Personalities in Gaming: Phil Spencer

By Michael Mendis

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2013 was a major moment for gaming.  With both Microsoft and Sony set to release their next consoles at the end of the year, this convention was the biggest opportunity for each company to promote their upcoming products to gamers and to the world.  And when all was said and done at the end of the show, the outcome was clear: gamers loved Sony’s PlayStation 4...and they hated Microsoft’s Xbox One.  It wasn’t really debatable, because it wasn’t really close.  Fast forward to 2018, though, and the tone has shifted: while the PS4 is indeed selling like hotcakes, the Xbox One is also quite successful in its own right, and its future is exciting.  What happened?  How did Microsoft win back gamers and stay in the fight against a formidable rival?  Microsoft is a big company, and many people rightly share the credit, but the one person at the forefront of it all is Phil Spencer.

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Phil Spencer started with Microsoft in 1988 as an intern.  When Microsoft launched into the console gaming scene with the original Xbox in 2001, Phil got heavily involved with games, specifically Microsoft Studios, the company’s in-house game development division.  While at first he oversaw mainly European developers, he worked his way up the corporate ladder to become the Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Studios in 2009; it was a prestigious position, giving him influence over all the company’s exclusive games and gaining him a following amongst diehard Xbox fans (a following he has cultivated through his presence on Twitter and his appearances at major conventions like E3).  But Spencer’s ascendancy was far from over.  Ironically, it was one of Xbox’s biggest stumbles that gave him the opportunity to advance even higher.

In 2013, Microsoft ran into trouble with the announcement of the Xbox One console.  What was supposed to be a grand moment of triumph for the company turned out to be a disaster, as gamers voiced their disapproval of Microsoft’s upcoming strategy with their new machine.  As it was first planned, the Xbox One wouldn’t use a disc to authenticate the use of a particular game; rather, it needed what was essentially a constant connection to Microsoft’s servers via the internet.  The intent was to create a platform in which you no longer needed the disc to play your game, but the downsides were nasty.  Those without reliable internet connections would be unable to play games, even ones that didn’t have any online features.  You also wouldn’t be able loan or sell your games, since the discs were no longer of any use once the game was downloaded onto your hard drive.  On top of the internet problems, the Xbox One wasn’t as powerful as the rival PlayStation 4, and it cost more, too, thanks to the Kinect camera that was bundled with every console (a camera that most gamers didn’t really care about).  Microsoft scrambled to reverse their internet connection plans and managed to release the console without them, but the damage had already been done; gamers didn’t trust Microsoft, and ran to Sony in droves, who welcomed them with open arms and a very gamer-centric marketing campaign.  Although the Xbox One managed a decent launch during the holiday 2013 season, PS4 sales were through the roof, setting the pace for the new console generation.

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Heading into the new year, Microsoft knew it had to make changes in its leadership, and decided to give the Xbox division a heavier gaming focus in order to remain competitive with Sony.  As the head of Xbox’s first-party game development, Phil Spencer was perfectly positioned to take advantage of this, and was promoted to Head of Xbox in April 2014.  Now he was over the entire Xbox division, overseeing not only the games themselves, but also the teams that made the console hardware and the various services (such as Xbox Live) that ran on the platform.  And under his leadership, there have been major changes to Xbox.

Spencer’s first priority in his new role was hardware.  He couldn’t make drastic revisions to increase the power of the Xbox One - that console was already released and the hardware largely set in stone - but he could find other ways of making it more appealing to gamers.  He made the move that many thought Microsoft would be unwilling to make: Xbox One consoles started to be sold without the Kinect, which allowed Microsoft to drop the price to that of the PS4.  He also pushed his engineers to focus their efforts on ensuring that game developers both inside and outside of Microsoft could eke out as much power from the console as possible.  And the hardware team started working on a new, more powerful machine, one that would stand alongside the Xbox One and play the same games, only better.  This became known as the Xbox One X, which Microsoft touted as a “monster” and the “world’s most powerful console”, and was released in November 2017.

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Spencer’s impact on Xbox goes beyond just hardware, however; as his hardware teams worked secretly on the Xbox One X, other teams at Microsoft introduced various new features for Xbox One owners.  Backwards compatibility for select Xbox 360 games, a feature that was intended for the launch of the Xbox One until the internet connection fiasco took center stage, was formally launched in 2015, and two years later was expanded to include original Xbox titles as well.  Spencer also pushed for further integration between Xbox consoles and Windows PC gaming; in 2016, the Xbox Play Anywhere initiative was announced, in which anyone who purchased a participating Xbox game would get a copy for Windows 10 PCs for free (and vice versa), with all save data carrying over from one platform to the other.  And most recently, Microsoft introduced Xbox Game Pass, a Netflix-style subscription service through which gamers can pay $10 a month for access to over one hundred games.

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While these positive changes have restored much of the goodwill amongst gamers that was lost a few years ago, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing; with the cancellation of a couple anticipated games, as well as the shuttering of one of Microsoft’s most well-known game development studios, many gamers are still somewhat skeptical of the Xbox brand.  Nonetheless, the improvements to hardware and services have allowed Xbox to stay relevant even in the face of stiff competition.  Microsoft’s top executives were pleased enough with Spencer’s leadership that in 2017 they promoted him once again, this time to Executive Vice President of Gaming.  Now, Spencer has his own seat on the company’s executive leadership team and answers directly to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, making him one of the most powerful individuals in the industry.  And his work isn’t done yet; he recently announced an increased investment in their first-party game development, seeking to buy and create more studios to make exclusive games (another area in which they are often perceived as being behind the competition).  Phil Spencer’s influence on the gaming industry is greater than ever, and the impact of his work at Microsoft will reverberate for years to come.

Personalities in Gaming: Cliff Bleszinski

The gaming industry is filled with braggadocious, nerdy, and emotional artists. Cliff Bleszinski is all of this and more. A braggadocious, self confessed nerd, Cliff Bleszinski is one of the formative figures that is responsible for modern gaming as we known it. Known by many gamers simply by his old nickname “CliffyB”, Cliff Bleszinski is an artist whose canvas is code and whose brush is emotion.

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Bleszinski grew up as a self described “angsty” teen, living out his problem through his pursuit of designing games. Today, a mid-40’s CliffyB still remembers and comments on his journey through life as filled with personal highs and lows, all while working to design and produce games. These two parts of life seem to follow CliffyB in whatever he does: emotion, and game design.

Cliff’s father died when he was 15. Cliff met this tragedy with what would become his go-to response to life’s joy’s and griefs - by designing a game. At the age of 15 Cliffy sold his first game, Palace of Deceit, for $20 to a teacher in high school. Teaching himself using visual basic, Cliff eventually began working as a professional game designer in 1992 at Epic Games.

In 1994 Bleszinski gained renown at Epic for his work on Jazz Jackrabbit. With a plot based on a reimagining of Aesop’s fables and in a sci-fi setting with a super hero Jackrabbit, the game was unique in both scope and theme.  The side scrolling platform adventure game was Epic games best seller at the time, and launched CliffyB to the forefront of game development.

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For 20 years Cliff worked for Epic Games, and his efforts still have a lasting impact on contemporary game design. His work with the Unreal Engine and Unreal Tournament provided the format for later generations of first-person shooters such as Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield. Later, his work in the Gears of War series would revolutionize the third-person shooter, and the franchise would go on to make $1 billion in sales from 2007-2014.[1] Throughout his time at Epic Games Cliff had the opportunity to shape the game design world. However, for all the joys that accompanied life as an Epic Games employee, Cliff wasn’t in charge.

Working at Epic was originally exciting, and a fast paced environment. Cliff’s lifestyle was also fast paced and over the top. During one interview with the New Yorker, which took place in his Ferrari, Cliff said that “One of my jobs in life, is to make this look a little cooler.”[2] Beyond being responsible for some of the most formative games in the first-person and third-person shooter genre, Cliff Bleszinski is also a keen observer of the games industry landscape. In 2013 Bleszinski noted the storm of free-to-play and online only available games, signalling the death of the disc based product:

You cannot have game and marketing budgets this high while also having used and rental games existing. The numbers do NOT work people. The visual fidelity and feature sets we expect from games now come with sky high costs. Assassin's Creed games are made by thousands of devs. Newsflash. This is why you’re seeing free to play and microtransactions everywhere. The disc based day one $60 model is crumbling. If you can afford high speed internet and you can’t get it where you live direct your rage at who is responsible for pipe blocking you.[3]

The work that had helped him cope with the death of his father at 15, the work that provided for his first car and apartment, the work that had made him an icon in his professional field, the work that had been with him through a first marriage and divorce, was now something that CliffyB was “done with”.[4]

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In 2012, CliffyB walked away from Epic games, and retired from game design. 20 years after first joining Epic as a young artist living in his mom's house, CliffyB was disgruntled, disillusioned, and by his own description "burned out". The excitement, enjoyment, and art of creatively building something from nothing was gone. Cliff described a recurring theme at Epic Games in his later years:

"It was a combination of gamers feeling jaded, as well as working with some very talented people who were also very jaded," I could pitch the most amazing idea to anybody back when I was at Epic toward the end, and they'd be like 'I don't buy it,'"

While retired, Cliff focused on his new marriage and enjoying life away from the troubles and trials of making games. Before long, though, he decided to come out of retirement and begin making games again, though not as a game design contributor, but as the one calling the shots. Bleszinski opened his own game design studio called Boss Key Productions and has been working since 2014 on a game called Lawbreakers, which Cliff promises will offer gamers a mix of classic and new experiences in a low gravity environment.

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Moving from the creative design process to ownership and production has been a noted change in Cliff’s work since coming out of retirement to launch his own studio. The stress related with ownership is different than that of creative content:

The thing this time was a new business partner with Nexon, a whole new studio, I'm the primary owner and CEO - it's not Tim Sweeney's and Mark Rein's gig anymore. I'm feeling good right now - it's getting a solid response - but beforehand it was like holy crap, heavy is the head that wears the crown. This studio did in fact give me my first grey hairs.[5]

Cliff Bleszinski is a paradigmatic example of all the stereotypes surrounding gamers from born in the 70s and 80s. He is quick thinking, foul mouthed, and passionate. His business sense has been honed by competition in a fierce market that only remembers the most recent of success. His professional and personal life is riddled with relationships, both good and bad, that have combined in Cliff to become both a sarcastic cynic and a creative mind.  

You can follow Cliff Bleszinski on twitter @therealcliffyb.

 

 

[1] “Microsoft Acquires 'Gears of War' From Epic, Assigns Next Game To Black Tusk Studios” by Daniel Nye Griffiths. 1/27/2014. Statistics retreaved from report available at URL: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnyegriffiths/2014/01/27/microsoft-acquires-gears-of-war-from-epic-assigns-next-game-to-black-tusk-studios/#5814292228e2

[2] The Grammar of Fun CliffyB and the world of the video game. By Tom Bissel. 11/3/2008. Accessed via web:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/03/the-grammar-of-fun

[3] “Cliffy B: Numbers Don’t Work to Allow Used Games, Disc Based Day one $60 Model is Crumbling” by Sebastian Moss 6/12/2013. Accessed online at: http://www.playstationlifestyle.net/2013/06/12/cliffy-b-disc-based-day-one-60-model-is-crumbling-numbers-dont-work-to-allow-used-games/#5C2JuB94WmupaBHO.99

[4] Interview with IGN “Gears of War and Lawbreakers Creator Cliff Bleszinski - IGN Unfiltered 07” accessed via youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpIgeachN_Y

[5] “The big Cliff Bleszinski interview 'I've had a very polarising personality in the 25 years I've been doing this” By Martin Robinson. 11/08/2017. Accessed via web http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-08-11-the-big-cliff-bleszinski-interview

Personalities in Gaming: Sid Meier

By Josh Ortiz

He’s known as the “Godfather of Computer Gaming.” In 1997, he was dubbed the “Most Influential Person of All Time in Computer Gaming” by Computer Gaming World. In 2008, he made his way into the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Videogame Awards Ever Received.”

Who is this noteworthy man, this game design giant? He is none other than Sidney K. Meier, affectionally known by fans as Sid Meier. Born in 1954 in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, Meier’s family later moved to Michigan. Growing up, Meier loved games and history. Whether it was his toy soldiers covering the living room floor or playing classic strategy board games by Avalon Hill, Meier’s interest in playing out history showed itself early.

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Eventually, Meier attended the University of Michigan where he studied computer science at a time when personal computers were not in every home. Shortly after Meier finished up college, the Atari 800 console came out. Meier began tinkering with some code on his Atari and before long he had made his first game – a knock-off of the famous arcade game, Space Invaders. Meier’s illustrious game design career had begun.

In the early 1980’s, Meier was working at General Instruments Corporation, an electronic component manufacturer, alongside a former Air Force pilot named John “Wild Bill” Stealey. The two men attended an electronics trade show where Meier soundly whipped Stealey in Atari’s 1980 flight simulator, Red Baron. However, to top it off, Meier told Stealey that he thought he could build a better flight sim. Stealey agreed to sell it, and a robust partnership took off the runway.

By 1982, both Stealey and Meier had quit their jobs at General Instruments and were working full-time for the company they had co-founded, MicroProse. Behind Meier’s design and programming and Stealey’s marketing/administrative prowess, MicroProse flourished even as other companies like Atari or Magnavox struggled.

From 1982 to 1986, Meier designed games for MicroProse ranging from combat flight simulators to tactical wargames to a submarine simulator. Then, in 1987, everything changed. Meier surprised Stealey by saying he was doing a pirates game. But who would buy a pirates game from MicroProse? The solution: Put Sid Meier’s name on the box. Meier says this was Stealey’s idea. Stealey says it was the actor, Robin Williams’ idea. Wherever the idea came from, it worked, and in 1987, Sid Meier’s Pirates was published.

Meier’s Pirates was a ground-breaking success. The single-player game allowed you to assume the role of a swashbuckling pirate seeking to make a name for themselves in the Caribbean. You could do everything from attacking enemy ships or towns, searching for buried treasure, rescuing family members or trading. The game was particularly known for its rich open-world and player-guided gameplay where players were given a “series of interesting decisions” – a line Meier has used again and again to describe his concept of a good game.

In 1989, Will Wright’s famous city-building game, SimCity, was released, and Meier, who had primarily made military-based games to that point, was profoundly impacted. Computer games didn’t have to be about destruction and tearing down. They could also be about building up and giving players the opportunity to manipulate a virtual world and develop it over time. With this new-found inspiration, Meier went on to design Railroad Tycoon (1990), a business simulation game where you assumed control of a railroad company and competed for a century against other companies to lay track, build stations, buy/schedule trains and deliver goods and passengers. In 1990, Computer Gaming World gave the game a perfect five stars. However, Meier’s best was still to come.

Still in 1990 and working with his assistant designer, Bruce Campbell Shelley, a famous game designer now in his own right, Meier began to develop another new game. This game would improve upon a 1970’s computer game, Empire, which combined the classic board game, Risk, with city management. The game was called Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991).

Although it started out in design as a real-time strategy game, Civilization ended up being a turn-based strategy game which allowed the player to guide the history of a single nation as you sought to “build an empire to stand the test of time.” Starting in 4000 BC and then progressing turn-by-turn through the years, you could build settlements and cities, engage in diplomacy with rival nations, research new technology, wage war, etc. Civilization was truly epic and enthralling, and its replayability, seemingly endless. Its reception was fantastic. To this day, fans and critics alike rank Sid Meier’s Civilization and its numerous sequels among the most influential video games. For instance, in 2016, PC Gamer enthusiastically designated Sid Meier’s Civilization as one of the 50 most important PC games of all time.

Eventually, Meier left MicroProse (which was sold by Stealey in 1993 to another game developer). In 1996, Meier help found Firaxis Games where he continues to work as the Director of Creative Development to this day. Although he has humbly handed the reigns of Civilization sequels to other capable game designers, Meier continues to crank out delightful strategy games, including notables such as Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (1997), Sid Meier’s SimGolf (2002), Sid Meier’s Pirates! (2004) and Sid Meier’s Civilization: Revolution (2008).

In the end, Sid Meier’s legacy is already firmly cemented in gaming history. Meier is not just beloved because he is a smart, affable, creative and industrious game designer, but also because he has given so much joy to generations of fans. His games often put the player in the driver’s seat. His games often make history come to life in a whole new way. And his games are often hard to put down. Sid Meier and his games have changed the face of the gaming industry and will likely continue to do so for as long as Meier sits down to the computer to make his expansive imagination come to life.

Josh Ortiz is a volunteer with Gospel & Gaming.