This morning, Microsoft sent a minor jolt through the Xbox 360 and PC gaming community by announcing a significant shake-up of its Interactive Entertainment Business executives. The biggest news was that Jeff Bell, corporate vice president of global marketing of the software giant's Interactive Entertainment Business, "has decided to pursue other opportunities outside Microsoft."
Speaking with GameSpot, Microsoft representatives said that the departure was purely a result of Bell's desire to "explore marketing outside the [game] sector." This sentiment was reiterated by Bell, who said in a statement, "The time is right for me to pursue my life's passion of consumer brand marketing and the creative and services that drive it. Coming from automotive, and now technology and entertainment, I am excited to expand to new industries and categories."
Bell joined Microsoft in June 2006 after working as vice president of product strategy for auto maker Chrysler. He is best known to most gamers for his appearance during Microsoft's presentation at the 2007 E3 Media & Business Summit, when he unveiled Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action for the Xbox 360.
Bell's exit wasn't the only change today. Shane Kim, head of Microsoft Game Studios since 2004, is also transitioning into a new role inside Microsoft. Though he will retain his title of corporate vice president, he will no longer run the first-party publisher, and will instead focus on "higher-lever strategic external partnerships" for the Interactive Entertainment division.
This morning, Kim told GameSpot that the kind of partnerships he could be working on might be deals with movie studios to put video content on Xbox Live Marketplace. He declined to comment on recent speculation that Microsoft is on the verge of announcing an agreement with Netflix to provide on-demand video content via the service, which boasts upward of 10 million users.
The new head of Microsoft Game Studios will be Phil Spencer, who until this week was the general manager of Microsoft Game Studios Europe. Based in the UK, he oversaw development of Fable 2 and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts at Lionhead and Rare, respectively. He also helped establish a first-party publishing infrastructure in what is now the world's second-largest gaming market.
At his new gig as general manager, Spencer will "oversee the creation of new, unannounced franchises." Though he would not reveal what said franchises were, he told GameSpot that he couldn't rule out the possible revival of classic PC Microsoft Game Studios real-time strategy franchises such as Age of Empires on the 360 if Halo Wars--the forthcoming sci-fi real-time strategy game from Microsoft-owned AOE creator Ensemble Studios--performs well. "We're in the process of evaluating the feasibility of such projects," he said.
As for other existing Microsoft Game Studios franchises, Kim told GameSpot that film director Peter Jackson's still-untitled Halo project is "definitely proceeding," Alan Wake is "coming along nicely," and development of the Forza series continues. He also emphasized the fact that, although Bizarre Creations was bought by Activision last year, Microsoft owns the Project Gotham Racing IP, and has no plans to let it lie fallow indefinitely. However, he wouldn't say when a fifth PGR game might be released.
Kim and Spencer also said that going forward, MGS' main mission will be to bring "exclusive hits" to the Xbox 360 and the Games for Windows PC label. However, the past year saw the first-party publisher lose one of its top 360 exclusives, Mass Effect, when its developer and IP holder BioWare was bought by Electronic Arts. The award-winning role-playing game has already been ported to the PC, and speculation is rife that EA may eventually bring the series to Sony's rival PlayStation 3 as well. Kim acknowledged as much, saying "platform support is up to third parties, so that's EA's decision."
When asked if Microsoft might move to acquire studios itself to ensure a steady stream of 360 exclusives, Spencer demurred. "We're always looking at opportunities," was all he would divulge. The executive also ruled out any major hiring or layoffs at MGS, musing, "I think we're pretty happy with the current size of operations."