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For Microsoft’s Mike Ybarra, Xbox is about letting gamers be gamers

Mike Ybarra on stage at an Xbox press conference
Mike Ybarra, Corporate Vice President of Gaming at Microsoft
Video game consoles are changing. Since their introduction, home consoles have been released in discrete generations, each different from the last. Unlike previous consoles, however, the One X is more of an incremental improvement, in the vein of smartphones, that offers more powerful capabilities but the same basic compatibility with all things Xbox One.

We sat down with Mike Ybarra, Microsoft’s Vice President of the Xbox and Windows platform at Gamescom several days after the company’s big press conference to talk about the Xbox One X, incremental console updates, and the newly-announced partnership with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds developer Bluehole.

Mr. Ybarra’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Digital Trends: The line between consoles and PCs has grown blurrier in recent years, both in terms of what’s under the hood and in player expectations and experience. As Microsoft you’re obviously playing a big role in that. How is that merger informing your design philosophy of the Xbox going forward?

Ybarra: I think there’s a couple of things about this — one is the philosophy that Phil [Spencer, Xbox head] instilled and everyone’s rallying behind is to not think about customer segments by what platforms they play on. We think about just gamers being gamers, and how to unite them and bring more people into this hobby that we all love and get to work in.

People playing video games with Xbox One controller Mike Ybarra
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

So, we’re trying to blur that line a lot, and it’s a journey for some people, but for others it’s like, “absolutely, we’re there–let’s keep going.” And so I like that–I like the fact that Microsoft has made Windows for the last 35 years. Our group not only makes the console, we make all the Windows gaming features, so from our standpoint this is all just kind of Xbox, the global gaming brand for Microsoft.

Developers love the idea of a multiplayer pool that’s one big one vs. three or four or five small ones that sometimes get into a situation where there’s not enough people to play in some areas and whatnot. Just from a strict dev standpoint, Xbox One X is by far the easiest dev platform that we’ve created, because we largely took Windows tools and said “let’s apply them here.” Game developers love that because it means they can save time. So, you combine all those things.

I like the strategy of bringing gamers together and making it easier for developers, letting them make as much money as possible on our platform.

Your partnership with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds developer Bluehole was one of the most exciting announcements from Microsoft’s Gamescom presentation. Can you elaborate on that partnership and how it works?

We think about just gamers being gamers, and how to unite them and bring more people into this hobby.

The Bluehole/Microsoft relationship right now is an incredible positive. They’re obviously the biggest game, period, out there right now–eight million copies in four months, a lot of good momentum for them.

Now that we’re publishing the Xbox version of it, there’s people on my team and marketing resources that have opened up for Bluehole. We have a number of engineers helping them optimize for Xbox–both the Xbox One version, and the Xbox X version, in terms of the enhancements that they’ll bring to the title.

I think that it’s the standard partnership that we do with developers on specific titles when we really want to work together to bring something amazing across, and that’s a great title from a Windows and Xbox standpoint […]. I love it–I think they’re an awesome developer. We’ve known Brandon for a long time from the mods that he’s been doing, so it’s working out super well for us.

With the PS4 Pro earlier this year and the Xbox One X coming up, consoles have entered a new phase of incremental (rather than discrete) upgrades. Can you talk about this shift, and what it means for gamers, and who these upgrades are for?

Let me tackle your latter question, then I’ll roll into the thought process that we go through when we think about creating a console.

For us, in terms of who it’s for, I really like the product offering that we have now. We have high-end PCs where people spend anywhere from two to fifteen thousand dollars on these devices, and that’s sort of like the .001% who want the absolute highest-end of everything that’s out there. They put in a $700 video card, let alone a $500 or $249 console, so we’re investing in the Windows category there.

Then we have the Xbox One S at $249–incredible value there, lots of choice in terms of the games you can get. We have Xbox Game Pass for $9.99 a month: over a hundred games, with new games coming in, which adds great choice value for the consumers.

Then at $499 we have the Xbox One X, which from a price/performance standpoint there’s nothing that even comes close to what that box is going to deliver, or the experience that you’re going to get. That is targeted at the core gamer that wants to play the best versions of the games, hands-down, usually someone with a 4K TV, although 1080p TVs get advantages as well.

I always tell people that we don’t wake up one day and say “let’s make a new console!” because that would be crazy. We look at industry trends. We started building this box, believe it or not, back in 2012. We were asking “when is 4K going to hit?” because that’s going to be a moment when people are buying TVs and they’re going to expect 4K content and want to push that forward.

So we look at audio, we look at pixels, we looked at cloud technology, everything, and sort of say “when is the next time we need new capabilities in physical hardware?” Then we listen to the fans, who will say “we want more pixels” or “we want X, Y and Z.” With this box we knew that 4K was going to be coming very strong.

I always tell people that we don’t wake up one day and say ‘let’s make a new console’ — because that would be crazy.

We could have created the box a year earlier–it would have been far less than the capabilities of what we have now. We chose to wait because we saw, frankly, in holiday season across the globe 4K TV sales starting to ramp. Last year it was the number one holiday gift in the US, so we feel like we’ve hit that point well.

It’s looking at those industry trends, looking at what consumers want, where developers are limited in their creations and bringing them to life on the TV–all of those are variables that factor into when we do another console. We did this one faster than normal–usually it’s five to eight years, I would say–and in doing that we had to promise customers something: compatibility.

If we’re going to come out in three or four years with a console, all of games have to work, including the 360 back-compatibility, and the original back- compatibility on this box, and all the hardware has to work pretty seamlessly.

I don’t think we’re in a world anymore where a console comes out and you lose your library, you lose your hardware, and you lose your investment anymore. People expect that going forward, and I think that’s a trend from phones and other things as they upgrade.

The Xbox One X launch is imminent, but with the recent delay of Crackdown 3, it seems like your holiday is a little light on games to really champion the new hardware. What’s your plan for convincing players to upgrade?

When I think about our holiday line-up, I think we have one of the best holidays ever. If you want to play racing, you’re on Xbox: Forza Horizon 3, Forza Motorsport 7s going to be phenomenal.

PUBG‘s going to be huge. The PC side understands that right now, but console players are saying “we hear about this PUBG thing all the time, but what’s it mean for us, and let’s get into that game. So having Forza Motorsport 7, having PUBG, having things like Cuphead, which is a brand new, stylized game that reminds me a lot of Ori [and the Blind Forest] in terms of just the fun that that game brings when I play it, and Super Lucky’s Tale from a broader audience perspective.

Mike Ybarra interview — Gamers test 'Crackdown' on the XBox One X during the Electronic Entertainment Expo E3 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I love that we have hardcore PUBG all the way to Super Lucky’s Tale, in terms of what we offer people. Minecraft comes out with new content almost every single month, so I feel great about this holiday.

When I look beyond that, Crackdown, State of Decay, a few more things coming down. The Rare team continues to kick butt with Sea of Thieves, so I feel really good about where we are in terms of the content portfolio.

Any final thoughts?

It’s funny, at E3 last year and here at Gamescom I’m always reminded, it’s very rare that a console launches, and what a special time this is. I have to take a step back and say “Wow, this probably happens three to five times in a career if you’re lucky.” So it’s just fun to be part of the launch on November 7th ramping up. I’m happy with what developers are now starting to show–It’s going to be a heck of a holiday.

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