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Originally published June 9, 2014 at 7:53 PM | Page modified June 10, 2014 at 5:35 PM

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New Xbox Chief: We’re Listening


Seattle Times technology columnist

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LOS ANGELES — The eyes of the video-game industry Monday morning were on Microsoft as the company presented an array of new games to boost its Xbox platform at a critical time.

Sony’s PlayStation 4 took an early lead in the latest generation of console hardware that debuted last fall, and investors have questioned whether the “new Microsoft” should be in the games business.

At the same time, the industry is rebounding on the popularity of the PS4 and the Xbox One.

A physical manifestation of Microsoft’s importance to the industry was the line of thousands of game developers, retailers and journalists who converged on USC’s basketball arena Monday for the company’s big-budget press event revealing what’s next for the platform and opening the annual E3 game trade show.

Although E3 presentations are known for their boastfulness, Phil Spencer, the recently appointed head of Microsoft’s Xbox business, had a relatively humble tone and repeatedly thanked players for feedback that led to a number of changes since the console launched.

Those changes include the recent decision to offer a less-expensive model without a bundled Kinect sensor, an accessory that wasn’t talked up at all during Monday’s event.

“We will continue to listen to you, our community, and will continue to make Xbox for you,” he said.

Despite the need for tweaks, the new generation of consoles is off to the fastest start in history, Spencer said, and games are the fastest-growing form of entertainment.

Console sales grew 120 percent and gamers spent $1.1 billion on packaged and digital games in April, according to the most recent report from NPD.

Since the Xbox One launched in November, buyers have used the system an average of five hours per day and combined spent nearly 1.7 billion hours on the companion Xbox Live network, the company said.

Microsoft didn’t announce any new hardware and kept the focus just on gaming, with no discussion of the console’s TV, video and social-media capabilities. Instead, Spencer showed off an array of games.

The breadth and striking realism of the games suggest that developers are finally getting their stride with the new game hardware. Microsoft and its developer partners appear to be bringing the platform enough variety and unique experiences to keep selling $500 consoles and $60 games despite the prevalence of smartphones and tablets running low-cost games.

Following tradition, Activision’s “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” was first up in Microsoft’s show, with a play-through of a section in which futuristic soldiers blast through a dystopian version of Korea in the hyper-realistic shooter.

Spencer said it’s been the best-selling franchise on Xbox, overtaking the Microsoft-exclusive “Halo” franchise, which gave the Xbox its early success with hard-core gamers.

Microsoft is trying again with “Halo” by releasing a new version, “Halo 5: Guardians,” next year. It’s also repackaging the first four editions in a box set for the Xbox One called “Halo: The Master Chief Collection.” The set also includes access to a multiplayer beta test of “Halo 5” and a live-action “Halo” video series.

The set, to go on sale Nov. 11, is intended to “rekindle memories” and introduce a new generation of players to “Halo,” says Dan Ayoub, executive producer.

Ubisoft came on stage to present “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” a version of the historic action game that is set in revolutionary France. It’s the first version of the hit franchise for next-generation consoles, and it lets players create four-person assassin teams with friends so they can together help take down the monarchy.

Talk with the chief

Less than three months after being promoted to lead Microsoft’s Xbox business, Phil Spencer was on stage at the huge E3 game conference telling the world where the platform is heading.

Before he was promoted by Chief Executive Satya Nadella on March 31 in a reorganization, Spencer led Microsoft’s internal game studios producing franchises such as “Halo” and the “Forza” racing games.

So naturally, Spencer used his E3 appearance to talk about games — games, games and more games. And not much else.

“I was the head of first-party studios. For better or for worse, they decided to make me the head of Xbox,” he explained in an interview afterward.

Spencer’s presentation also reflected the humbler Microsoft that has emerged under its new leadership, emphasizing the importance of serving customers and responding to their feedback rather than forcing technology choices upon them.

Here’s more from our conversation (a fuller version is online at seattletimes.com/brierdudleysblog).

Q: You didn’t talk about TV or video services at all. Does that reflect what Phil Spencer is interested in, or metrics — responding to what people are interested in?

A: We have to win the gaming customer first. There’s no question in my mind about that. I wanted to spend this show letting gamers know that Xbox One is the best place for them to play, this generation.

Q: You didn’t talk about Kinect at all.

A: I didn’t say controller, either. I think what we highlighted were the games and what was special about our art form and the space are the games that people love.

Q: Your presentation was relatively humble and talked a lot about responding to customer concerns.

A: It’s weird to talk about myself, but I think it’s me. Different leaders will lead in different ways. I’ve never been, I don’t think, the kind of guy that’s going to go up there and beat my chest about “I’m the smartest guy in the world” or “I’ve got it all figured out.”

Q: How do you think you’re doing now? You didn’t talk about numbers of consoles sold today.

A: Sony’s ahead of us. They had a great launch. I want to win. I took this job to win. I want Xbox customers who bought our console to think they bought the console that will have the right games to play and long-term support.

Q: How concerned are you about the status of Xbox as a Microsoft business unit, with the evaluation of the company that’s going on and the recent comment by Bill Gates that perhaps Xbox could be spun off? Do you have to win internally as well as externally now?

A: No, I talked to Satya before I took this job. He and I had a good conversation about Xbox, Microsoft consumer brands, how important Xbox is as a consumer brand for the company.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com



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