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In-depth at E3: Xbox’s Mike Nichols on Kinect, Microsoft’s strategy and customer feedback

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Upon entering the suites above the Galen Centre, where the Xbox Media Briefing for E3 2014 had just taken place, Xbox’s Mike Nichols offered me a drink and a snack.

“I would have if there were Mountain Dew or Doritos,” I joked, clearly way to comfortable than I should have been in front of an Xbox & Studios Marketing Corporate Vice President.

He took it in stride. “Nah, there are some Doritos in there somewhere,” he joked.

As I sat down, Nichols began the interview. “What’d you think?” he asked of me.

I forgot I was the one doing the interview for a minute. “I think it’s safe to say Microsoft can hold their head high after this one,” I admitted, getting too comfortable for my own good again. “Which is in direct contrast to last year’s outing.”

“We’re feeling great,” Nichols said, not batting an eyelid. “What we looked at it what everyone wanted to see – games, games and more games. The focus was, we wanted to make sure everyone gets the real message, which is Xbox One is the best place to play.

“We’ve been working at it for the last couple months, addressing specific areas of customer feedback. We’ve been listening, and we’re focused on giving everyone on what they want,” he said, smiling.

I brought up the fact that Microsoft barely spoke of Kinect at the briefing.

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“The focus of the event was what we’re doing to make Xbox the best place to play this generation,” he began. “It boils down to the three things. Number one, we’ve the best games this holiday; best games, awesome exclusives, and all available this holiday. Number two, a whole bunch of those games have an awesome multiplayer experience. Sunset Overdrive has eight player co-op; it’s going to be bad-ass, and it’s all built on Xbox Live. Number three, we believe in giving people options – and we’ve made a lot of steps in the last couple months to make sure people understood that. That we’re listening.

“We really want to provide value for people; they get to choose which Xbox One they want – with or without Kinect. People can try the Xbox One out and decide to get Kinect later if they’d like.”

“We did show Dance Central,” Nichols said, addressing Kinect head-on. “We’re committed to do a good job with Kinect, and we’re really appreciative of all those early adopters who have Kinect. They’ve used it a lot – there’s been over a million different voice commands thrown at it since launch.

“I like it a lot,” he continued.

I couldn’t resist. “I agree,” I chimed in.

He nodded. “I love it when you walk in a room and it recognises you. It gives you a personalised TV for the first time. I like Kinect Sports Rivals as a game, but thing I love most about Kinect – and customer feedback matches this – is the ability to move between a game, to Netflix, to whatever. So quickly and seamlessly.”

He got back on topic. “We showed a little bit of that today, but the focus was more on games than the platform this time around. We wanted to be for the game enthusiast.”

I mentioned that most Xbox One games were hitting the strange sweet spot of 792p rather than 1080p on PS4. Most games at Xbox’s Media Briefing were announced at 1080p, and that led me to ask if that increased resolution was because Kinect was no longer mandatory in games.

“Even at the launch of Xbox One, we had Forza Motorsports 5 at super-high resolution. It was a super-stunning game. Ryse was a beautiful game as well, and I’m not even sure if people know what resolution that was at,” he said.

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“I’ll admit that I don’t,” I counted. Nichols didn’t fill me in.

“I think it’s more about the quality of the games,” he said, pressing on. “That said, we announced that Halo: The Master Chief Collection is 1080p, 60 frames a second; Forza Horizon 2 as well. I think, over time, games are going to get richer and richer. It’s a thing that consistently happens with the generation; if you look at early 360 games compared to ones now, you go, ‘whoa.’ That’s going to happen with the Xbox One too.”

I changed gears to feedback and monthly Xbox One updates.

“This is going to sound like a bunch of bullshit,” Nichols began, “but it’s legit. You’ll see that in the way we’ve been operating since the launch of Xbox One. We listen. We really care. The reason that we listen is that it’s great for the business, but the real reason we listen is because we’re gamers too. We really care about this stuff. The thing that gets us up in the morning is we like investing stuff that gets guys like you, with 220,000 gamerscore…”

Yeah, I might have mentioned my gamerscore. Thirty-eighth highest in Australia, don’tcha know.

“… and we don’t take that for granted,” Nichols continued. “You see that in Phil [Spencer]’s passion. You’ll see that with every executive that works on Xbox. With that as context, we get signals from all over the place – Twitter, Facebook, emails. One of the things we really decided to do was to give customers a voice. Now, you can go to Xbox.com and submit an idea that we’re going to review.

“We’ve got the engineering team is going to review all these ideas. You, as a gamer, can vote ideas up. We’re going to do our best to act on that feedback when practical. It’s a chance to make your voice heard, and the community can then pile on top of that idea,” he said.

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I brought up the fact that critics of Microsoft see things like the removal of Kinect as backpedalling. How do you separate the trolls from actual fans with productive ideas?

“We’ve got a point of view about the future of Xbox One and the future of entertainment,” he said. “We want you to see that Xbox is the best place to play the generation. A lot of it, fans responded very well – it’s been the best launch of Xbox we’ve ever had. We’ve had a lot more usage; we average five hours of usage amongst Xbox Live users, believe it or not. That said, as equally committed to that vision as we are, we’re equally as committed to listening to our fans.

“So, that’s really the genesis, the inspiration for us. We’re happy to make changes that are different to our original plan, cause we’re being smart and listening to what our fans and customers are telling us. We’re going to do our best, and hopefully our judgement is sound in picking out the best of the best.”

I mentioned how impressed I was that Phil Spencer opened the Xbox Media Briefing by acknowledging and respecting the likes of Sony, Nintendo, EA and Ubisoft – those who also had press conferences at E3. Was that a decision made by Phil himself, or one more indicative of Xbox’s strategy moving forward?

“It’s something we’ve spent a lot of time talking about,” Nichols said. “How are we reviewing success? What is success? Success for us is inspired customers who become fans. That’s the guiding light. Our philosophy is, you do that and the rest takes care of itself. That’s the focus and why you heard, ‘games, games games’ – cause that’s what our customers really want.

“We believe over time, we can add lots of value to the Xbox One, where games are at the centre of your entertainment. We focused on games cause that’s what everyone wants at E3.”

In my opinion, Microsoft’s game-centric presentation was leaps and bounds over Sony’s stats-filled conference. What did you think of Xbox’s strategy this time around?

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Steve's the owner of this very site. He's a Canadian-Australian gay gaming geek, freelance journalist, ice hockey player and fan. Husband to Matt and cat dad to Wally.