Microsoft: "We're doing things that can't be done on any other console"
Kudo Tsunoda on besting Sony at software, uniting PC and console, and the many facets of Microsoft's vision of the future
The validity of framing the console market as a 'race' or a 'war' is open to question, but there's no doubt that it's a lot more fun when you do. The notion that there is a hard, immovable line between winning and losing simply doesn't make much sense from a business perspective, but it makes for lively debate and - from an entirely selfish perspective - good copy.
For the first six months of this console generation that was certainly the case: the Xbox One tripping, stumbling and backtracking, with the PlayStation 4 marketing department lying in wait, pointed comments at the ready. Microsoft is dealing with the fallout from that disastrous period even now, its own reluctance to disclose hardware sales figures compounded by Sony's eagerness to provide an update at every opportunity. At the last count, in July, the PlayStation 4 had sold more than 25 million units. The Xbox One, on the other hand, has sold.... well, we haven't been given an official worldwide figure in 2015 so far.
"There's a reason we're able to put on two shows of content together. We've got seven exclusives coming this holiday. We're giving people a lot more"
In terms of sales, then, it's very clear which console is 'winning' the generation, and it has been from the very first day. In terms of content, though, the debate is more nuanced, the outcome far less certain. Sony's development resources have long been regarded as a unique strength when compared to Microsoft, effectively guaranteeing a superior crop of exclusive games regardless of how well the PlayStation hardware is selling. Whether that's still true in terms of first-party studios is almost besides the point, because in terms of available, exclusive games there's a strong argument that the Xbox has been a more attractive platform since the launch of Titanfall more than a year ago. By the end of this year, that point may well be beyond debate.
"I wouldn't even say the gap has closed," says Kudo Tsunoda, one of the leading executives in the Xbox games business. "We've got a lot more exclusive games than any other platform."
Tsunoda and the various studios he oversees are celebrating the second Xbox showcase in less than two months. The first, at E3, is generally regarded as a key battleground within the console war, and a significant proportion of those who watched this year believed that Microsoft emerged victorious despite an impressive showing from Sony. The second, at Gamescom, was an Xbox victory by default, with Sony electing to steer clear of the event for the first time in years. Even so, Microsoft presided over 90 minutes of new games, not all of which were exclusive to the Xbox One, but none of which were on show at E3. Whether those exclusives came from first-party studios (Halo and Gears of War) or via chequebook-and-pen (Tomb Raider and Quantum Break) is largely irrelevant. For perhaps the first time in this console generation Xbox owners have an undeniable right to feel smug.
"There's a reason we're able to put on two shows of content together," Tsunoda continues. "We've got seven exclusives coming this holiday, and then everything coming in 2016. Not just the blockbusters, but the ID@Xbox games, the indie games. We're giving people a lot more."
Microsoft's early mistakes have been formative for the Xbox One, its underlying strategy switching from closed and controlled to open and inclusive. Sony recorded several huge PR victories by simply responding to those initial bad choices, but Microsoft has since proved more committed to the stance that Sony initially claimed as its own. An early indicator was Sony's refusal to allow EA Access onto the PlayStation Network due to stated concerns that it didn't offer "good value" to the consumer, but just as likely down to competition with its own planned streaming service, PlayStation Now. Microsoft allowed its customers to make that choice for themselves. Had you been asked to guess the stance each company would adopt even a few months before, it's likely those roles would have been reversed.
"I wouldn't even say the gap has closed. We've got a lot more exclusive games than any other platform"
Tsunoda repeats the idea that MIcrosoft is 'listening to the fans' throughout our interview, making it quite clear that it's a message the company wants us to hear. However, while it would be naive to believe that any multinational corporation is motivated principally by altruism, the strategy for Xbox One is increasingly guided by consumer demand.
Two incoming services perfectly illustrate the degree to which Microsoft has pivoted since the days of mandatory online checks and a prohibition on used games. Xbox Preview is a more tightly controlled version of Steam Early Access, and just the sort of concept that walled gardens were formed to exclude. Backwards compatibility, meanwhile, demands little in the way of explanation. Equally, its importance cannot be overstated, to the consumers who spend so much on games every console generation, and to those who believe that companies like Microsoft should be treating their creative heritage with more respect.
"With backwards compatibility, it isn't something that we just think gamers might want," Tsunoda says. "We know. We're looking for and soliciting that feedback. It was the number one most requested feature for Xbox One by far."
Sony has no plans to match Microsoft in this respect, and the possibility of monetising those games through PlayStation Now makes it very unlikely that it ever will. For Microsoft, it's part of a broader view of gaming with Windows 10 at its core, which should, in theory, unite the previously disparate tendrils of Microsoft's sprawling organisation. PC and console, past and present, existing in harmony, each interacting with and complementing the other. Cross-Buy, Cross-Play, console to PC streaming; one might say that Microsoft should have been doing this for years already. According to Tsunoda, this is a first step.
"For a long time we've had PC gamers and console gamers who weren't really able to play together," Tsunoda says. "That's why Cross-Play is still such a powerful idea. You should be able to play what you love, and play together, regardless of what device you're playing on. It's about connecting people.
"With backwards compatibility, it isn't something that we just think gamers might want. We know"
"It's a really unique value that only we can offer. You still need very gamer-focused values, but there's lots of things you can do with our technology. We've really got a lot more going on [than our competitors]. We're doing things that can't be done on any other console.
"Letting people play games wherever they want, on whatever device they choose, and making that easy. Long term, that's really what we're trying to do as a platform."
If Microsoft is pushing towards a more holistic approach to its games business, then a few reminders of its clumsier past still remain. One is perched just below the television directly to our left: Kinect, a device once positioned as an integral part of the future of Xbox, a future that Tsunoda was instrumental in selling to the press and public. These days, though, it feels additive, and that's being kind. In more than 150 minutes of press conferences across E3 and Gamescom Kinect barely merited a single mention, while a new announcement, the Chatpad, offered a core-friendly alternative to the search and chat functions that represent a huge chunk of why anyone might still use it.
"I don't think it's an alternative [to Kinect]. It's just about giving people a choice in how they can do things," Tsunoda replies. "There's still a lot of great voice capabilities that you can use with Kinect, but there's also a lot of great possibilities for communication with the Chatpad. You can also customise a lot, with specific buttons for specific functions. With everything we do, we're trying to give people the choice."
In terms of games, though, Tsunoda offers only Just Dance 2016 as a specific example - which is developed and published by Ubisoft - accompanied by the vague promise that, "There's still Kinect games coming as well." This may be what 'choice' starts to look like when Microsoft loses faith in one of its possible futures. It should be noted that Kinect is now listed under the "More" section on the Xbox One Accessories page, beneath "Controllers," beneath "Headsets and Communication," grouped in the same vague category as the Xbox One Digital TV Tuner and the Xbox One Media Remote.
"You should think about HoloLens in the same way that you would a phone or your computer. It does a lot of things”
The fear of obsolescence created by the doldrum in which Kinect now resides also haunts the HoloLens, another promising device that Microsoft has just finished thrusting into the public eye. It stole the show at E3 with an immaculately orchestrated Minecraft demo, only for its limited field-of-view to be scrutinised by the press, and its early utility as gaming hardware to be questioned by none other than the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.
For Tsunoda, who is also closely involved with the development of HoloLens, the difference between watching a demonstration and actually experiencing it first-hand is more pronounced than any product he's ever worked on - including Kinect. However, there is more common ground between the two devices than one might think.
"You should think about it in the same way that you would a phone or your computer. It does a lot of things," Tsunoda says. "Obviously, gaming is a big part of what you do on those machines as well. But that's what it is: an untethered holographic computer. You can do a lot in the gaming and entertainment space, but it has a lot of other functionality as well.
"Microsoft is a leader in depth-sensing technology: with Kinect, but also the stuff we're doing with HoloLens as well. A big part of what we're doing there is an environmental understanding that comes from having pushed our knowledge in depth-sensing. That's what you'll see us do as a company. [Kinect] is still a part of the platform, and there's still Kinect games coming of course, but then also we're pushing that depth-sensing technology forward with what we're doing with HoloLens."
It's all a part of Microsoft's future of gaming, whatever that turns out to be. Right now, though, Xbox might finally have emerged from PlayStation's shadow.
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