After a tough year Xbox One is back on track with FIFA 14 for every pre-order and some real initiative towards courting indies. Xbox Europe boss Chris Lewis spoke to Patrick Garratt in Cologne.
"Look, it may surprise you to hear that we’re not as fixated on our competition as you guys are. That’s not to say they’re not credible, important, fabulous companies, but I’ll tell you what we’re fixated on: our goals, our consumers, our plan, what our consumers want from us and when they want it."
Microsoft's announcement that a copy of FIFA 14 is to be bundled with every Xbox One pre-order dominated gamescom yesterday, with the assembled press corp nodding collective approval. It's a big deal, and Chris Lewis, Microsoft Europe's VP of Interactive Entertainment, is well aware of the fact. Sitting in the middle of the evergreen Cologne Xbox showcase, he looked pleased.
The Xbox project needed to return to positivity. It's been a very tough year for Microsoft. Buffeted by a number of major back-tracks on system policy and an unparalleled response to Sony's exploitation tactics from early adopters at E3, the Xbox brand has struggled to keep the considerable momentum of Xbox 360 in the run-up to next-gen launch.
But success over adversity is nothing new to a grizzled Xbox team, a unit which, over two generations, has shown incredible tenacity and built one of the greatest gaming ecosystems ever seen. The announcement of FIFA 14 for all European pre-orders and the launch of indie dev programme ID@Xbox at gamescom yesterday granted the Xbox team a far punchier outlook than it had in LA this summer.
I spoke to Lewis about launching, back-pedalling and more.
VG247: How do you think it went this morning in general?
Chris Lewis: Here’s what I love about it. This is the first time, anywhere on the planet, that you get to play the games. It’s not just you listening to me saying, ‘Oh, it’s great, Pat.’ What I love about it is that it’s a very strong statement we’re able to make here - not only about the line-up with its 23 titles at launch, of course I’m excited about all of that – but I’m more excited that everyone gets to get their hands on it, finally. I think that’s the strength of gamescom, and we’ve been very deliberate, as I hope you can see, that we’ve tried to tell our story through a series of beats. We used the event in Seattle to talk about the event at the strategy; E3 was more about the entertainment content; this is about the games. Europe’s so important to your global aspirations, that making a statement from Cologne is, frankly, more important that making a statement from London. That was a long answer, but that’s why I’m excited about it. And I think the reaction so far has been very, very good.
The FIFA announcement, in particular, I think is very strong. That’s a real stand-out. Do you plan on making any more exclusivity announcements before launch, and why did you focus on FIFA specifically for Europe?
Football’s a religion here, Pat, you know that. It has such impact, and such momentum generally. I think for us it was a relatively obvious choice to get behind in a way we haven’t in the past. We’ve always had a great relationship with EA across all of their portfolio, globally and specifically in Europe, but it was clear to us many months ago that being able to make such a strong statement with FIFA, that to be able to reward those zealots who’ve pre-ordered and flocked to the platform, but also to reinforce the power of our partnership. There’ll be others. We will announce more exclusivity over time. We’re not going to announce any of that today, but watch this space.
You’ve maintained your relationship with Activision and Call of Duty. That’s very much a core announcement there, with the dedicated servers for Ghost. Have there been any difficulties in maintaining the relationship considering your Titanfall exclusive?
We’ve enjoyed our partnership now for so many years, and it’s a mature, professional, genuine partnership with Ubi, Activision, EA and many, many others, as you know. Quite genuinely I can tell you that we had a good objective journey to get to where we are now, and everybody’s very happy with the outcome. These are win-win solutions. In fact, it’s a triple-win: they’re happy, we’re happy, and, probably more importantly, the consumers love what we’re doing. I’ve been very deeply involved with most of them, and I can tell you that they’re all very, very happy with the outcome, excited about what we’ve been able to announce here.
The ID@Xbox initiative is really interesting, and I’m sure a lot of people looking to get into games development will be excited about it. How important is independent development to Xbox One?
I’ve been asked that a lot today, actually, which is a good thing for two reasons: one, it means our message is clearly resonating; and two, that was clearly a much asked-for piece of uptake from us. The plan has been the plan for months and months and months, but we thought gamescom was a good opportunity to describe it in more detail. To your question: it’s crucial that we incubate new content, that the creative talent feels that Xbox One is the best platform to flock to. Finding the next FIFA, the next CoD: it’s so important to the future of our industry. And, also, I have to credit people like Phil Harrison. He’s brought more of that DNA to the way we think about things. I’m not saying we didn’t before, because we did, but Phil’s pushed hard to make sure that side of things is reinforced as it's evermore important to our portfolio. It’s great people have reacted to it so well.
Would you say that there’s been a culture shift this year in the top-tier Microsoft team? Does it feel different now compared to last year?
I think what’s great about the division, and at a risk of personalising this, you’ve got good long-term institutional knowledge, like me. I’ve been around since Xbox was a twinkle in our eye. And then what we’ve done over the years is layer in fabulous industry talent, senior, middle and in the true rank and file. I think it’s the combination that keeps things vibrant, and people like Phil and Don come in and they challenge rooted thinking, and their DNA compliments our existing approach and strategy. I love that combination. I think it’s all very helpful, and we’ll continue to do that, we’ll continue to recognise the need to bring in external talent when we need it, as well as making sure that we encourage the foundation of talent to keep delivering the results we’ve always enjoyed. I think that’s a good, healthy situation. I’ve done a few launches now, and this one, for me, feels the highest energy, the most exciting, where we’ve got a true, left-to-right, digital and physical proposition of which we haven’t had in the past.
While today was generally positive, it’s impossible to pretend that it hasn’t been a difficult year for Microsoft. How important was it to come out of gamescom with early adopters – and I use that term to mean our readers and the readers of the other sites which follow everything you say and everything Microsoft says – feeling more positive about Xbox One?
"No, I’m not disappointed at all. I’m genuinely excited, and I think we’ve in an unrivalled position. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody right now, and I see nothing that’s going to make me feel any different."
A couple of things. I think it’s crucial that we stay tuned into our gamers and our consumers, that we listen and that we adapt. I’m proud of what we’ve done there. Whilst maintaining our clear course of a digital strategy in combination to a physical strategy with physical games is ultimately the best choice we can give our consumers. Gamescom was always a critical beat in the cadence of the year, and it was always designed to be that way. We knew we had to make a very strong statement to your readers at an event like this. And more than just a statement, but we had to give people like you access to the content, so it’s not just people like me saying it. I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to make that combination happen and bring it to life here in the way we have. Just the way we’ve set this up today, and the way we’ve made that content available to you, I think is the right approach.
You’ve made some very big policy shifts in terms of the Xbox One make up and strategy.
Probably the two most contentious issues were always-on internet connection and forcing a Kinect connection to make the console work. Obviously, those two features don’t exist anymore. Looking back, are you disappointed that they’re not in the final product?
I would actually come back to my earlier answer. We remain very digital in our strategy. The cloud remains hugely important to what we do, the game experience, Xbox Live and the community that is, Skype, and all the things I want to rattle off in a discussion like this. That hasn’t changed. What we’ve done is adapt so we can make the physical disc content, which our gamers want to consume, available. We’ve listened to that and reacted. But I’m confident we’re still on the path that we were always on, and I believe that over time more and more people will stay connected, be connected, and see digital consumption as the natural way. But for now we want to be wherever our consumers want us to be. We have to be that way, and we have to offer choice. I think we’ve always been a good choice offering for our consumers and our gamers, and I think that’s more true now than ever before. No, I’m not disappointed at all. I’m genuinely excited, and I think we’ve in an unrivalled position. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody right now, and I see nothing that’s going to make me feel any different.
One thing we didn’t get today was the date.
I’ve saved that for you.
Are you ready?
I am ready. Go on.
It’s November. [Laughs] Sorry, I’m being facetious. Look, there are some things we have to hold back. We have to keep your appetites suitably whetted throughout the coming months. There is more news to come, Pat, you know that. We’re committed to November in a way we said we would be. As you know, we have to work very closely with retail to make sure all the supply chain is properly understood and catered for so we have good day-one, good early replenishments. We’ll share more of those details nearer the time.
Obviously, it would be very advantageous for you to go first. How big a deal do you think that would be?
Look, it may surprise you to hear that we’re not as fixated on our competition as you guys are. That’s not to say they’re not credible, important, fabulous companies, but I’ll tell you what we’re fixated on: our goals, our consumers, our plan, what our consumers want from us and when they want it. We think our timing is good. I will, of course, watch with interest, but I’m confident that we’re in an enviable position with our current plan and strategy. I see nothing that’s going to make that change.
You’ve delayed Xbox One’s launch in a number of European territories. Can you tell us why?
We want to bring optimised experiences wherever we launch, and that includes fully-localised dash, voice, all of the entertainment-out-of-the-box experience. All of that, in our view, has to be optimised at launch, and we felt that we weren’t able to bring all of that to all of those markets at launch, so that’s why we’ve narrowed down the launch country portfolio. We are disappointed, and we know our fans in those countries are disappointed. We will add goodness to pre-orders, to those who’ve pre-ordered, in a good way, and we’ll talk more about that as time rolls on. Having said all that, Xbox One will work everywhere and the games will work everywhere, but we’d encourage people to wait for that optimised experience and we’ll bring that to those markets as soon as we can.
One last question, very quickly: is the bundled FIFA copy physical or a download?
It’s a digital version. What that does is gives us a guarantee of the delivery, and also we like the fact it’s a digital version. But it guarantees it’s in every pre-order SKU in a way we’ve committed to.