Jun 15, 2023 - Technology

Xbox's game studios are finally ready to show off

Photo illustration of Matt Booty with a screenshot from Microsoft Flight Simulator and abstract shapes.

Xbox game studios chief Matt Booty. Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Images: Axios, Xbox

Microsoft’s video game studios are adopting longer development cycles, collaborating more with each other and finally ditching last generation’s Xbox One tech, if not that console’s playerbase.

Driving the news: These shifts are part of an updated approach to making games for PC and consoles at Microsoft, the company’s game studio chief Matt Booty tells Axios.

  • It’s also part of the latest strategy to get Microsoft’s gaming output closer to par with the frequent excellence of rivals Sony and Nintendo.

State of play: Microsoft currently manages 23 game studios, including eight it gained from its $7.5 billion purchase of ZeniMax Media in 2021.

  • Many of those studios have yet to release a game for Microsoft’s current line of consoles, the Xbox Series S and X, which launched in late 2020.
  • Until this weekend, some had yet to even announce a game for those devices.

Microsoft began to display significant progress at a showcase last weekend.

Details: Absent from the news were any games that would also run natively on Xbox One, Microsoft’s prior console. ”We’ve moved on to Gen 9,” Booty says, referring to the current cycle of hardware.

  • No internal teams are now working on games for the older gen consoles outside of support for ongoing games like Minecraft, Booty says.
  • That’s an expected transition, but one that has come later this cycle, as Microsoft and rival Sony extended support for their older devices and the more than 100 million people who own them.
  • Booty noted that Microsoft’s Gen 9 games are playable on its Gen 8 Xbox One console via Microsoft’s streaming cloud tech. “That’s how we’re going to maintain support.”

Yes, but: The teams will continue to develop for the Xbox Series S, despite some rumblings from developers outside of Microsoft that the company’s requirement that games for the $499 X also run on the weaker $299 S can hold a project back.

  • “Is it more work? Sure,” Booty says. But his teams have been able to squeeze more performance out of the Series S, especially those on their second game for this generation. “They can plan better, knowing where some of the sharp corners are.”

One key change for Microsoft is an extension of how long its teams are spending making the biggest-budget games.

  • Development cycles for high-end games aren’t two or three years any more, Booty says: “They're four and five and six years.”
  • The longer creation process is due to the increased complexity of modern games plus the desire to reach higher technical marks with 4K-compatible graphics and advanced lighting, Booty says.
  • “There are higher expectations. The level of fidelity that we're able to deliver just goes up.”

Between the lines: Booty says his team manages their game studios "somewhere in the middle” between centralizing all decisions and letting studios run free.

  • When asked, for example, if Microsoft had considered putting any Activision studios on its Halo franchise, should Microsoft succeed in buying the Call of Duty maker, he said, “If something like that were to happen, it would have to come from the studios.” He added: “It's unlikely that we would come in and dictate that from the top.”
  • “We optimize for creative output, which can have some pros and cons, sure, but that is the goal,” Booty says.
  • Booty has seen more internal buy-in for studios to support each other, given the challenges of remote work. “How do I build just enough structure that those studios can stay connected?” he says. A positive example of such a connection: Microsoft’s Coalition studio has been sharing with other teams its expertise using Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 game development tech.

The bottom line: Microsoft’s game showcase did suggest its studios are in a better place — but the company has said it’s turned the corner on development productivity before.

  • Proof will emerge, as always, in the years to come.

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