Exclusive: Discussing backwards compatibility, NXOE and the future with Xbox's Mike Ybarra

Mike leads the team behind the New Xbox One Experience, the development of backwards compatibility and the integration of Windows 10 into the Xbox.

During the interview, Mike gave us some fresh insights into the future of backwards compatibility, the possible implications the Windows Store will have for the Xbox One, as well as hints for what comes next from the Xbox One's first-rate engineering team.

Jez: I think I can say on behalf of all Xbox One fans, thanks to you and the team for your hard work and perseverance over the years. It's pretty mind blowing how much the Xbox One has changed since its reveal.

Mike: Yeah thanks, I appreciate that. It's been a crazy journey for us. We did launch, and then we really started tuning into customer feedback and some of the ideas they had. And frankly, the evolution of Xbox One since launch has been driven by the fans just as much as the engineering team. It's changed the way development sort of works for us because our engagement with the fans is so much higher and the transparency is very high. At times, that gets challenging, but it's been great.

Jez: User feedback seems to be pervasive throughout the industry now, you've got Kickstarter where fans are in a constant dialogue with the projects they're funding, you've got Steam Greenlight and sites like UserVoice, which Microsoft seem to be at the forefront of. Most Microsoft products seem to have a UserVoice page.

Mike: Yeah that's totally right, I think the company is embracing that in a major way. With UserVoice, with all the preview programs that we have, especially our MVP community who really help us out. In fact, they're here this week, we have a big MVP summit. So the engagement level is just great, I love developing products like this because, at the end of the day, with products turning into services, the customers have the biggest voice.

Jez: I spent the year prior to backwards compatibility explaining to friends and family why Xbox One couldn't run Xbox 360 games, and then you guys announced backwards compatibility despite the belief that it was impossible. I get the impression that the Xbox platform team likes a challenge, do you have any other large "game changing" plans on the same level as NXOE and backwards compatibility?

There are two or three big items that I would put on that same calibre that we're looking at, and you know, hopefully, they become a reality.

Mike: I would say, you're right - when we originally released the Xbox One the idea of us doing backward compatibility was something we didn't believe could happen. We were fortunate enough to have the right set of engineers. To Phil Spencer's credit, he pushes the teams. He knows that all engineers love to be challenged with something someone says is impossible, and then told to make it happen. When we opened up the user feedback site, backwards compatibility was number one by a large margin and it was something we didn't want to just ignore. We took on the challenge; we solved a lot of the engineering problems that existed, and frankly surprised ourselves in some ways.

I would say you're right, and I can't go into details, but our general philosophy and approach is 'go big or go home' when you're trying to create disruptive technologies that meet the needs that customers are asking for. It's something that the platform engineering team keeps as a high priority in terms of what we want to achieve for fans, and for ourselves going forward. There are two or three big items that I would put on that same calibre that we're looking at, and you know, hopefully, they become a reality and you hear about them 12 months from today.

Jez: Since Windows 8, Microsoft has been trying to converge Windows development into a single store. Given that we're practically there now with Windows 10 and Universal Windows Platform (UWP), a lot of us are wondering just how much of the Windows Store we'll see on Xbox One. There're a quite a lot of "junk" apps in the Windows Store that could impact the idea of the Xbox as a tailored experience. Are you guys going to continue to curate apps on a strict case-by-case basis? Or are you going to open up the Xbox One to full Windows 10 store?

Mike: Yeah, I think you bring up some great issues on how app stores are managed today. Most stores, if you look at competitive stores, they're curated through editorial. So a lot of the "junk", as you call it, that's in the stores - people don't find it because they're not on the top of the curated or editorialised pages in the stores. I certainly want to give people the freedom to run the apps they want in the living room, and I think they have asked us for it. The vision for the UWP, developers writing a single app that runs across all the Windows 10 devices, is a vision that everybody in the company believes in. How that applies to the TV is something we're working through right now.

The vision for the UWP, developers writing a single app that runs across all the Windows 10 devices, is a vision that everybody in the company believes in.

There is a customer promise with Xbox One. It's a safe device; I can have my kids playing it, I know they're going to play games, they're going to have a good time, with the living room there's a set of accountabilities that I think we have to think strongly about. We're thinking through it right now; I don't think we have all the answers. Certainly from a baseline platform standpoint - we believe in the mission, we believe in empowering people to buy their apps and run them on all Windows 10 devices, but we just have to work out the details.

Jez: Looking at the some of the quality UWP apps available for Windows 10 so far, I know that the developers of Readit have expressed some eagerness to get their app onto Xbox One. Then we have Twitter, Facebook, Tweetium and other big name apps that are currently being developed for the Universal Windows Platform - many of whom are probably eager to see those apps in the living room. So it's just a matter of working out the details at the moment?

Mike: I think that on Windows 10 desktop today and the apps that you see, because of the Universal App Platform developers will be able to deploy those on multiple devices. In an ideal world, you can run the Weather app on your TV, or your phone or your PC. I think that should be a world we shouldn't be afraid to investigate and see if we make happen. All of the other apps kind of roll in. As I said, the living room is sort of a family environment, so there's a set of apps we have to be really smart about whether or not we'd allow them there. But yeah, we want to give developers all the channels we can on the Windows 10 system.

Directionally we stand behind empowering developers to release their apps in every Windows 10 endpoint. We're working through the details of what that may or may not look like but at the foundational level, through the power of Windows 10 and the app platform we've established, the common belief of making developer's lives a lot easier to span multiple devices and platforms is absolutely a fundamental promise that we want to make.

Jez: Phil Spencer talked about mouse support before, is that still on the cards? It's interesting to think about, because for some households, if you have mouse support, Office universal apps, Microsoft Edge, suddenly the Xbox One becomes an affordable PC-like solution for the living room.

Mike: Yeah, I think Phil hinted a couple of times on Twitter about mouse and keyboard support on Xbox One. We actually have keyboard support right now, not for games, but you can attach it and do input. It's on our list, we look at user feedback, some things pop and some things don't. I would say that one's kind of lower on the list relative to things like background music, and the list goes on. It's certainly in the backlog of things we're looking at and if more and more fans are asking for it, it'll get more interest. Would people would want an Xbox One Windows desktop in the living room? It's interesting to think about.

Jez: Speaking of background music. It's still on the list of things to do then?

Mike: It's on the backlog and Phil reminds me almost every day about it (laughing). The great thing about Windows 10 on Xbox One is that it really allows us to increase the efficiency of the system, other tasks that take resources to run become easier for us to implement. Background music is something we know our fans want, it's on our list, and we're definitely looking at it.

Jez: So, how far are you guys planning to push backwards compatibility? We're getting around 100 titles next week, do you have any idea of how often those titles are going to come in? Could we eventually see the entire Xbox 360 library on Xbox One?

Certainly we want to release a set of titles on a regular basis that customers are asking for

Mike: We certainly want to have a regular cadence that we give updates for Xbox 360 titles. Our biggest obstacle there is working with publishers and getting their approval for the older titles. We continue to work on that right now, I would say, it varies in response across the publishers. Some are like "yep, let's go, rock n' roll" and others are a little bit more thoughtful about how they want to think about that. It's hard for us to promise, I'll just make something up, 20 titles a month from now on, because it really depends on the publisher enabling us to release those titles. Certainly we want to release a set of titles on a regular basis that customers are asking for, that can provide value to them.

Jez: What are the current plans for Smartglass? It seems like the Windows 10 app for Xbox has cannibalized most of its functionality.

Mike: The plan for the Xbox app on Windows 10 was for it to be a superset of everything the Smartglass apps do plus additional features. The Xbox app, to me, as it evolves and increases in features, its something that I want to have on mobile devices and everything. It is a universal Windows app, it should run on Windows 10 and all phones. Directionally, the goal would be to get a single app across all devices that you're familiar with and give you a common set of features.

Jez: Will the iOS and Android app be updated to reflect that goal as well?

Mike: Yeah we'll continue to support both of those platforms too.

Jez: Have you guys considered game streaming for the Xbox app on Windows 10 Mobile? It'd be interesting to see that combined with Continuum, as complicated as that may be.

Mike: Our fundamental belief there is that if you own a piece of content you should be able to play it on the Windows 10 devices that you own or are available to you. I did see some feedback of people wanting to stream to their phones. I think that's an interesting tech demo but it's hard in practicality to play a Triple A game on a small screen. It's not something that I can say, "hey we're bringing that to market", but certainly the ability to play content on your devices is part of the overall Windows 10 promise. We look at all those scenarios and say "okay, what would get enough usage to make sense for us to make those investments?"

Jez: One of the questions I've seen posed in our Windows Central NXOE thread pertains to Kinect gestures on the dashboard. I've noticed that they're absent from the latest build on the New Xbox One Experience - what's the situation there?

Mike: On gestures, when we looked at the New Xbox One Experience we wanted to prioritize features that customers were asking for, plus areas of improvement from the existing Xbox One UI. Then, we wanted to look at the use-case model of features that take a lot of investment and say, "is it worth continuing to invest in that area?"

With gestures, the reality was the usage was very, very low. So for now, we've cut that from the New Xbox One Experience. So when we launch on the 12th, they won't be in the product. We'll continue to monitor and listen to feedback to see if people want them in.

Jez: I still see comments across social media and on articles that debate the effect DX12 will have on the Xbox One. Given that there still seems to be some on-going confusion about the potential benefits DX12 will bring, could you explain what it will or won't do for the Xbox One?

Mike: Any new graphics capabilities we add in Windows will help developers, it just depends on the type of game you're creating. With Xbox One, we took DX11 and added a lot of extensions on top of that so that developers could get the most performance out of that fixed hardware. From launch, and frankly every time we update the XDK more benefits come out. On the generic Windows side, DX12 is doing a lot of that same thing for general hardware. Enabling developers to get higher level visuals or better effects into their games. So, a lot of the benefits are in Xbox One today, we do expect to see some incremental benefits, but really it's up to the game developers to work on that and realise the benefits or not depending on how the titles use those calls. Nobody should expect DX12 to have that dramatic of an impact.

Jez: I noticed that Windows 10 game store was recently embedded in the Xbox app. Right now there's just mobile titles in there, but we know that, Gigantic, Fable Legends, Gears of War are all coming to the Windows 10 Store...

Mike: And Rise of the Tomb Raider!

Jez: Then, is Microsoft planning to take on Steam, taking on more third party, core PC titles into the Windows 10 store? Right now it's, generally touch-based mobile games.

Mike: I don't like to use terminology like "take on Steam", I'm a big Steam user myself, I probably play more games on Windows than console. I love the fact that Steam exists on Windows 10. Will we want to have a great robust store that has first party and third party games all the way from Triple A down to mobile games? Absolutely. We want to make the Windows Store another alternative for developers to distribute their games and for customers to acquire them. We don't necessarily see it as taking on Steam, or Valve, because I think Valve is so much more than their distribution store. We love their games on our console, we love their games on Windows and we think they do a lot to help Windows gaming in general.

Jez: In closing, I'd just like to say thanks once again, I think Xbox fans are pretty excited for the future. Also! What are your favourite Xbox games right now?

Mike: Internally, I would just say we really do think of this as, practically, a re-launch of Xbox One. When you take out all of the system software and put a new system on it, it's pretty exciting for us and for our fans. Ah, my fav games - right now Halo 5 and Tomb Raider!

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!