What you need to know
- Recently, we conducted an exclusive interview with Microsoft Gaming CEO and Xbox lead Phil Spencer.
- In the interview we discussed Xbox hardware, cloud gaming, and Microsoft's trajectory for 2024.
- We also discussed classic franchises like Banjo and StarCraft, and Spencer offered some thoughts on how these types of projects get explored, and ultimately greenlit.
Microsoft now owns ZeniMax, Microsoft owns Activision, Microsoft owns Blizzard. With all of these things comes decades, anywhere up to 40 years' worth, of dormant video game franchises. Microsoft has shown itself willing to revive even "niche" properties games like Age of Empires and Killer Instinct, when other publishers would shy away from doing so. What makes Microsoft different? And what does that mean for classic games like Banjo-Kazooie, StarCraft, and more?
Well, we recently got the opportunity to ask the head of Xbox himself.
In our exclusive interview with Microsoft Gaming CEO and Xbox lead Phil Spencer, we asked Spencer to detail his thought process on building out franchises based on long-dormant IP, and what needs to happen to get the ball rolling.
I asked Spencer why Microsoft is able and willing to explore more "niche" titles like Killer Instinct, in a universe where Activision and other publishers are not. Activision quite famously allowed massive franchises like StarCraft, Guitar Hero, and Skylanders to fall by the wayside, and Spencer explained that as a platform holder, Microsoft can be a bit more flexible.
"It goes back to some of our language on Game Pass in the very beginning," Spencer continued, "what we see in Game Pass is a service that supports all kinds of games, from the biggest games, to the unknown indie games that you didn't know you would love until you played it. If you're an individual publisher, you really have to think about 'how do you get everybody playing my game.' I think a lot of the publishers are naturally drawn to making games that are big hit games, as big as possible."
It's certainly true that Activision, EA, Epic, and others tend to focus on their bigger franchises. EA notoriously has side-lined Titanfall in favor of Apex Legends. Activision side-lined StarCraft for World of Warcraft and Overwatch, Epic side-lined Unreal Tournament for Fortnite, and so on.
Spencer explained, "the diversity of business models allows us to invest in different kinds of content and still have financial success with that content. When we look at the back catalog of games from Bethesda, we get really excited. We look at the back catalog from Activision and Blizzard, we get really excited about the things we can do." Elaborating further, Spencer noted that they also want to build "mega-hit" games, but they have also proven themselves willing to build smaller projects, citing games like Hi-Fi Rush and Pentiment. Spencer also elaborated further that the original developers need to be part of those discussions. I mentioned games like Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft 2, both of which are essentially in maintenance mode, only receiving occasional bug fix and balance tweak patches. Spencer said they'd want to ensure Blizzard was part of the discussions to revive any of those franchises, and that it wouldn't necessarily simply be a case of spinning up a new team to handle them.
Spencer comments on 'teasing' new games
I noted to Spencer about how he mentioned StarCraft fans on stage at Blizzcon 2023, and he explained some of Microsoft's approach to "teasing" dormant franchises, offering a specific call out to fans of the classic Rare 3D platformer Banjo-Kazooie.
"You've seen from our history that we haven't touched every franchise that people would love us to touch — Banjo fans, I hear you. But it is true that, when we find the right team, and the right opportunity, I love going back to revisit stories and characters that we've seen previously," Spencer said.
"I want our fans and customers to know that I don't bring up games just to tease to no end ... if people have watched how we've teased things in the past. There's usually some kind of reconciliation of those hints later on ... I'm not one to try and lead people on. It might not happen on the timeline that people would love, but usually when I tease, there's something there."
Spencer quite specifically has mentioned various franchises in numerous interviews this year, as part of Microsoft's mammoth $72 billion purchase of Activision-Blizzard. Franchises like StarCraft, Skylanders, Guitar Hero, all received mentions. Spencer also famously wore a Hexen t-shirt during a recent event. Hexen is a first-person shooter built by the studio behind DOOM, which Microsoft acquired with the ZeniMax purchase a couple of years ago. Hexen was, however, published by Activision, the rights to which Microsoft now owns via the ABK acquisition. It's not hard to imagine where that could be going.
So many possibilities
It's encouraging to hear Spencer describe their approach to some of this stuff. Rather than just rip the franchises from their original developers to build soulless products, Microsoft Gaming would rather work with the original teams to find the best approach. The team that built StarCraft may no longer exist, with many of the developers moved to other teams, with many working on the new IP "Stormgate," as part of new studio Frost Giant Games. The team that built Banjo-Kazooie is largely scattered to the winds too, with ex-developers founding Playtonic to build out a successor in the form of Yooka-Laylee.
Microsoft did rebuild teams to tackle franchises like Age of Empires, which included many developers from the old Ensemble Studios era. Killer Instinct is now being handled by Iron Galaxy, and we saw Microsoft acquire Gears of War from Epic Games previously, along with hires for various developers from that previous team. We've also seen Microsoft revive Perfect Dark, led by The Initiative and Crystal Dynamics.
The possibilities for future upcoming Xbox games are truly tantalizing. But like Phil Spencer said, it might not always be on the timeline people hope for. Keep the faith, Banjo fans.
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Jez Corden 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 caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!