Focus On: Microsoft Game Studios' Shane Kim
For anyone who's been covering the Xbox since its inception several years ago, there are a few faces which have become very familiar indeed. J Allard and Robbie Bach are two of them, men who have been at the head of the Xbox division since its existence was first revealed to the public; others, such as Seamus Blackley and Kevin Bachus, are people who were key to the project at its inception, but have since moved on, while some, such as Peter Moore and Ken Lobb, were well-known figures in the games industry before joining Microsoft's merry band.
Ed Fries was another face that people in the industry came to know very well over the course of his few years as head of Microsoft Game Studios. He oversaw the deal which brought Halo to the Xbox, and made Bungie into a part of Microsoft's empire, brought several other developers into the fold and - famously - paid over a quarter of a billion dollars for British studio Rare.
Fries left Microsoft earlier this year; and stepping up to fill his shoes was Shane Kim, the new head of Microsoft Game Studios and the newest member of the Xbox family. He may not be a familiar face, but Kim is a vital figure in the Xbox pantheon. His division is responsible for ensuring that the console's first party support is up to scratch, building relationships with third party developers and driving internal teams to create the software which, ultimately, forms the cornerstone of Microsoft's efforts in the software market.
"I think we've learned a lot as we've gone on," Kim opines, referring not only to his Microsoft Game Studios division but to the Xbox team as a whole. "We've made some important decisions - so for example I think we have a leadership position in Xbox Live that we're going to continue to extend, and we're on a third generation of software enhancements there with Xbox Live. That was a great decision for us."
"As we go forward we're going to get stronger with XNA and providing the best software development platform for developers; we've got great third-party support now, the clearly established number two platform in North America and Europe, first-party is getting stronger and stronger... Microsoft Game Studios, which is my organisation, we have a lot of great titles... Not just Halo 2, but Fable, Forza Motorsport, Jade Empire, MechAssault 2, Conker... Those are some really great titles that are driving the platform."
"So I think we've really evolved and learned a lot over the last three years. We're building a foundation, a set of assets that I think are going to help us win for many generations going forward."
It's a bullish introduction to Kim's way of thinking on the future of the Xbox platform, and it includes one vital word - "win." Kim doesn't talk in terms of hazy future possibilities - he talks in terms of delivering the goods which Microsoft needs to beat its rivals in the coming generations of the console battle. However, he's under no illusion about just how difficult that is going to be.
"There is no silver bullet to win," he explains. "I think you have to execute on so many different levels... I think that when you talk about Xbox you've got to talk about the entire program, and so it's not only making sure that you get the hardware right, for us it's also about software. So clearly, with our legacy as a company in Microsoft, we think we have a competitive advantage in the software arena. We're going to do a great job at development, delivering XNA, so it's going to make life a lot easier for software and game creators to make the best art and magic on our platforms - Windows and Xbox."
"It's Xbox Live - I mean, it's the same things, right? It's the things that we're investing in, we're going to continue doing best in there. It's great to actually hear the competition talking about these things as important now, and they're going to take a different kind of approach to those things - well that's great talk, but we've actually been living that investment for many years now. "
"So whether you're talking about the software development platform, whether you're talking about Xbox Live, or first party - I intend to make first party a competitive advantage as well."
One big competitive advantage which Microsoft Game Studios tried to win under Ed Fries' direction was the acquisition of Rare, the legendary British studio which had provided Nintendo with many of its stand-out hits on the SNES and N64 platforms. It was an aggressive move, and a hugely expensive one - but some critics have questioned whether Microsoft has been seeing value for money on the investment.
"Aggressive acquisition, and long term - that's for sure," says Kim. "Not too many other companies have the respect and admiration that Rare has, and they've certainly earned the right to take some chances and try to innovate in different areas. I know a lot more about what's in the Rare pipeline than I can share with you guys today. I'm very, very bullish on Rare. These guys are great guys, they're incredibly talented as you know - their record speaks for itself. It's great to have them as part of the first party team on Xbox."
"The stuff that they're working on I think will really, really break through. People should take a long term view, should keep the faith with Rare down the line."
Pressed on whether Rare has more products in the pipeline for the Xbox 1 - rumours have recently been flying that the company has shifted its focus to the Xbox 2 platform - Kim regretfully says that he "can't go beyond announced stuff." However, the mention of Perfect Dark Zero gets a twinkle in his eye and a playful, quizzical "Perfect Dark Zero...?"
"Look," he says, "Perfect Dark is a great franchise. We know that customers love it, they want to see it on Xbox. Let's leave it at that."
Buy, Buy, Buy
Since the Rare acquisition, Microsoft - which once considered buying companies such as EA and Nintendo to gain a foothold in the games market - has been remarkably quiet in terms of buying developers. Rumours that its friendship with Canadian RPG wizards Bioware has gone beyond mere friendship persist despite the lack of any announcement to that effect at E3; but Kim says that continued acquisitions are "not necessarily" a part of Microsoft Game Studios' plans at all.
"What's really important for me is to make Microsoft Game Studios the best home for the best talent in the industry, whether that's our internal studios or external development with partners," he explains.
"When you look at our portfolio, we do about half of our titles internally, half of our titles externally. We're very lucky - we have amazingly talented partners, people like Bioware, Peter Molyneux, Bizarre Creations - and the list goes on. I actually will stack our slate of independent game developer partners against other publishers. I like that."
Which isn't to say, however, that more acquisitions are out of the question. "You never know what'll happen. We don't have a specific plan that says we will acquire X more or something like that. It really is the case that every acquisition is on a case by case basis. I don't think you need to acquire developers to have great exclusive content; again, we develop half of our games internally and half of our games externally, and we work with great independent game developers, and that relationship works really, really well. There's no need to acquire them - some of them don't want to be acquired, so we'll do what's best in each particular situation. It really is a case by case thing."
The flip side of the acquisition coin, of course, is exclusivity deals with third party publishers. This is an area which all of the platform holders have dabbled in, but which seems to have become less important to them in recent months, with the arguable exception of Sony, which has continued to sign a large number of exclusivity deals.
"I think you'll continue to see exclusive third-party titles from all the manufacturers," says Kim. "That is a part of our content strategy. But I think that what you're really seeing is that most third parties want to be able to support multiple platforms - it's how their business models are constructed, it's their strategy."
"We worry a lot less about third party support now. I like that for Microsoft Game Studios because that becomes more of a competition between the first parties, because we are the ones who are charged with delivering the showcase exclusive titles. That's what our job is, and so we're building the assets and building the teams that hopefully will be competitive advantages from that standpoint."
"I still think you're going to see third party exclusives. That's important, on certain case by case basis - but yeah, I don't think you're going to see it as much as you may have in the past; I think the exclusive content is going to be more about what the first parties deliver. "
One area where Microsoft has failed to make an impact - with the exception of a very small number of third party titles which have proven successful, such as Tecmo's Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball - is Japan, a market which is important not simply because of its size in consumer terms, but because it houses many of the world's biggest and most important publishers and developers.
"Again, no silver bullets," says Kim when asked about the company's strategy for improving its position in Japan. "It's going to take a lot of dedicated effort and relentless focus on trying to execute... There's no question that that market is really important to us. There are a lot of great customers, but there are a lot of great content developers there as well - lots of great games come out of that market. We've learned a lot of lessons in this generation."
However, he believes that the marketplace in Japan was always going to be a tough proposition for Microsoft, regardless of how well it executed.
"I think, again, you have the established console manufacturers that we're competing with - Sony and Nintendo, being based in Japan, they certainly understand that market very, very well, they understand the tastes of customers very, very well. Xbox, we're the new kids on the block - all over the world. We've done really well in North America and Europe. In Japan, again, I think that the competition is very well established there."
"No question, we're learning a lot of things that we need to do better as we go forward, absolutely. But I think that we are learning those things. The important thing for your consumers, your readers to understand is that we are very committed to that market, it's a long-term investment for us."
The task facing Shane Kim is a momentous one; he must effectively make Microsoft Game Studios into the best provider of game software on the planet, building exclusive content that will raise the Xbox head and shoulders above its competition. It's a challenge which he relishes - and one which he has been given a head start in working towards, with the MGS division already housing some of the foremost game development talent in the world.
Xbox 2 is obviously looming on the horizon, but for now, Kim says, Microsoft Game Studios is focused on delivering what it's promised for the existing console. "I can tell you that we've got a lot of titles in the pipeline... We've got a lot of titles that we need to deliver that we've announced. I'm excited about the potential of everything that we've got, so we're pretty focused on making sure that we can deliver those."
"I'm excited," he laughs, referring to the company's announced range of titles, many of which were on the E3 show floor. "I'm biased - but I'm excited!"