Phil Spencer on the next Halo, Lionhead, and Windows 10 gaming

Phil Spencer may be the head of Xbox, but for Microsoft, Xbox doesn't simply describe a console anymore. It's Xbox Live, and Play Anywhere (Microsoft's new cross-buy plan between Xbox consoles and Windows 10), and a lineup of 'exclusive' games that Windows 10 PCs and Xboxes share. Based on the many Windows 10 games shown Microsoft's E3 conference this year, and Spencer's clear message that we should expect more to come, it sounds like the wall between Microsoft's PC and Xbox ambitions has fallen. They're part of the same plan.

We still haven't totally adjusted to the Xbox branding appearing on our PCs, and the Windows Store and Universal Windows Platforms have had rough starts. But the good news is that Phil Spencer knows, and he's candid about the troubles Microsoft has had getting back into PC gaming. We likely won't ever get our dream of every old Microsoft game being published on Steam—Spencer says they're looking toward the future, and we know the Windows Store isn't going anywhere—but it sure sounds like Halo 6 is a definite Windows 10 release.

We sat down with Spencer at E3 to talk about what this Xbox-ey future of Windows 10 looks like—with lots of Halo talk—as well as the recent cancellation of Fable Legends and the closure of Lionhead Studios. He had a lot to say.

PC Gamer: Almost every game you announced at E3 was for Xbox One and Windows 10. I got Forza, ReCore, Sea of Thieves...

Phil Spencer: All the games we talked about from first party, so [Gears of War 4], we also talked about Xbox Play Anywhere … Sea of Thieves, Forza, ReCore, Scalebound ... Halo Wars 2, Crackdown wasn’t in the show. But yeah, our first-party games—we’ve been saying this for a while. Was it last E3? Two E3s ago? I said we’re going to do more work on PC than we’ve ever done, and you guys all rolled your eyes at me, as you should, because you all go, ‘Games for Windows Live 2.0.’ And I get it. Every time we talk, I say—I think we last talked at Build?

Yeah, at Build.

I say, ‘We gotta earn it.’ I know our Quantum [Break] launch wasn’t the best launch we had. I thought the Apex launch, the Forza launch went well on PC. We’re gonna learn by keep doing. 

The Gears reboot was a little rough as well.  What do you put those teething problems down to? 

When we shipped the original Xbox, for better or for worse, frankly, we focused almost the entire organization on doing console games.

Learning to ship PC games again, honestly. I started when we were basically a PC developer. I go back to like Deadly Tide, Fury Cubed, all that, you know, Midtown [Madness], Age [of Empires] games. When we shipped the original Xbox, for better or for worse, frankly, we focused almost the entire organization on doing console games, and that’s 15 years ago, and the team’s built a lot of muscle of what it takes to build and ship console games. And we started a couple years ago—I’ve been in this job two years—so we started a couple years ago, I wanted to get back to PC gaming. I actually see our best customers—you’ve heard this from me a thousand times—are playing on console and PC. I’m not trying to push everybody to go play on both console and PC. There’s clearly PC gamers that don’t want to have anything to do with Xbox, and Xbox people who just want to play on Xbox and don’t play on PC. 

But a couple years ago we really said, ‘What do we need as Microsoft to think about or strength on console and our role with Windows to be a good platform provider for gamers on both?’ It started with DirectX 12, made sure that’s available on both, Xbox Live, spreading our ID program—our independent developer program—to both Xbox and Windows, things like cross-play, allowing people to play across networks. Rocket League is taking advantage of that, it’s cool. I think we showed Forza on stage playable from PC to console. We showed Minecraft playable iOS, Android Gear [VR], PC, everybody playing together. We showed Gears, I think in the theater here, co-op PC. And then it’s, ‘let’s go build games,’ but building games today takes a while, so when I say something a couple years ago people are like ‘wait and see, wait and see,’ and now actually it’s great to see the games lineups actually starting to match what we’ve been saying for a while.

We’re still going to learn. You talk about Gears, Quantum was another one that wasn’t our best PC launch—

That’s from a developer that has a history of making good PC games. 

Yeah, everybody involved, I think, Remedy said the same thing, we’ve said the same thing, I wanted to do a better job with the initial launch of Quantum Break on PC. It wasn’t a motivation thing. I wouldn’t stand up and talk about things like Xbox Play Anywhere or show a full lineup that’s coming to Windows if I was going to try to short on our support there, and not be all in. We will make mistakes going forward as well, it’s part of being, I think, human. But I’ll say our motivation is to do a great job on PC, and a great job on console. As I said, I know a lot of our best customers play games in both places, and I want to be there and support them in both.

In terms of that push for unification, I’ve seen you asked probably more times than I can imagine about why Halo 5—there’s that discussion, should that be on PC, would the next version of it ever be on PC? And I think your answer, without wanting to put words in your mouth, has tended to be ‘some games fit one platform better’ and that kind of thing. But I’ve always had the sense that realistically, to fight a war on another front against Sony in the console market, you are going to have to retain some stuff just for console.

I want to make sure this is clear. I’m not about putting content only on console to manipulate Windows gamers to go buy an Xbox. The reason somebody wants to go buy an Xbox—or I’ll just say a game console, yes I’d love if they bought an Xbox—is they want to sit 10 feet from their television screen with a controller in their lap looking at a television playing a video game. It’s a different experience from playing on PC. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just different. Halo 5 absolutely could be played on a PC. There’s nothing about that gameplay mechanic that doesn’t work.

It’s a quite popular genre on PC.

[Laughs] Yeah, totally. And we put Halo Online on PC, like we were doing some free-to-play work, investigating how things were—we’re bringing Halo 5 Forge over to PC. Fundamentally the issue is, ‘Do we look forward with Halo or do we look backward?’ Our plan going forward, absolutely, I want to support—we’re doing Gears [4]. I got Gears coming on Windows. So it’s, ‘Do I go and take the game that’s six months old and try to bring it over to PC?’ We talked about things that happened like with Quantum, which were games that changed later in their development cycle to think about a new platform, and it’s just more difficult then. Because it’s not all about genre and control, there’s some engine and other things. Or do we look forward?

The nice thing about Halo Wars 2 is from the beginning when we originally thought about the game, before we even signed Creative Assembly to build it, we said, ‘We’re going to ship this thing on Windows and Xbox.’ So from day one, it was something we were targeting for both platforms. So honestly the answer with Halo 5 is, I can go take last year’s game, rework it to go on PC, or I can have 343 look forward in what they’re gonna go do. You could say I’m cheating a little bit by doing a half thing with putting Forge on PC, because we kind of have the tools working on PC, to see what happens, but this is what we do with Forza, with Apex. I said, ‘This isn’t a full Forza game. Going forward, we’re going to bring our Forza games to PC complete.’

The way you’re talking then, a hypothetical Halo 6 that will happen at some point in the future, there would be no ideological reason within Microsoft...

Not at all!

Of like, 'we need to retain this.'

I’m just going to let you decide where you want to go play.

No, that’s what I wanted to make sure I corrected the answer on. And, I’ve said it more than a number of times, I get the snarky console people, ‘Thanks for putting your games on Windows so I don’t have to buy your console.’ But I actually think the console experience is about the gameplay environment and how I play, and where I want to play. What we’ve said with Xbox Play Anywhere is we’re going to support you in both places. You don’t have to buy two copies of Gears of War to play on your PC and your console, your saved games move back and forth, co-op stuff moves back and forth, you can play with people—cross-play, cross-buy, all that stuff supported. So I’m just going to let you decide where you want to go play.

Let me ask another question you’ve probably been asked 500 times over the course of E3 and won’t enjoy. I’ve probably read three or four different long form pieces about Lionhead and its last days, and Fable Legends. And one of the interesting points to come out of that is the suggestion that there were a number of buyers for the game in its in-development state but that you guys wanted to retain the license. Is that accurate or no?

The fact that we want to own Fable is true. I think there could be a future in the Fable IP. And, yeah, I’ll want to continue to own that. The truth that there was a lineup of buyers ready to buy Lionhead is not true. I mean, there were some—here’s a little bit of a different way of looking at it. I worked with Lionhead since the time we acquired them, the team there, Peter [Molyneux] who’s obviously not there anymore, the leadership of that studio. I used to live in London, I spent a lot of time down in Guildford at the studio. Closing a studio sucks. It’s not something that I look forward to, especially a studio that I’ve been around such a long time, but any time, I don’t want people to lose their jobs. So if somebody came in and wanted to retain the studio and the people there in order to go forward with it, and really had the funding to go do that, I’d be totally supportive of that. You know, somebody who’s coming in and trying to maybe take advantage of a fire sale situation or something, that’s something different. You know, the thing I want to do is have the right—you know, the UK actually has good laws around disclosure of, ‘Hey, what’s going to happen with the studio,’ the consultancy period, and all that stuff that happens. So I wanted to be very transparent with the team there and what was going on. I saw the same articles you saw, afterwards, and I understand people’s frustration in—

Did you recognize how some of that was characterized by their sort of test in terms of being pulled in different directions, in having to make a game that was triple-A, but also one that had this sort of new business model. I seem to get the sense that different bits of Microsoft were pulling them in slightly different directions, and they felt frustrated by that.

The frustration I completely appreciate, especially when the studio gets closed, then the frustration kind of is going to hit, a culmination. Game development always goes through its own pulls and pulls, just because of the natural creative process. We were trying to do something new with Fable Legends, which was take a console RPG franchise and see if we could make something more service based and free-to-play with it. The fundamental issue we ran into, and the articles actually allude to this but I don’t think it actually portrays it as much as the reality as it was: the players and retention that we had of people playing the game, it wasn’t working the way any of us wanted it to. And the articles say that.

So then I’m left in the end, or we are as a leadership team, with the decision, do I launch something that I know isn’t going to delight the fans the way we want it to, or do we make the harder decision to not launch it, and try to think about where we can deploy the resources elsewhere to see if these other things, get behind things that seem to be working. That’s a tough part of the business in managing the portfolio, and the human element of that is tough, and the creative decisions. It’s a difficult thing. But the fundamental issue, I would love to have Fable Legends out, in so many ways. It was a DX12 game, a cross-play game, like it ticked so many of the boxes that we’re talking about right here. But I also know, creatively it wasn’t delivering on the gameplay and the stickiness that it needed to, that it would be a momentary feel good and something and I just didn’t want to do that. It doesn’t mean every game we’re going to ship is going to be 90 rated, like we’ll ship games that miss the mark, but we kind of knew this one wasn’t actually hitting the metrics we needed.

And it’s an expensive decision we made, in the end, to develop it so far and then stop. But the other decision for us would’ve been to ship it, and then if I ship it I feel like I’ve got to go support it, for a while, because it’s not like you launch a game like that and it doesn’t work, so two weeks later you say ‘OK no longer,’ because people are going to invest. It’s a little different retail, but when you’re talking about a service-based game. So we were trying to make decisions we think were right for the customers who would be coming in. I know we I get a lot of, ‘Hey, just release it and let us play it,’ but you can’t release a service-based game and just let people play it.

Well they could play it, right, yeah.

Yeah, it was available for many many months in beta. And I don’t disparage anybody at Lionhead for what we were trying to go do. I played a lot of the beta myself, it was a beautiful game, but sometimes you just try to do things that don’t work exactly, and that’s OK. That’s part of the creative process. 

So what does working—you’re obviously on this unification journey between your console business and...

Yeah, you keep using ‘unifying,’ I don’t want to use that, because I’m not trying to unify. Like, I think console...

I guess when we see the Xbox brand used across both that feels like unification for us.

Oh OK, OK.

Or it feels like a desire for unification.

Where I’ll push back on unification is I’m not trying to turn console into PC or PC into console. What I think about is connecting. So as I’m sitting on my PC I’m connected to my Live community, when I’m on my console I’m connected to the same Live community.

So can you tell me what success for that connection looks like. You mentioned you’ve been doing it for two years, what in like another two years down the line, what would dreamland be for you, in terms of like, the commenters on this article, they can look back and go, ‘Well, Phil delivered exactly that, and I’m never going to complain and we’re delighted.’

So, every quarter Microsoft actually announces what our Xbox Live monthly active users are. And that is the gauge of how well we’re doing. Because why are people actively engaged on Xbox Live? Because we’ve got great games to go play and we’ve got a great platform to go play them on. So, it’s different than ‘how many consoles did I sell,’ it’s different than how many dollars flowed through the store. The top-level metric I look at, and the company aligns to it, in the Microsoft quarterly earnings they announce the Xbox Live monthly active users. Because the only thing that drives monthly active users is people actively playing games in our network. Like they get on, they might be playing games, connecting to their friends, communicating on any platform. That is the absolute health of all the work that we’re doing is how many people are connecting and playing on our service on a monthly basis.

But more experientially, from the user’s point of view, is it like, every game or the most significant releases you guys put out from first party come out concurrently on both systems, and are bug free and 90 rated. Is that success?

Oh, absolutely. You know, I will say, I guess, more soulfully, ‘Are people enjoying what we’re doing?’ Right...

Are people happy? Is anyone happy?

I want to put out games that millions of people love.

[Laughs] No, because you and I have both probably played games that weren't 90 rated, or played games that were 90 rated, and we scratched our heads, so ratings are what they are. But I want to put out games that millions of people love. I do want them day and date on both platforms. I want you to feel like if you want to play on PC, you want to play on console, it’s your decision where you want to go. I want you to feel like you have connection to your social graph on Xbox Live wherever you are, whether it’s on your phone, your PC, your console, you’re just freely moving back and forth. Like I said your progress is always with you, your friends are always with you, your content’s always with you. Our new controller that we ship is Bluetooth, you can use your same accessories back and forth as you move. It’s really about putting you at the center of your gaming experience, and building around you.

I had another question about Forge, I wanted Forge on PC since Halo 3, and I think...

That’s why we did it. [Laughs]

Going back to what you were saying about being forward-looking, maybe it’s the next Halo game that comes to PC or something, is Forge right now built in such a way that it could—is it only ever going to work with Halo 5? Or is that something that could work with a future game?

I love that question. I won’t give you a great answer, other than to say you’re exactly in the middle of the kind of discussions that Bonnie, and Josh, and I—the leaders of 343—and I have. We could go and just say OK, go port the thing that we did, or let’s think forward about what parts should move forward. That’s why we focused on Forge. It’s a great creative opportunity because the tools are better, creative on PC than they are on console. We wanted to allow you to create multiplayer matches for yourself on PC which you can go do, we wanted you to be able to push those Forge maps to console, and then you’re asking about future capability, ‘Hey, could this be something that actually allows me to create content for the franchise going forward?’ I’ll say I love that question, and that’s the kind of thinking and discussions we’re having with the studio now. Which is just a direct resource trade-off on, “Hey, should we go and do anything in the past?”

Thanks Phil.

PC Gamer

The collective PC Gamer editorial team worked together to write this article. PC Gamer is the global authority on PC games—starting in 1993 with the magazine, and then in 2010 with this website you're currently reading. We have writers across the US, UK and Australia, who you can read about here.