Prior to E3, things weren’t looking great for Microsoft. Crackdown was delayed to 2019. Sea of Thieves launch got off to an unstable start. And the console’s list of exclusives looked lacking, to say the least. But the Microsoft press conference cracked open the shell obscuring what the Xbox has planned for the near future. And things are now looking much better. Matt Booty, the recently appointed head of first party studios, explained in an interview at E3 that he’s trying to do more than just put out sequels to existing franchises; he he hopes to do more “branching out sideways.”
“For example, you saw what we’re doing with Gears of War,” Booty explained. “We’re putting the game on three different platforms with three different games in three different genres. We’ve got a core Gears game on console. We’ve got a new exploration off in mobile. We’ve got a whole new kind of game off in PC with Gears Tactics, right? And that’s one way we’ll grow.”
But the other avenue for growth is equally headline-making: Xbox announced partnerships with five new studios, all of which will fall under Booty’s umbrella. “We’re going to bet on people, we’re going to bet on ideas. We’re going to go on, Phil [Spencer] used the word, a ‘quest’ to find creators. You think about the common thread with people like Guillaume [Provost] at Compulsion Games, Nina at Ninja Theory. These are studio leaders who really understand the craft of the game and the creativity.”
Booty says that he also has some “complete blank slates.” For the hiring of Darrell Gallagher, who heads up the newly formed Santa Monica studio, Booty gave him a “blank piece of paper,” and told him, “You go hire the team you want. You go work on the game you want. We’re going to get you a building you want, and we want to just start a studio from scratch.”
The future of Xbox games sounds promising, but 2018 still feels light on exclusives. In response to that, Booty boasts that the power of the Xbox One makes the console’s strong third party line-up an equally important selling point. “We saw partners of our stage, folks like Bethesda, who have decided to show their content many times first on our stage, and flat out have said, ‘Hey, we think this looks best on Xbox One X.’ So we’ve got some cool stuff coming from first party as we get into holiday, but we’ve got a whole bunch of partners that are bringing content over the next year that really plays best on Xbox.”
But the Microsoft gaming division is about more than just games. Spencer teased that a console streaming service is on the way. There’s the dedicated streaming app Mixer. And on the hardware side, there’s already a team at work on the next iteration of Xbox hardware. How does someone like Booty help elevate his teams while also making sure everything else Microsoft has coming up gets the attention it needs?
“The job of first party, really at the core, is to be kind of a beacon and a lighthouse for a lot of our things,” he explains. “So when we first said, ‘What if we put games into Game Pass at the same time that we put them into retail and digital?’ There were some questions about that. Does that mean that people are only going to play it in the Game Pass? Is that going to impact retail sales?
“Sea of Thieves was our first game to go day and date into Game Pass, followed by State of Decay, and what we have found is that we’ve had great success with both of those games at retail and digital, and we’ve got a bunch of people inside Game Pass engaging with the game either because they were already subscribed to Game Pass, or they might not have engaged with that game before, but because it’s available to them inside Game Pass, they try it out. It’s about exploration, and about discovery. We’ve had over two million people play State of Decay so far just in its short time since launch, and that really is, I believe, because Game Pass has opened up a bigger audience. There is some inherent risk in there, but the job of Microsoft Studios is to go first, and to really be that lighthouse.
“When you think all the way back to the very first Xbox: Halo as a shooter–it’s almost hard to believe now, but at the time, there was all this debate about whether shooters would work on console. ‘How can you possibly play a shooter on a console? Are you going to be able to have the internet? Multiplayer, how does that work?’ And yet Halo took the risk and was there first, really made it work, and it was obviously a great success.
“So when you think about balancing those priorities, the thing we’ve got to remember and that we’ve got to orient to is that’s our job. Our job is to sort of be there first, and I sit in the same meetings in the same rooms with folks who are the leaders for Game Pass, for Mixer, with our hardware engineers, and we all collaborate very closely. One of the advantages of being part of first party is that we have access with them and we have the ability to influence those decisions.”
The balancing act is not an easy, and the coming year will show how well Booty is going to be able to execute on his plans for coordination and expansion. But whether or not it’s ultimately successful, Microsoft is going to have some exciting announcements in the next few years.