The Big Xbox Interview: Aaron Greenberg on 2015, 2016, Scalebound, Quantum Break, Team Pride and Much More
The Xbox One has evolved a lot in 2015, from the big announcements about backward compatibility and the New Xbox One Experience, to quite a few heavy-hitting Holiday and pre-Holiday exclusives.
In order to learn more on how the good folks at Microsoft feel about the current year, what they’re planning for the next, and simply catch the feel of how the atmosphere is at Xbox as we head into the holidays, we had a long and pleasant chat with Games Marketing Head Aaron Greenberg.
I you’re curious to know what he told us, you can read the full interview below. Grab a coffee and sit in a comfy chair, because it’s a big one.
Giuseppe: Black Friday is in the past, even if it’s just recent past. Without going into specific numbers, which I’m pretty sure you can’t talk about, did you guys get any preliminary data already? How did it go for Xbox One?
Aaron Greenberg: We’re here on Monday after Black Friday, and we’ve definitely been talking with our retail partners, and overall we’ve seen unprecedented demand and engagement online over the Black Friday weekend.
At this point, our first day back in the office, we don’t have any specific results, but I’d say we’ve been sort of watching the fans’ reaction and lots of people sending us updates on what was sold out, and what retail stores, and which online sites and so…
Some great offers and Black Friday really got extended beyond the U.S. We saw Black Friday take off in the UK with a lot of great offers, and a lot of our retail partners had some just fantastic deals for people that were looking to pick up an Xbox One, and hopefully with the games that we’ve launched this holiday, people felt like we were delivering great value.
G: Okay. It’s December now and I believe you guys did pretty much everything you could and then some to bring home a good Holiday season. Let’s look a little bit beyond that. How do you see the next six months for Xbox One? What are the biggest assets and the biggest challenges going into 2016, especially from a marketing perspective.
AG: Sure. Well, We’ve been really fortunate because I think you know we really had just an incredible games lineup. We’ve talked about this being the greatest lineup in Xbox history, and I feel that the team has really delivered, starting with Rare Replay, leading into the Holiday season, followed up by Gears, and then Forza, and Halo 5, and Tomb Raider… Just tons and tons of big titles, and of course a lot of big third party titles as well.
I feel like we’ve delivered on that, and at the same time, backward compatibility, the New Xbox One Experience…. I think what you’re seeing is that we have a team that’s passionate about being sure that we have the greatest games lineup for our fans and continue to innovate not just in games, but in the Xbox Live service, and how we’re innovating with new platforms like Windows 10.
So I think you’ll continue to see us innovate and really focus to build on top of what we’ve already created. There’s a number of titles that we’ve talked about. We have a lot of big exclusives coming next year: Halo Wars 2, Quantum Break, Crackdown 3, ReCore, Scalebound, Sea of Thieves and Killer Instinct Season 3 just to list a few off the top of my head.
We feel like we’ll continue to deliver. In fact arguably we have more games for next year that we did this year, so if you’re a gamer, you’re definitely gonna have a lot of great games to play from us.
G: Quantum Break seems to be a very solid title. I’ve been very impressed by the quality of what I have seen so far. What are your expectations for it, and are you guys planning having anything special promotion-wise? Can we expect maybe some bundling goodness?
AG: We’ve been working for quite a while with the team at Remedy on our marketing campaign for Quantum Break. I can tell you it is a big priority for us. We’re excited to have that title launching in the first week of April. We think it’s kinda the perfect time to really launch a big triple-A blockbuster, to bring a brand new IP to the platform.
We have a lot of people that have bought an Xbox One this holiday, and frankly Remedy… Basically everything they make is a highly rated, high quality game, and they are really known for their vivid storytelling, rich characters, the dramatic twists they build into these things. We’ve been playing the game and it’s fantastic.
I think we’re really, really excited as they’re doing the final push and polish and finishing up the title. We’re really, really excited to start to share with gamers and our fans out there. We’ll have more details on what types of promotions or programs we’ll do as we bring the game to market, but at this moment it’s what we consider a triple-A big exclusive release that we’re definitely planning to market in the first half of next year.
G: Looking a little more into the future: Scalebound is probably one of my most anticipated titles of 2016. Actually you could say it’s my most anticipated title of 2016. I won’t call it a JRPG because Kamiya-san would probably instantly block me on Twitter if I did, yet it’s still a Japanese game, and maybe it’s quite different from what people normally expect from an Xbox exclusive. Do you see any challenge in marketing it to the public?
AG: It’s another gift for us. If you think about what Kamiya-san has created, and his history of just creating incredibly unique games, that are such high quality and that are loved by core gamers… To be able to have him making a new IP exclusive for us and a big title, I think it’s something we’re really excited about.
I mean, for us, we think of it as an action RPG game, and we think it will both appeal to fans of the games that Platinum has made, but at the same time, I think it will be a game that will have a broader appeal to folks that maybe haven’t played their games before. So we’re excited to be able to introduce that to a broader audience as well.
I think what they’re doing with that title… We shown a pretty good demo at Gamescom earlier this summer, and kinda how the game is progressing. We continue to work closely with them, and it’s definitely something we see very close to the top of the list of the most anticipated games for sure. It continues to go well.
And yeah, hopefully you won’t get blocked by him on Twitter. You have to be careful about that. But I think there’s a process to appeal your block and to have somebody advocate on your behalf to get unblocked. I’ve seen that happen too
G: Well it didn’t win so many prizes from us at Gamescom for nothing. Do you guys expect it to push the console in Japan and in the Asian region as well? Or it’s a game that you see more aimed towards the worldwide audience instead of a localized Japanese or Asian audience?
AG: We’re planning to market the game everywhere. You’re right, the game is made in Japan, and we’d love to see the title do well there. I think we’ve got a very loyal fanbase across all of Asia. We did multiple fanfest events for fans in Asia this summer, and the response and turnout there was just amazing. Whether you’re in Asia or in Asia Pacific, or in Australia, New Zealand, or Canadian or down in Brazil, I think we know it’s a great game, and that’s what gamers really love. I think this is gonna be a title that will appeal globally, no matter where it’s made.
G: Oh yeah. Is there a chance that the demo that we saw at Gamescom, and afterwards in Tokyo as well, is going to be playable sooner or later?
AG: We haven’t shared anything on when the game will be playable, but we will give more updates on the title next year.
G: Ok. With the renewed focus on Windows 10 gaming, there have been some Xbox fans that have been expressing concerns about the console losing its identity and its exclusives. This is probably something that you guys see as a challenge, to communicate the synergy between the two platforms, and the fact that it’s an advantage for the Xbox One and not just a liability. How do you see this challenge? Do you think it’s something that you guys can communicate better?
AG: I think for us we’re really aspiring to make great games and to bring gamers together and allow as many gamers as possible to experience what we’re creating. I think it’s part of that to innovate and bring a number of our titles to Windows 10 where it makes sense.
The fact that we have a common foundation, that both the Xbox One and Windows 10 are built on Windows architecture, has a lot of benefits for developers, has a lot of benefits if you think about the Live service… I love having the Xbox App on my Win 10 PC, so I can log in and send messages to friends and see what people are playing, or be able to jump right in there and go play a game.
I think that kind of consistent user experience built on Windows 10 as well of the Xbox One, and the familiarity of that in allowing our community to expand, is a good thing for gamers.
Whether you’re primarily a console gamer, or you’re a gamer that plays both on a console and PC, or you’re more of a PC first gamer, I think you’ll see we’re gonna innovate and make new experiences for gamers no matter where they play.
At the same time, we’ve seen a lot of usage of people using the app, but also being able to stream their Xbox One games to their Windows 10 PC, and with Windows 10 being a free upgrade, that’s just another great benefit for gamers.
We’re trying to add more features, more capabilities, and ultimately people will see that as a positive and additive thing, more than anything else.
G: Let’s talk about Rise of the Tomb Raider, what is your view on the performance of the game so far? It launched in a very, very challenging period. It was basically surrounded by every blockbuster possible. With hindsight, do you think it would have been better to launch it in a different moment of the year?
AG: Yeah, it’s definitely been a busy Holiday season, that’s for sure. We’ve been pleased with the reaction. I think first you look at reviews that were really really strong… The game is an incredibly high quality game, really fun to play, challenging, I think one of the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen on the Xbox One.
From that standpoint, it’s really clear that Crystal delivered a masterpiece, and so we’re just excited to be able to have that title exclusively this Holiday, and I think being able to offer that as part of our greatest games line-up is a great thing for our fans.
At the same time, you’re right. It launched in a very crowded window, but it has done well. A lot of people bought both Fallout 4 and Tomb Raider. At the same time we know a lot of people may have bought Tomb Raider and wait on Fallout or bought Fallout and waited on Tomb Raider.
We expect it will be a title that will continue to sell through the Holidays, whereas we have so many games releasing week after week, so we expect that people will come back. They didn’t buy one of these titles and there’s still a lot of great titles, Halo 5, Star Wars Battlefront, Call of Duty, Fallout 4… There are so many great games in such a short window, that we think that people will continue to buy these titles through Holiday and into next year.
G: At the end of the day there’s only so much money in people’s pockets, after all.
AG: Yeah, that is the challenge. We all know that, and so you’re right. You know, ultimately people will choose their favorite depending on what type of genres, reviews, or what their friends are playing, but so far we’ve been really pleased with Tomb Raider, and I know even over Black Friday it did very well, we’ve heard some very nice feedback from some of our top retailers. So we’ll continue to watch how it performs, but the game has definitely been delivering for us.
G: I reviewed it, and I loved it. I’m actually still playing, because I have some little things to finish here and there. I’m still sinking some time into it and it’s a really great game.
In terms of exclusive games, do you have a pretty complete scenario for 2016, with what has been already announced or maybe you guys are cooking some surprises that we don’t yet know about? Of course you can’t tell me what surprises, but is there something we don’t know yet?
AG: We always have new things that we haven’t announced yet. I think we’ve definitely shown a lot of our 2016 lineup, and I think that was a big part of what we did at Gamescom this year.
We have a lot of great games, and even if you just look at what we’ve announced… Think about the fact that there’s both a triple-A Halo game and a triple-A Gears game in the same Holiday. We’ve never had that before, as far as I can remember, in the history of our business.
Having Halo Wars 2 and Gears of War 4, I think it’s just gonna be an unbelievable lineup. And we’ve got more titles on top of that. I mentioned Sea of Thieves, ReCore, Killer Instinct… and there will be more. There will be other titles that come from our id@Xbox partners, and we’ve got titles like cuphead, and Inside, and Below, and other big titles that we’re all anticipating. And then all the big third party titles.
We expect next year to be an even bigger year for games. We expect there to be more games, we expect there to be more games sold, all up for the business, so we’re really kinda hitting our stride in this point in the console generation.
G: There is one thing that has been a little bit behind the scenes, and that’s DirectX 12 for Xbox One. It has been pushed for PC so far, but we haven’t seen much of what it will do for Xbox One. That caused of lot discussions between whether it will be a big change for Xbox One or something a little bit more limited.
Will we have to wait a lot longer for actually seeing something running on DirectX 12 on Xbox One, not on PC? To see what the API can do on the console, because I’m guessing marketing-wise that’s something you guys expect to push quite a bit?
AG: Right now we’re really focused primarily on titles on Windows 10 [with DirectX 12], and so you know just the innovation that’s happening there, the performance boost from DirectX 12, we’ve talked a lot about that… Fable Legends is one of those titles, and a number of titles that are coming next year.
That’s really frankly much more a piece that falls in for developers to be able to take full advantage of that graphically. We know of lot of those developers are building their games both on Windows 10 and on Xbox One, but as the marketing guy I wouldn’t be able to get into the technical benefits of what that means to developers. I’d ask those folks, but we know a lot of folks are using DirectX 12, and visually those games are showcases as a result of that.
I think we’ll start to see more and more of those benefits as we look at our lineup next year, that’s for sure.
G: You talked about Fanfest, and that’s pretty much your brain child. Not only the big Fanfest at E3 and Gamescom, but also there’s been a lot of smaller Fanfests all over the world. I’ve been to the Tokyo one and I’ve seen quite a few in Asia and in other places.
With hindsight, now that you have numerous Fanfests under your belt, what’s your take on Fanfests and what’s their story? What do you think you can maybe improve for upcoming ones? I probably think you’re the best person to talk about this.
AG: Sure, you’re right. We definitely have a lot of passion around our fans, and engaging with our fans, and finding ways to involve them at major events that we’re doing.
The last year we had this huge amount of people and a massive team here internally that builds up like our plans for E3 for example. Last year my team kinda took over leading those efforts.
As part of that, we made sure to think a lot about how do we evolve the way that we tell our story, and how do we engage our fans there – and so we did come up with this idea to build up a Fanfest at E3, and we invited fans to come join us.
We frankly didn’t know if they would show up or not – they showed up, Most of them slept out overnight, some of them slept out overnight two nights. It was just so overwhelming to see. We said: “hey we’re gonna let the entire floor of E3 be filled with our fans” in our media briefing.
At the same time, we wanted to be able to take a lot of that experience of what we created at E3 and be able to allow our fans around the world also to experience that. We do a lot of work to be able to engage media and partners and folks like you at E3, but the fans are largely left out, and so we really felt like that was a missed opportunity.
So wherever they were there with us, we’re did a fan fest for them. In fact we were able to get them tickets to E3. So It really worked out to be a great thing.
Then we did the same thing at Gamescom, we did the same thing in Asia, same thing in South America. We have fans all around the world, so we really want to kinda celebrate, and thank them for being so loyal and for what they do.
That’s just a big part of our passion: we work hard, we’re here talking late at night, and we do all this, and it rewards us to see the reaction from our fans, it’s just awesome.
I really do believe that we have the greatest fans in the world, and the team here has a lot of passion for being able to engage with them and deliver for them.
I remember the way that way Phil Spencer spent the second night to go meet with the fans that were in line at E3. We spent hours just walking the line, taking photos, meeting with everyone, talking to everyone. You know, It’s just part of the community, to be able to meet folks in person and create relationships and allow all of our fans to get connected.
I think it’s really part of what just makes gaming so special and so we want to continue to build on that, and continue to engage ours fans. In fact, we’re gonna do that at the Game Awards Show, we thank our our fans for all their support this holiday and we’re going to hold an event in L.A. and be able to take a couple hundreds fan with us to the Game Awards Show.
So it’s just a lot of these opportunities, they’re not that hard, if you just think about “hey we’re going to this thing, why don’t we buy a couple hundreds of tickets and just bring our fans with us?” And so as much as that as we can do, we’re gonna continue to do. It’s definitely something that I have a lot of passion about, and so does the rest of the team here.
G: It’s actually pretty interesting for me, because looking at it from a marketing perspective when you think you’re bringing to an event like 500 people which isn’t very many people in a big numbers perspective.
Those events must be pretty expensive to organize: So, has it been difficult for you to pitch this kind of events pass at Microsoft, considering the relatively small reach compared to the cost?
AG: You’re right. There is definitely a cost associated with it and when we presented the idea internally… You know, doing all these things does not come for free. But you know, our leadership team here – and I think if you know the folks here – everyone is super supportive, and people here really do love our fans and believe that it is worth investing as a way to thank them and have them be engaged and so I think we are going to continue to do that.
We do put our fans first, with all the decisions we make, and how we think about telling our story, and how we think about our business, and we wanna continue to do that. We will continue to invest in engaging our fans where it makes sense.
G: There’s another thing that piques my curiosity: we haven’t seen, or maybe we just haven’t noticed any major revision of the Xbox One hardware. The PS4 has gone through three models already even if they weren’t big revisions, they were aimed to reducing their production costs in order to reduce the price.
While you guys – maybe we just didn’t notice – don’t seem to have had revisions, but you did reduce the price to the customer, so I’m wondering: is there any effort going on by Microsoft to reduce the cost of producing the Xbox One or you’re basically taking the hit a little bit to offer the console the lower price for the customer?
AG: It’s just part of the life cycle, that components that are in the box typically do go down in cost over time, so there’s always some benefit to that.
But you’re right. If you try to buy let’s say… a PC today with the same specs as an Xbox One, you’re gonna have a hard time finding one at that price point for sure. And so, that is part of the value of what we deliver by selling the hardware at a great price.
And you know consumers buy games, subscribe to the Live service and become a gold member etcetera. There are some economics that Sony has as well.
Our focus has been to be competitive on price, and the really big differentiator for us is having the greatest games lineup, having the best games, and continue to invest in innovating with the Xbox Live Service and being that great community where your friends play, where you can earn achievements, where you sort of build your Gamertag and your credibility, and we will continue to do that.
At the same time having things like backward capability has been something that was our number one request from the fans, and to be able to deliver that and to be having our first waves of titles out and more in the works, is something we’re excited about as well.
So the team is working hard. I think we’re innovating a lot. Hopefully people feel like that if they look over the last year, that we’ve delivered a good year of innovation, and if you own an Xbox One today you know that in a year for now it’s gonna be a lot better, and so we will continue to innovate. Same goes for folks on Windows 10. You will continue to see us innovate there as well.
G: One last question, which is something a little bit more interesting for people that would like to know how things feel there, inside the Xbox team.
We can say that Xbox One has been pretty much a story of redemption. I’m not going to make you spend half an hour apologizing for things that happened years ago before at the launch of the Xbox One, but I can easily say that it can definitely say that it shown a great degree of improvement since then.
So how does the team internally at Xbox feel about this? Do they feel that they hit a stride and finally managed to achieve some really really big goals, or they feel that there is still more improvement to be made? Now that we’re going into Christmas 2015, how is the atmosphere at Xbox?
AG: It’s a good question and thank you for not making me apologize for that (laughs). I would say that the team’s pride is really high. This is the type of industry and the type of work that it takes a lot of effort over a sustained period of time to drive results.
You plant those seeds, but you don’t get to harvest them… You know, games take two plus years in development to make typically, and so do platform innovations and all the types of things that we wanted to do. I think what you’re seeing is a team that has spent a number of years very very focused on delivering great games, delivering an incredible online service and community, and I think really just focusing on our fans over everything else that we do.
I think that if you put your fans first, and you really think about your fans and who your customer is, that all the decisions you make with the strategic directions that you take your business… Ultimately, I think you will largely make the right decisions.
I am really proud to be part of this team and it does definitely have that feeling of what it was like here back when we launched the original Xbox and when we launched Xbox 360. I think the team does have a lot of pride and feels like we’ve accomplished a lot.
With that said I think if you ask Phil Spencer, he’s still not satisfied and so, it’s great. You know, I think we do have a lot of ambition and I think we do want to continue to innovate and continue to deliver a lot more for our fans and for gamers over the coming years, and you will see us continue to do that and I think we have the right team to do that.
I think that if you look at what we’ve done over the last couple of years, and you think at that team here, who is really focused on continuing to deliver games and innovation going forward, I feel very optimistic about our future, and I’m really proud to be part of this team.