GDC 2014: Microsoft’s Phil Spencer on Mojang Making Him Cringe, The Muscle of Microsoft & Paid Alphas
Written Saturday, March 22, 2014 By Dan WebbView author's profile
The Microsoft as you know it today is a very different beast to the one that roamed the planet eight years ago. Since the launch of the Xbox 360, Microsoft has had to change its rigid business plans to support developers who have made their mark on the industry in other sectors, such as the PC.
Speaking at the Game Developers Conference, Head of Microsoft Studios, Phil Spencer, acknowledged that the company is willing to change and adapt its approach to facilitate a new era of games development.
How they got there wasn’t straightforward though, and Microsoft and Spencer learnt a lot from working with World of Tanks creator, Wargaming, and Minecraft studio, Mojang, who both had obvious concerns from the off.
“The fundamental thing going in was, ‘We’ve come from the PC space with our games and we’ve built these franchises into huge successful franchises in the PC space and we’re interested in console, but we’re not sure you console guys get it…’”
“So you kind of start from a fundamental, just trying to build trust with someone that is going to rely on you as a platform holder and as a partner in bringing their games to market. I’ll start with Mojang and the relationship around Minecraft, which both I’m incredibly proud of and it’s great to see those guys in the success they have.
“They built a massive franchise in Minecraft, and it’s evolved even from the time we started working with them, with updates and contact packs. But the fundamental concern is, ‘Do you guys understand what it means to be a PC game developer?’ which I’ll say as somebody who has been at Microsoft for 26 years, made me cringe cause we’re the Windows company, but I think it was still a reasonable question given where our focus had been.
“That was just building a relationship with them over time and being thoughtful about how we treat their franchise and their customers that they have. So, there was just a ‘Do you get it?’ and then there was the questions about update cycle, price point… things that they wanted to see us do was marketing, because most of those games, when you think about the marketing that was done when Minecraft originally launched, there wasn’t a marketing plan for it. Same thing with Wargaming, so when we were talking to them, “Hey, can you bring the things that traditionally come from the console space and help make us more successful on console as we bring our PC-from-the-ground-up methodology to console?”
“So there was some, I would call it learning, but there was some muscle that we had that they wanted to see pushed. The most important thing that we learned was around how the business model can work, one in terms of update cycles, but what I think they both found is the power of something like Xbox Live – that when you have a homogenous service that all of your consumers login to, with a marketplace where everyone logs in, there’s payment instruments associated.
“World of Tanks is doing incredibly well on Xbox 360, everyone can look at the Minecraft numbers. They’re, I’ll call them almost ridiculously successful on 360, and it’s been a great partnership. We’ve learned a ton from working with those two teams.”
This is just the start though, and Microsoft need to adapt even further if they are to keep up with the demands of not only the consumers, but the developers too. On the subject of paid alphas, which Spencer called a “religiously charged topic,” Spencer had more than a few words to say.
Spencer admitted that the traditional console model is changing, and the fact that developers are trying to fund themselves – through paid alphas or Kickstarters – is something that Microsoft has recognised as part of the evolution of the traditional publisher model.
“I think there’s an area of evolution that us platform holders will go through this generation, of helping developers fund their games – socially as well. We don’t really have that in place on consoles today, you do in some other places.
“In order for some great diverse content to exist, and it not turn into just simply a bunch of consumable small games, it’s going to be important that us as platform holders think about how you let gamers invest in things that they want to see built, so that developers have the funds to bring those things to market. And paid alphas is just one of those mechanisms.”
It’s not all plain sailing though, as Spencer says it’s also important to protect the consumer who thinks they’re buying a finished product.
“You would need to be clear to the consumer, to the gamer,” stated Spencer, “That these are things that are in a different state than the things that sit over there. You wouldn’t want to mislead anybody.
“The plan’s not in place today, but me, as somebody who’s in the decision making as to what the platform is about, we see this as something that’s pretty critical to us unlocking over the generation of this platform for allow the best games to happen.”