Xbox chief: on the pros and cons of content

Phil Spencer discusses the potential of episodic games and the pros and cons of downloadable content

Something big has happened to the video game industry over the last five years – you may have noticed. All the old rules about consoles – the fact that they enjoyed five-to-eight-year life cycles, the fact that games “just worked” out of the box – they’re all gone.
These are very much the concerns of Phil Spencer, the ex-game developer who now heads up Xbox. Spencer has always put himself forward as a fan rather than a suit. His mantra is “we put the gamer at the centre of everything”. But what that actually means is changing – not just in terms of hardware, but in the way games are made and played.
Over the last five years we’ve seen the emergence of a new concept: the video game as a service. What this means is the developer’s support for a new title doesn’t stop when it’s launched. They run multiplayer servers so that people can compete online; and they release extra downloadable content (DLC) in the form of new items, maps and storylines – sometimes free, but very often paid for. There’s a clear reason for this model: the costs of mainstream game development are rising faster than potential revenue. To create 1080p and 4K games, teams are bigger and development cycles are longer, and then there’s the cost of maintaining those online servers. It’s expensive, and one way to pay for it is to ensure that players who enjoy a title stay around and keep investing in the experience.
In this way, games like Destiny and The Division have mutated into services – and although some gamers despair at the new era of endless DLC, season passes and add-ons, it is working. Both those titles have maintained huge and profitable user bases even in this volatile and uncertain era; Destiny has 30m active players..

“This is directly in line with what I think the next wave of innovation needs to be for us as a development platform,” says Spencer. “Say there’s 10 people in a garage that have an idea for a service-based game – what does it mean for them to build up the infrastructure to go and create that game? How can we help them? And at the other end, are there things we can do to support a developer who has to move on to their next thing but still wants to support the player base of their previous game? Those things are important to me.”
On the plus side what this may mean is more innovative independent developers working on persistent world experiences like DayZ, Rust or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. The concern is, making the games-as-a-service option more accessible may lead to a greater number of titles that abuse DLC…
“I worry about it too,” says Spencer. “What I worry about is a game that feels to me like it isn’t a service-based transactional game, has to inject those things in order to survive in today’s world, or injects them as some kind of money grab. I’m worried about the unnatural fit of those things together. Fifa Ultimate Team is crazy successful and people love that. I think the card model there, and the way they’ve built the creative along with the engagement and monetisation, makes sense to people, and consequently millions and millions of people play.
“But if I was playing a single-player story-based game and all of a sudden there was a paywall in the middle … I mean, I’m old enough I remember horse armour, right? People had this view of, ‘Wait a minute, this is not that kind of game.’ We want to open up the opportunities for developers to do what they want to go do. But I also think we have to be able to support, as an industry, all kinds of games. I hear from gamers, ‘I don’t want microtransactions in all my games. I don’t want paywalls in all my games,’ and I think they’re absolutely in their right to voice their opinion. I do think there are models where that makes sense, and there are other models where it doesn’t.”
“We’ve got to understand that if we enjoy those games, the business opportunity has to be there for them. I love story-based games. I just finished [LucasArts-inspired RPG] Thimbleweed Park – I thought it was a fantastic game. Inside was probably my game of last year. As an industry, I want to make sure both narrative-driven single-player games and service-based games have the opportunity to succeed. I think that’s critical for us.”

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