The past, present, and future of Xbox according to its head of publishing


Shannon Loftis has played a role in many of Microsoft's most audacious, forward-thinking, and occasionally troubled gaming projects. She produced online card and roleplaying games in the mid-1990s; participated in the launch of the original Xbox; shepherded some of the console's first online multiplayer games; led the studio that helped create Kinect and many of its early titles; managed Xbox Entertainment Studios, the defunct production company that sought to merge television and interactive media; and is now the head of publishing for Microsoft Games Studios.

If there's one person within Microsoft that should have a sense of what's to come for the company's games division, it's Loftis. She's eight months into her role shaping what games Microsoft will bring to its video game consoles and, thanks to a recalibration on PC gaming, Windows 10.

At E3 2015, we spoke with Loftis about Microsoft's plans for augmented and virtual reality, the future of Kinect, the commercial purpose of video game remasters, and the practical value of diversity in games.

The Verge: I've heard members of the Kinect team have transitioned to the HoloLens team. I'm curious if that's true.

Shannon Loftis: That is true. I mean, obviously, Alex Kipman is one of the inventors of Kinect. And Kudo [Tsunoda], who's next door to me. And after rolling out the Kinect program they moved onto the next thing, which turned out to be HoloLens.

But there's still quite a few people working on Kinect. It's still a vibrant development ecosystem, still part of the Xbox experience as well. The same device now runs on Windows 10 as well as Xbox. We still have, to me, what is the greatest thing about Kinect, which is the creator community very actively creating new and mind-blowing things.

Is there a pivot that is kind of being planned? Because it obviously wasn't at the press conference, but it's too good of a piece of technology to just not … be. Is there something in the wings that is going to come down the road?

There are games actually that are coming out for Kinect, I don't get to announce them.

So there are games that are unannounced?

That's right. Yeah. I mean we love the Kinect, it's a great device and has inspired so many people. Yesterday we announced Cortana [for Xbox One], which works with Kinect.

Were lessons learned from Kinect — having this piece of technology that no one understands until you see it — that are being applied to HoloLens?

Well the interesting thing about HoloLens is that it's not an accessory, it's a completely self-contained holographic computing device. What you're actually wearing when you're wearing a HoloLens is a computer. It's capable of everything from productivity apps to data visualization to prototype design work to entertainment like Minecraft.The interesting thing about HoloLens is that it's not an accessory

HoloLens is Microsoft's augmented reality project, but the company is partnering with both Oculus and Valve for virtual reality. Is VR something that Microsoft doesn't really need to worry about so it can focus on AR, and they're just going to cooperate with whomever the big VR players are?

I mean the beauty of all of it is it's all powered by Windows 10. So the idea is to create a tool pipeline and a development system that allows game developers and other developers as well, but in this case game developers get to create the experience that they think is right for whichever device that they think is the best way to tell the story. Ultimately it's all about giving gamers choice.

Let's talk about publishing and Xbox Entertainment Studios. I know things were crazy there. [The production company was founded in 2012 and closed last year.] There was a connection between Entertainment Studio to publishing with Quantum Break. I remember the original plan was the game would have a TV series that existed alongside it.

Sure. We learned a lot from our Xbox Entertainment Studios. So yeah, I got to work with Nancy Tellem for the year. And it was a fantastic year; she's an amazing woman. We learned a lot, actually, from Nancy and from her team, and they helped us kick off some of the super high-quality, linear things that we're producing now. Quantum Break still does have the linear piece. We're going to be talking more about that at GamesCom. Obviously, you know, we've done great things with Halo Nightfall. I'm trying to remember what we've announced, I'm trying not stumble into bad territory.

XES was really us taking a look at whether or not it was the right time for Microsoft to get in, in a large way, into linear content creation. Really, we learned enough that we feel that we can support great content creation with Windows 10, with the Xbox One, with all of our devices, like HoloLens.

It doesn't mean that we won't at some point think about getting back into it. But it was a net positive, we took away some great knowledge and great relationships.

You mentioned Windows 10 already, and we’ve heard about the ability to play games on Windows 10 from the Xbox One. My dream is, as somebody who has an oversized PC tower, that I could stream the other way. Is that something that will happen or is it kind of one step at a time?

We're not talking right now about all the streaming possibilities. Obviously we're... How to put this... We're rolling out game streaming now to multiple devices. We are always interested in hearing from gamers what matters, and we have been ticking things off that list one by one: backward compatibility, bring Cortana to the UI, game streaming is actually another feature that we had quite a bit of requests for.

So yeah, I think, watch this space. We're going to continue to push the limits as much as we can.

Xbox’s remasters seem to sell like hotcakes. Are they giving the company room to breathe in terms of development on larger projects? Are they a nice kind of buffer?

I think the primary motivator for doing remasters is that gamers ask for them, right? People have always wanted Gears [of War] at 60 frames. And so... I'm not going to say it's an easy thing to do, but it seems like a no-brainer to say, "Well we have the game, we have the IP now, why wouldn't we turn around and give people what they've been asking for?" Also it’s kind of a way to get people excited about the Gears universe again and get people back into it.

In almost every presentation and across the show floor you see celebrations of gaming's past. You see a focus on gaming's present. And then you see glimpses into the future, and it's incredibly bright. I think especially as the initial set of core gamers grow up and start to have kids of their own, there's a lot of room for nostalgia, and I love that. Personally I'm super excited for Rare Replay, because I grew up playing those games, and some of them I got to work on, and to have them all on one box is completely mind-blowing.

There are a lot of different reasons to do these remasters, but the primary one is that people want it.

Is there any concern about cannibalization of remaster by announcing backwards compatibility?

I think you do the remasters where it makes sense. With the Gears Ultimate Edition, there's actually some additional feature value that we can deliver to people, with the 60 frames a second, with the additional content. But I do think that backwards compatibility is probably going to eliminate the need for lots and lots of remasters. Just depending on whether or not gamers continue to ask us to do the backward compat as well. We rolled out the first hundred titles yesterday that will be available between now and holiday. And we're asking people to tell us what else they want. Publishers may opt out, I don't know. So far no one has. I think people don't see remasters and backward compatibility as necessarily competitive just because remaster gives you the opportunity to go back and do some stuff that maybe you didn't get into the development schedule the first time around.

It felt like there were two themes at Microsoft’s press conference... I want to run them past you. Microsoft has Halo and Gears of War, but it didn't feel like I had to watch realistic people get shot in the face. It didn't feel like an aggressively violent year. Lara Croft, I don't think she ever shot anything in the entire Tomb Raider demo?

She was doing a lot of exploring and adventuring, yes.

Does it feel like there is a turn away from this kind of Batman Begins serious attitude and hardcore realistic violence toward something different?

Our conference was really focused on the games that we're bringing to holiday this year, just because we have this incredible line up with Halo and Gears and Tomb Raider and Forza and Fallout 4 and you know, all the blockbusters coming and all the ID titles and everything. In general when we're thinking about portfolio and we're thinking about what we want to deliver to gamers, we want to give people what they want. We want to make sure that there's something for every gamer on Xbox. I mean I know there are people who love the ultra-realistic violence games and I wouldn't say that we would rule those out. But they just didn't happen to be part of the keynote this year.

Including more diverse characters in the game... It makes business sense

There were women in the video games presented this year, which is an amazing thing. Is there internally a concentrated effort to make games that feature half the population?

You know, I think you just hit the nail on the head. Gamers engage most deeply with games when they can find something to identify with. Including more diverse characters in the game, it just makes sense. It makes gaming sense. It makes business sense. So yeah, we are very focused on making sure that we have broad appeal in all of our titles. The flip side of that coin is I think it's super fun to create titles where people can customize and can kind of find a way to self-express. Sunset Overdrive, that shipped last holiday, was a great example of a game where there are so many options to create the character that you want to play. Mine ended up looking like Macklemore in a band hat. But I really had fun with that guy. I had a little crush on him by the end of that game.

I'm going to go back to AR a little bit in terms of what a gaming portfolio looks like. Because, maybe this is way off base, but the metaphor that I like to use right now is VR is like your TV: it's where you go to be entertained. And AR potentially could be like your iPhone: it's where the weather is when you wake up in the morning, it’s your calendar, it's this larger part of life. I'm curious, is that how it's seen [at Microsoft], or is AR also just an entertainment service?

Not at all. HoloLens is a fully contained computer that does all the computation on your head. We see, actually, holographic computing as a direction in the future where computing is just going to go. We have found in the development of the device that it's incredibly useful for things like design and data visualization, for planning architecture, for [virtual] tourism on Mars.

We actually demonstrated, I don't know if you got a chance to see it, we worked with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, and we took all of the data from the Mars Curiosity rover and aggregated it, overlaid it with [its] photos... So Mars Curiosity rover is collecting depth data, rock data, sound, photographs, light, everything. And we overlaid it and created basically the crater on Mars where the rover exists, and you can walk around in the crater and actually get a feeling for how big the rover is, how big that mountain is; you can flag rocks; you can record the data that you're observing. It's just a whole different way for scientists to engage.

So we think that holograms actually are an evolution of data thinking. But also they make darned good entertainment. It's mind-blowing when you see a character sit down in a chair in your room.

Even though obviously AR and VR are very different things, I think the general public is going to see them as very similar, at least at first. VR has a huge leg up in terms of development, I mean the Oculus dev scene is crazy right now. AR has almost zero in terms of development. Is there a plan to catch up in terms of getting kits into more hands as soon as possible?

I mean we do absolutely plan to broaden the HoloLens program and get more... The reason that we do these teases is we're hoping to inspire people to start thinking about what they're going to do when they have their hands on them. So watch this space!