Following Sony’s “State of Play” livestream earlier today, Microsoft jumped in with an Inside Xbox presentation featuring new content and services coming to its platform.
More games are coming to Xbox Game Pass. On Xbox One, Jump Force, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Lego Worlds are being added. On PC, Cities: Skylines, Saints Row 4, Bad North, and Dirt Rally 2.0.
The Xbox Game Pass app itself will be updated as well with improvements to the interface. More indie games will also be coming to Game Pass, including Genesis Noir, Lonely Mountains Downhill, and Demon’s Tilt. The rest of the lineup will be shown off in an ID@Xbox Game Pass video on September 26.
Additionally, Felix the Reaper, a comedy-puzzle game about death, will be available October 17, and will be available on Game Pass that day.
Project xCloud, the service that will let people play Xbox console games on phones, tablets, et cetera via streaming, will have a public preview beginning in October. If you’re in the U.S., the U.K., 0r Korea, you can apply today. Halo 5 Guardians, Gears 5, Sea of Thieves, and Killer Instinct will be the four games available in the preview. You’ll need a wireless Xbox One controller and an Android phone to try it.
xCloud is a distinct service from what Microsoft calls “console streaming,” aka using your own console to remotely stream games to your device. This, it said, is coming at a later date.
Four new characters and many other updates are coming to Gears 5. (The hosts also reminded players that if they want to unlock Batista as a character in the game, you have to do that before October 28 or the actor-wrestler will go “back in the vault.”)
Atlas, the pirate MMO that released into Early Access on Steam last year, will be arriving on Xbox One on October 8. Content will arrive simultaneously on Xbox and PC as Atlas is updated, making it the “exact same game on both platforms.”
New Xbox One X and Xbox One S hardware bundles will include Forza Horizon 4 and its Lego Speed Champions expansion.
Other trailers and footage shown during the livestream included Children of Morta (out now on PC, October 15 on Xbox One/PlayStation 4), Code Vein (September 27), The Outer Worlds (October 25), Afterparty (October 29), Tropico 6 (September 27), Ghost Recon: Breakpoint (beta this weekend, full game October 4), Hitman 2‘s Haven Island expansion (today), new DLC for Ace Combat 7 (September 25), and the new map for DayZ, called “Livonia” (coming soon).
Take a bag of potato chips—any brand, anywhere—and you more or less know what you’re going to get. Crispy, greasy salt and oil delivered via thin layers of starch, they make a mess of crumbs and grease, and they’re terribly delicious, extremely difficult to stop eating once you’ve caved into the first, and likely to cause a carbohydrate crash and a sense of regret. Potato chips are great and awful and we all know what we’re getting into when we open a bag.
So how would you review one? Do you tell people chips are awful for their health and break down why? Do you get into the ethical practices of various potato chip companies, perhaps? Or do you go all-in on the other end of the spectrum, singing the praises of the perfect snack food, one that isn’t as impressive as other snack foods but also isn’t trying to be gourmet cuisine? I mean, sure, gourmet chips exist, but we all know it’s the snack of the people.
Borderlands 3, Gearbox Software’s return to their most popular franchise, is a bag of potato chips. It’s the series that popularized the loot shooter genre, marrying first-person gunplay with Diablo-style loot and skill trees. You collect gun after gun with the same mindless, dopamine-pumping pleasure of popping chip after chip in your mouth. It is awful and wonderful and also white noise, an experience so commonplace and reptilian that you wouldn’t call it the best gaming experience you’ve ever had, but you’d be down for it if someone put it out in a bowl.
Much like a bowl of chips, it also leaves a hell of a mess when the party’s finally over.
The story in Borderlands 3 is the same as it’s always been in Borderlands. Once again, you’re a vault hunter, a mercenary/fortune seeker who shoots their way across the bandit-ridden wastelands of the planet Pandora. The hope is that, in all this shooting, you will find your way to a Vault, an ancient repository of rumored riches. (And, usually, there’s a big nasty being in that Vault, watching over it all.) This time around, you’re answering a call from Lilith, one of the hunters from the first Borderlands who has since become commander of the Crimson Raiders militia that fights to protect civilians from bandit hordes and corporate overreach (corporations have armies in Borderlands). Also, of course, they want to loot those sweet, sweet vaults. They’re the good guys, kind of.
Nipping at your heels are the game’s antagonists, Troy and Tyreen Calypso, twin siblings who have united all the bandits of Pandora under their cult of personality. They’ve also figured out that there are other Vaults on planets elsewhere in the galaxy. Your mission: Get to those vaults before they do.
As the Vault Hunter hero of this game, you get to choose between four characters, each with their own impressively elaborate skill trees filled with different kinds of abilities to level up. There’s Zane, the Operative who controls the battlefield with drones, clones, and barriers. Moze, the Gunner, can summon a giant mech to pilot and outfit that mech with different cool weapons and upgrades. Amara, the Siren, can deal elemental damage by conjuring magical arms. And FL4K, the robot Beastmaster, has tamed a number of wild creatures who fight alongside them. It’s a lot to dig into, and like the first several potato chips in the bowl, it’s absolutely delicious at first.
Too Many Guns, But In A Fun Way
Unlike the tactical realism of a Ghost Recon, or Destiny’s system of arcane perks that only serve to make their sci-fi creations better at shooting, Borderlands’ guns are toys. They’re garish in shape and color, digital creations that exist to solve digital problems. It’s the best.
Borderlands’ approach both side-steps and doubles down on the gun fetishism that comes part and parcel in video games about shooting by making it all one big crass joke: wouldn’t it be cool to have an arsenal of impressive and interchangeable dicks that could also file your taxes?
Finding a good Borderlands gun feels like cheating, like you found an endgame weapon 20 hours too early. My first legendary sniper rifle was an absolute beast of a weapon that fired three incendiary projectiles at once but only consumed one bullet at a time. I got it at the end of the game’s first act, and it remained a staple of my firefights right up through the credits.
This is the high that Borderlands offers, and it feels great, but like any high, it cannot last. The experience of playing Borderlands often devolves into a hunt for the next fix, and the longer it takes to get that fix, the more time you have to resent the game for not giving it to you. When you’ve tasted the high of an unexpectedly power-packed weapon, trying out more of the “normal” guns makes you feel kind of like a scrub, you know?
Granted, “normal” in Borderlands 3 is still pretty wild. When you have guns that turn into homing grenades, or crawling drone turrets, or bouncing balls that yelp “ow” every time they ricochet off a surface, you’d have to work very hard to have a boring firefight.
The game is built to encourage an endless search for the perfect loadout. What if I’m missing out on the coolest gun I’ve ever seen in a video game? I won’t know until I find it, so I have to keep playing. But am I actually enjoying this? Or just chasing the high? It’s hard to say.
Tucked away into the corners of Borderlands 3, I do find a lot to like. Its generous approach to sidequests, for example, rewards players with items but also with bespoke little stories. There are whole regions of several maps that you’ll only ever go to if you’re pursuing a sidequest. They’re like optional dungeons, there for those who want to do them, each offering something new to see along with a chance for more loot.
Borderlands3’s soundtrack, which rarely makes itself known, has the benefit of offering occasional moments of delight when you stop to notice it. Like Borderlands itself, it can occasionally blast up into garish and annoying territory, but more often than not, it’s a hidden gem, there for the finding. After I got clobbered by a giant sphere drone and tried to re-evaluate my loadout, I happened to notice a throwback club groove that sounds a lot like the chorus to Kiesza’s “Hideaway,” with a touch of the sax-and-dance vibe at the end of Japanese Breakfast’s “Machinist.” Over on the swamp-world of Eden-6, I paused to take in a bit of ambient music that sounds like a Kate Bush synth cover.
These are little grace notes that show some personality in areas where other huge games might phone it in. There are some musical ideas I’d love to groove to there, but the game quickly moves on to other ones, like the (admittedly pretty good) running joke about a fictional modern jazz act.
The Borderlands Tone
Borderlands 3 is marketed as a comedy, but I’m not sure that’s what it truly wants to be. It’s irreverent, sure. There’s a very South Park-esque “everyone sucks” vibe to the game’s comedic beats. It’s just that the target of every joke is too lazy or too late. There’s a scene making fun of hipster baristas, a character who’s supposed to be a version of The Room writer/director/weirdo Tommy Wiseau, and an achievement list with titles like “On Fleek.”
Even less flattering are the game’s many comedic asides that make light of casual misogyny even as they exhibit an awareness of it. There’s the man who purposefully misstates “bitch” instead of “witch” when referring to a villain who’s an actual swamp witch. Another character, after saying something that could be interpreted as sexual harassment, notes that he “definitely attended that meeting.”
It remains baffling and infuriating that the game continues to treat dwarfism as fodder for slapstick comedy, even though it has ditched an offensive term for little people that previous games used, replacing it with the made-up term “tinks.” Or that, despite this being an issue raised about a character in Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 has a white character appropriating African American Vernacular English. Or that this game prominently features Chris Hardwick reprising his Tales From The Borderlands role of Vaughn despite public allegations of emotional abuse (not all of the other returning characters have their original voice actors back).
While this is the garish shade with which Borderlands 3 colors itself, the game’s overarching narrative is more interested in telling a sincere story that feels like a last hurrah for the cast of characters that has slowly developed over the past four Borderlands games. (And yes, Tales From The Borderlands is part of this farewell tour.) Borderlands3 is casually and quietly inclusive, making it clear that a number of its heroes and villains are queer or nonbinary while also not calling too much attention to it. It’s a story in which the heroes are mostly women—women who lead and sacrifice and disagree and win. There are jokes, but the story delivers its stakes with a straight face, and bets that players will be delighted at which characters will turn, and who they will miss.
The bummer is that, much like its comedy, the drama of Borderlands 3 doesn’t really have a target it’s willing to show teeth to. “Corporations” in the abstract sense have always been the overarching villain in Borderlands games, but they’ve also been a target that Borderlands has always stood up to with the weakest of knees. It is hard, after all, to make clean hits at massive companies for trampling people underfoot in an amoral quest for profit when the heart of your game is wholly dedicated to selfish plunder.
The specific antagonists of Borderlands 3, Troy and Tyreen Calypso, also feel like missed opportunities. By making them shock-jock streamers who have amassed a cult following among the bandits of Pandora, Borderlands 3 gestures at the kind of unchecked influence YouTubers and livestreamers can have in our current media landscape, and how viral fame can also destroy those who it elevates. The bones of something compelling are there, but Borderlands 3 lacks any of the conviction necessary to deliver on it. Its themes are as poorly developed as its sense of humor.
It’s Still The Best At What It Does
Despite the proliferation of games like Borderlands in the burgeoning loot shooter genre, there still isn’t a big-budget game that does exactly what it does. It’s a massive offline Diablo-style first-person shooting game that can be joined at any point with friends, either online or on the couch. All of its serious competition—be it Destiny 2 or Warframe or The Division 2—come with a pretty big deviation, namely a required internet connection.
While the broad strokes remain the same, Borderlands 3 is a better Borderlands game than we’ve ever seen, notably in the way that it opens up the endgame. There’s the prerequisite new game plus that lets you keep your loot and skills to take on the story again, just harder and with better loot.
There’s also the new Mayhem mode, which allows you to go back into the world after the end of the campaign and clean up any side quests you have left, with stronger enemies and random modifiers that will buff certain weapons or enemy health, or debuff your stats. Maybe energy weapon damage is boosted while regular weapon damage is dialed back. Maybe your guns do more damage while your action skills do less. There are three tiers of Mayhem, each offering better loot in exchange for steeper modifiers. It’s a terrific feature that makes going back and cleaning up leftover side quests—which, as mentioned, are substantial—feel so much more rewarding.
Unfortunately, on a technical level, Borderlands 3 is surprisingly bad at one of its core features: inventory management. I’m not merely referring to the interface, although it is a bit too cluttered and throws so many numbers at you that your eyes will glaze over after several hours of comparing loot. The bigger issue is performance. On Xbox One X, the inventory screen stutters almost without fail. Sometimes there’s a barely perceptible lag, and other times it takes a full three to five seconds for your guns to load in.
This may sound like a minor quibble, but it’s a problem that’s magnified when you play in split-screen. The rest of co-op play works well enough, although the same technical issues that you may encounter in solo play, like lighting that doesn’t properly adjust when you go from indoor to outdoor environments, will persist. The real issue is the whole game grinds to a stop whenever one player opens up their inventory screen.
I don’t mean the game pauses when one player pauses. (The game only pauses in co-op when both players pause, which is a very nice feature.) I mean the frame rate drops to the damn floor and no one can move for a couple seconds once someone opens their inventory. Given how much of the game is devoted to inventory management, it’s enough to make you want to tap out after a single co-op mission.
I don’t know how vital couch co-op is to the Borderlands community as a whole, but it is one of the reasons why I’ve always kept a Borderlands game within reach. It’s one of the last holdouts in the big-budget shooter space that has held on to split-screen co-op in a world where it’s largely gone extinct (Gears 5 is another.). To me, it’s part of the reason I even bother with Borderlands.
So, How About Those Chips?
When a video game franchise has been around long enough, it establishes an identity in the public consciousness. That identity can become a defense against criticism. What did I expect, for a Borderlands game to not be Borderlands, with all the good and bad that comes with that?
Borderlands 3 has what its predecessors had: the corny humor that doesn’t always land, an unremarkable story, and an endless loop of replacing your loadout with a slightly improved loadout. It’s a relatively static experience in a franchise that hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last ten years. It is what Borderlands has always been, and everyone knows what that entails.
There’s room for it in your life, just like there’s room for a bag of potato chips in your pantry. They’re great for parties, or carb emergencies. They’re also unfulfilling, and don’t contribute much to your health. We call it junk food for a reason.
Like junk food, Borderlands 3 is an exercise in cheap hedonism. It’s not meant to take the place of a meal, but it still warrants criticism for being what it is, what it’s always been: a compulsively playable shooter with some good ideas and also some frustratingly retrograde attitudes. There’s enough good here to understand why you’d keep it around, but also enough troubling aspects that you could justify cutting it from your life entirely. But, even then, if you came across it at a house party, you’d probably take a bite.
After several delays, the Japanese-made Xbox One exclusive shoot-’em-up Natsuki Chroniclesis slated for a late 2019 release. The game was first scheduled for and 2015 release but has been delayed four times. In a blog post, the studio’s president apologized for the repeated delays.
Seamus Blackley, one of the key people involved in the creation of the original Xbox console, was going through some old stuff the other day when he came across an adorable piece of fan mail written 17 years ago by little Mitchell Riley. Realizing he’d never replied, Blackley decided to track him down and make amends.
First though, the letter itself, which is infinitely more wholesome than any of the correspondence developers must receive in 2019:
And now for the amends! With a little bit of detective work from fans, it turns out Mitchell wasn’t just still into his Xbox games; he was still such a Halo fan that last week he was at Halo Outpost Discovery, a show in Houston where he met the voices behind master Chief and Cortana:
That must be pretty cool for original Xbox/Halo developers to see something like this and realize that their console and game series are old enough for childhood fans to have become grown-ass adults in a way we normally only associate with companies like Nintendo and Sega.
As for Mitchell, his wholesome online adventures may soon be coming to an end; he only made a Twitter account to respond to Blackley’s search, and so is sure to find things are all downhill from here.
The episode spanned over an hour and a half, and while it was mostly full of new trailers for games we already new about, there were a few interesting bits of new information sprinkled throughout.
Here’s the full rundown:
Devil May Cry 5 is coming to Xbox Game Pass today, alongside Stellaris: Console Edition, while Age of Empires: Definitive Edition will be available on the PC side. Ape Out and Kingdom Come: Deliverance will get added on August 22, while Bard’s Tale IV: Director’s Cut will join on August 27.
Blair Witch will get added to Game Pass on both the console and PC sides when it releases on August 30.
Humans Fall Flat will be getting a free new level on both PC and Xbox One on August 27 (the game is also on Game Pass).
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition will release on November 14 on both Steam and the Microsoft Store. It adds better AI, 4K graphics, and a number of other improvements, including four new factions. Anyone who already owns the HD version on Steam will be able to get the new version at a discount.
Gears Pop! will be out August 22 on iOS, Android, and Windows 10. The Gears of War player-vs.-player strategy game was originally announced at E3 2018 as one of two new Gears spinoffs, the other being the XCOM-inspired Gears Tactics.
Ghost War, the multiplayer mode for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, will feature eight players facing off in two teams of four fighting in maps that appear to have storms closing in around them similar to a battle royale game. It’ll also have dedicated servers.
PUBG will be getting cross-play between PS4 and Xbox One in an update due out sometime in October.
There are two new Xbox One controller designs, one called Night Ox that’s camouflage and one called Sport Blue that has a subtle geometric pattern on the fins.
Empire of Sin has a release window of Spring 2020.
Microsoft is holding a fan event called X019 on the weekend of November 14 in London featuring the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, and other members of the Xbox team.
Metro Exodus’s The Two Colonels DLC is coming out August 20 (tomorrow) and will feature a big flamethrower for all those post-apocalyptic cookouts.
Microsoft closed out its stream by showing off Gears of War 5‘s horde mode, which will feature player ultimates this time around. Like in Destiny or Overwatch, players will have custom special abilities like going invisible, X-ray vision, and calling in airstrikes that they’ll be able to deploy throughout the match.
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) has announced that Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony will be required to implement new policies requiring the disclosure of all loot box odds for games on their platforms.
“I’m pleased to announce this morning that Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony have indicated to ESA a commitment to new platform policies with respect to the use of paid loot boxes in games that are developed for their platform,” Michael Warnecke, ESA’s chief counsel for tech policy, said earlier today at a workshop on loot boxes held by the Federal Trade Commission.
“Specifically, this would apply to new games and game updates that add loot box features, and it would require the disclosure of the relative rarity or probabilities of obtaining randomized virtual items in games that are available on their platforms.”
When reached for comment, the ESA directed Kotaku to a blog post on the organization’s website, in which the organization says the console makers are planning to implement this new policy sometime in 2020. It also states that many of the industry’s major publishers, including Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco, Bethesda, Bungie, Electronic Arts, Take-Two Interactive, Ubisoft, and Warner Bros., have agreed to implement a similar disclosure policy “no later than the end of 2020.”
When asked about the coming changes, a Sony spokesperson gave Kotaku the following statement:
“Sony Interactive Entertainment aims to ensure PlayStation users have access to information and tools, such as parental wallet controls, that will help them make informed decisions about in-game purchasing. We support industry efforts to disclose the probability of obtaining randomized virtual items, known as loot boxes, and are committed to providing consumers with this information for all games we produce and publish.”
Microsoft and Nintendo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The announcement came after Warnecke listed the other ways the video game industry has already attempted to self-regulate in the past with regard to loot boxes. It’s a topic that has come under increasing government scrutiny after it made headlines in late 2017 following the release of Star Wars: Battlefront II. While games currently include labels indicating whether they contain microtransaction purchases, and video game consoles also have parental controls that can be implemented to limit how much money children spend in-game, the industry is clearly feeling pressure to go further.
Warnecke explained that these new policies are meant to provide “a comprehensive approach to ensuring consumers get the information they need so they can make informed purchasing decisions when it comes to paid loot boxes.”
Another potential change could come from legislation from Congress, like that which was previously proposed by Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri. In May, Hawley introduced a bill in the Senate that would try to ban minors from obtaining games containing microtransactions and loot boxes.
While requiring games sold on their platforms disclose loot box odds would be new for the major console gaming platforms, it’s a policy already being implemented on mobile. Apple announced that requirement for games on iOS in 2017, while Google made similar changes only this past May.
After the recent surprise release of Doom 3 on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch I felt I needed to finally accomplish something I had been putting off for too long. It was time to load up Doom 3, start a new game and finish this thing. I tried before when I was much younger and fear stopped me dead in my tracks. Now I was older, braver and ready to kill all the demons and get this monkey off my back.
But first, let me take you back nearly 15 years ago when a young Zack discovered news of Doom 3 coming to Xbox. I had enjoyed playing the original games on my PC and was excited to play another Doom and this time, I would get to do it on my Xbox. That sounded great to me! Not long after this, I received issue 44 of the Official Xbox Magazine and it had a demo on it of Doom 3. The disc had a few different demos, including one for the now-forgotten Darkwatch. But the one I was most excited about was a small demo of Doom 3. At this point, May 2005, Doom 3 had been out on PC for about a year. But I didn’t have a computer that could run and so this was my first taste of Doom 3. I was ready, or so I thought.
Back in 2005, it wasn’t easy to just watch gameplay footage of a game. Especially if, like me, you had dial-up internet still. So I went into Doom 3 basically knowing very little about it beyond the trailer on the demo disc, which looked a little scary.
The demo was terrifying.
The way the game built up the dread and atmosphere was very effective, especially if you were 13 years old and alone in a dark room in the middle of the night. I remember feeling more and more paranoid as I played. Something was watching me. I always felt that sense of something hunting me. Eventually my panic and fear grew too large and I turned the lights on and quit the demo. I came back later and ended up finishing the demo, but I was scared. What would the full game be like?
The answer was: Even worse!
Playing through Doom 3 was hard for me. It scared me enough that after 30 mins or an hour I would end up having to take a break. Walk away from it. Play something else or go outside or watch a movie. Anything to escape Doom 3.
The darkness really scared me. In the original Doom 3, you could only use your flashlight by lowering your weapon. So to see in the dark areas of the game, you would have to go in defenseless. If something did pop up you would then have to drop your flashlight and fire blindly into the inky darkness, hoping whatever you were shooting would die before it got to you. This rhythm of combat caused me to get more and more anxious and afraid as I played, which is why I needed frequent breaks.
Eventually, I made enough progress that I reached Hell. Then I found myself surrounded by screams and yelling, fire and brimstone and deadly demons. Oh, and at this point in the game, Doom 3 takes away your weapons and only gives you some of them back over time with limited ammo. 13-year-old Zack had enough. After pushing through to this point, losing my guns and being surrounded by pain and suffering was too much. I shut Doom 3 off and never returned.
As the years went by, I would think about playing it again but never really did. When the BFG Edition was released in 2012 I messed around a bit with it via Gamefly, but too many other games distracted me from playing it more. Honestly, my brain was also holding me back. Some part of my mind still remembered the pain and trauma the game caused and was keeping me away from it.
So with the announcement of new ports and after years of not playing Doom 3 or finishing it, I was ready to beat this damn game. I bought the new release of Doom 3 for PS4, loaded it up and began. 15 years later, now equipped with the BFG Edition’s flashlight mod, I found Doom 3 fun to come back to and not as terrifying as before. When I reached Hell again last week, this time as an adult, I found myself getting nervous. A weird residual fear of the last time I was in Hell in Doom 3, that my brain couldn’t shake. But ultimately, it wasn’t as bad as my younger self made it out to be.
A few days ago I finally beat Doom 3. (That last boss fight wasn’t hard and also was really mediocre!) I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I now feel inspired. Maybe I’ll go back and beat Silent Hill 1? That game also scared me too much the first time I played it. Or I might go back and finish up some other scary game from my teenage and childhood years.
Besides, these days I’m more afraid of the real world and the assholes in it than some demons or weird monsters.
E3 2019It’s time for the biggest gaming show of the year. We’ve got articles, videos, podcasts and maybe even a GIF or two.
Whatever the strengths of the Xbox platform, it’s long lagged behind Nintendo and Sony in terms of homegrown, exclusive video games. There have been highlights in its history and even some stellar games of late, such as last year’s Forza Horizon 4, but the Xbox One era has been rough. There have been prominentcancellations, disappointing sequels and games that under-delivered given how long fans were waiting for them.
In recent years there have been hints of a coming turnaround. While Nintendo and Sony have turned out Game Of The Year contenders such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and God of War, Microsoft has slowed its development cycle for Halo games (and possibly Forza as well), and it has nurtured unusual exclusives like the zombie strategy adventure State of Day 2 and multiplayer-centric pirate game Sea Of Thieves with lengthy, game-improving post-release support. It’s also been building and buying game studios, announcing five such additions last E3, two more in the fall and adding longtime indie Double Fine to the mix this month.
With all this in mind, I spent some time at E3 last week asking Xbox boss Phil Spencer about the quality of the platform’s games. What follows is the final part of my E3 interview with Spencer, in which we approach the topic from a few angles and discuss the conditions for the people making those games as well. You can read the two previous parts of the interview here and here.
(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Stephen Totilo, Kotaku: This is the first year without a new Forza that I can recall. Why?
Phil Spencer, Xbox: One of the nice things I loved about [the E3 2019 Xbox briefing]—at least they would be more in my head than they would be in public—was the things that we didn’t show. I think about of the 14 first-party games, 12 are shipping in the next year. We were really able to focus on what’s coming now, which I think is awesome. And then I think about the studios: where was Initiative? Where was [Forza Motorsport studio] Turn 10? Where was Playground’s second team?
It was nice—and this hasn’t always been the case with our first-party line-up—where we’ve had the ability to not show everything all the time. In the case of Forza, I want the team, just like we did 343 [Industries]. We gave them time—we did, what, four Halos in four years?—giving them an opportunity to really think and have a creative impact when they launch. Turn 10 is similar. I want to give them time to think through their plans. I love what they do with Motorsport, but you’ve got to be able to listen to your studios when they need time and they want to focus on more things. And as you have more content, you’re able to do that.
Totilo: In 2007, when you were head of the games portfolio, a younger Phil Spencer told a younger Stephen Totilo, about the games from first-party that “It is very important that we pick games that matter. We’re going to focus on fewer games and make sure those games are stars when they come out.” For a long time I really did look to first part of Microsoft and saw a consistent high level of quality and, honestly, I feel like it diminished a little bit some time in the last several years. I look at the first-party operations of all the platforms and I see a lot of Game of the Year contenders from both Nintendo and Sony and I would say, bluntly, looking at recent years from you guys, Forza Horizon stands out, but not so much Crackdown, not so much Halo 5—which I think many people thought the campaign was weaker than others. Gears 4 was solid, but it wasn’t outright ‘the best Gears ever.’
So, you have good taste in games, you play a lot of games, I don’t know if you see it quite the way I see it, but do you see that there has been a challenge in terms of high-quality game creation with you guys and, if so, have you figured out the remedy to get past that and make those stars again?
Spencer: I think quality of first party is very important, so I’m totally with you there. We did reach a time in our first party where the number of games and studios that we actually had and were investing in put a lot of pressure on everything that we were doing. And it became more difficult to manage a portfolio when you kind of needed everything at any point to hit the date that it had picked three years ahead of time at the very high level of quality.
The support that we’re getting now and we’ve had over the last couple of years has allowed us to invest in our first party, adding eight new studios and really create room for us to focus on quality. I feel good about what Rod [Fergusson]’s done [at Gears studio The Coalition], what Bonnie [Ross] has done [at Halo studio 343 Industries], what Alan [Hartman] has done with Turn 10, and what Helen [Chiang]’s been doing with Minecraft.
Totilo: You’re speaking to what you’re privy to with where they’re going with games I haven’t played yet…
Spencer: Yes, even in the past, Rod building a studio with the Coalition and Bonnie spending the time bringing Master Chief Collection to PC. It’s not about PRing you about whether all the studios are great or not. I think what I see now with Matt Booty running first party and the number of studios that we have and the number of games in development is: I don’t feel that I need to announce things at a wrong time in order to win some rating system somewhere. I feel like I can give teams the time they need in order to get the right creative positions in place so they’re building the game that they want to build. And when things require more time, we can afford to make sure that we’re giving things the right amount of time.
The other thing that I would add as [Xbox subscription service] Game Pass continues to grow, it’s been an interesting way to watch our whole dynamic of, ‘What does it mean to engage customers with that game?’ Sea of Thieves is a good example. At launch, and I read all the same feedback everybody else did, was: ‘Where’s the other half of the game?’ But I would also say it’s a game where what it is today wouldn’t be what it is if we had just waited another year and kept it to ourselves. It is a game that was literally created with the feedback of the community, and how you manage that through the traditional lens of how people think about what a game launch means is interesting for all of us.
Totilo: There’s been a lot of talk and we’ve done a lot of reporting about labor in video games and what game developers go through to make a good game. What are your expectations of the people that work under you and are making games in terms of the extent to which they should or shouldn’t crunch, what is a fair thing to ask of your employees… do you have guidelines?
Spencer: Yeah. Literally yesterday was my 31st anniversary at Microsoft, when I first walked in as an intern. The reason I say that is we want to create an environment where people can have careers, which means they feel fulfilled and rewarded with the work that they do, that there’s career progression. But the sustainability of the work-life balance is critical, and I would use that word, because I don’t know if there’s one equation: Okay, you clock in at this time and you clock out at that time? But when you think about the number of hours that people work, when you think about a sustainable career where I say, ‘I can see myself doing this for 20 years,’ we spend a lot of time polling the culture we have inside of the organization. Because it’s not just how many hours do I work. It’s, ‘Do I feel like I work in an environment where I can show up as my true self? Where I can do my best work?’ All of those things are critical.
We’re a very verbal group. We communicate a ton with ourselves, sometimes that communication goes out and people wonder what’s going on. But I love the fact that we have the communication with ourselves about what does it mean to work there and to work in our environment? And so with Matt and all the studio heads we’re very focused on creating a sustainable environment, so that people can feel like they put an investment in the company. What they get back, they feel like they get a good return on that, and that we create a sustainable workload that they can carry for years and years.
Totilo: Do you think it would be beneficial if game developers unionized?
Spencer: You know, I’ve been asked this and I always answer and I feel kind of silly in the way I answer, but honestly I have no—I’m not any kind of expert on a union. I’ve been at Microsoft since I was 20 years old. So I don’t know. I don’t hear that inside. Just being honest. When I’m with my teams that…
Totilo: You don’t hear the desire?
Spencer: No. The things I get are, ‘Hey I want to make sure I can do my best work here. I want to make sure I have the right tools. I want to make sure I have the right environment to work. I want to make sure I have more space.’ Like these are the things that we work through. And I see it. You guys report on it. Other people report on it.
Totilo: Yeah, you don’t want the Kotaku story about one of your studios, right?
Totilo: We don’t have one planned.
Spencer: I’d rather have the conversation internally, because I think it’s an easy way to do it. And I think we have the environment that we could. And it’s not a conversation that I hear inside of our halls. And as I said, I don’t claim to be an expert of what it means to either work in a union… so if you ask me, ‘Do I think it would make things better or not?’ I honestly don’t know.
I feel like the things that we focus on that make us a great place to work—we do a monthly Q&A where I stand up in front of the whole organization and people can ask anything—those open forums of communication seem really critical to us building the right culture for our teams internally. We’re always listening about what we can do to make our teams more productive.
[A public relations rep indicates we have time for one more question]
Totilo: Do you want to tell people anything exciting about Fable?
Spencer: [laughs] I love that Fable came to [Xbox One backwards compatibility]. I want to make sure that when we talk about things to come, whether it’s Fable or not, that the team feels very solid about what they are doing. I will harken back to … I can go through my battle scars. Marvel MMO. Anybody remember us announcing a Marvel MMO? We didn’t even have a team that was signed that would do the Marvel MMO.
Spencer:Codename Kingdoms, which eventually… [laughs]
Xbox PR rep: We don’t have to go through the list.
Spencer: [laughs] I’m honest. Running a studio organization and making sure we’re talking about games at the right time, when we know what we’re trying to build—I’m not making any comment specifically about Fable; it’s about anything in the portfolio—that we know what we’re trying to build, that we have a good sightline on the quality that we’re shooting for and some idea of when it would come out.
I know I get called out about being too conservative and holding too much back. But the thing I love about our show [at E3] was 60 games and the first party games—I could tell you when those all were shipping, and I can play those games, most of them here, and can put my hands on them and make promises. And yes, Halo is one of those games, but Halo is somewhat spiritual in its association with Xbox and the fact that they’re coming out at the same time [as the new Xbox Scarlett] is at least special for me to highlight. And I love that people are interested in franchises that we’ve had in the past.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate combines Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold into one complete package. There are rumors that it will also include certain Windows 10 games and access to Project xCloud game streaming when it’s available later this year, but that hasn’t been confirmed as of yet. While it’s been available to select Xbox Insiders for a few weeks, anyone can subscribe to the service for $1 a month right now.
Keep in mind that the $1 price is just for the first month. After your trial expires, you’ll be charged $15 a month. In a few months when retailers like Amazon offer discounts on Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, you should stock up so you don’t have to pay $15 a month. We’re noticing similar discounts on Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold right now. A special introductory offer of $20 for three months should also be revealed at E3 2019.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate also seems like it gives better perks. For example, some leaked promotional images say that Gears 5: Ultimate Edition will be included with the service. The regular Xbox Game Pass gives you just the standard edition it seems. If this trend continues in the future, with the top-of-the-line editions being available through Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, that’s by far the best deal.
The biggest question on peoples’ mind is what happens to your prepaid months of Xbox Live Gold or Xbox Game Pass when you join Xbox Game Pass Ultimate? When you join Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, Microsoft will apply any prepaid time you have on Xbox Live Gold or Xbox Game Pass towards Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. You can only get up to 36 months so don’t go crazy trying to buy a decade-long subscription. For example, if you have three months of Xbox Live Gold and three months of Xbox Game Pass already on your account, you’ll have a total of seven months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate before you need to renew.
Xbox Game Pass gives you access to over a hundred games for one monthly fee. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate also adds Xbox Live Gold to the package so you can play online with your friends. You can either get a one-month trial for $1 from the Microsoft Store.