Q&A: Microsoftâ??s Phil Spencer, Part 2

Q&A: Microsoftâ??s Phil Spencer, Part 2
Michael French

By Michael French

September 14th 2009 at 12:27PM

The Microsoft Game Studiosâ?? head discusses Project Natal and the software strategy surrounding it

Unlike in previous years, the buzz surrounding the Xbox 360 lies not in its software offering but instead its hardware upgrades.

Though a beastly power-console in 2005, Microsoft’s box is now undergoing a complete metamorphosis to become a mass-market-friendly machine. Project Natal, of course, is the keystone in the bridge from core to casual.

In the second part of our interview with Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Game Studios, we discuss the publisher’s software strategy that will interweave with Project Natal.

Tell us more about the beginnings of Project Natal.
We started looking at controller-less gaming about four years ago. So it’s been quite a while. The great thing about Microsoft is that we are a big software company – and almost everything in Natal is software driven. Obviously there is some hardware that enables the console to ‘see’, but the research division at Microsoft has done a lot of work on facial recognition, voice recognition, skeletal mapping – I’m talking PhD people in Cambridge and China – which has all contributed to the software powering it.

 We have long been committed to making this work – that is, empowering players and removing the entire concept of needing a controller – but have taken our time to find the right solution.

If Microsoft is ‘a software company’ how do you strike the balance between peripheral design and software creation?
For us – the people who love and play games and who make and sell them – the method is to get the creative people involved very early, people like Kudo and Peter Molyneux. That way we can make sure that the software is well developed by the time we launch the hardware; it’s a result of the strength we have by putting a strong internal base of creative leaders alongside great platform leaders.

Peter and I saw the first [Natal] prototype about 2 years ago. He focused on what people want to do in this environment, and that’s where a project of Lionhead’s, called Dimitri, become Milo – the team’s previous idea took on a whole new lease of life with Natal.

In time, we found the right platform for an ambitious software idea – and that’s something Microsoft has regularly done. I’d draw the same analogy between Halo 2 or Project Gotham Racing and Xbox Live. There’s a synergy between hardware and software which, when you get it right, truly captivates an audience.

At Xbox, that’s always our strategy. In our office, I sit opposite [Xbox Live chief] Marc Whitten and we, every day, talk about things we need to enable on the hardware to let innovative software come to the fore, be that in things we develop or the software developed by third parties.

Another great example was Rare designing the Avatars for the New Xbox Experience – our efforts to maintain momentum on hardware only worked thanks to our great software innovations.

Sony also announced a new motion controller at E3, a different kind of controller to Natal...
We don’t have a controller. We are controller-free. You are the controller.

Okay, so is that the key message you need to get across to developers and publishers about why they should care about Natal?
We started showing Natal to people earlier this year, and to a great reception.

The thinking is that when you completely remove the need to have a controller, all you need is what is in your head. All you need is your body. We’ve put players in front of the games with a car, or a football, and told them ‘Do what you feel you need to do’. And minutes later they are playing it, kicking the ball or driving the car.

There is no mapping your expectations through a device onto the screen as you would with a pad or other controller. Our catchphrase for Natal is ‘the only experience you need is life experience’. That sounds a little like marketing-speak but it’s actually a core message from a design standpoint: we want to encourage people to do what they would naturally do.

Lionhead’s Milo is a great example. You just walk up and talk to him. He reacts to you, and you don’t have to think about how he might react to some ball on the end of a stick. You are the interface and that resonates extremely well.

Back at E3, Xbox boss Don Mattrick said that Natal replaces the need for a next-generation Xbox.
Well, as I said, software is our heart and soul. I’ve been here 21 years and started as a programmer.

We effectively reinvented the Xbox once already when we rewrote the dashboard. It’s not about trying to sell consumers a new piece of hardware at the wrong time, it’s about evolving the platform continuously. And we are going to find things, like Natal, that are hardware-related to also do that.

But when Natal is added to 360, which is already an online-enabled powerful box, it starts a new generation of entertainment.

So that’s no to an ‘Xbox 720’, then?
Do we need to sell a new console at some point? I don’t think we need to right now. We’ll wait until our experiences are at the right point, like we have done with the Natal camera. We’ll wait until everyone is ready for it from a software perspective.

What Don was saying was that when Natal comes out it will feel like a new generation has come. I see it as like the launch of the Xbox 360 back in 2005 – there will be a launch portfolio of games to support it.

And in terms of putting more hardware on the market, what else can we do? Put more memory in it? I don’t think that’s enough. We like where we are at with the box – 360 currently has a great price point. Consumers don’t want another $400 box right now.

We instead want consumers and developers to know that we are all going to make a huge return on that original investment in the hardware – the one Microsoft made in building it, the one developers made in making games for it, and the investment consumers made in buying the console. In the current climate that’s something people are going to appreciate much more.

That’s why we are just adding functionality and broadening the console’s appeal, with the best games. The mix we have of content, software and hardware is perfect. And it’s only year four for the 360; look at the history of the industry, when does that happen? When before has there been a console that hasn’t peaked and is in its fourth year still growing and offering so much potential?