Stephen Totilo

Stephen Totilo



Something that stood out to me when I recently interviewed Phil Spencer was his emphasis on rising player counts, which I think is key to understanding Microsoft’s strategy. I want to share where that conversation went (warning: this will be a bunch of tweets!)

You might say, of course, game companies always boast about this stuff, but this metric seems key to Microsoft, which recently shared that Halo Infinite reached 20 million players, Forza Horizon 5 reached 18m. (remember, that was helped with mixes of Game Pass and free-to-play)

Spencer to me: “I love the Forza 5 and Halo stats...I love how many people played Psychonauts 2 vs. Psychonauts 1. "So, when I look at the teams, when Todd and I talk about Starfield, it's: 'How do we make sure this is the most-played Todd Howard game ever?'"

(Bear in mind Todd's team made Skyrim) He continued: “As a platform, I think we have a lot to do with that. Quality of the title is number one, no doubt about that...

"But that will be success for me for the individual games: Can we really make these games–can we allow them to reach more players than they've ever seen before? And I say that because I believe in the social impact of interactive entertainment.”

Since we were talking in the wake of the Microsoft-buying-Activision announcement, I wondered: Meaning, make Call of Duty and World of Warcraft even more popular? Like, how??

Spencer: “Yeah, I want more people to be playing WoW in five years that are playing today. I want more people to be playing Call of Duty in five years, more people to be playing Candy Crush in five years, because we've made it more accessible to more people.”

I know what many of you are thinking (aside from: Stephen, why didn't you put this in the excellent Axios newsletter, which you can subscribe to here: How can Todd’s next game reach more people if you’re skipping a key platform? I asked him this.

I asked about whether Microsoft's policies in general could really be as generous as he makes them sound, because there are catches, no?

"Well, that specific question of, ‘Hey, there's only one place that I want to play games. And if that game doesn't end up on the one place that I want to play that has its own business requirements for me as a creator…those people can go play those games...

...They're just going to say, I'm choosing not to, because it's not on the one device that has its specific [trails off]. So I get that."

Stepping back, I asked Spencer about his rep among gamers as head of Xbox. To some, he seems to nice, too complimentary of competitors, too generous with deals like Xbox Game Pass, and surely the other shoe will drop. “You're looking for the evil Phil,” he joked.

"I see people tweeting at me: 'Hey, there's nothing altruistic about Phil Spencer, head of Xbox.' "I don't know if I'd say there's nothing...I have a vision about the role that video games can play. But I am in charge of running a business inside of a publicly traded company"

"What I think we've been able to do--and this is from our perspective--is we've built a strategy that I think is supportive of players and creators" He notes competitors won't love all that they do and says he'll play hardball when ended (said he did for Minecraft crossplay)

"We were going to be forceful in that conversation, understanding that in previous generations we we had been on the other side. I wasn't making those calls, but still, I if you're looking at Xbox, you say, Hey that's different."

"I think people who point out it's just a suit or somebody who's running a business, I'm absolutely running a responsibility, the teams, is I'm going to continue to run a good business so this company continues to support us I think that's a primary responsibility"

Circling back to skepticism of Xbox's plan: "I feel like I can't prove this negative. [People ask] when is the Game Pass price is going to get go up? 'They're buying all these studios. You know, it's inevitable.' Even though it's been what, now, four years we haven't raised it."

"But it's like, 'You know, it's coming' 'When they are number one, they're going to start doing all those exclusive deals that, like, you know, Xbox has history' and all I can do is is make the decisions that are in front of us and try to be explicit about what our goals are"

(Folks, if you did a double-take when he said they won't do exclusive deals, me too, but we already went down that road higher in the thread)

Back to Spencer: "I honestly mean... you can see it with Forza and Halo the last releases. Those are the most played games in those franchises because we made them available on more screens than we ever have, through more business models than we've ever made them available."

And there you go. One extra. Re: Blizzard: "You and I grew up at a time where Blizzard was almost as synonymous as Pixar in terms of quality. That's where I aspire those brands to get to get to, and I'd love the opportunity to go work with creative teams to make that possible"

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