Xbox One Interview: "You've Never Seen a Holiday Lineup Like This Before"
Q&A: We talk with Microsoft's Aaron Greenberg about the Xbox One's holiday lineup and more.
Big things are happening for the Xbox One as it enters its third holiday season. This week sees the release of hugely anticipated sci-fi shooter Halo 5: Guardians, one of a string of exclusives that, together with multiplatform games, fills out what Microsoft is calling the greatest games lineup in the history of Xbox. On top of that, Microsoft is shipping a major Xbox One dashboard update in November that introduces backwards compatibility support for Xbox 360 titles and a lot more.
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Suffice it to say, Microsoft has a lot riding on this holiday as it relates to brand perception and sales.
To go deeper, we connected with global marketing boss Aaron Greenberg. Our interview covers a long list of subjects, including his reaction to the recent PlayStation 4 price cut, why Halo 5's new T-for-Teen rating may boost sales, the future of Xbox Entertainment Studios, why the momentum built this holiday will carry forward to 2016, and more. Check out our full interview below.
You've said time and again that you have the best lineup of exclusives this holiday; better than your past efforts and the competition. Whether or not Xbox is the number one seller, what is your biggest goal for the console this holiday? What kind of results would make you say, "Yeah, that was a great holiday!"
For us, it's really about delivering great games to our fans. I've been working in the Xbox business for 15 years and I've seen a lot of great games and lot of great lineups. But I don't think we've ever had a holiday like what we have this year where not only is Halo 5 coming, but we have Gears of War, we have Rare Replay, we have Forza 6, we have Rise of the Tomb Raider; just kind of a non-stop lineup of AAA exclusives titles. In addition to an incredible lineup of big, third-party blockbusters like Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Fallout 4 and Star Wars Battlefront. So if you're a gamer, you've never really seen a holiday lineup like this before. For us, we would measure success by game sales and people playing the games; and what people are saying about the games. Whether it's media reviews or what fans are saying. So far, we're seeing really high quality launches and good quality feedback from our first few releases and we expect that to continue through the holiday.
Is this a year you think we'll remember as fondly as maybe 2007...when we had Halo 3 from Microsoft and then games that would end up being huge like Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, and The Witcher? Is this that caliber of a year, do you think?
I think it is; and 2007 is definitely the one that we have referenced internally as a good comparison point. You get to that point where you get a couple years into the lifecycle; we have talked about when we launched Xbox One that we were going to invest in developing more games than we ever had in the history of our business. So as a first-party studio, we've made a lot of investements, and working with a lot of development teams to bring games to our fans; whether it's internal studios we own or publishing partners we work with around the world. So we're starting to see the fruits of that labor. It's just a really, really special year. It is the greatest games lineup I've ever seen at one place in time. I think Halo 5 is really trying to headline that lineup. This is the biggest Halo we've ever made, and I can tell you, as someone who's just played through the entire campaign, it's the best Halo I've ever experienced; the game is simply stunning. The campaign is richer. We've got a lot more things going on in the way the game and the levels are designed. Some really interesting things happening with verticality, in addition to all the innovation around multiplayer, with Warzone and of course Arena as well. I think fans will be delighted as they started to pick up the rest of the titles that are coming out this holiday.
Does Halo 5 need to be the best-selling Halo ever? What are your expectations internally?
For us, I think in many ways it feels like the most anticipated game of the year. Because Halo is something so special that people have waited years for a new Halo to come out. It's not something that happens every year [Ed. note: Greenberg was referring to new franchise installments, not compilation packs like 2014's Halo: The Master Chief Collection]. What's really so special about Halo, and people will feel it the moment they start playing the campaign, is just the richness of the universe and the story and it's very much like what Star Wars is to movies, Halo is to games. You have that special sauce--it's unlike anything else. So I think that whole universe and what the team has done at 343 with this game and I would stay staying true to what is Halo as a Halo fan, but also modernizing it and innovating it in some ways that I think makes the game a lot of fun to play and really engaging. We're optimistic that reviews and fans will respond positively, but of course, we'll wait and see how people feel about it. But personally, I've played all the Halo titles and this one definitely has something special that I've never seen before.
So one piece of houskeeping--we haven't seen Fable Legends discussed much in your video sizzle reels or on Xbox.com; I know it's a F2P game so marketing is a bit different. But is it still 2015?
We're working on both Fable Legends and Gigantic from the second-party side that are titles that we're bringing exclusively to both Xbox One and Windows 10. Those are titles that are developed as service-based titles, so right now they're sitting in closed beta. And we have a lot folks in there playing both those games. We're in a process of expanding that closed beta. We'll move those titles into full, open beta when they're ready. But we don't want to rush that until they're ready. So, at this point, we're staying in closed beta and we'll share more news when we're ready to. But it's been nice to see the initial reaction from fans that have been playing and a lot of demand from more people who want to get in and experience those games.
"What Star Wars is to movies, Halo is to games" -- Greenberg
Multiplatform games are a huge part of the Xbox One lineup this year; at the same time, a lot of these games are very multiplayer-focused and have social functionality baked into them. So if I have friends who are playing on a competing platform, why buy the Xbox version?
We have a rich heritage of building what we believe is a leading online service in Xbox Live. And what's really unique about our service is, not only your gamertag and your achievements and your friends and all your gaming history; gamers have really built that up over the years, and we want to continue to deliver and innovate on that service. And we're doing that this holiday in a number of ways. We think that will continue to be the place where people are going to want to play most of the multiplayer games. We're clearly delivering more exclusives than any one else this holiday. But if you look at what are the most popular games in the industry; well, today, the number one genre is shooters. So if you want to play Halo and Gears of War and Call of Duty and you want to play Battlefront, you're only going to be able to do that on Xbox One. And so, we feel like we'll continue to be where more of the core shooter fans continue to play. We'll continue to be where most of the multiplayer gaming continues to happen. And that will largely be driven by the lineup of games that we have.
Going off that, one thing that's different in the shooter category in Microsoft's lineup this year is that you don't have the Call of Duty DLC deal in place. I know you can't comment much on this since it's a publishing arrangement, but how are you filling that void; what are you doing to make up for that?
We expect Black Ops III to be a really big title for us this year just like it has been in previous years. The fact is that there is no content in Call of Duty that we don't get. The fact is if you want to play Call of Duty and Halo, you're gonna want to do that on Xbox One. If you want to play Call of Duty and Halo and Tomb Raider or Forza or any of the seven big exclusives we have this holiday, you're only going to be able to do that on our box. With that said, we know a lot of fans will play Call of Duty on other platforms. And we're sure Activision will have great success with the title. That's great for the industry overall. But our focus is making sure that our Xbox fans have all the best games, and I think we're delivering that with Call of Duty and the rest of our games lineup.
Microsoft, as always, has been a lot stronger here in the US than EU and Japan. When you're thinking about the global Xbox brand, what can you do to sway those markets this holiday?
I think games is what's really at the center of our strategy. So we're really focused on what we can provide to our fans. So for us, we've done that in a number of ways. One, we're delivering more games than we ever have. We're delivering the best games lineup in the history of our business. We know that whether you're a gamer in the UK or you're a gamer in South America or you're a gamer in North America, you're largely going to want to gravitate toward the system that has the best games and the most games. And so, we feel like we are delivering that on a global scale this holiday and we think that will definitely help us as well look at the business on a global scale. There will be a number of markets where we'll perform better and a number of markets where we won't do as well as a result of local market conditions.
But at a macro-level, these are game consoles, people buy these consoles to play games, and we think our focus on having great games will distinguish us and allow us to differentiate this holiday. It's the same thing with what we're doing with Xbox Live and our investments there; the New Xbox One Experience; basically re-launching an entirely new user experience to make the device faster, make it more intuitive. Tons of innovation there. The choice we're doing with bundles; we actually have 13 different console bundle options this holiday. Whether you're a fan of FIFA or you're a fan of Halo or Tomb Raider or Fallout or you're looking for a great value bundle you can get Gears and Ori and Rare Replay for a great value as well. So we feel really good about our value story and we think that will benefit us on a global scale as well.
"I think it'll be tremendous. It's another differentiator for us" -- Greenberg on Xbox One backwards compatibility
The other thing that comes into play this holiday is with Sony's announcement of their PS4 price cut. So how does that affect your plan, if it does at all?
For us, since frankly since we've been in this business, we've really focused on over-delivering on value. And so I think you saw that with the Xbox 360 generation where we focused on delivering great value for our fans; we continue to do that. We've been pretty aggressive both in pricing and what we're doing with our games lineup and with great choice of bundles. So we feel really happy with where we're at. And we think we'll continue to be competitive this holiday in our top markets with the offerings that we have. We know that games is what drives console sales, and we have games and we have the greatest games lineup in the history of our business. So we feel good about putting that out there and letting fans respond based on the type of games we're bringing to the market.
Another thing Microsoft really has going for it this holiday is backwards compatibility; what do you think that specifically brings to the table?
I think it'll be tremendous. It's another differentiator for us. We're going to be the only next-gen console delivering backwards compatibility. And we're launching that on November 12, we'll have over 100 games that basically come free of charge. If you own these titles, whether you have the disc sitting around or digitally, they'll automatically show up in your games library and, in many cases, more than double or triple your available games to play on Xbox One. I think it's a huge benefit. There's tens of millions of Xbox 360 fans that are out there that are still playing on Xbox 360 and they're waiting for the right time and the right reason to migrate over to Xbox One. Whether they've been waiting for the first true next-gen Halo with Halo 5 or if they've been waiting for solutions like backwards compatibility, we do expect to see a pretty massive migration this holiday of those fans. And being able to continue to get the value in the game purchase you've invested and take that value with you to Xbox One is the key idea behind that and we're excited to deliver that for fans.
You haven't yet published the list of all the titles that are going to be supported. Is that coming soon, and are we going to see; how are those conversations going?
The team is working hard on the list. I think we've been pretty aggressive to commit to delivering over 100 titles. We feel good about that. We've given a date when it will be available. But it's a process. So on the first-party side, with our content, we've said that we're doing everything we can to make our first-party games lineup available. And on the third-party side, we're making this available to all our third-party partners to participate. We hope that they will all participate. If folks do want third-party partners to participate in the program, they should ask them and encourage them to participate. We've built a platform, we've built a service for backwards compatibility that makes it easy; you don't have to touch any code; you don't have to do any work; it just simply works. So as we get closer to the date, we'll share more of those details, but we still have a bit of time before November 12, so I think people will be pleased with the titles that, frankly, just start that rollout. And then of course, we'll bring hundreds more over the coming months after we do the initial rollout.
That's the beauty of this whole program is that there's a whole list we all have of the great games we loved and played on Xbox 360 and can't wait to go play again. There's probably a list of great games that we didn't play that we were like, 'Man, I'd love to be able to go back and play those titles' And so backwards compatibility enables so much of that to come to Xbox One and integrate it into the service and be able to jump right from your Xbox One dash right into those titles is a pretty magical experience for folks.
Looking to next year, you have a big lineup of exclusives and third-party games as well; what is it going to take to carry Xbox One's momentum from 2015 to 2016?
I think what we showed at Gamescom, we talked a lot about what 2016 looks like. And I think you'll see that our sort of relentless focus on delivering great AAA blockbuster games doesn't stop. Of course, there's a massive lineup of more titles whether it's ReCore, or Crackdown 3, or Sea of Thieves, or Killer Instinct Season 3, there's just a massive list of games. It's going to be a pretty exciting year as we think about what we show at E3 next year, what do we start to share as we get out of this holiday, and our commitment to our fans to say if you invested in Xbox One, if you bought one at launch or you buy one this holiday, we're going to continue to deliver the best games lineup you can get anywhere and also great exclusive AAA titles whether it's Gears of War 4 for next holiday or some of the other titles I referenced. And we're going to continue to innovate on the platform; make the platform better and you've seen those innovations with backwards compatibility, you've seen those with the New Xbox One Experience, things like what we're doing with the Elite controller; I really feel like the team is firing on all cylinders and we're not going to stop after this holiday. Frankly, next year's lineup is as big if not bigger.
One of the things your competitor is doing this holiday is PlayStation Experience; that's a way for them I guess to end the year with people talking about PS and Sony. Does Microsoft have a plan to "answer" that in any way?
We've really been focused on our fans and engaging with our fans. We love our fans. And we have done a number of things to let them engage with that. At E3, we did a big fanfest, for the first time ever we invited a huge group of fans to come to our briefing and spend a whole week with us at E3. We do the same thing at Gamescom with our fans in Europe. So we've invested in some great fan experiences and we want to continue to do that. The reaction has been unbelievable. Our fan are just like family to us. For me, I love to interact with them every day on Twitter to listen to them. Whether it's YouTube videos or podcasts they're posting. But also to get to meet them in person. So we spend a lot of time, I think you see the head of our business Phil Spencer do the same thing, our whole team is committed. We listen to them, we have a Fan Feedback site and so we're focused on the fans and they continue to be at the center of everything that we do.
"We do expect to see a pretty massive migration this holiday" -- Greenberg on Xbox 360 players upgrading to Xbox One
Halo 5 is rated T instead of M. What kind of impact do you think the lower rating will have on an already successful franchise?
I do expect the T rating will help game sales. Core Halo fans are going to buy the game no matter what the rating is, and I think we've seen that. A lot of people were surprised that previous Halo games were M-rated sort of given the style of the game and the lack of real graphic violence and things like that. We're pleased with the rating, and so, I think if you look at how Destiny has done with the T rating, you look at how some of the other shooters have done with a T rating, we believe there is an audience of fans, particularly younger fans, and parents that don't let their kids play games that are M-rated. Being able to have a T-rated game will sort of put this game on the 'approved' list for a broader audience which we think is a good thing.
One of the things we're not hearing a lot about...with the closure of Xbox Entertainment Studios last year, you have still confirmed that the Quantum Break show is happening and the Halo TV show is happening, but what is the status of the show specifically? Is it coming this year with Halo 5 or is that something we should expect on a longer timeline?
So, there'a couple things that are happening there. For Halo we are creating The Fall of Reach, original animated series. And that is something, whether people have read the book or not, really has a rich story that I think fans will graviate to. As far as the longer-term, we have talked about a relationship with Steven Spielberg, who is executive producing in partnership with Showtime the Halo televsion series. But at this point, we're not really sharing any more news on that except for that relationship exists and when we're ready we'll talk more about that.
On the Quantum Break side, there is quite a bit happening there. That is built into the title. So what the team has done is something I think is super innovating; basically, they've taken two narratives and built it into one story. So there's this very personalized show that features people like Shawn Ashmore and Dominic Monaghan and Lance Reddick, etc. Depending on your choices in the game, will unlock different live-action experiences. These will play between different acts of the game.
So I think this is a very innovative way to evolve the way to tell stories. And there's going to be interactivity and traditional gameplay, but there's also going to be this really rich, high quality TV series-like thing that's built in as well. We're really, really pleased with the work that Remedy's doing and the way that game is shaping up. Remedy feels like this is going to be the best game they've ever made and the innovation there, not just in gameplay but storytelling, which is something they're well known for, is something I'm pretty excited about for sure.
One of the things that we've been hearing in the past year is when you look at Xbox One and PS4, sometimes it comes down to technical differences; Xbox One games don't always run at the resolution of PS4. What are you hearing from developers and do you think we're going to see gap narrow in terms of technical differences?
Yeah, we're seeing fantastic performance from developers on the hardware side. I think even some of the choices that we're making from the first-party side with performance optimizations [Halo 5 locking at 60FPS] Really deliver smooth, high-quality visual gameplay and experiences. Every year, more innovation is happening and people are unlocking more power from the box. For us, performance is definitely not the issue; what we're seeing is games continue to look and play and get better, which I think is a good thing. It's not just about the specs of the title, but also about the quality of the games. So we want to be the platform that has the best-quality games; that is what gamers are looking for when they're deciding what console do they buy or when do they migrate to the Xbox One. I feel like we're delivering the best quality games lineup that we ever have in the history of our business.
If there was one message you want to leave with prospective Xbox One owners, what would it be?
What I would say is there's a team here working on Xbox that is pretty a special team. What we have right now reminds me very much of what we had when we launched the original Xbox. There's just a magical feeling about this incredible focus on delivering AAA blockbuster breakthrough games; really innovating in all-new ways and online with Live and expanding that innovation into other things. If you own an Xbox One, it gets even better if you have a Windows 10 PC and being able to enable game-streaming and bringing a lot of the Live services to Windows 10 as well.
So for me, I've been through a lot of years and a lot of cycles and a lot of changes to our board, but I feel like we have a rockstar dream team right now working on this business that is committed to innovating and bringing great games and experiences to fans for many, many years to come. And so, I think you can buy, be an owner, and have confidence that there's a great team here that is doing this that loves our fans, that's committed to delivering to our fans who loves games and we're focused on the right things and I think you're seeing it as you look at our lineup this year and you look at where we're innovating and delivering next year as well.