It’s time for a big old chat with Xbox.
It’s currently interesting times for the team at Xbox. Microsoft’s gaming platform is currently pressing forwards into one of its most important-ever showings – the launch of the Xbox One X, a machine pitched as the most powerful games console ever and designed to arrest some of the momentum rewarded to Xbox’s rivals. For my money the Xbox One X is a wildly impressive piece of kit – I’m the type of nutter who has a liquid cooled PC and a 1080ti graphics card and even I’m impressed by what Microsoft has managed to squeeze into this surprisingly dinky box.
Microsoft’s Gamescom last week was marred by the same thing as much of their recent messaging, however: a serious feeling there’s a lack of games and perhaps even a lack of focus when it comes to software across the Xbox division. It’s a mixed message – an incredibly impressive console with some serious issues when it comes to game-shaped reasons to buy it.
During that show we sat down with Mike Ybarra, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s gaming division including both Xbox and PC-focused efforts. We’ve ran a few snippets from this interview as news stories, but here, below, you can now read our chat in full.
Mike Ybarra: You saw the stream?
VG247: Yeah, yeah – yesterday and… was it Sunday?
I know, right?! I don’t even know what today is. [laughs] You saw the Age [of Empires] thing?
Oh, yes – I’m a big RTS nerd. It was nice to see something new.
Did you play Age 1?
All of them, yeah – Mythology too. I’m really glad to see that genre is getting a chance. So… I guess that’s a good place to start. Here you are announcing a PC-specific game. Unlike Halo Wars, that’s it – an interesting step for a company that holds a console hardware platform. How do you end up at the decision to only bring a game to one place? Is that a concern?
I feel great about it. We’re the gaming group at Microsoft – we just happen to be called Xbox. I’m always reminding people… Phil’s org and my org, the platform side – we make every feature, from Direct X to Game Bar to Game Mode and the features we’re introducing into Windows 10… all of that is us too.
We have two platforms and our vision, which I think Phil articulates really well, is about uniting gamers, not dividing them based on whatever they play on. I feel really good about being able to say that we have Age Definitive Edition coming back – it’s PC only, but it’s Xbox Live enabled, rock and roll – people love that tradition. We come from a PC background, we used to only do PC!
I love that we’re balancing PC and console all across Xbox Live, bringing people together on that social network to let them play with more people and have fun. It’s gamer choice to us – if someone wants to play on windows and buy those games there, more power to them. If someone wants to go on consoels or some hybrid of both, it’s the best of both worlds.
“I think that the console world is really going to wake up when [Battlegrounds] lands on Xbox by the end of the year.”
A lot of the conversation around Xbox recently has been around exclusive games. How do you feel about where you’re at and some of the complaints? Are there the steps you’re taking to address that as we enter the Xbox One X’s life cycle?
I feel great about where we are today. When I think about today through the end of the year, we’ve got four console exclusives, and in my opinion the world’s number one game right now from a momentum standpoint, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Y’know, 8 million copies in four months… the only place you’re gonna play that on a console is Xbox this holiday. I love that.
I think that the console world hasn’t really seen how big that game is – I play a lot on PC and I’m addicted to it. I understand how big that game is, and I think that the console world is really going to wake up when it lands on Xbox by the end of the year – people will be like this is crazy, it’s addictive, it’s fun. So there’s that.
If you want racing you’re playing on Xbox and we’ve got Forza 7 on Windows too – I love that Windows racing games are coming back, too!
Cuphead – just a really super unique game that targets a really broad audience, so we love that we’re doing that, and then Lucky’s Tale for an even broader audience… so I don’t just think about Triple-A audiences, I think about the breadth of audiences we’re attracting from PC to console, from kids to adults and what we’re doing – those four titles as console exclusives walking through December feels really good to me.
State of Decay 2 and Crackdown 2 coming right after those in 2018… I feel good about the game road map that we have the value prop that we’re bringing.
You guys have signed Battlegrounds – a no brainer – and you also have Sea of Thieves, Crackdown… one thing these games have in common is an emphasis if not an outright reliance on online – they’re best-online experiences. Do you feel like there’s been a shift where single player is now less of an immediate focus?
I don’t think so. I think they’re equal. What I will say is the trend of people watching people play games is growing dramatically. I broadcast a lot, and PUBG is perfect for that. The best games for how people are learning about new games, which is watching people play, are these multiplayer games.
Playing single player is awesome, but usually that’s you and the TV. You’re in some deep story, some rich story, you’re having a great time… there’s always going to be value for that set of games. The interaction and the watching, the excitement – people discovering those games, it’s multiplayer right now, and it’s driven largely by broadcasting.
People aren’t opening magazines and saying that’s the game I want to buy because it has four out of five stars – they’re doing that and then going online and saying ‘whoa, look at these guys play – I’m gonna buy it’, right? I think broadcasters love multiplayer games because it gets the community more engaged. Sea of Thieves is exactly that – one of the pillars is designing it for broadcasting so it can ignite the community and really get around how much fun you can have in multiplayer.
I think there’s going to be always a good balance of all those types of games. We certainly are investing in Mixer in terms of letting people watch and discover new games. Some of our games are going to kind of go in that direction too.
I’m particularly excited for Sea of Thieves, to be honest.
And if you’re a PC gamer they announced yesterday their total cross play – I’m all in on that because I play on PC and console. Any game that I can bring up on my PC and play with the largest multiplayer pool instead of worrying about what pool is bigger and where the good players are at – I’m all in on that.
And speaking of Cross Play, your position on that is still that… you’re willing and ready to flip the switch for cross platform for any platform, with anyone?
Yeah! I mean, look – I think Phil stated it very early. We had discussions about some developers… I think Rocket League was the first developer that came to us saying… we want to make this onto everything. At the time they weren’t on Switch, they are now, but they were saying let’s do this… we sat down and said absolutely, we should totally do that. It’s more about gamer choice, more about making an IP on our platform last longer. I don’t care about where they play, I just want people to have fun playing games because that’s just better for the industry.
Is this a position that’s changed over the course of the Xbox One’s life cycle? I ask this as I remember the Final Fantasy 14 producer Naoki Yoshida specifically telling me in an interview years ago that game didn’t come to Xbox because of differences there that couldn’t be reconciled at the time, when that game was new.
I’m not familiar with that, but what I’ll say now is… the demands of consumers and developers have changed. People are like – we want all of our gamers in one multiplayer pool together, playing. We totally agree with that – if any developer wants to have that conversation… Valve is right down the street from us, Nintendo is too – they’re like a block from us! We’re having these discussions as developers come up, and we’re completely open to that.
Okay, so, let’s talk about Xbox One X. My biggest question is about the UI. You’re rebuilding it. I have to be honest – I love my Xbox One, but I’ve had a bit of an issue over the years. I’ve found it to be pretty sluggish and rough. My worry when you release a more powerful machine and you’ve got all these things you want to do is that we pile on features and bloat that slow down old and new machines alike. What are you doing to avoid this?
That’s a great question. So, we’ve thought about this. We said… wow, when come out with X we’ll have so much more power, so much more RAM… what do we want to do? What I told the team is… we don’t want to do anything. Because of exactly the point you’re making.
I think everybody recognizes that when we launched Xbox One X… Phil and I have talked about this, we had a lot of just general improvement to do in terms of the UI and the responsiveness of the UI. I feel great about where we’ve come today, but we designed this UI to be across the whole family and to only use a static amount of system resources so that even on S and the original Xbox One it runs absolutely great.
I have to say I really like the way this new setup looks – I just hope it runs well.
This is still early – we have a host of feedback, and this is still super early. We’re getting… there’s a lot of, like, even pins I put on twitter and other areas that we’re going from 18 to 40 pins… there’s small adjustments like that we’re making. It’ll change as we listen to feedback and get more feedback from people, but we’re streamlining it. Performance is always the top of the line for us in terms of what our priortization is.
I know this is a question you were asked a lot at E3, but now the machine is a tangible, real thing that’s so close to launch… do you see this as analogous to PS4 Pro, or the first step in a more phone-like upgrade cadence?
It’s a great question. I mean, we could’ve come out with a console last year like Sony did. It wouldn’t have been 40% more powerful and whatnot – and we wanted to come out with a console that was a significant enough leap so that people could play the best versions of the games in the world, hands-down. I like that we’ve done that.
In terms of where we go from here… the early questions that we’re asking ourselves back in Redmond now… it’ll all be based on kind of the feedback we get from gamers as to what they want. We’re seeing a lot of push for just innovation in multiplayer, the kind of thing we discussed before – how does this watch, plus these scenarios of people playing together no matter where they are, and how this all fits together. I really like some of the feeback we get there.
Certainly this is a big jump forward in terms of what the living room experience can deliver – the Tomb Raider release that they did last night I thought was a good example of… they said look, the absolute best version here hands-down is going to be on Xbox One X, and so I love what we’re doing there.
We also look at trends – so we see 4K TVs selling like crazy, we see the demand for 4K going very high… We don’t just wake up one day and say ‘let’s make a new device’ – we look at the industry and say… what’s coming, what are people gonna really embrace and expect? Gamers are on the bleeding edge of that, they want the latest and greatest in everything.
You guys have done a lot of work around game streaming, and I’m really curious if there’s ever any temptation to open this up, like the cross platform. Does the thought ever cross your mind of… y’know, can we do Nvidia Gamestream from a PC to an Xbox, or integrate with Steam streaming?
Well, we see on the feedback site, we see people vote up features like that. We always look at it, talk to partners about it – we really use the feedback to determine prioritization of where we should go and invest. All of the latest cloud technology that’s out – we’re looking at all of that. There’s nothing specific that we can talk about here, but we certainly look at all of those trends and look into how we can take advantage of them.
“Xbox has always been a platform to enable developers to be successful. When someone comes to us and asks how we can come together to do that, we’re open to all kinds of ideas there.”
What’s the driving force for Xbox with your deals? Is it always about the biggest game, like PUBG, or are you searching for something deeper?
I think that developers come to us for help making their game successful. So games like PUBG and many others… with us announcing we’re publishing the title that opens up marketing, it opens up a large portion of my team, the Advanced Technology Group, that’ll work directly with Bluehole on PUBG to optimize it and bring it to Xbox as fast as possible.
I think for us, we’re just trying to… Xbox has always been a platform to enable developers to be successful. When someone comes to us and asks how we can come together to do that, we’re open to all kinds of ideas there. The majority if not all of those scenarios are exactly that – a developer who has a hit on their hands. Sometimes they don’t even know – look at Minecraft! Notch released it, went on vacation, thought he was going to come back and work in a fast food place and then… he’s never working again! We want to work with them and try to make them as successful as we possibly can.
In line with that… As far as I see it, one of the gaps between what Sony is doing and what you guys are doing is Japan. A lot of the PlayStation exclusives are games from Square Enix or Sega or whoever that just don’t come to Xbox – Nier, Persona, Yakuza, and so on. Two part question, then… where do you think that went awry between last generation and now, and are you taking steps to resolve that?
I would say we’re committed to all of the regions that we’re in. We’re striving to ensure that we deliver the right games, the right hardware… what Sony is or isn’t doing in regions, I really have no idea on the platform side. I can tell you that with the launch of Xbox One X it’s a worldwide launch on November 7th, we want to make sure it gets everywhere as fast as we can and we want to support every region that we can as fast as we can.
You’ve laid down these lines in the sand about everything working backwards and forwards compatible. Do you see an instance where those rules might be relaxed in the future, where some exclusive stuff, even if it’s just modes, might end up being only available on X?
Yeah, I think the customer promise of if you buy X or S everything plays across it… that’s one of the priorities you have.
When you’re selling developers the X was that ever an issue? Y’know, saying – well, we have all this power but you won’t be able to do anything with it that would rule out the original machines – you can just enhance stuff that runs there?
You mean shipping X exclusive games?
“There will be a premise of look, games have to run on both. Of course X is going to have better visuals, maybe a higher frame rate…”
Not necessarily that, because I understand that crosses a different line – but it comes down to, say – what if a developer wants to do something like lock a mode behind having an X because it wouldn’t run on the regular machine?
Oh, I see, yeah. I think largely we want to empower the developer to make the choices for themselves. There will be a premise of look, games have to run on both. Of course X is going to have better visuals, maybe a higher frame rate… It’s up to the developer. It depends on what they want to do. But in general if I go buy a copy of Game X from the store I can plug it into X, I can plug it into S and I’ll have a great time with that.
Yeah, it just calls to mind, say, Perfect Dark on the N64… that was a game that technically worked on all machines, but if you didn’t have the expansion pack for the console you got a much more limited experience.
Right now, we want to make sure there’s parity across both.
Do you see the platform diverging at all between the two consoles, even if the feature set in games remains identical?
Well, there’s a fine line here. First, we approach it as a family of devices. When you approach it like that, there’s a consistency level, an expectation that if you’re on S or X, that must be met. Now, if I’m on an X and I bring up or load a game, it’s going to be faster because the overall system is so much faster than an S. So you’re going to have that difference that exists. If I was to launch Sea of Thieves, it’ll load faster on the X than the S. Consumers will expect that – they’ll see, they’ll feel that difference. But from a look and feel I want to keep this as consistent as possible across those devices.
I want to wrap by asking about the engineering of this thing. Between E3 and now I think I’d forgotten the size – it’s hard to believe, given the power it seems a bit of a marvel. What was the process like of creating it and getting it to this form factor while ensuring another red ring style situation is avoided?
It started back in 2012. We sat down and were like… what do we want to do? One of the things was we wanted to create a visual appeal and a craftsmanship on this box that wasn’t seen before. That’s where the size comes through, and the efficiency that’s in here – some of the unique technology, vapor chambers, all of that. We looked at server technology and said… wow, we are experts in the PC and server business – what can we bring to the consumer world to accelerate some of this?
We lucky that we have some of the world’s best engineers working at the company, and the passion that’s just built into people for making Xbox innovative and the most capable system out there results in something like this – we’re really proud of that.