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Microsoft's Phil Spencer on HoloLens and Uniting Xbox and the PC (Q&A)

"I would expect games to play the same role in HoloLens' evolution" as they did for mobile phones, Spencer says.


After years of focusing its gaming efforts on the living room with Xbox, Microsoft is returning its gaze to the PC, where the rise of digitally delivered games on services like Valve’s Steam has sparked renewed interest in the platform.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, Xbox lead Phil Spencer elaborated on the company’s plans to provide tools that will make all the software developed for Xbox and Windows 10 part of the same “universal app platform.” As a result, Windows 10 game developers will be able to tap into the social and video-sharing features of Xbox Live that started on consoles, and it will be possible to stream games from an Xbox to a PC or tablet over Wi-Fi.

He also announced that his team would develop games for HoloLens, the augmented reality headset announced by Microsoft in January.

Re/code caught up with Spencer after his talk to get more details. The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: What would you say is the goal of bringing Windows 10 and Xbox development together?

Phil Spencer: For developers, games are an art, a passion, and you want to reach as many people with your art as you can. We built this Xbox ecosystem that we’re very proud of and stay committed to, but you look at what’s going on in the PC space, there’s millions of people there. And when we talk to our customers, so many of them are avid PC gamers as well, and then we get the feedback that they’re using one ecosystem on-console and another off-console. From a gamer’s standpoint, it really is about staying connected to your games, to your friends, wherever you are. Your books, your songs, you don’t worry about losing them as you move from device to device; a lot of that promise, we can bring forward for games as well.

At the Windows 10 event in January, you gave a shout-out to Valve’s PC gaming store, Steam. Doesn’t this put you in competition with them, since you’re beefing up the Windows 10 store and social community features built around each game?

First, I feel like I have a very good relationship with Valve. They’re a mile away, there’s a lot of Microsoft DNA there, a lot of people that we know. And I think they’ve done a great job, both with their games portfolio, Steam as a service that’s enabled so many developers to reach a broad set of gamers. I just think right now, there’s more opportunity, both for them and for us, than to say “we’ve tapped the market of what gamers want to do on Windows, and there’s only one winner.” I just don’t see that today. In January, I went over and showed them, here’s what I want to do, and they were very supportive. People will buy games on Steam tomorrow, and they’ll buy games on Steam five years from now. I believe that. You walk down the street, there’s not one retailer, and I think there’s opportunities for both.

So if someone buys a game from the Windows 10 store, will they be able to connect to Steam’s community features for that game?

The working relationship between us and Steam — I can’t announce or discuss all of it because I don’t want to make an announcement for them — but I will say, today, I have first-party games in Steam. Ori and the Blind Forest, which is a game we’re shipping this month, is on Steam. I look forward to working with all the partners that are out there as we continue to move this forward.

You also announced that Xbox is developing first-party titles for HoloLens. Can you elaborate on the difference between those games and the Minecraft-ish demo Microsoft showed off in January? Are these full-fledged games?

Yes. There’s a lot of work and excitement in the VR space, what Sony is doing, what Samsung is doing, what Oculus is doing, it’s just a lot of interest. In the holographic mixed-reality space, there are fewer players. In some ways, it’s a little more technically challenging — not to take away from any of the challenges of VR. But I think that it’s important for us to build content for our platforms to learn about their capabilities. Halo 2 and Xbox Live were built hand in hand. With HoloLens, it’s the same thing. We’ve got first-party studios working on games and other experiences so that we’ll have a suite of experiences that people will love. I just think that’s critical.

Is HoloLens something primarily made to be used at home, or are you also thinking about games you play on the go? Microsoft doesn’t have a handheld console like Nintendo’s 3DS or Sony’s PlayStation Vita.

HoloLens is untethered, so you don’t need a PC. All the compute capability is in the device itself, so you’re completely mobile, which I think creates a unique opportunity. As we look at it, it’s early, and we’re going to learn a ton as we get feedback from developers, get it in the hands of consumers at some point and get feedback from them. And we think the destination is well worth the journey. But, 3DS is a massive platform, it’s an incredible thing that they’ve built. We showed the device for the first time a month ago.

What’s the audience for HoloLens? Is it an all-in-one device for general users, or is it more gamer-specific like Xbox?

The former. And we’ll find out, consumers will vote. There will be enterprise uses, commercial uses of the device. That’s the plan, and that’s the feedback we’re getting. But any consumer electronics device out there today, it’s almost always true that games are the No. 1 form of content. Who would have thought, when the cellphone was a big brick thing, that the primary use 20 years later is actually playing games and not making phone calls? It’s texting and playing games. I would expect games to play the same role in HoloLens’ evolution, but I do think HoloLens is more than just a gaming peripheral.

What do you want prospective Xbox developers to be thinking about coming out of this conference?

It’s cool to watch the excitement around consoles that are here. You think about the success Sony’s having, Nvidia’s announced that they’re doing something that plugs into a TV, Valve’s got their things that plug into a TV. Three years ago, people were talking about why nobody is going to buy a dedicated game console, the death of them. Now it feels like there’s more excitement in that space than ever. When we start to reach — we’re targeting 1.5 billion devices with the Windows ecosystem. I think you’ll start to see game developers think a lot more broadly about what’s possible on both the television and these other screens.

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