In the second part of our interview with Microsoft Game Studios’ general manager Phil Spencer, we discuss what Microsoft thinks of the Silicon Knights and Epic legal spat, why letting Rare develop for DS will aid MGS’ design skills and how the company is catering to the widened games market…
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about your development partners – but we’ve not yet mentioned Epic and Silicon Knights. They’re currently embroiled in a legal war of words – how is MGS handling this? Are you just spectators or have you had to get involved?
No, we’re not involved in any of the actions between Silicon Knights and Epic – that’s a relationship that they will figure out. But we are deeply involved with making sure that the future of Gears and the first iteration of Too Human are great games on our platform. At a technical level we’ve done work on both games to help further – in the case of Gears – squeeze out ever bit of power out of the 360, and – in the case of Too Human – set the foundation for a franchise.
So we work closely with both. You can go back in the history of the video game business and see people shouting at each other. I think in many ways successful games can help pave over those bumpy roads – and that’s what we’re focused on.
I get the feeling that you're hoping the lawsuit might end up, in the grand scheme of things, a minor note in the history of each franchise?
I certainly hope so. I hope that in the end what people are talking about is the great Too Human game. We’re playing Too Human now at MGS and, as I say – while it’s obviously not finished it’s definitely showing the promise it showed a few years ago. Hopefully people focus on the game itself, not the squabbling that went on to get the game done.
One of the things intrinsic to their dispute is that the Unreal Engine is designed to aid development on 360, but at the same time the games, as first party titles, are charged with defining the platform. How high is that pressure on them – and all the other MGS partners – to show off the Xbox?
For us what we do is use that as a filter when we first enter into a relationship. We don’t want to take a game from a developer who is not interested in building state of the art games on our platform. So we’re looking at pitches and talking to developers about the concepts – and it’s part of our DNA to look at those ideas through that filter. Luckily, once we then sign a game it is usually from a developer that has that ambition. BioWare and Mass Effect is a perfect example of a game that is massive in so many ways, not just in terms of content but also depth of experience, combat and story. We didn’t have to add ambition to that game. Same goes for Lost Odyssey, another Sakaguchi game – no one needs to pump up his ambition.
Same goes for when we’re looking at our internal studios – none of them need pushing to be more ambitious. For Rare it’s already in their DNA from their working with Nintendo, and they grew up that way. Lionhead and Peter’s ambition is the same – he’s always pushing things.
So I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure, that’s just what we’re about – making games that define our platform.
Looking at the key first-party games – Forza, Halo – a large part of them are all about the community and elements like sharing screenshots and content. Is that a key requirement for all your games going forward?
Usually what happens is that we talk to developers about what is already possible on Live. If you’re an independent developer and coming form the PC space or another platform you might not fully understand what we can do on Live today. So a lot of it for us is defining the capability that’s already there. Plus we’ve worked on it for a long time so we’ve got designs and technical talent that can come in very quickly to show you what’s possible. Once you spread that seed it tends to grow fairly organically.
What I would say about the types of online functionality you mention specifically is that the gamers have told us what they want. In PGR2, we put in a leaderboard that shows you where you are in the world ranking – that was a great experience. When people latch on those features, start talking about them and tell us how they could be better – which is always fun! – then you know you’ve set a standard for racing games, action games, or what it takes to be a first-party next-generation game. And we’ve tried things that haven’t worked – things that take advantage of functionality but it doesn’t resonate with gamers.
On the flipside, Rare are working on a DS game. That must be an interesting turn of events for you guys – how do you approach a discussion where an internal team wants to make a game for a rival’s format?
Well specifically at Rare – and I think this is good to talk about – the studio has a history in making handheld games, and titles for Nintendo platforms. When we acquired the studio that expertise was there and the team was there. As Microsoft we had a discussion – do we want to build that expertise? We decided yes. Not so much because we need to support Nintendo – their platform will do fine without us – but because it is important for us to build that experience as a publisher and game developer and understand what it means to build lightweight, maybe shorter session experiences, and maintain that design innovation. It might play out in handheld today and it might play out on Xbox Live Arcade later on; there are a lot similarities between handheld games and Xbox Live Arcade games and you see some XBLA games have a history in that space.
So for us it was about looking at what state of the art game design might be in future and asking if we want to be part of that, regardless of what platform it’s on. We said yes, because we have the expertise in the studio today and it's an expertise that we want to nurture. One of the ways to do that was build DS games. Rare has also built Live Arcade games, and I think in future you will see them both those platforms and generally innovate in general.
Importantly, thought, we don’t publish on DS, only develop – the Rare handheld titles, and other IPs of ours that have gone into handheld, are published by other partners.
Is the DS route exclusive to Rare? Or would you let your other studios do that too?
Well, when our studios start to think about ‘non-traditional’ games, they really look at Live Arcade. That’s because of the environment and the excitement around that platform – so when people want to start experimenting they often go straight for Live. Creatively, there seems to be a lot of direction driving towards that.
That short session gaming you mentioned is something Nintendo has advocated with the success of the Wii as well. Do you think that’s quite important to the industry now? Are you learning from that via DS development?
That’s right. When you look at the new Xbox 360 Arcade pack, you realise that there is a sensibility that comes from those shorter, arcade experiences that’s different from the BioShocks and the Halos of the world – it’s not better or worse, it’s just different. These games ask players what they feel like doing right now and how much time they have to play. Viva Pinata Party Animals is designed to address that alongside the more long-play story-based games.
What have been your personal favourites from the MGS line-up of late?
I’m a big fan of Blue Dragon. It came out somewhat in the shadows of BioShock which turned out to be too bad for a game like that, because it’s obviously a Japanese RPG and so many of the fans of that genre in the West flocked to BioShock.
On that note, I think we’ll probably see a lot more of that over the holidays, in fact – Call of Duty 4, for instance, is fantastic – so when I look at the line-up for all the games coming out this year I think it’s good in some ways that GTA moved a little bit to give so more oxygen to sales. But Blue Dragon has a great place in my heart – I’m a father of two daughters and I think it’s great game for families to play together.
And Scene It, too – that’s a great title. Same goes for Viva Pinata Party Animals – a project which has worked really well and helps us push out titles further out there.
I’m always going push the games that are a little lower profile compared to the likes of Mass Effect.
Does it frustrate you from a Microsoft Game Studios point of view that the release date/hype clash can often see big 360 games from other companies overshadow your own? It’s all good for the platform overall, but the MGS games, like Blue Dragon, suffer…
I don’t think it’s an MGS phenomenon – it’s a games-wide phenomenon. It’s just that Christmas is always busy and then for certain games you will have the male demographic flock to it. That might mean that some of the non-core games don’t get as much exposure. But we’re making sure that our focus includes all those games and that we are catering to all the different kinds of players out there – we’re showing that there’s more out there. As an industry we tend to chase the safe option, and that becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but we’re trying break that mould, and it’s something we know Nintendo has done very well.
With something like Scene It, and its bespoke controller, you’re moving into that casual category as well, which you mentioned earlier – was that a clear decision behind the development of that game?
Well, it’s a game which, to be honest, we didn’t start work on until not that long ago. Most of the games we work on are the Mass Effects, with three or four years of hard work behind them. Scene It wasn’t that kind of game – the opportunity came along, and the Scene It brand is well known in board games, so coupled with Live and Video Marketplace it seemed like a good idea to take the game itself, incorporate a new input device and do something special.
Given all of the randomness and risk that goes into making any game, the quality that has come out of that project is fantastic. It’s great.
And they team is also looking at other uses of the Big Button controller. It’s a nice controller and perfect for something not totally dexterity based.
Lastly, on the point of Microsoft Game Studios’ expansion: Are you planning to open any more studios here in the UK or Europe? Or are you preferring the third-party partner/first-party publishing deal route?
We’re open to building relationship with developers in Europe. The scenario of people coming to us as an existing company or coming to us as a few people who have an idea – both of those scenarios exist and we have those discussions all the time.
Trying to be more prescriptive and saying we’ll pick a certain location, rent this building and put out recruitment adds – I don’t know, I think building a studio much more organic than that. Great game studios are built around a core group of people that have a passion working together creatively and collaboratively. And for us to try and manufacture that in some way wouldn’t work.
Most of the times our relationships are with people who have already found each other and tell us that they have this idea they want to get out. It’s shown us to be a better algorithm for getting great games done.
Read part one of this interview here.