Microsoft's Xbox Tomb Raider deal: doubt, ambiguity and controversy

The corporate vice president of Microsoft on the deal to secure Tomb Raider exclusively for Xbox and competition with PlayStation 4.

In the business centre at the vast Gamescom exhibition in Cologne, Microsoft has its usual great green edifice – a rabbit warren of meeting rooms and break-out areas, with monitors showing endlessly rolling game trailers. It is an environment of concentrated tension from which the marketing messages are to be controlled and carefully distributed. It is a fort of Xbox. You are not getting anything they don’t want to give. That’s the way the modern industry works.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a classic example. At its press conference on Tuesday, Microsoft announced that the next Lara Croft game will be an Xbox exclusive when it arrives at Christmas 2015. But what does that mean? Is it timed? Will it arrive on other platforms at a later date? When?

Raiding the message

As it happens, my appointment to speak to Microsoft’s corporate vice president coincides exactly with Eurogamer speaking to the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, in the room next door. We both want the same thing – confirmation on Tomb Raider.

“We have said very clearly that Tomb Raider will be coming holiday 2015 exclusively to Xbox,” says Harrison with a wry, deliberate smile. “We’re very pleased with the partnership we have with Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics to bring that title to Xbox. Obviously our job is to make sure our console has the biggest games available on it - we want to make sure we bring value to our players whether they’re Xbox One owners today or if they become owners in the future - that’s why we’re also doing bundle offers this year with Sunset Overdrive, Call of Duty and Fifa. It’s all part of making the console more attractive. The Tomb Raider relationship is part of that.”

They don’t want to give us this information. They don’t want to because the whole point of the deal is doubt and ambiguity. For Tomb Raider fans wavering over what console to buy, the suggestion that the series will only continue on Xbox One – or that Xbox will be the place to get the games, say, a good year before other machines – may be enough to encourage their commitment toward Microsoft’s platform. But if Spencer or Harrison show their cards too early and put a shelf-life on the deal, fans are able to factor that in; they can be rational.

I ask Harrison if chasing third-party exclusives is a dangerous venture – it obviously secures attractive content, but it also creates frustration and even anger in the wider games community. He sits back. “Well as I’ve always said, one of the greatest things about our industry is the passion of our fans - that’s what makes us get out of bed every morning, trying to build the best games we can – that doesn’t change.”

This isn’t going to go anywhere.

So we talk about the need for original titles in the new console era. Destiny is exciting but it has set a scary precedent: a team of many hundreds, a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Is that really sustainable?

“This is a conversation I’ve been having for 25 years,” he says. “Can the industry support this incredible increase in development costs? I remember when development budgets were in the hundreds of thousands, and when the average became more than a million there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth that this was an unsustainable trend.

“The reality is, everyone’s a gamer now, the worldwide industry is growing, not just driven by consoles but by mobile devices. Some analysts are talking about $70-80bn in annual sales over the next two years. Games are almost ubiquitous and that allows us to make big bold ambitious bets on the future of entertainment. Quantum Break is an example of that. We’re working with a talented developer, but we are investing significant funds to make sure we can create something new and special - not just in the game but the TV narrative that intertwines with it. We hope it will create a new form of interactive entertainment that will set a benchmark for the future. We have lots of other things in development that’s we’re yet to announce – we’ll do that when the time is right …”

The numbers game

As for the battle with PlayStation 4, Sony has been providing sales numbers throughout the last year, Microsoft... not so much. Xbox One is coming to 28 new territories this autumn – it’s important to understand that it isn’t as widely available on a global level as PlayStation 4. But when are we going to get the next official announcement on sales beyond the five million revealed in July?

“We’re a public company so we have to be thoughtful about the time and place for making announcements on sales figures,” says Harrison. “But lets take a slightly wider view of this - we are a tiny fraction into this generation. 95 percent of it is ahead of us. Some analysts are predicting that this is going to be the biggest console generation ever, so we are confident that the new value we have, with the lower price, the games, the features, the ability to stream live TV to any device in your house … these are killer features. We remain very confident.”

And behind that will have been weeks of media training. This is what they teach you: go in to every interview with the three points you want to make – make them whatever the question. Don’t change the script. Make the interviewer feel comfortable, pretend to remember them, use their first name throughout. It is about control. These aren’t really interviews, they are marketing opportunities. Remember that time Quentin Tarantinoexploded at Krishnan Guru-Murthy during a promotional chat around Django Unchained? The Channel 4 news presenter was baiting him into a debate about the effects of film violence, and the director refused to take part. “I’m here to promote my movie,” he said. “This is an advert for my movie, make no mistake.”

I ask Harrison about this last year for Xbox, the PR troubles, the high-profile U-turns. Has this been personally difficult? “We’ve learned a lot, but our commitment is unwavering,” he says. “We have to make sure we deliver the best console with the best games and the best online service. Those are the simple steps we have to take. But let’s not forget that Xbox One is off to the fastest start of any device we’ve introduced, out-pacing 360 in the same time frame - the whole industry is growing, which is exciting and positive.”

The ever-present PR person tells me my time is up. Outside the room, the bustle continues. It is like this on every stand, in every meeting room. The industry charges on.

The guardian.com


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