Phil Spencer Reflects On The Xbox One Reveal: “An Event That Was Very Much Focused On Xbox As A TV Platform”

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At E3 2019, the current head of Xbox Phil Spencer spoke with GameSpot about the history of the Xbox One, the troubles the console faced at launch, and what’s in store for the future of next-gen. Though there’s a lot of anticipation for what’s to come with Xbox Scarlett, our discussion went back to the beginning of the Xbox One, Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s PlayStation 4. Back in 2013, online gameplay, connectivity, and the cloud was poised to see unprecedented growth in the next-gen–and Microsoft wanted to be at the forefront of the new console experience. However, the platform maker initially struggled to convey what the new console stood for, and it’s something that the current head of Xbox remembers all too well.

“If you go back and watch [the reveal], what you’ll see is an event that was very much focused on Xbox as a TV platform,” Spencer said. “We showed things like The Price is Right, for instance. In fact, I think the first piece of content that we ever showed on an Xbox One was a TV show.”

In May 2013, Microsoft revealed the Xbox One, a console advertised as the new nexus for home entertainment. Before the reveal, Microsoft and their new product–codenamed Durango–already faced something of an uphill battle. In the months before, the backlash from comments from former Microsoft executive Adam Orth, who downplayed concerns from consumers about the next console potentially being online only, was still fresh on the minds of many. So going in, Microsoft had some ground to cover. Taking place in Redmond, Washington at the Microsoft campus, this event–also possessing a codename, Newcastle–was meant to be the console’s big moment. But as history shows, things didn’t work out as intended. Spencer went on to describe the mood following the event, and how employees weren’t satisfied with what they saw.

“If you were an employee in team Xbox, then you were [a part of a team of] thousands of people that work on the Xbox. But there’s like a handful of people that stand in front of cameras, on the stage and talk about things. There can be a divide between, ‘Why is that person saying that? That’s not the product I’m building,’ or, ‘Why are we doing that? That’s not what I think we should be doing.'”

As the console’s first showing, it was a heavily promoted event. In the opening montage, developers and gaming personalities alike talked about the potential of the new platform, and even film directors like Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams heaped praise on the new hardware. The key takeaway from the reveal event was that the Xbox One was presented as more than just a videogame console, but rather, a new home entertainment experience. This sentiment was made abundantly clear during the first half of the event, which treated viewers to a deluge of films and TV shows viewable on the Xbox One. The first games to make an appearance at the showing would be titles from EA Sports, well after 30 minutes had passed. Spencer stressed in our interview that the reveal missed the mark in properly showing what the console was all about.

The feedback we got from the employees, maybe said and unsaid, was, ‘We’ve been working really hard for two years to ship this product. You stand on stage at this event and blow up all the good work that we’ve done by talking about the product in a way that’s not really matching what the soul of an Xbox console is about and what our customers are looking for from us.’

At the time, he was the VP of Microsoft Studios, which entailed overseeing upcoming platform-exclusive games. Once he took the stage at the event, it marked the beginning of the games part of the presentation. During his talk, the event showcased upcoming games like Forza Motorsport 5, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Halo 5, and Remedy’s Quantum Break–which also had a focus on the TV angle. Though Spencer understood the intention of showcasing the new Xbox as a home entertainment console, he expressed that it only led to confusion and frustration from the general audience. This sentiment was evident when he and other executives at Xbox observed the reactions from consumers and their employees.

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“The feedback we got from the employees, maybe said and unsaid, was, ‘We’ve been working really hard for two years to ship this product. You stand on stage at this event and blow up all the good work that we’ve done by talking about the product in a way that’s not really matching what the soul of an Xbox console is about and what our customers are looking for from us,'” Spencer said while describing the frustration from employees. “I think the team just gets disappointed because they feel let down by the leadership team and I’d say that’s the feeling I heard the most from the team. I had people come up emotional, like they’re reading the forums and people are accusing us of being dishonest with them or having bad intent with why we were building the product that we were, and if you’re a member of the team, you don’t necessarily see across everything that’s going on.”

The reactions from the reveal event prompted management to pivot away from the home entertainment angle and focus on games for E3 2013. The game that opened the show was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Don Mattrick, Microsoft’s former president of Interactive Entertainment Business, would even state that E3 2013 was “all about the games.” Throughout its first year, the Xbox One struggled with its messaging, in particular to the concept of always-online functionality. In the following year, Phil Spencer was promoted to the head of Xbox, which marked the beginning of some significant changes for the platform. This included the controversial decision to drop Kinect from the console, thereby selling the Xbox One at a lower price.

More Exclusive Phil Spencer Coverage

Throughout our interviews, the head of Xbox had more to say about several topics in the current world of gaming. In addition to talking about the present state of cloud gaming and the so-called console war, Spencer also detailed what the future holds for next-gen consoles and the Xbox brand. Check out all our coverage in the stories linked below.

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