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Phil Spencer on Xbox One 'always-on' debacle: 'We could have been more clear'

On the final day of the Game Developers Conference, the head of Microsoft Studios opens up about the Xbox One's tumultuous road to launch and the company's indie game relationship.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer, who heads up the company's video game production arm, reflected on the Xbox One's controversial always-on policies rolled back last year in an interview with Gamasutra editor in chief Kris Graft on the final day of the Game Developers Conference here Friday.

"We could have been more clear and concise about what our real soul around the product was," Spencer said. Touching on the topic briefly yet apologetically, Spencer outlined how it was a learning experience, but that the blame was deserved because Microsoft fumbled the communication with consumers.

Despite those early setbacks last year -- including the policy reversal that many gamers seemed convinced would sink the Xbox One's sales fortunes -- Spencer opened up about the success of Titanfall, ironically a game that requires an Internet connection at all times to play, and the health of the console five months in. "We had our biggest [Xbox] Live week since launch. I see gamers coming to the platform. I see gamers playing a lot of Titanfall," he said.

"A new studio emerged and their first game is a knock-it-out-of-the-park game. Luckily, we had that game on Xbox at an incredibly important time for us," Spencer added.

Titanfall, however, will no longer be an Xbox exclusive as it heads toward its confirmed sequel, as publisher Electronic Arts and developer Respawn Entertainment aim to turn it into a multi-platform franchise.

Microsoft's indie game relationship

The talk, a fireside chat where the fire was provided naturally by a large Sharp television, comes at the end of the increasingly indie-focused and introspective developers conference.

GDC has always been a place for game professionals to dig deep under the skin of the games universe, but more so this year than any other -- with talks titled "Is Your Business Model Evil?" and "Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where Do Video Games Stand?" -- the conference has been a platform and public space to aggressively demand discussion around the problematic nature of the industry and its social, economic, and philosophic hurdles.

While the subject matter never came close to being as deep and direct as the above-mentioned talks, Graft did follow up questions about the Xbox One's always-on policies by prodding Spencer on Microsoft's once-murky relationship with indie game developers. Not only did that mark another communication delay last year on Microsoft's part, but the act of catering to indie developers was an aspect of the next-gen console launch that Sony hammered hard to draw differences between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

"For us it was always part of our plan, but it was, when are we going to talk about it," Spencer said about Microsoft's ambiguous position on indie game developers last year. "I feel really good about the success that we're having with independent developers that look at Xbox One as a target platform. Are we behind now? I would say that independent developers I've been hearing from and talking to are really happy." Earlier this week, Microsoft announced a long-awaited list of 25 indie games for Xbox One being developed through console dev kits and the ID@Xbox publishing program.

Spencer didn't address the topic without his fair share of dodging. When asked whether or not Microsoft was going to update its policy on how easily and fast independent developers could update their game through Xbox Live, Spencer geared his answer more toward massive publishers of games like World of Tank and Minecraft.

"Games with a tight update cycle, what is their internal mechanism? What is their update cadence? How can we as a platform holder learn from their cycle? Is it going to be that I can update every minute or every second? Fundamentally, that's not what the developers are doing," he added.

Spencer also was mum on opening up Xbox Live to Steam-like early access like the ability to purchase an "alpha," or early development version, of a game, something Valve's platform excels at from a game development standpoint. "Today a game is a game is a game. For a parent who is letting their child on the platform, they have to think about what a game is. You need to be clear to the consumer, to the gamer, that this is in a different state. You wouldn't want to mislead anyone, forget about the UI construct abut where things live," Spencer said.

On the subject on Valve, Spencer said that the company has re-energized its focus on Windows. "Valve has been the backbone of PC gaming for the last decade when you think about the work they've done. In a lot of ways, they've focused more on PC gaming than we have," he said. "You will see more focus on us, not to go compete with what Valve has done," he added, but to "to invest in that platform."

The discussion did touch on virtual reality given Sony's big push with Project Morpheus. Microsoft has no plans, Spencer said, but could down the line enter the fray.

"We have this huge Microsoft Research organization that is pretty important to us as a platform holder in helping us think about what might be next. A bunch of stuff in our games have been birthed out of Microsoft Research," he said. "This is why GDC exists, so that people can bring out technology that they see a future for and get feedback from the community."