beginning-middle-end plan for the game that they’re putting out into the service, and we’re working with some established partners – I mean, you saw the names that were on stage; those are people that have been in this space for a while. But it’s something that we’re going to monitor and run. You don’t just throw it out and ignore it. I think it’s an interesting opportunity for gamers who care about getting close to the developer and close to the game early in the process. It’s giving gamers choice.

Just like we want to give them choice in what console they buy – they [can] buy it with Kinect, without Kinect, play 360 games, Xbox One games – and now we’re giving them a choice to engage with the indie community, which has been great for us. We had a great showing with our indies on stage – there are thousands of indie developers out there working on Xbox One games and Windows games now. It’s something that can help them with funding as well; when they’re looking at trying to take some feedback from the community, making sure they’re building the right game, but also getting some funding to finish the game. So if we manage it well, I really think it can be win-win, and obviously managing it well is our plan.

Is the parity clause dead now?
I think so. There’s this idea that’s been named ‘parity clause’, but there is no clause. We’ve come out and been very transparent in the last four or five months about exactly what we want. If there’s a developer who’s building a game and they just can’t get the game done for both platforms – cool. We’ll take a staggered release. We’ve done it before, and we’ll work with them on that. If another platform does a deal with you as a developer to build an exclusive version of your game for them, and you can’t ship on my platform for a year, when the game comes out in a year let’s just work together to make it special in some way. People complained about that, but you did a deal with somebody else and you got paid for it and I’m happy – we do those same deals, so I’m not knocking you. It’s going to be better for you, actually, because people don’t want last year’s game, they want something special and new.

A couple of punches were swung at Sony during Microsoft’s E3 briefing. Where do you think you sit compared to the competition now?
We’re trying to say the truth about what our product is, and just make it clear to the people watching the show. I have a lot of respect for the team at Sony and the success they’ve had with PS4, and it’s a great time for the console industry. I’ve said this a few times, but four years ago when I was sitting doing these interviews it was, “Do people need consoles any more?” and, “Isn’t this just dead? Everybody’s playing on their phone.” And now you’re looking at the PS4 having sold over – I don’t remember their last number – but over 20 million. And we’ve sold a ton of Xbox Ones globally, more than we’ve sold 360s [in the same period]. We’re both doing really well, and I think Nintendo has a plan for the future – I don’t know what the NX is, but it’s great just to see the business being done.

We need to do better in Europe. When I look globally, mainland Europe is definitely an area we want to focus on. I’m excited about going to Gamescom at the beginning of August, having another press show where we’re able to show games that we didn’t show here. So you’re going to see brand new games, as well as obviously some repeats, but you’re going to see Scalebound, Crackdown, Quantum Break from my friends at Remedy. From a product standpoint, I like where we are. I think the team’s doing a great job with the games and building a platform for gamers.

The latest issue of Edge, with Dark Souls 3 on the cover, is out now. Download it here or subscribe to future issues.