Last December, Shannon Loftis, Microsoft’s general manager of Microsoft Studios Global Publishing, shared a vision of the future in which Xbox extends beyond the game console, onto Windows 10 PCs, tablets, smartphones, virtual reality headsets, and anything with a screen and an internet connection. This week, Microsoft took the stage at E3 to formalize that plan, announcing two new consoles, and Xbox Play Anywhere, a strategy that intends for players to do just that.
We sat down with Loftis to discuss the company’s plan for executing the controls of Xbox Play Anywhere, the status of the once champion Kinect peripheral, and the struggle to keep surprise announcements from leaking ahead of their announcement.
The Verge: Yesterday we learned Gears of War's Marcus Fenix and God of War’s Kratos are now old dads. I’m curious, as the game development community ages, are we getting to a point where developers are aging, and grappling with stories that aren’t just about young folks going around killing things.
Shannon Loftis: I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s storytelling, and you always tell stories that you most closely relate to. I think game development in particular isn’t older, so much as some of the earliest game developers — their lives are changing and they have different stories to tell about what they’re experiencing. To an extent, the game industry is now three generations old.
"The game industry is now three generations old"
One of my dear friends is this woman named Alison Stroll — she’s been a producer in the past and is on the DirectX team now — her father is Michael Stroll [the former president of SEGA USA and Capcom USA]. She’s got kids. They’re too young to make games, but they play a lot of Minecraft. I think we’re getting into the third or fourth generation, depending on where you start with games.
What I really like about seeing both Kratos in a different time of life, and Marcus Fenix, is I feel it’s a different set of stories. The potential to bring new gamers in is there. There’s something new for people to relate to.
Last year when we spoke, you hinted at this idea of more stories, and inviting more people in. This year, it didn’t feel like there were as many announcements of those sorts of things. There were a lot of familiar franchises, as there were last year. Is there more in waiting at Microsoft that’s broader than the traditional genres?
Absolutely. We always have many more games in development than we can talk about. You want the game to be defined before you talk about it publicly.
"We have a ton going on right now that we're not talking about"
I would kind of disagree with your point that there wasn’t a lot of broad, new things announced yesterday. There were the big AAA things we announced — State of Decay 2, Dead Rising 4, and Forza Horizon 3 — but I thought the ID@Xbox section was incredibly rich, yesterday, with We Happy Few and Inside and Below. These games are all coming this year, along with games [we’ve already shown], like Cuphead.
I think that innovation and new game development, it all comes at different scopes and at different times. I do think in the past Microsoft could be accused of being a little bit aggressive in announcing new games as soon as we think we’re going to make them. We are trying to be a little more respectful to the game development process now, and wait until, like I said, a game is well and truly defined before we start talking about it publicly. But yeah, we have a ton going on right now that we’re not talking about.
Does Microsoft feel a need to find other ways to get those [ID@Xbox] games in front of people, other than the traditional methods you use for, say, Dead Rising 4? Dead Rising 4, you put it on-screen and I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of people have already reserved it. But even something like We Happy Few, it will take more than five minutes of footage for people to remember its name.
I think that’s probably true. What ID@Xbox provides is platform support, development support — when and if they need it — a little bit financial support, distribution, and marketing. We have so many ways to communicate with gamers now that part of the art of putting a game into the marketplace is to choose the right way to communicate with gamers about what a [game] is going to be.
"We're trying to democratize the process of game informing"
And you’re right, the short clips for well-established franchises tend to do the trick. Because gamers who’ve already played them know what’s coming in the next iteration. For a game where it’s an entirely new concept, we’re frequently using things like Twitch broadcasts, and YouTube clips, and Let’s Play sessions, and in-depth interviews with the game makers. The Xbox Dash placement is a huge opportunity, especially now with game pages. It lets the game developer tell their own story in their own way. There are lots of ways to get to that page through the Xbox App and the Xbox Dash.
What we’re trying to do, mostly, is democratize the process of game informing, and gamer-to-game-developer communication. To remove as many barriers and boundaries as possible.
But there is always a challenge in introducing a brand-new kind of gameplay, but it’s possible. Look at Minecraft. If you’d come to me five years ago and said I’m going to make this super low-res electronic Lego game, I would have said, "Show me more."
Let’s talk about E3. A number of leaks happened before the show. Do you thinks leaks have an effect on the reactions to E3 events?
You know, the interesting thing is I think there are some incredibly well-informed people that know where to go, and which things to track for when leaks will pop up. But I think that’s a tiny fraction of the amount of people who participate in E3 information sharing.
So while leaks can be hurtful to the teams whose information is being leaked, because it’s fun to surprise people, we don’t typically change plans based on them. There’s still value, even if every single thing — and luckily it didn’t happen yesterday — but even if everything we’re going to say leaks beforehand. There’s still value in the pageantry of the conference, in being able to tell your story your way.
EA is at E3, but not in its typical capacity on the show floor. Activision is doing things differently this year. Nintendo has a single game in a giant booth. It feels like companies are moving away from… it’s weird to say the traditional E3, because it’s changed so many times over the past 20-some years. But I’m curious, looking forward, is Microsoft considering a more open or more public experience for E3 in the future?
"We don't typically change plans based on [leaks]"
We have a great relationship with the ESA and tons of respect for the ESA. E3 serves a very specific purpose, which is to give journalists and retailers the opportunity to see what is coming up. We engage with fans in so many different ways. We tend to be at every PAX, we go to SDCC, we’re at Gamescom, Tokyo Game Show, Paris Game Show, Brazil Game Show. Basically, it’s a 12-month process of engaging.
The ESA, they have a very valuable roll in this industry. I’m unaware of any plans we have to change our approach to E3. Yesterday was my first time onstage legit as a spokesperson and I had a blast doing it. I’d really love to do it again, personally. That’s all I really know about the future.
Back to games.
My favorite thing.
Last year we talked about Kinect, a thing I love.
Yes, and there’s no Kinect games here.
You said there were still Kinect games in development unannounced. Are there still Kinect games in development that aren’t announced?
"[Kinect] is not 100 percent dead"
So I can tell you that my group, personally, continues — every time we pick a new game, we look at it as a candidate. Like is Kinect an additive to this, or can this open up a new Kinect door? As of right now, we’re not talking about any games that are.
I do know that there’s still interest in the game development community in Kinect. But I’m not directly involved in any of it, so I can’t really talk about… are there actually games in the works? I don’t know.
So at Microsoft properly, there are not Kinect games in the works? Or that you’re directly connected to?
That we can talk about right now. Remember, we started this out talking about how we have a few things we’re talking about, and a bunch of things we’re not talking about. What I’m saying is it’s an interesting enough technology for us that we still take a look at it every time a new idea comes along. So it’s not 100 percent dead. But I’m definitely not... I can’t say for sure there are games in development that are Kinect-based or take advantage of some aspect of Kinect. Personally, I’m just not allowed to talk about anything I’m not allowed to talk about. If that makes sense.
That makes sense. Last year at the show, Crackdown was hinted at with a big teaser. Is its absence this year part of a bigger trend of conferences? We have E3 now, Gamescom after that, Tokyo Game Show after that. Is there a need to divide your portfolio for this large set of conferences?
"I think you can fatigue people by having another E3, another Gamescom"
No, Crackdown not being here is 100 percent reflective of the fact that it needs more time. It’s already had an E3 and a Gamescom. I think you can fatigue people by having another E3, another Gamescom, another E3, another Gamescom. Crackdown is coming out in 2017. We’ll make it available, playable, showable.
Somebody else asked this so I feel comfortable talking about it a little bit. The mode that we talked about and showed at Gamescom last year, I think we’re calling it "Crackdown Online." The team kind of jokingly refers to it as a multiplayer online destruction arena, a MODA. That is a separate mode from the Crackdown campaign mode, which also has a multiplayer component.
We’ve spent a lot of time on MODA, working on the cloud physics. Designing a map for a super dynamic environment has been a super interesting challenge for the team. We’re happy with where the MODA is, but now we have to bring the campaign up to speed. It’s colin together, but it’s just a massive, massive development effort. When we have some campaign to show, that’s the next time we’ll put the game out.
Another thing we talked about last year, but the idea of accessibility — these gorgeous new controllers have so many buttons on them. Which is great for me, but maybe not other people.
Alongside that, when I see Xbox Play Anywhere, there’s the PC and the console, but there’s also the nascent technology that could appear in years to come. Or even just the touchscreen phone. How are you planning to handle controls for Play Anywhere for these forms that aren’t currently built around a complex, traditional Xbox controller?
I think Minecraft is an excellent model for this. Minecraft is available for controller, keyboard and mouse, touch, and small screen touch, as well. There’s basically a cloud that connects all of these. We’ve announced Minecraft Realms. It’s basically a cloud connection for a whole bunch of device inputs.
"'Minecraft' is an excellent model"
It’s really about whether a game developer is inspired or interested in the mechanisms to support input across all the devices. But we’re going to continue as a company to key off the success and the growth and the experimentation of Minecraft as we think about this.
Killer Instinct is an example of a game that runs incredibly well on a controller, plus a fight stick, plus a keyboard and mouse. Plus, internally, this year, we’ve taken what I’d call a grassroots set of values and we’ve applied a name and a conscious statement to it. We call it Games for Everyone. It’s a multifaceted investment / line of thinking.
That is like: are our facilities good for diversity and inclusion? Are we doing the right thing in character representation in games? And one of the things we’re looking at is gaming for people with disabilities. How can we make our games more approachable for people with disabilities?
We’re inspired by one audio designer on Killer Instinct who’s very motivated to make Killer Instinct more accessible. He created unique sounds for every single hero attack, parry, hit, and move. There’s a famous blind gamer who said that he’s able to be competitive in Killer Instinct, because he plays entirely by ear. I love that. So, we’re looking for more and more ways to bring people in.