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Xbox exec explains what Microsoft’s five new studios have in common

Head of Microsoft Studios Matt Booty talks about what the acquisitions mean for Xbox

Forza Horizon 4 - cars racing past trees in autumn
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Microsoft’s VP of Games Phil Spencer used the Xbox E3 2018 event to announced the company had acquired five studios. Some of those acquisitions felt inevitable (Microsoft has partnered with Playground Games for years) while others were totally unexpected (Compulsion Games first title, Contrast, was a PlayStation 4 launch game).

We asked Head of Microsoft Studios Matt Booty — who oversees the publisher’s first-party studios — why they chose to bring these particular developers into the Xbox fold. Booty shared what the studios have in common, and explained what the acquisition means for Xbox’s older teams.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Matt Booty: Let’s go back to last summer, last fall, where Phil was promoted, elevated to sit on Microsoft’s executive leadership team. As part of that, Xbox was really made a pillar in the company that sits right alongside Windows and Azure and Office. That’s a pretty big statement by Microsoft to say that, “Look, gaming is important. We’re going to treat it seriously. We’re going to resource it well. We’re going to give it support.” It’s that level of support and kind of encouragement to go big, to chase a bigger gaming ambition.

I mean, just as an aside on gaming ambition, we know right now that console is growing, PC is growing, mobile is growing. There’s two billion gamers on the planet now, so ... an amazing opportunity and we felt very supported by the company to chase after this.

When it came to thinking, “Hey, what makes the most sense for Microsoft Studios? Are we aligned around an interesting industry leading collection of studios? Are we a world class studios organization?” And we just felt that we had the great support of Microsoft to go bigger, to expand, to grow.

Phil used some great language today about how we were on a quest to find the great creators. If you look at each of the five groups that we’re looking forward to bringing into the fold, they all have in common a studio leader who really appreciates creativity and the craft of making games. They’re all studios that have got a unique point of view, and they’re really more about their creativity and what they’ve brought to bear there.

That’s kind of how we piece it together. We’ve got different ways and different ideas come in to our bigger family. We’ve got our established franchises like Halo, Gears, Forza, Minecraft, Age of Empires, and then we’ve got new things. That’s how State of Decay came in.

At the same time, we’re going to start some things from a complete blank piece of paper. What we’re doing with Darryl [Gallagher] down in Santa Monica ... we didn’t buy a team. We’re starting a studio. We were very fortunate to get in touch with Darryl Gallagher who’s a great leader, an industry veteran. He worked at Square Enix. He worked on Tomb Raider. He was at Activision. We’re going to take a bet on a person. We’re going to take a bet on people that he’s going to be able to put together a team, and we’re just going to really hand him a blank piece of paper. But know that he’s got that full support of Microsoft, and know that we want to chase after that bigger game plan.

Forza Horizon 4 - classic British cars Playground Games/Microsoft Studios

Polygon: When you’re making these acquisitions, I wonder if you’re trying to build up a portfolio. You have, obviously the racer, you have the shooter, you have the third-person shooter. Were you going into this quest or hunt with specific things you were looking for to fill out that portfolio?

Booty: That’s such a great question. The reason I like it is because very explicitly we did not set out with a spreadsheet like, “We need two of these, two of these, one of these, maybe we’ll have a couple of these.” Rather it comes back to we want to seek out and find the people and the teams that really show expertise in the craft of games and have a very creative point of view. In some cases, like with Playground, it’s a studio that we’ve worked with for six or seven years. With them, I think of a studio that has really pulled off something very difficult to do. They partnered with Turn 10 to expand an existing franchise. They did it in a way that’s super true to the Forza series, but made Forza Horizon, which has its own identity, its own kind of gameplay, but yet sits side-by-side with Forza Motorsport. And they did it in a way where they could [alternate] every other year [with the Forza Motorsport releases] and get those production cycles down. That’s hard to do.

When I think about Playground, I just think about operational excellence, and I think about the ability to partner with our teams. Now, by bringing them into the Microsoft Studios family, we can give them more support, more encouragement, more latitude, and that’s why Phil talked about today we’re going to be encouraging them to use their open-world expertise to chase after a new unannounced game that we haven’t talked about.

Again, it’s not a case of trying to fill out a bingo card, right. It’s more about who are people that we think are a cultural fit. Who are the actual people making these games, and who are the leaders at these studios that have shown a dedication to the craft. That’s really what led us to get in touch with these studios.

Polygon: I want to talk about the other older developers at Xbox, too. If you look at the rest of the industry — and in Microsoft’s relationship with Bungie — eventually developers get tired of making the same game. For example, Uncharted is what Naughty Dog is known for, but they’re stepping away from it. Do these acquisitions free up some of the older developers to experiment with either new IP or franchises that are not their bread and butter?

Booty: Yeah. Well, your observation is exactly dead on, that you’ve got to really be careful about teams. It can get ... anybody working on something for a decade can want to try something new, which is exactly why in almost all of our studios we do have pockets of incubation. We’ve got pockets of teams exploring new ideas.

That is how, for example, today we were able to show with Gears of War three different games on three different devices in three different genres. We’ve got the team chasing after a mobile game, and this isn’t like we handed the license off to somebody to go make a Gears game and let’s hope it comes out good. No. It is the studio working on what is a mobile game for Gears that’s authentic to Gears. We’ve partnered with Funko, which we think is a great way to add some life and originality to the game on mobile, and it really perhaps attract a new, different audience to the franchise. Then, you’ve also got Gears Tactics, which is designed from day one to be a great PC experience. It’s designed to be a great mouse and keyboard experience.

That’s an example of the franchise kind of going wide, and if you think about the things that that team has an opportunity to work on, that’s some pretty new territory, right. We’re going to think about not just with our franchise is kind of building on top of what we have, but also expanding out sideways onto new devices and new audiences, and then also all of our studios have got some kind of incubation pockets of projects that people are working on.

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