Microsoft Xbox’s Phil Spencer is our special guest on Episode 2 of Talking Games With Reggie And Harold! Phil and Reggie have been longtime friends, so listen for Phil’s surprise announcement! Then, please donate for our good cause right here.
This also is a special music-themed episode in which the former Nintendo of America president talks about his work with Loretta Lynn to the E3 concerts Nintendo staged. Harold talks about meeting Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Patti Smith, The Kinks, Talking Heads, The Cars, Green Day – and nearly getting arrested at a Bob Dylan show. Enjoy!
Welcome to Episode Two of Talking Games with Reggie and Harold. We hope you’re staying well and staying safe wherever you may be. And if you’re enjoying the podcast we hope you donate to our fundraiser for underserved communities at nygamecritics.com/reggie. Today we’re going to have a lot of fun talking about music, music in general music and games. I’ve got some inside stories to share with you from my career. And Harold began as a music critic, so he’s got some great tales to tell. And our special guest from the world of games is my friend from Microsoft, the leader of the Xbox business, Phil Spencer.
I’m thrilled about Phil, Reggie. And yes, we’ll have great stories about music and music and games and Phil a bit. Talking Games with Reggie and Harold is the first fundraiser for the New York Video Game Critics Circles mentoring work in the Bronx and on the Lower East Side. In particular, we’re raising funds to work with homeless students in the Bronx. So please donate at nygamecritics.com/reggie, even if it’s a small amount, you can make a difference. So please bring us those bells. We want to thank everyone who has donated so far. Every $10 or more helps greatly and we appreciate it. And we also want to welcome Mythical Games which has given us a kind donation to help our students. Reggie, I moderated a fireside chat at the Game Speed Summit with Mythical’s CEO John Linden. We had a lively conversation about what he calls leisure economy and their upcoming game Blankos. So Mythical’s initiative in a nutshell is that it allows players to make some money while playing games. And we’ll be talking more about Mythical in the weeks to come. But for now, Mythical, thank you so much. For your donation. Reggie, you have had more than a few situations in your career where you’re involved with music in big ways and small, and can you share a few of those stories?
Absolutely. You know, looking back on my career, I’ve had many, many situations that involve music early in my career. You know, the involvements were a bit more minor during my days at Proctor and Gamble working on Crisco shortening. At the time, Loretta Lynn was our spokesperson. So I would spend time with Loretta at commercials shoots. I actually put on a Loretta Lynn concert at the Grand Ole Opry as part of our 75th anniversary celebration for Crisco shortening. And I’ll tell you that was an experience dealing with ticket requests and seating. Exposure to her management and to her label. You know, that was a big learning experience for a 25 year old. And then later in my career, my exposure to music became bigger. My days with Guinness, it was another milestone, we put on a multi city music festival called the Guinness Flop. It was a celebration with music with food and with Irish culture. And I was working with the music promoter selecting the artists, making decisions on sites for the festivals. It was really fun to be backstage and to be up close to the performers and to the performances. But my biggest exposure to music was at VH1. Artists would always be in the building visiting VH1 or MTV. We had the occasional artists playing in the lobbies of the channels VH1 put on these huge music events: Divas, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction concerts. Plus, you know, this was the magical part we had access to tickets for any concert of note in the tri state area. So I heard a ton of great music while I worked at VH1.
Reggie, let’s pivot a little and what are your favorite bands and why?
So I I truly love all forms of music, old school, classic rock, grunge. I like some hip hop. I like some rap, even some country, right? Dating back to my, my time with Loretta just about everything.
And how about best concerts?
You know. So again, this is where I’m fortunate with the experiences I had not only at VH1, but just because of my ongoing love of music. I saw U2 perform at Madison Square Garden, and it was the first show at the Garden following 9/11. And this is the show where Bono had the American flag stitched in the lining of his leather jacket. And as he’s performing, he’s showing off the flag and his jacket. It was a classic moment. More recently here in the Seattle area, I went to the Pearl Jam home shows at Safeco Field, and I’ll tell you I’ve always liked Pearl Jam. But my wife Stacy is a huge fan. She worked in the music business as they were launching in the late 80s and early 90s. She’s seen them over 10 times I think and it was just wonderful to experience that concert with her. But one of the best collisions of music and Nintendo was going to hear Billy Joel at one of his monthly concerts at the Garden with Mr. Miyamoto and Mr. Aonuma. So this was just before the Nintendo Switch launch event in early 2017. And after working all day on prep activity and getting ready for what we were doing, we needed an opportunity to unwind and so we all went to the concert and we brought in Mr. Miyamoto through the back entrance of the Garden so he that he wouldn’t get mobbed. And it really was so much fun seeing how much he and Mr. Aonuma enjoyed the music. They knew all the songs they sang along and it was just so much fun.
man I think the picture of Mr. Miyamoto Mr. Aonuma jamming to New York state of mind makes me really feel warm inside. What Why do you enjoy classic rock so much?
Classic Rock is what I grew up listening to right? Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, early Aerosmith. I’ve seen the Rolling Stones so many times. A number of years ago, they did a number of small venues across the United States. I got to see them when they were in New York City. The event I went to, they played all their classics but they also did some rockabilly and some New Orleans tinge music. It really was a wonderful show. I saw The Who perform a number of times in the late 70s and early 80s. While I was a student at Cornell University, you know, the the school was a key stop for touring artists. So there at Cornell I saw The Kinks. I saw The Cars I saw The Grateful Dead. So you know, I guess from all of those experiences, classic rock is just in my blood.
You know, Reggie, E3 it was a great place for live music until around say the Great Recession. Do you have any recollections of seeing bands there? I know Nintendo had a history of showcasing great acts from the B-52s to Diana Krall to Sheryl Crow to George Benson.
I’m really proud. During my time there at Nintendo when we would put on these events. We Had Sheryl Crow perform. She did a great performance. We had Maroon 5, just after they had won a Grammy for best new artist. This was their breakout year. We had the Black Eyed Peas that was a show. There was a strong aroma floating through the venue during during that show. But, you know, yes, you’re right. E3 had so many great experiences with music.
One of my best E3 memories was standing next to Rebecca Romain and David Spade while watching Alicia Keys play solo, and she was just at a piano and it was around the time her first album came out everyone, was really transfixed by her artistry. And you could tell she was a legend in the making. So when you put on some great shows, just as Nintendo and Microsoft did, but I remember that Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney showed up to promote Beatles Rock Band at E3, and the crowd went wild. I remember Daniel Radosh, who now works as a senior writer at The Daily Show, and was one of the hosts For New York Game Awards, did this awesome, long, thoughtful story about Beatles Rock Band. Everyone should just kind of look that up because it’s just seminal writing. But Reggie, you had a hand in producing one of the most important shows that helped us get through 9/11. Can you tell us about that?
Sure. You know, I’ve got, I’ve got great memories, helping to put on the concert for New York. And so I need to provide a little bit of perspective. I was working in New York City at the time at VH1. I was in Midtown when the towers were attacked. 9/11 was just devastating to the city. It really impacted the the psyche of the city and the tremendous loss of first responders, not only during that event, but then all of the work afterwards. It was a really tough time. And there had been a music event right after 911. But it was a pretty dark and somewhat depressing event. Our vision was to execute a more uplifting show and to generate disaster relief for the first responders. And in fact, the bulk of the the seating right there at the floor level for Madison Square Garden was reserved for the police department, the fire department, the EMT staff, all of the first responders that had worked so hard and had been impacted so deeply. So I was involved in managing the marketing, but also pulled in to all of the meetings driving the management of the event. And to put this in perspective, you know, we had regular business on the channel. We were putting on another VH1 event at the same time. This was the VH1 Fashion Awards. And literally that event taped on a Friday night, and the next day was the concert for New York City. And we would have meetings organizing the concert for New York City beginning around seven o’clock at night. We would work until late in the evening on all of the executional details. It was a huge amount of work, but just so tremendously fulfilling and how it all played out.
It must have been very emotional and also rewarding for you because you had the chance to meet any of the performers?
You know, during the event itself, no. Security was really tight as you can imagine. And the event was a mix of music and other personalities from the world of movies and TV and Hollywood. My wife Stacy worked PR for the event. And she has great stories of escorting actors like Harrison Ford to meet their favorite musicians. She actually took him to see Roger Daltrey from The Who. I did get to come close to some of the performers and the celebrities at the after party. But unfortunately, that was the day before a great camera would be on your phone. So I’ve got no evidence. I’ve got no pictures.
It’s great. That’s great. I mean, I believe you that it happened, but if you had pictures it would have solidified the fact
It would it would have been would have been magical but you know, Harold, you are a music critic and a writer before you began writing about games. Tell us about that experience.
That is right Reggie. I even had a band in my writing at the time when it was a bad imitation of Patti Smith’s punk poems. But what was cool about that band was that we had this guy, Alan Sims and he was Rick James’ guitarist, so he was really a true master. You could have him do funk. You could have him do Led Zeppelin riffs. He was just really excellent. And being a music critic, I was pretty poor, starting my career, I had no extra money to spend. So getting promotional copies of records as a critic was really a godsend for me. I remember doing a fictional satire for one of the local radio stations in Buffalo, and I did just for three free records.
Yeah, that’s funny. Did you get to meet many performers? Yeah, hundreds.
Over that timing. The highlights were meeting Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter who was supposed to be, well, not really nice. And he was at an event with Andy Warhol. So I had to choose if it was going to be Andy or Miles. And I chose Miles. And we talked for an hour and a half about jazz and our lives and living and afterwards he gave me his phone number. I also interviewed Dizzy Gillespie, Alberto Hunter, Sun Ra, Wynton Marsalis and John Batiste. I really love jazz to this day.
Yeah. Wow, that’s great. What about other music? Are you into rock and roll?
Of course, man, I met Ray Davies from The Kings. That was a real thrill. I I very much into the punk and new wave scene. So I interviewed Talking Heads, The Clash, The Cars, The Police, Green Day, The Sex Pistols, spit in my eneral direction. When we went to see them pass through Kennedy Airport. There was like a big glob of spit coming our way. I met Patti Smith, who was my rock and roll hero. And when I moved to New York, I would see Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson kissing at my local diner. I said man, New York City’s rock and roll heaven. I went to an underground hip hop club. In Brooklyn to meet Doug E Fresh and his young protege was 12 years old, Little Vicious. I did that for the New York Times and I remember sitting in an empty bar in the East Village singing Elton John songs with Jeff Buckley. So New York City is awesome when it comes to music.
New York City is an awesome city for music. So tell me more of these inside stores.
There are wild ones which I think you understand I shouldn’t even talk about, but in early one that comes to mind is when I was around 17 in Buffalo, I went to see Bob Dylan in the at the Niagara Falls Convention Center. And I just started at the college paper and I wanted to impress the editors. So after the show, I sneak backstage looking for Bob Dylan, or Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. They’re all performing that night. But they all left within minutes. I mean, who wants to stay at the Niagara Falls Convention Center at midnight. So there I was sneaking around backstage I entered Bob’s dressing room. No one was there. I put my head in Joan Baez’s dressing room, no one was there. But I stopped to eat a grape and just as I ate that grape to burley six-foot security guards lifted me from under each arm and held on to me until they dropped me at the local police substation. So the police yelled at me. I was nervous as hell. My ride had left but that experience didn’t stop me from trying to get backstage for quotes in the future. I just learned how to do it a little better.
Well, and you’ll learn not to eat the artists food as well. That’s that really pisses them off. So why did you leave music?
I still write about music now and then. But honestly, I didn’t really like many of them music editors at the big publications. That egos were just too much for me. Sometimes they thought they were rock and roll stars. And they really weren’t. I just wanted to write and forget the egos. So I began to write about film and TV and I did a number of cover stories for The Hollywood Reporter, interviewing folks like Quentin Tarantino and talk to a lot of indie actors like Adrian Shelley, who was tragically murdered here and Greenwich Village. But she wrote in directed Waitress and she was just coming into her own his tragic loss. And Adrian introduced me to the actor Tim Guinee, who is a great character actor he lived in my building. And I think it might have been Tim who introduced me to the director John Waters, and we all ended up watching the World Trade Center come down while standing in the middle of Sixth Avenue. It was surreal and sad.
Incredibly sad. So how did you then transition into video games?
I bought a Pentium computer for $3,000, which was most of my savings. And I discovered CD ROM games in like brilliant educational efforts like Encarta, and my first long games article was for Smart Money a Wall Street Journal magazine. When I started in games, everyone was just like, really happy to have a consumer press reporter cover them so and people were regular, they were nerdy. It felt like home to me and I saw the question potential for music and story and film and interactivity in games. It actually I thought took a long time for narrative to come around. But stories by Dan Houser, Amy Hennig, and Ken Levine made me realize that that games narrative would be as good as film within a decade and it now it is generally that good. And that’s why I’ve stayed, the writing still gets better and better.
Absolutely. Well, isn’t a true part of the circles mission is to teach game narrative, right?
Yeah, yeah, we have two courses we like to teach. The first is an intro to journalism course, where everyone learns the basics of criticism, podcasting, and interviewing. And the second is a games narrative course we ask students to write social justice oriented poems, and from that they create teams of four, write a pitch paragraph, then they do level design and then a game level. And we have been using Media Molecule’s Little Big Planet 3 for that. So Having these cute characters transformed by our students as they tell their stories of feeling sad, maybe of poverty or of homophobia or of bullying are pretty amazing to witness and also amazing to play. It’s really moving to see it. And now we’re moving on to having them create games and Dreams.
Oh, that’s, that’s amazing. And again, you know, the work that the circle is do using the power of video games to teach to drive creative writing, and it just is wonderful work.
Now, here’s something fans have been waiting for. Our interview with Phil Spencer
Phil, I want to thank you for joining us in this podcast adventure. It’s very gracious of you to participate in this. And certainly I know, Harold and I are looking forward to it very much.
Well, thanks. You and I’ve been friends for a while when you reached out, it was, one, I just like to catch up with you and see what’s been going on. I’ve been watching you on Twitter and all your talks, and congrats on all the success you’ve had in the last year in the new role at GameStop. Yeah, looking forward to it.
Well, that’s great. You know, one of the things that people don’t realize is given the size of this industry, right, bigger than music bigger than recorded video, bigger than movies. it’s actually a tight knit industry. Right? We know each other. Well, we’ve spent time with each other in industry association meetings in social settings. So you know, the friendship is real.
Yeah, I mean, you and I have how many times have we ridden in the back of a car together going to an ESA meeting or something? And frankly, the lived experience that we have as platform holders, there’s very few people on the planet that, I mean, there’s certain things that you and I can chuckle about and I think when you know Shawn, or even back in the day Jack at Sony, like the shared experiences that we’ve all had. And I think the camaraderie across the industry, not just the platform holders, is absolutely real. I think we’re all we’re all here to bring enjoyment to people. And and I think that’s not lost on us. Absolutely.
So I was thinking back, the last time I saw you was actually at the Seattle Tacoma airport. And, you know, you I think you were headed off to Asia. And I think I was headed back East, and it could have very well been for a Video Game Circle event. You know, what is it like right now trying to manage the Xbox business from home, because I’m sure you’re not traveling very much right now.
No, I’m not traveling at all. You know, we’re all finding a new rhythm. You know, the thing that and I’m sure this is hitting everybody, listeners included. There’s the physical of what does it mean to figure out how I work away from the office and what does it just mean to make sure I have the right setup. I think over time, the emotional toll is something that we shouldn’t shy away from talking about, you know? May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As people are physically away from their friends and their co-workers. You know, I feel it. I want to be with the team and I’ve seen a lot of people like I see you two in a 2D display on my computer monitor, but I’m looking forward to real reality at some point. I think that’s been the the biggest learning for me it’s just the kind of emotional toll that this takes on all of us, and and being conscious of giving everybody the space and the time to talk about that. Because I think it’s, it’s, it’s real.
You know, one of the things that I’m sure people don’t realize is the work that is done in the industry, whether it’s creating the content or creating the planning, whatever it is, it’s so collaborative, and you’re spending so much time with people. The development side, the business side. How’s it going across the various teams given this this time of COVID and as you raise the fact that now everything’s done through a screen and it’s all 2D versus you know, truly in person.
Yeah. The teams are innovative, they’ll come up with new ideas. I was talking with some of our first-party teams just today that are using some like private Mixer streams to do play testing on games that are coming up. Because you’ve done this, right? You’re all working on a game and you used to be in a room and you hand the controller back and forth. How does this camera feel? How do we feel about aiming here? We’re finding our own tech x cloud is a way that we can take some games that are still in development and bring them to a lot of players. So we’re we’re kind of repurposing some of the tech that might have been out there for other uses. And it’s interesting to see the teams making progress and they’re doing an amazing job. Safety and security of the teams obviously have to be at the foremost the most important thing for us, but seeing how technology has come into play to allow this, as you said, incredibly creative and collaborative medium, still make progress is it’s been it’s been cool to watch and be part of.
That’s great. And it’s I have to believe this is one of the advantages of Microsoft, right? The the tools, the tech, the capabilities that you have to to drive this forward.
Yeah, I mean, we’re you and I right now we’re in a Teams call not to make it a Teams ad. But the even though the collaboration with that team as we’ve been coming together to get work done. Our Azure infrastructure, at Microsoft. And also, I’d say from some policy reasons and people like Brad Smith, that our company that’s just a real seasoned leader and real principled at a time where I think our principles have to be the foundation of what we do. It’s been a great ride so far to be part of the Microsoft leadership team as they’ve been working through this. I definitely feel I understand the privilege I have of working at a company that allows me to work from home and working in an industry, frankly, where it might be challenging, but it’s at least possible to work from home and it’s not lost on me that there’s so many people out there that aren’t afforded that same privilege and to make sure that that’s in our minds and frankly in our hearts of everything that we’re doing.
Absolutely. That is so key. So I have to ask the million dollar question, right? Is, is everything on track? I won’t even embarrass you by asking you to, you know, to drop some news. What’s the launch date? I would hate when people would do that to me, but, you know, just macro perspective, you know, are things on track from your perspective?
Yeah, we had another hardware review, Liz Hammer in the team. We did that this week. In our supply chain, we feel good about the hardware side feels like we’ll be able to get enough units. And you know, we’re pretty committed as we’ve talked about to a worldwide launch, which regretfully, we didn’t do with Xbox One. You remember watching that from Nintendo campus. It took us months and months to hit some of the incredibly important markets and worldwide launch is important to us. Software in the platform side is making good progress. Games are making progress. You know, I’ve talked about this before. And you just mentioned that the collaborative nature of game development and the scale frankly of game development today, and any of the functions that actually require physical kind of collaboration, things like motion capture, things like symphonic capture, those kind of things. Some of that is is put on hold. So really, I think on the game side, things that are pre-content complete might be impacted more than things that are post-content complete. And then the last thing to make it too long, the QA side of it of just making sure we’ve got the right time. We have take home kits now for the next Xbox. And I’m looking at mine right here sitting behind my monitor. But getting them out to all of the people who are testing and how we do that. Even like how you get them handed out. Nobody wants to sit in the office and have hundreds of people coming through at this time. We’ve had to work through some some challenges but feel good about timelines feel really good about this holiday.
You know, someone asked me how I felt not leading a company in this time of COVID. And I was honest and saying, look, all leaders have gone through challenges, but COVID presented Just so many unique ones. Just as you’re talking, Phil, you know, I know what it’s like to bug test a game bug test the system, making sure that there’s access, making sure that there’s security for the system, because this is expensive equipment. A highly, highly sought after equipment. All of those challenges. I mean, it is. It’s gotta be driving you a little crazy.
Yeah, well you know, like some of the calls in that you’ll, this will resonate with you, that we got early on with some of the third party publisher. Because our rights around our dev kits and where they can and cannot go are important things. And we’ve laxed a lot of that we have third party developers that are taking our development kits home and which isn’t something that we’d normally be a big fan of through development, but you just, you know, you have to make those kind of modifications because it’s really about getting the great games done. But yeah, you’re the kind of higher level point I tease myself sometimes as a kid that went to the University of Washington getting a computer degree and you know now like managing thousands of people through COVID-19. I don’t remember that class, like I remember. And this is where, you know, I’ve had conversations with a lot of leaders in our industry. We’ve been very open and transparent about things that we can do to help each other because we’re all learning. And frankly, as an industry, you remember, we’ve done this before, when we’ve worked through DDoS attacks and other things where we’ve bonded together. It’s one of the things I love about being in the games industry, while there’s good healthy competition, which I think leads to better output. We’re also understanding that we get to work in an incredibly fun place and challenging-in-a-good-way industry. And, and the more we work together, it’s actually the better the industry is and this is definitely a time where we’re relying on each other as much as possible.
Absolutely. Let me shift gears. You know, you’ve you’ve begun the process of revealing information about the news system, the games. Are there. Are there elements that have been revealed that in your view, maybe people don’t understand as well, that excite you but maybe people just don’t understand the the true capability of what can be done. Anything so far that you know, from your perspective would benefit from added clarification?
It’s a great question. And one that it’s not surprising to me that you would ask. One of the things I’ve talked about publicly, but it’s just hard to come across, is the way it feels to play games on a box where frame rates are higher. Frame rates are more stable. Not to go and all the technical stuff about variable refresh rate and that synching with my monitor here as I’m playing and just the fluidity of it, showing that in video form is just impossible. Like how do you show how something feels I remember when you launch the Wii. And I was there at E3 and the huge lineup that you guys had at the boot. Because in a way you could kind of show the wand you could show the box you could show someone playing. But if anything, that almost distracted from how it felt to play. Because people started taking a part how it looked to play, which wasn’t the point. And, you know, this is, it is a physical medium, we put our it’s interactive. And the interactivity is something I just think makes this art form unlike any other art form that’s out there. And we’ve been through so many generations, whether it’s 2D to 3D, whether it’s just the hyper realism that we’re starting to get to. Where it was just show me a really pretty frame of a video game and I’ll, I’ll figure out how it feels to play later on. And I think we’re getting to the point where the immersion feel that you get through fluidity and other things is now up to par with the visual capabilities that we have. And that’s just something that we continue to be challenged with. How do you how do you share that with people in this kind of world where we can’t just put a row of dev kits up and hand people controllers and say ‘go play.’ And I’ll still be the optimist. I’ll say there will be a time when somebody is going to get their hands on what we’re doing. And I think that feel of how it feels to play these games, relative to previous console generations, will be something that hopefully people remarked positively about.
That’s great. Another shift in gears. So you and I were together, gosh, at this point, it’s probably 18 months ago. But we were making presentations to some legislators and helping them understand the gaming business and how each of our companies at the time viewed the gaming industry. And you laid out a vision for how Microsoft, how Xbox sees the gaming industry that I’m not sure too many people understand. I’d love to give you the opportunity at a macro level just to share how you see this industry and how you all are prepared to go after to make gaming ubiquitous.
Yeah, thanks for that. You know, and frankly, I miss your leadership. At those ESA meetings in the places where we are putting forward our best front of what our industry is. I think you’ve, you continue to be an awesome ambassador for gaming. And I appreciate that and the fans do and the customers do. So thanks. We look at Interactive Entertainment and video games and we see the global impact that it has. I like to talk about the fact that when people are playing games, when they’re saving the world yet again together, or collaborating on a creation in Minecraft, or Roblox or Paper Mario or something like playing together, that everybody’s equal online. It is a unifying thing, where are our economic background, our political background, or religious or racial background, where we live, where we’re coming from, what language we speak, all of those things can be pushed behind the activity that we’re uniquely coming together to do in video games. And I think that’s, as I said, something that’s very unique about our art form and frankly, in today’s world where I see the anonymity of the internet leading often to some bad behavior. The collaborative. and even kind of good natured cooperation that happens through video games, I think really can be and is a unifying force. It’s the reason that 2.6 billion people today play video games. It’s an amazing stat when you think over half the connected world today plays video games on whatever device that they can. And I also think for us as an industry, our role in shaping the social norms as a new generation comes in to online interactivity through the games and networks that we build is a huge responsibility for us but also a great opportunity. You know, I learned social norms on the internet as an old person because they came late for me and I, we think just because Minecraft is one of our games. But I say we think about how many kids have their first online experience of any kind, not just video games but online experience when they see another character in Minecraft for the first time playing on a Switch or playing on a PC or playing on a PlayStation, wherever they’re playing. And what is our role as a team, as a company, as an industry, in creating these social norms that actually can be constructive and inclusive, and making people feel safe and secure and even challenging them in some interesting ways. And it is one of the reasons when I think about a company like Microsoft, whatever our market cap is today, and why are we in this industry, and what can we mean? I do think it’s how do you look at a company that wants to its mission is to empower seven billion people on the planet. And we’re going to do our part through video games as part of this company. And I know we’re not alone in that. I don’t try to make that an Xbox thing. I know there are a lot of companies out in the video game space, that feel the same way. And it’s one of the reasons I just love being in this industry.
That’s great. Well, I feel like I’ve been dominating with all the questions. This is the Reggie and Harold podcast. So Harold, you should jump in.
Absolutely, Reggie. Thank you. Phil. You told a publication recently that some of the pomp and circumstance around launches will be altered due to COVID-19. And we have a similar kind of excitement online though. It seems you wouldn’t have to have a big celebrity, go to an event and deal with the travel and entourages and the light, you could have luminaries check in from their homes and really have more people help to promote the new Xbox that way.
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. Yeah, I think it’s just, it’s maybe more in my heart than in my head. But even if I look at something like E3, vast, vast majority of the people that interact with us at E3 are online, and the numbers aren’t even close. And that’s been gradual, I’d say over the last 10 or so years where the shift has been from people, you know, in the arena’s, as you say, that kind of, whether it was fans that are there or luminaries or whatever, to how do you engage people online. In my heart I’d love the old kind of zero hour events that we had around launches with Xbox. And, in my head I had maybe we could recreate something like this, this time is zero-hour for those that don’t remember something out in the Mojave Desert of the Xbox 360. And I thought it was just a very, I loved it, I thought it was a great thing to do. But in terms of really scale of getting your message out, those are kind of those are things that maybe touch 1000 people, when really you need to think about how you engage the social and kind of online sphere to make things really last. So I think we’re on that path anyway, maybe it was just in my heart that I still had some hope that sitting around with fans and the people lining up outside of the retailers and being there to hand out the first box. I mean, those are just fun things that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. But yeah, I think you’re right that our our challenge is how do we engage in the online community and drive that same level of excitement and frankly, we have a lot of learning and doing that over the years.
Absolutely. I just want to switch gears just for a while and go back into your history. You’ve been at Microsoft since 1988. And that’s an amazingly long run at one company. What was it like to be an intern there?
That’s funny. Yeah. It was actually june of 1988. So I’m coming up on that, that anniversary. The it was a different place. I think when I joined the company, it was 4000, 4500 employees. We’re now 140,000. I remember the first time I went to the company picnic, which they could still have obviously, when you had a few thousand people at a place called I think it was Mono Lake out here, Reggie might know where that is. And, and I took my mom and Bill Gates was there and you know, so it was it was very communal, even at that size. I like to teach I had a physical key to my building like I literally walked in and open the door with a key. But to see, you know, the the maturation of this company from the inside to where we are today. From those early beginnings has been a real privilege for me. I’ve met some incredible leaders, people like Robbie Bach, Steve Balmer, people who I consider friends. And people who were important to me in my growth. Even this week, it was fine as interacting with Jay Allard who Reggie might remember from early Xbox days. So I think just started at Intellivision. So early Microsoft days were very different. I was a developer, I was writing code. There are days where I missed that. But I wouldn’t trade my job now for anything else inside the company. That’s for sure. I have the best job. Don’t tell Satya?
I won’t. Do you have many old friends and colleagues that are still at Microsoft or have most moved on to other businesses?
Yeah, I mean, there is some tool you can actually use inside the company I think to figure out how many people who have been at the company longer than you. I choose not to do that. I used to do this thing which made me laugh where I sometimes do talks for our you interns or our new employee hires. And I would ask how many people were even born when I started at Microsoft and is now none of the hands go up. So I don’t ask that question anymore. But there are Alan Hartman, who runs our racing studio, was my first shared office mate. We shared an office back when I started. Kevin gamble, somebody actually went to the University of Washington with and he runs our developer group inside of Xbox. So there are definitely some people who I’ve worked with, but not many, most of them have gone on to to different things. But I say I’m the oldest surviving intern at the company, and I wear that badge with pride.
Oh, that’s great. That’s great. Well, you know, it’s always good to hear about the intern experience because we hire a number of paid interns from underserved communities. So they’re always interested in pathways to success. I’m sure they’ll be interested in hearing this portion.
I will say and it’s something I push on a lot, in it and maybe it’s hypocritical coming from me, but having the new injection of thinking — and it’s not just an age thing, but having perspectives that aren’t the shared kind of groupthink that can happen when everybody’s of the same generation or of a same anything inside of the team. And I look at the intern class every year and the new hire class every year, and those are big teams, now at Xbox, and everyone I sit down and talk with them, I challenge them to have an impact on the culture of our team and the thinking of our team. And frankly, for us, we have to be open to those messages and that learning because it’s very easy for the groupthink to take over. And this is just the way we’ve always done things. And I actually think it’s incredibly important to the culture and the success for our team, that new voices in our org are heard. Otherwise, we just end up doing the things that we know. And the world moves too fast for that and is expanding too fast for that.
You know, back in the day. I remember seeing and interviewing folks like Ed Fries who worked on Excel before helping to create Xbox. You worked on Encarta, which I remember to be an awesome multimedia experience. Was there anything about working on that franchise, which helped you when you began working with Xbox?
Absolutely. Yeah. My degree is actually in a department at the University of Washington called human centered design and engineering, which really talks about the interface between technology and humans. And working in early multimedia. Microsoft was obviously about how are people going to consume text information, visual information when it’s on a screen and not on paper, and what kind of learnings are there in that, and it was a great team to be a part of, and I think video games share a lot of similar qualities. You know, we’re sitting there and designing a game. If you think of the controller as an example, the job of us as a designer is actually to make the controller go away. When I want something to happen on screen, I just want it to happen. It’s like typing for me, now. I don’t know where any of the keys are on a keyboard, but I can type. But if you ask me where the T key is I have to actually type a word because it’s subconscious not conscious. And you know our job in in designing games for amusement and immersion is to make that interface go away and for the interface really to be from my intent and my feelings to what’s happening on screen and and then the reverses that in screen how to what feelings do I get from the experiences that are happening. And I think it is definitely it was foundational then the thinking and I love that how we’ve continued to think about immersion on many topics in our in video games, and it definitely my learnings early on both academic as well as at Microsoft are critical to even what I’m doing today.
Yeah, two more questions. Phil, when you look at your career, can you give me three highlights things that you’re the most proud of?
Yeah, when I got the job as head of Xbox, just what five years ago now, is just a team I had been on for a long time. And both the bet that the company would make that some gaming guy could actually do that job. That was a, I guess I don’t mind saying I was proud. But also really, you know, just thinking about the team I was getting to work with was a great moment. Another one for me is when I actually became a development manager. And this is so in the weeds and kind of just in my head, there was a certain level that you’d get to on the technical ladders inside of Microsoft, that kind of felt like tenure. And I was a guy who’d come in as a coder and as somebody, and this was a really tough place to be somebody who’s writing code, because you’d, you’d write your code and you’d get reviewed at night by other people who are just tearing it apart. You’d come in the next morning and they’d rewritten what you’ve done. So anyway, it was just it was maybe not the most inclusive place and there was a certain level I could achieve at some point in the company, where I was a development manager, a D13. level. Nobody remember what that means. But it felt like I actually belonged here at that point for me, which was kind of a nice moment in terms of my developer capability and just what I was doing at the company. And this one’s going to be cheesy, but I’m going to say the next one for me is going to be the launch of this Xbox. You know, we built a new leadership team on Xbox, some old people, some new, but I love the connection of people that we have together right now. And I’m so excited. Reggie has been through console launches. There’s, there’s nothing like getting the launch of physical device to millions of people, and just whether it’s virtual or physical, the fanfare and the emotion around that. And I have a lot of people in my leadership team who haven’t done that yet. So I know it’s a little bit of a cheat to pick one in the future. But I just know it’s going to be an awesome moment for a lot of great people on the team who haven’t done this before. And I’m really looking forward to that.
In still what was the most challenging period is that period now?
the most challenging work for me is when I actually did take this job, and just the emotion of the team at that time when I took the head of Xbox job five years ago. And frankly, I just from our product standpoint, we were in a pretty tough spot, both competitively as well as kind of the foundation that we had to build on. And the team had lost trust in the leadership and not just individuals. I don’t make it about people. It was really just the leadership capability and the commitment of the company to this category and our decision making and rebuilding that inside the company was important and takes time. Somebody asked me on Twitter, you know, what are you ‘what’s your biggest challenge?’ And I said, patience. You, it’s, you, you want things to fast forward, you want to be able to fix things faster, you want to be able to launch things faster. And that was a tough time. I had people who were visually you know, emotional, they would come up and are we doing the wrong thing with, you know, tears in their eyes, because this is this kind of industry that we work in. That was a challenge getting going back. I wasn’t really trained to kind of manage through that. But getting the team back on the belief side, getting them to believe in themselves and where we were going was a good challenge but was definitely the biggest challenge I’ve had in my career.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. I’ve I’ve learned things about to Phil that I didn’t know before, which is a fantastic element of this. So before we have we let you go, this conversation is part of a larger podcast that we’re touching on music. So we’ve got to ask you a couple music questions. So you know, what are you listening to now? What’s in your jam? What’s in your your playlist? And do you have a favorite piece of music from the video game space?
It’s interesting, because that answer will be one in the same for me right now. Chuck Reagan is a musician who did a soundtrack for a game called Flame in The Flood, which is a couple of years old now. But I started playing it again and it’s really great soundtrack The Flame in the Flood. It’s on Spotify and I’d highly recommend people listen to it. I say that I’m actually a punk rock fan. Like if you asked me to go to it. genre, I’m gonna list punk rock. And that’s where I spend most of my time. But I won’t, I won’t try to convert people to my my listening ways. But the Flame in the Flood soundtrack for that video game love that that team Molasses Floods a great studio. But that is a really, really good soundtrack. And I’d encourage everybody to check it out.
That’s very cool. I’m gonna have to go back and listen to that. I don’t remember that. So I’ll do that.
Oh, it’s an awesome soundtrack. Reggie. We had some of those folks at the New York Game Awards, and they’re, they’re just a good group. That’s cool. I have to listen to it.
Phil, thank you so much for spending time with us. This has been fantastic. It’s been great to see you again. But before we let you go, I understand you’ve got a surprise for us, something, something that’s going to have your name on it.
Yeah, you’re involved in a really good cause. And we want to participate in that. So we’re going to donate an Xbox Series X. I will sign it. I want it to be part of the auction. And hopefully it raises some good money for good cause very, very happy to be able to participate in that.
It’s going to be fantastic. And, you know, we’ll put it up on the Circle’s auction site for the charity. The donors toward this podcast, we’ll get the first chance at the bidding. And I’m sure it’s going to raise a lot for the charity. Phil, thank you so much. And thank you for being on the show.
Ya know, it’s great to see you. You’re looking well, and it’s been too long, my friend, we’ll have to catch up more regularly.
Well, you know, as we said, when we bumped into each other at at SeaTac. So you know, once this, this COVID is over. We have to get together we’ll share a meal, whether it’s just the two of us or with our spouses and and we’ll have a good time.
That’d be great. It’s good. See,
Great, good to see you. Thank you.
Reggie, our questions for you this week come from Isaac Espinosa, one of our senior interns. Isaac has excelled to the point that he not only writes well, he communicates really well. So he’s become an assistant mentor for us, who is very valuable to our young people in our Lower East Side Critics Circle. And he knows Smash Brothers pretty much better than anyone I know except perhaps for you, Reggie.
Hi, I’m Isaac Espinosa, and I’m an intern in the New York Videogame Critics Circle. My question for Reggie is, how does it feel to go to all those Nintendo launch events? Like for Super Mario Odyssey and Super Smash Bros Ultimate? Did it feel nice to see the community come together in such a big way at those times of excitement and hype?
So, Isaac, thank you for the question. For me. I loved interacting with the fans and I would do it every chance I got, whether it was at launch events, whether it was during my travels in stores or when I would travel internationally. Events that we held in Mexico City and in Brazil, for me spending time with a fan talking about their experiences with games, their favorite franchises, it just was always really special for me. One of the things that I love doing at launch events, was walking the line. So I would start at the back and say, This is a launch event at the Nintendo New York store in Rockefeller Center. I would start at the back and just walk my way forward. And you know, as fans would notice me, I’d stop and say hello, we’d have a short conversation. It was always really fun for me and hopefully meaningful for the fans. Super Mario Odysseys launch event I think is going to be the most special for me, in part because it was one of my last events and the video of me throwing Cappy into the air really is classic.
Now I have a question from Sekani Adebimpe. The game industry is often been placed in a negative spotlight. But games like Animal Crossing New Horizons during the time of COVID-19 ignited the excitement in a whole new generation. Is the perception and adoption of games changing worldwide, for the better or worse.
So, look, video games are the largest form of entertainment today, bigger than the movie business bigger than music, bigger than stream video, Animal Crossing New Horizons was the right game at the right time. On one hand, it’s a deeply personal game as you shape your island. But also, on the other hand, it’s a game that’s rich with the capability for you to play with friends and to share out the content. I do believe the perception around video games is changing. And as more people play and the cultural impact of gaming grows, we’re going to get to a point where it’s recognized as just another important art form like books, like magazines. just as early rock and roll transitioned from being evil to now being benign, and normal. The same is going to happen with video games, and it’s happening right now.
Well, that’s game over for this episode of Talking Games with Reggie and Harold. We hope you enjoyed our chat with Phil Spencer. Next week, our guests will be the founder of the Game Awards, my friend Geoff Keighley. It’s going to be great to talk with y’all.
I can’t wait to hear about Geoff’s latest project. Geoff and I have known each other since the 1990s. And I want to know all about his summer of games initiative, and how that came about. It’s going to be an excellent episode with some very inside stuff. Just three friends having a conversation. Talking games with Reggie and Harold was produced and edited by Annie Pei. Annie Nguyen is our project manager, John Azzilonna, he’s our designer. Whitney Meers and Imad Khan help with social media. Our music was written by Emmy and Grammy winner Anton Sanko. Anton’s latest movie, “The Half of It” directed by Alice Wu won Best Film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Stay safe, stay well, play games, and please donate at nygamecritics.com/reggie and I will be back next week with our pal Geoff Keighley
Transcribed by https://otter.ai