Xbox's Phil Spencer on Game Pass, Steam and the Epic Games Store

On Monday, the day after the Xbox E3 briefing where Game Pass for PC was revealed in full, I had the chance to sit down with Microsoft's executive vice president of gaming Phil Spencer. We talked about the company's approach to selling PC games, its relationship with Steam, and many other things. It's a long read, but hopefully it'll give you a comprehensive overview of where Microsoft sees itself within PC gaming as it stands. 

Plus, it was a good chance to ask about the current status of Age of Empires 4.

Samuel Roberts: You're very candid about your history with PC, like in your post last month...

Phil Spencer: You think I should hide it? You think you guys won't find it? [laughing]

I feel like you're paying close attention to how you're perceived. How much do you pay attention to the granular feedback of Microsoft's recent past on PC?

Being honest with you, I'm probably reflecting on more on how I feel as a gamer about our own performance as I am looking at feedback. Games for Windows Live, yeah, I've seen the articles, I've seen the comments, but also I play our games, I play our games on PC. I learned to game on PC. It's not hard to look at actions we've taken over the years through the lens of me as a PC gamer and say 'these are the things that are going to make me question your commitment or motivation to PC gaming', and that's just from my heart more than from a message board or something. I get both, obviously.

So what does Game Pass represent in the Xbox journey on PC?

A couple of years ago, more than a couple now, Microsoft Store and Windows launched, we had [UWP] games in there. One of the challenges I had in that time [was], what value were we uniquely bringing to the PC gamer? Between GOG and Steam and stuff there were solutions. If you wanted to go buy PC games, there were solutions for you to go buy PC games. If you were a developer who wanted to reach millions of PC gamers, there were stores that allowed you to reach millions of PC gamers, so it was a little bit unclear what value-add we were bringing other than another storefront.

After I gained a little more control, I guess, in what we were going to do in that space, sitting back in the team and saying 'okay, what unique value can we add in PC?', one was to continue to ship our first-party games on PC and on Xbox at the same time. Obviously we build those games, that's unique to us. And then Game Pass, as we watched over the last two years there's tremendous success we've had on console, and it's actually been healthy not only for the player but also the creator community in helping them reach new customers. We said 'okay, maybe Game Pass is something we could bring to PC'. We went out and talked and did some focus testing, and went over to my friends at Valve, talked to them about it, and say 'hey, how do people think, is this something we think would be additive to what is already there?'. We got a lot of 'yeah this is something you guys should go try', to build a gaming subscription that's working for you on Xbox to PC. 

What that meant was we were going to have to have a way of downloading and entitling games on PC, so we effectively were going to have to rework our store, which you can see from the Xbox app now. 

But then I didn't want people to think this was our attempt to go and push all the other stores out of the way. In fact, if you want to buy games from us, we want to give you a choice where you buy those games. So the announcement of Halo MCC coming to both Steam and our store was us saying you should be able to buy the games where you want to buy them. We want to make sure the communities are all connected, so we obviously had to work with Valve ensuring that regardless of where you bought the game you'd be one community of PC players together. But Xbox Game Pass for PC was really something that we thought that we could bring that was unique to that ecosystem.

Gears of War 5 - Gears 5

Gears 5 is among the new Xbox releases coming to Steam.

I wanted people to know that we want to make sure we're building games and supporting games that respect what the PC community loves

Phil Spencer

With Steam specifically, what's your philosophy around releases now? You've named some of the games that you're going to bring to Steam—is your long term plan to bring your back catalogue to Steam and every new game, or is it more selective than that?

I wouldn't say it's more selective. My expectation is that our games will be available on Steam. You can never say 'always ever', because then something will happen with rights in certain situations where something might not happen, but we have a really good relationship with the team over there. We go over and talk with Scott Lynch, Erik Johnson and Gabe a lot about the plans we have—it's a good, healthy conversation. So there's nothing in our plans that would say there's a reason we wouldn't continue to ship our games on Steam, and they've been incredibly supportive with us which I appreciate.

On the back catalogue, it's just work, honestly. It's just physics. Are we going to be back and—let's pick something, Fury3, I'm showing my age now—I don't know, honestly, on the back catalogue. It would just be about finding the right time to go do it—is there enough demand? I love what we're doing with [Age of Empires] right now, taking the Age franchise and bringing it back. I love what we're doing with Flight Sim, but obviously Flight Sim is a new build of that franchise which looks fantastic. The back catalogue is a good question. We don't have a great answer for you right now, but it's not out of the question by any stretch.

Is it more challenging for multiplayer-focused games like the Forza Horizon games and Sea of Thieves that are already released?

No, not really, we've done a good job working with Valve around the multiplayer systems. Let's pick Sea of Thieves because I love the game. I think Sea of Thieves might have been our most requested game to come to Steam, which I thought was interesting—after we did the announcement of Halo: Master Chief Collection. Halo was clearly number one! 

With Craig [Duncan] and the team at Rare, and the roadmap of what they're doing with Sea of Thieves, we'd obviously have to wrap it in the Steam installer—it's just work. It's not massive work, it's just work in going in and making it happen. Nothing to announce. I'll say Valve has been great to work with, so there's nothing in the relationship that would make it difficult for us to go do that. It would just be finding the right time to go do it. And do we really add something new? I guess that's just a customer that says 'there's no way I'm going to buy it from the store' that we have, and I'm not trying to manipulate what they do through that. The game is available for sale and we're saying 'hey we want to be big supporters of Steam', but I know some people very much want all of their library in one place and I understand that.

You mentioned wanting to get your games onto as many platforms as possible. Does that include the Epic Games Store and GOG?

GOG has some specific rules that they set, as does Epic right now, about what games we can put [on them], what other stores they can be available in. We're still in the situation of what I said in the blog post of, we recognise that there are other stores out there. We want to be supportive of the other stores that are at scale—because I can also spend a lot of time porting to a ton of different stores and not actually make progress with the games, which I think is the most important part. Focused on Steam because it's the biggest and they were very supportive of the work we wanted in order to make sure our ecosystem stayed connected. So always looking at the future, there's nothing against GOG or EGS that says we wouldn't be able to support those, but right now we're focusing on the two stores that we've announced.

Your strategy is moving towards more openness and choice. What do you make of Epic Games' exclusive strategy on PC?

We're taking an approach of, as you say, open, and going with the approach that people should be able to buy the games in the stores that they want. But I'm not...Tim is someone I've known for years, he's a friend of mine, he's a got a strategy that they want with Epic. I believe that Epic is working from what they believe is what's best for both them and their creators and their players, and I've never seen them act in a different way, so I'm not judging. 

We're picking a different strategy. I guess we'll see, in the end, what works. But I think all-up Epic has been incredibly important to gaming, not just PC gaming. The role that Unreal has played over the years in unlocking creators at all different levels, the games that they've built—I've got a ton of respect for them and they're trying to go do. They're taking their approach and I get it, and we're just taking a different approach.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.