X019, the annual Xbox fan festival, is currently running in London at the Copper Box Arena, where I caught up with Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg. He’s currently general manager of games marketing at Xbox, after holding multiple roles over the years. Greenberg has been around since the earliest days of Xbox, “back when there were only about 20 people working on the console.” We spoke about X019 and Xbox itself, the teases for PlayStation 5, and what went wrong with Scalebound.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Rich Stanton, Kotaku: You’ve said there are about 15 studios under the Xbox Game Studios banner. Is that figure still accurate, and does it include publishing deals as well as ownership?
Aaron Greenberg, Xbox: Yes, it is. We’ve more than doubled our internal teams over the last year, and we’re now at 15 internal studios. That includes our publishing group that works with external teams to make first-party games. For example, with Dontnod and Tell Me Why, it’s a first-party game.
Kotaku: Bleeding Edge is a big departure for Ninja Theory. Was that project already underway when you acquired the studio?
Greenberg: Yeah, it was a project they had well into development. What you find with a lot of these studios is there are actually different creative leads within one studio. So people see Hellblade and Tameem [Antoniades]—he’s the creative director on that, he’s off working on his next thing, or multiple things, which we haven’t talked about yet. But then Rahni Tucker, who worked on Devil May Cry, she’s been working on this with a great team. So we’re obviously very supportive of that.
Obsidian’s another great example—big team working on Outer Worlds, then a smaller team working on Grounded. They say, “hey, we’re working on a Honey I Shrunk the Kids survival game,” and we’re like wow, I wonder what that’s like, and then how can we support it. And there are teams there working on other things. It’s fun, it’s exciting, the amount of creativity and the amount of different types of games we’re gonna get. … They’ll be very unique and different from your traditional Forza or Halo or Gears that we make in our internal studios.
Kotaku: Game Pass has become such a focus for Xbox now. Is this because you can’t compete with a marquee first-party title like last week’s Death Stranding, and so offer breadth?
Greenberg: We try to do both. I’d say for us, Gears 5 was a marquee title, biggest Gears we’ve ever made. I think it ended up with an 86 Metacritic, so, critically acclaimed, we’re very happy with that title. At the same time, we want to support new things. So what Rare’s doing on Everwild, or Dontnod on Tell Me Why, these are all perfect for us.
We’re listening to our fans, and we know they want us to bring more games and more content from our first-party studios, and that is a big part of why we went out and grew our capabilities there. The fact we now have 15 teams working on many projects… that pipeline of games is bigger than anything we’ve had in the history of Xbox. So I think you’ll see in 2020, we’ll have our biggest year of game releases. The great thing is if you’re a Game Pass member, you’re gonna get those the day and date they come out.
Kotaku: Xbox was big on “games as a service” at the start of this generation, but seems to have rowed back a little now. Players are sick of that model in games that don’t fit it.
Greenberg: Yeah. [laughs] Listen, I think the whole industry is on something of a learning curve there with games as a service. For us, we empower our creative teams to go and make the games they want, and so, hey, I think it’s great Rare wanted to create Sea of Thieves and do something new with the “games as a service” idea, and we fully respect and support them in continuing to do that. But it’s also OK for a game to just be a game—to have a beginning, a middle, and an end—and I think The Outer Worlds and Wasteland 3 are great examples of that. We’ll continue to support teams who want to do that.
I would never underestimate the power of fans and fan feedback in this, and development teams listen to those folks, so I think we’ll see that pendulum swing back into more of a balanced place. It’s great for us to show a lot of new games at something like this, and among these new titles you can see not everything’s being built as a service. But that said, with some it does make sense, and we’ll continue to support those and support the fans playing those titles.
Kotaku: You’ve been at Xbox for almost two decades. When Xbox first came onto the scene, it was a lot clearer who your competitors were. What’s the competition now?
Greenberg: The way we think about the competition is definitely changing. I think really we think about gaming as a community, as an ecosystem. There’s a set of people who just want to buy a console and play on a console, and we want to make sure we delight them and give them a great experience.
But really, it’s how can we give people more ways to play—whether they want to play on console or PC, or only PC—and we want to bring our games to them. Then there’s the fact we have two billion gamers around the world that play games, and most of them don’t own a console or have a PC, but have a mobile device. So that’s why we’re pioneering with things like Project xCloud in India next year, so people there will be able to stream and play games that traditionally they wouldn’t have been able to experience without buying one of our devices. So that’s exciting.
Kotaku: Ironic that Xbox’s strategy is about leaving the ‘box’ part behind.
Greenberg: [laughs] I don’t know, we’re really just trying to give people more ways to play. And I think what you’ll see is, there’s a large bunch of people who love and want console gaming, and we want to iterate there. It’s the same team that built Xbox One X that’s working on Project Scarlett. Yes, we’ll have great graphical performance, but things like speed will be a big factor with integrating the SSD. We can support increased CPU, higher framerates, so 120 FPS, having things like DirectX raytracing that’s never really existed on a console. To put all that in the hands of developers will just bring a whole new set of console game experiences.
But we’re also excited to be supporting things like Age of Empires and bringing Age 4 for PC gamers, or the Flight Sim franchise. We want to build a large ecosystem of games and content, but the key ingredient for us is keeping that community all connected. So when we bring our games to Steam… as a gamer what store you buy the game in should not dictate who you play with. So if we can unite the gaming community across devices and across stores, and we think that’s a possible thing, then that’s a positive thing and a good thing for gamers.
Kotaku: It wasn’t so long ago Microsoft regarded Valve as a major competitor rather than a partner.
Greenberg: Valve are our neighbors; they’re just down the street from us, they’re in the same town. I mean, we’ve had a great partnership with them, it’s been really exciting to be working with them. I think the first big title we worked with them on was Halo: Reach and the Master Chief Collection, and we’re doing a lot of really exciting integration there and they’ve been big supporters. … It’s great to have Age 2 be there now. With Gears, they were great supporters as well.
I think it’s been an evolution for us. I think we’ve shifted to being really player-centric. With a decision, we think: “Is this decision best for us, or is this best for the gamer?” When you put the gamer first, you make a different set of decisions. So letting people decide where to buy their games, but also, the key for us, is we want to allow that gamer to stay connected. Bringing a game to a store and closed ecosystem where they couldn’t play with others wouldn’t be the best thing for gamers, so being able to do that with Steam in an open format has been a positive thing.
Kotaku: Sony has been teasing aspects of the upcoming PS5. Anything you see there worry you?
Greenberg: Not really. We’re more customer-obsessed than competitor-obsessed. I think Sony has built a great business, they have a very strong brand and a strong presence and we have a lot of admiration for what they’ve done.
Equally, we feel proud of the fact that we’ve built the world’s most powerful console, I think we’ve grown now our internal studios so we have one of the largest if not the largest internal studio teams, and we’re gonna continue to innovate with things like Project xCloud. We’ll innovate with different varieties of games—you’re seeing us grow our partnerships with Japanese developers and Japanese creators with things like the Yakuza series, things like more Final Fantasy games on Xbox Game Pass, the entire Kingdom Hearts series on Xbox. These are all from us listening to fans and dedicating time to fulfill those projects.
Kotaku: We often hear that line from Xbox: “The world’s most powerful console.” Do you ever have second thoughts about that strategy? Because Nintendo’s success suggests the wider market doesn’t really care that much about power. There’s a segment online that will always scream blue murder about 4K or whatever, but in reality consumer technology has reached a level where it’s good enough that many are happy with something like the Switch.
Greenberg: I think it depends on what type of games you want to play and what type of device you’re on. There are different segments of customers who want different things. So people who have invested in a high-end 4K TV and really want a very powerful product, I think it does matter to them. They’re trying to decide “Which third party game do I buy?” “Where do I play Call of Duty?” Or whatever their favorite game may be. Knowing that the game’s going to look and play better on Xbox One X, I think does matter to that person.
Listen, the Switch is a great device, we love it, we have Switches, and having that as an on-the-go gaming device, you’re right, I think that’s not a platform where the resolution matters as much. And that’s okay too. I think [there’s] a different set of customers, and also different devices and different use cases where people prioritize different things. I think that’s okay. You’re right that there’s many cases where it’s fine. Games have to be great, ultimately. They have to be fun, they have to be engaging, and sometimes they’re visual showcases, and sometimes they’re not. I think that’s what kind of makes the industry so distinct from others.
Kotaku: With regards to what you were saying about partnerships in Japan, what went wrong with Scalebound?
Greenberg: Listen, I worked with that team there, with [director Hideki] Kamiya-san, and I would say the best way to describe it is… sometimes you put all the perfect ingredients into a recipe, but it just doesn’t turn out the way you hoped. Even with people who make movies, this happens sometimes. Hopefully it doesn’t happen a lot, but this was one of those cases where it just wasn’t working out to be what we hoped it would be. But we still have deep admiration for them as a team. There’s a reason why we signed them and went to work with them, and we can hopefully maintain a good partnership. Unfortunately not every game, every project goes as planned in this industry, but hopefully that’s more of a rare exception.
Kotaku: It’s rare to see a project so far in development cancelled, isn’t it?
Greenberg: There’s actually… well, it depends on the phases. I would say there’s this early pre-prototype phase where it’s just ideas. And in that case, you get a lot of ideas, and you almost design these ideas to fast-fail. Then you get out of that phase and into the pre-production phase, which is like, okay, now we’re really trying to scrub up what this game is going to be. And then you’ll start to narrow the chances that these things are going to become more and more real.
Then you get into production, that’s when you really start working at scale. After that point, rarely are games cancelled. It doesn’t mean they aren’t—and I only have my perspective from my years working with our internal studios, but I think if you take the right approach with the right creators and do the right amount of research involving the community when it makes sense, to help shape the game when it makes sense, you know—generally those projects don’t get cancelled.
Kotaku: One of the things that X019 shows is this Xbox focus on itself as a brand outside of the games, outside of the consoles. Why do you put on this show?
Greenberg: I think this is genuine to who we are as a team and a culture. I think the fact that we love our fans and love spending time with them, we want to deeply engage with them—that is true to what we believe in as a team. I think the fact that we see somebody like Phil Spencer that’s on social media, listening and engaging with fans on a regular basis, I think that is something that makes us uniquely different from some others in the industry.
That is why we do this. We do it for our fans, and this is a huge global celebration; it’s great. Last night I was here until midnight, until they literally shut the venue down. I was just talking with fans, meeting with fans. It’s just great, and as a marketer it’s really helpful as I get to ask, what did you like, what did you think, what are the things we should be doing differently? And people are honest, and it’s really motivating.
We work so hard as a business, so to see the joy that gaming brings to people’s lives, the positive effect that gaming can have on the world, is also exciting. Meeting couples that met through gaming, or meeting people that maybe never met before and played online, until they come to an event like this. It’s pretty cool, it’s something that makes our industry really neat.
Rich Stanton is the editor of Kotaku UK.