The push toward Xbox original content might just mean good news for games

Learning from the past.

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In 2012, Microsoft began building an internal production company--now called Xbox Entertainment Studios--in a move designed to bring original video content to home consoles via Xbox Live. Fast-forward to this week and we finally know what that team has been up to now that Microsoft has lifted the veil from its upcoming slate of programming.

If you haven't taken the time to look at the shows that Microsoft is working on, it's worth a few minutes to catch yourself up. I say that not because there are any jaw-dropping exclusives or stunning announcements. No, these Xbox Originals amount to a curiously eclectic hodgepodge of programming with no real theme tying them all together--at least aside from their vaguely male-oriented subject matter and the promise of interactive features.

I'll admit that my first reaction was to peg this as the latest example of Microsoft's recent lack of direction, a symptom of a corporate behemoth that just can't seem to make up its mind about what the Xbox is supposed to be.

But there's also another way to look at this. It's the idea that Microsoft is taking a very careful and calculated approach toward original video, using experimentation to see what its audience likes, while simultaneously building a broad portfolio of production partners and content creators down in Hollywood. And that might just spell good news for its gaming efforts.

A shot from the Atari excavation in New Mexico.
A shot from the Atari excavation in New Mexico.

Consider the sheer diversity of these shows. There are the requisite Halo adaptations, of course. These come in the form of Steven Spielberg's previously announced miniseries as well as a "digital feature" produced by Ridley Scott. But then you've got an unscripted series that explores the culture of street soccer; an adaptation of a Swedish sci-fi series about robotic servants; and a documentary series whose first episode focuses on the recent Atari excavation in New Mexico.

And those are just the projects that have been approved for production. There are an abundance of projects in earlier stages of development, including a detective thriller from Warren Ellis; a showcase for upcoming comedians hosted by Sarah Silverman; and a stop-motion animation series from the creators of Robot Chicken.

It's a wide assortment to be sure, and one that invites plenty of interpretation. A recent article published on Re/code certainly underscores my initial reaction, that this is Microsoft at its most scattershot. "Sources paint a picture of a disorganized studio that struggles to close deals and lacks a fully fleshed-out business model," the piece states. "This inability to execute has turned off potential studio partners, they say, complicating the process of securing premium content."

But let's say that Microsoft really does know what it's doing here. Let's say that this is, in fact, a measured approach meant to broaden its relationships with big players in the entertainment industry.

That would be an awfully far cry from the chest-thumping bravado that led to the demise of the Halo film all those years ago. In an excerpt from Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood published on Wired.com, author Jamie Russell details the cocky approach Microsoft took to licensing its wildly successful first-person shooter franchise. It began with actors in full Spartan armor delivering a fresh new Halo screenplay to Hollywood executives, but with one major caveat: they would have only 24 hours to decide whether or not to make an offer. It was essentially a timed auction, a proclamation that if these studios wanted the rights to a Halo movie they would have to fight for it.

But the circus didn't end there. Microsoft also filled the licensing deal with financial terms that were practically unheard of in Hollywood.

Above: Neill Blomkamp's test shots for the failed Halo movie were later salvaged for a promotional feature called Landfall.

"Microsoft, a global software giant used to getting its own way, wasn’t about to kowtow to Hollywood," writes Russell. "It knew Halo was the jewel of videogame movies, the one that could be a true blockbuster hit. According to Variety, Microsoft wanted $10 million against 15% of the box office gross, in addition to a $75 million 'below-the-line' budget [a term referring to costs before actor and director fees] and fast-tracked production."

Even though Fox and Universal joined forces to secure the rights to a Halo film, Microsoft's financial and creative demands were simply too much for the various parties involved. Eventually, the deal fizzled out, and the movie was dead in the water.

Now here we are in 2014, with Microsoft having inked deals with all manner of production companies. Suddenly the Xbox has become a vehicle for a diverse assortment of original series, only a fraction of which are based on Microsoft's intellectual properties.

In that same Re/code article, head of Xbox Entertainment Studios chief Nancy Tellem remarks on the general un-Xbox-ness of these shows by stating, "We've found, over the years, that the best shows come from the creators telling us what their vision is--as opposed to the other way around."

All of which leads me to believe that maybe--just maybe--Microsoft's Xbox unit has developed the sense of humility it's going to need in order to get itself back on track.

All of which leads me to believe that maybe--just maybe--Microsoft's Xbox unit has developed the sense of humility it's going to need in order to get itself back on track. I'll admit that may just be wishful thinking, but there does seem to be a recent shift within the company in terms of how it views itself. Where Windows and Office were once titans of the computer industry, the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets has put Microsoft on the defensive. In 2007, then CEO Steve Ballmer was quoted by USA Today as saying, "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance." And now, within the past few months, Microsoft has done the unthinkable by releasing a version of Office for Apple's iOS devices.

So what could this mean for Microsoft's blunder-prone games division? After all, Microsoft's recent gaming struggles are numerous, ranging from the PR disaster that was the Xbox One launch to the way indie developers are now flocking to the PlayStation in droves. But with the recent appointment of Phil Spencer as head of Xbox, there's an opportunity to start anew.

To his credit, Spencer appears to be saying all the right things. "Xbox One is our most important gaming asset to date. [We want to] make sure we're completely focused on that gaming customer, that core gaming fan," Spencer told Kotaku after his promotion from GM of Microsoft Studios. "Making sure of that, that's what I'm going to bring to this position is a focus on gaming for Xbox One."

While those initial claims may seem to contrast with this week's announcement of Xbox original programming, Microsoft has reiterated that these shows will not detract from that focus on gaming.

"It's also probably worth saying that none of the activity we're pursuing is coming at the expense of any of the investment that's been made in the platform overall or gaming overall," said Xbox Entertainment Studios executive vice president Jordan Levin in a recent Polygon interview. "There isn't shifting of resources away from gaming to this...there's nothing that's getting displaced in the process of what we're trying to build."

Ultimately, though, that's all just talk. If Microsoft is going to catch up with Sony, it's going to need to deliver on those promises. The first barometer will be this year's E3, where Spencer has promised a focus on games to contrast with its sports and entertainment-driven approach to last year's show. But E3 is just the first step. We need to see Microsoft follow through on those promises with games. Can the company secure exclusive titles beyond its own stable of existing franchises? Can it use the newly formed ID@Xbox partnership program to repair its relationships with indie developers? Can it admit not everyone wants a Kinect and sell a cheaper version of the Xbox One without that peripheral?

Those are questions we'll find the answers to as the year marches on. Perhaps Microsoft has developed the humility necessary to recognize its troubles with the Xbox One and will work to improve its place in the gaming world. Perhaps I'm reading way too much into a slate of programming that includes a show called Gun Machine. Either way, I suppose we'll find out soon enough.

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