In the run-up to this year’s Gamescom, two publishing announcements from Microsoft caught the eye: Gears 5 made a surprisingly late move onto Steam, just a few weeks before its release, while Microsoft also stated it was bringing 2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest to Nintendo Switch. First-party titles such as these rarely stray from their creator’s platforms and stores, so just what do these announcements mean for Xbox’s publishing strategy as a whole?
Microsoft’s GM of games marketing Aaron Greenberg makes it clear that these are exceptions to the rule, not a change of direction: “Going forward, all of our internal studios, and the new studios we’ve added, will be focused on making games for our platforms and we have no plans to expand our exclusive first-party games to any other consoles,” he says.
“People should recognise how excited we are with our internal development studios more than doubling. Those teams, going forward, will be focused on making games for our platforms. So while we know there’s existing commitments in place, take The Outer Worlds as an example, there was already a commitment to make that game available as a multiplatform title and we’ll continue to honour that.”
Such commitments are an inevitable outcome of the spending spree of acquisitions that Microsoft has gone on lately, but Greenberg is clear that they will end once those commitments are spent.
“Thinking about the next game from Obsidian, InXile or Ninja Theory, all those studios, just like our existing internal studios, whether it’s 343 or Turn 10, they’re going to be focused on making those games for our platforms. So we have no plans to expand any of those exclusive first-party titles to any other consoles,” Greenberg states categorically to us.
That said, we’re even more curious as to why an older title, Ori and the Blind Forest, is coming to Switch next week.
“Ori is built by Moon Studios, which is an independent, external studio. They came to us with a desire to bring the original Ori to the Switch. We thought that made sense, and we’re happy to work with them to enable them to bring that to Switch,” Greenberg answers.
We can only agree that the game is a perfect match for the hardware. However, going forward, Greenberg is keen to clarify this doesn’t set a precedent for the sequel: “Our plans with Ori and the Will of the Wisps is to launch it exclusively on Xbox One and PC.”
ALL STEAMED UP
While console platforms are one thing, the more open nature of PC stores is another, with Microsoft now happy to bring Gears 5 to a potentially far greater audience via Steam.
“We know there’s a big PC audience out there which may not own an Xbox and they want to be able to play some of our big IPs. And bringing Gears 5 to that audience makes a lot of sense,” Greenberg begins, speaking before the Gears launch, which the company later hailed as the “biggest launch week of any Xbox Game Studios title this generation.”
“Steam reaches PC gamers in a lot of markets that are traditionally not as console heavy. [Steam] has relationships with those customers there. It’s a very engaged PC audience and so to be able to bring a title like Gears 5 at launch to PC players in Eastern Europe, Germany, Russia and China, in these big PC markets, is a great way to reach a broader audience,” he adds.
However, Xbox was keen that this was done in a way that includes those new players in its larger Xbox and Gears community.
“We’ve always focused on putting the gamer at the centre of everything we’re doing,” Greenberg says. “When we think about growing the amount of people playing our games, we want to do it in a way where we support crossplay, cross progression, with people playing on the console and the PC together. So the community of people you’re going to play with isn’t determined by where you actually bought the game,” he states.
“We’ve been able to work with Steam so that we’re enabling that community to also be able to play across Windows 10 and console. It’s been exciting and we’re bringing Halo: Reach and The Master Chief Collection to Steam as well,” he reminds us.
But while Microsoft is happy to expand its reach using other retail platforms, it still believes its own offering is the best: “We’re creating a lot of choice; gamers can get [Gears 5] on Steam, buy it on Xbox, or subscribe and get it on Xbox Game Pass. Though, whether you are a PC or console player, we think that the best value comes from Game Pass.”
“The community of people you’re going to play with isn’t determined by where you actually bought the game.”
Game Pass’s offering just keeps growing, largely with signed content from third-party publishers at present, but that will increasingly segue into first-party titles as Microsoft’s ever-increasing legion of studios bring their next titles to the service – which in turn means more news that Xbox must find space to communicate.
“We have more than doubled our creative internal teams. We now have 15 studios within Xbox Game Studios. There’s so much news coming out of those teams and so many projects in the works, that we are able to go to every major event and major show and we feel like we can still really surprise and delight our fans,” Greenberg says confidently.
It’s still not quite there, though. At Gamescom, Microsoft showed elements of Gears 5 both in its own pre-show stream and in Geoff Keighley’s new official curtain raiser, Opening Night Live. It may have been effective in supporting a title about to hit retail but it wasn’t the kind of big announcement we were hoping for.
Greenberg explains the thinking: “We wanted to support both [streams] and with this particular Gears we’ve been saving some really big reveals for the show. Horde is a signature mode, and this is the biggest Gears the team has ever made, and so we focused on Horde on Inside Xbox and then we had the campaign trailer as part of Opening Night Live – in order to reach gamers who may not be so Xbox-centric, and to be able to share the campaign asset there was a perfect fit.”
It may be that Microsoft was just keeping its powder dry. Gamescom has long been a big show for Microsoft, as opposed to Sony for instance, but there the company announced a potentially bigger stage for everything Xbox in the form of X019, from November 14th to 16th, at the Copper Box Arena, part of London’s 2012 Olympic legacy.
Greenberg explains where its own event sits in terms of importance: “We think of both E3 and X019 as the big beats of the year. We unveiled a lot of big news at E3, and X019 will be another key event for us. We’re going to have a lot of surprises.
“We have a huge spring planned, so between this holiday and E3 next year we have a record number of games coming out, so that event will be the perfect opportunity to showcase all those,” Greenberg reveals.
The choice of London this year is directly linked with Microsoft’s expanding development stable, Greenberg explains: “London has always been one of the top global markets for us, and it’s the home of some of our best creative studio teams. We thought: ‘What a great place to invite friends from around the world to the Copper Box Arena!’ We’ve got the Rare team, the Ninja Theory team, the Playground team, all of the top British creative teams will be there with their staff.”
But despite doing its own event, Microsoft will continue its presence elsewhere: “We want to support industry events, we plan to be at the Game Awards in December as well, the big beats where gamers are watching and showing up, we want to be there. That said, it’s always fun to be able to create your own show, and our fans love that.
“It’s been in the works for many months, we’re already deep into content reviews, we’re planning out the show, we’re working with our internal and external content teams,” he replies when we ask about the timeline behind the event.
“It is going to be the biggest Inside Xbox show of the year and it hits during that peak holiday period. We’re excited to come back to London and celebrate with our fans there. We have a three-day experience, we want to welcome fans, families, people to come and experience all the great games we have on our platforms. Tickets will be ￡19 and all proceeds go to charity.”
With EGX moving to east London this year in October too, it looks like the industry will be spending a lot of time in the capital over the autumn. We’ll see you all there!