In the Executive Lounge at the Hilton, high above the show floor of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, sat Larry "Major Nelson" Hyrb, the energetic and long-serving public face of Xbox. Hyrb was in town to deliver the Story Time keynote at PAX Australia 2016, and took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to GameSpot. His keynote was predictably focused on the question "how do I get your job," and eventually shifted to the motivational, focusing on the concept of saying yes to opportunities.
Hyrb’s official title at Microsoft is Director of Programming for Xbox Live, which focuses him squarely on projects and programs relating to the Xbox platform. This includes Xbox Play Anywhere, the relatively new initiative that allows games to be purchased once, and playable on both Xbox One, and on PC via the Windows 10 Store. We were curious whether Play Anywhere was an attempt by Microsoft to gently shift public opinion toward its vision for a digital-only future, the very same future it backpedaled on during the Xbox One launch.
"I think the world is—with every passing year and month, every passing moment—the world is more and more comfortable with digital purchases, and frankly that’s what consumers are demanding," claimed Hyrb. "They want to have that flexibility of content unlocking and being available the moment a game is released. Being able to download it at their leisure."
To Hyrb, Play Anywhere is representative of the what modern-day Xbox has become. "We wanna make sure that gaming for Microsoft equals Xbox," he said, driving home those words with five raps of the table. "Xbox has always been a gaming console, and over the last year and a half or so, you’ve seen it become the gaming brand for Microsoft. Under that, it can mean what you want it to mean. Whether you’re part of the PC group that wants to have the latest and greatest in 4K gaming, 120 frames per second, that whole routine. Or maybe you just want to sit down and play a great game on a console and don’t have time for that. We’re trying to make sure we have something for everybody, no matter how they want to game, where they want to game, or when they want to game."
This flexibility is all very consumer-friendly, but it clearly requires the digital storefront to be a key component of how those consumers interact with Xbox. This plays beautifully into the hands of a company that needs to shift how consumers view its platform: as a platform, rather than as a singular, generational piece of hardware.
"Once we reveal more information about Project Scorpio in the coming months and over the next year, I think it’s about choice," Hyrb said. "There are certainly people that have the time and the resources to build their own PC, and they want to have the latest graphics card when it comes out. And that’s fine! That’s a great audience, we love those folks! But there are also folks who only have time—maybe like six hours a week—to play games. They’ve got other commitments in their life, they can just pop a game into a console or have it already downloaded and play it immediately. So, I think we’re trying to give people the choice of how and when they want to game."
How does the upcoming upgrade to Xbox, Project Scorpio fit into all this? Well, firstly Xbox doesn’t want consumers to think of it as a generational shift. "We’re looking at Scorpio as part of the Xbox family. I mean, who defines generations? They used to be defined very clearly by perhaps processor, hardware releases, and the games that were on them," Hyrb said. "What we’re looking at doing now is something that’s a little more akin to the mobile phone space, where when you upgrade all your content goes with you."
There it is again. "…all your content goes with you," presumably via the digital storefront.
This accelerated release cycle must mean the hardware team at Xbox is working hard these days. We were curious about what else they might be up to. "Microsoft is a massive software company, but people forget that the hardware side of it is incredibly important," Hyrb reminded us. "We have an incredible division that produces mice and keyboards. When Microsoft started Xbox we leaned on that team to build the original Xbox, the controllers and so on and so forth. They have a tremendous heritage there."
"The reason the mouse and keyboard team was started way back in the day, was to support the software," Hyrb continued. "And you can draw that line right through to the future to the Elite controller, which was built to support the software, i.e. the games by providing great customization. I’m not here to say hey we have an 'Elite Something' coming out any time soon, but we’re looking at the market quite closely, especially now the competitive market is so huge. We get great feedback from competitive gamers that love that controller, and they want more similar hardware. I don’t have anything to announce, but I can say we’re always looking at opportunities."
The direction Xbox is taking seems to be diverging from PlayStation, which is sticking to what it does best, doubling-down. It makes sense for Xbox to try new things—things that make it stand apart—in order to attract more players to its platform, and remain competitive. More consumer-friendly features are a good thing, and it's possible that over the course of time, we'll agree that a digital-only future is the way to go. Until then, we can only hope that strong competition between the leading platforms drives both to continue to introduce more consumer-friendly programs.