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September 19, 2011 at 6:16 PM

Q&A: Xbox studio boss on “Gears of War 3,” plus “Star Wars”

Kids are back in school and the weather’s cooling, so it must be time for rowdy video games.

Like “Gears of War 3,” a raucous, sci-fi shooter that Microsoft is releasing Tuesday, starting its Xbox holiday season with the clatter of automatic weapons and roars of attacking aliens.

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“Gears” follows a squad of muscle-bound soldiers fighting to save humanity with an array of weapons, including the game’s trademark assault rifle with a chainsaw bayonet.

But the real challenge facing “Gears” and other blockbusters coming out this fall is how much they can revive game sales, which plunged over the summer.

It’s early to predict holiday sales, but “Gears” already has been pre-ordered by 1.3 million people, said Phil Spencer, vice president of Microsoft Studios.

At a minimum of $59 per copy, that means the game already has grossed $77 million before its launch. “Gears” – developed by Epic Games – set sales records when the trilogy’s first edition debuted in 2006 and has since become one of the Xbox’s big hits.

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“‘Gears’ will be the biggest platform-exclusive game on any platform this year,” Spencer said in an interview Monday.

He also touched on the fate of “Star Wars Kinect,” “Halo” and TV on the Xbox. Here are edited excerpts:

Q: Is “Gears” starting the holiday season for you?

A: We look at this September timeframe as a good time to start building momentum with a key blockbuster. I think it just really starts to set the holiday season at a time when gamers are ready; summers are usually a little bit slower.

Q: So it’s going to take down Sony’s “Resistance 3”?

A: “Resistance” is a good game [but] … “Gears” has always done really well against exclusive-platform games.

Q: New features remind me of things in later “Halo” games, like the new co-operative multiplayer mode and having a female lead character.

A: I was around when we originally signed what was called “Warfare” at the time – that was the code name of “Gears” before it came out. We set out to create a game anyone could play because you saw the shooter genre becoming really for expert players. With “Gears 1” we tried to create co-op experiences where anyone could get into the game.

We’ve continued to do that through “Gears 2” and “Gears 3” with Horde mode, multiple players playing online against wave after wave. It’s really been about how do we create an ecosystem where more people want to play.

Q: What’s the mix of male to female players?

A: It’s predominantly male in this genre of shooter games, but “Gears” is more diverse in terms of the players out there.

Q: Is this the end of the run for “Gears” or will the franchise continue?

A: Let’s just face it: We would be kind of dumb to walk away from doing something that’s done as well as “Gears” has.”

Q: Were there plans to use Kinect with “Gears 3”?

A: It was a timing issue for us. We didn’t have enough time to be thoughtful form the beginning. There’s functionality in Kinect that could make games like “Gears” and “Halo” more immersive. Voice is definitely one of those areas.

Q: With the economic situation, I wonder how many action games players will buy this season. Will they buy three or four, including “Gears,” “Battlefield 3” and “Modern Warfare 3”?

A: I would say we’re well positioned with this game. When new things come out, gamers will line up. They’re as much a consumer of their art form as consumers of movies are.

Q: Do the pre-orders tell you “Gears” is already a hit?

A: “The thing I love about being in this industry is people have to want your product. There is no file format or compatibility that makes people go buy your “Gears’ … You need to earn your customers with every release.

Q: We’re seeing lots of game trilogies end. Are there new franchises coming or will these just be extended?

A: Yes, I believe there are new things that will come out. We’re continuing to invest in new IP [intellectual property]. This is also one of our longer console generations we’ve ever seen … the four- to five-year lifecycle of the generation we’re in has been stretched out now. The length of this lifecycle has played a role in seeing these games come to the end of the trilogies.

Q: Will this fall’s blockbusters reverse the big declines in video game sales seen over the summer?

A: I would just say, as an industry, we didn’t have a big summer in terms of hits. I think we’re teed up for an incredible fall. … I think the gamers will be there. The summer numbers for me were as much a reflection of not having those breakout hits [vs. summer 2010] that people lined up to see.

Q: Will “Gears” sell more Xbox 360 consoles this year?

A: People are making decisions to buy 360s every day. We just look at trying to engage all the customers with new hits.

Q: Last week Steve Ballmer talked about the upcoming TV service for the Xbox. What’s the status?

A: We’re not a TV studio. Most of these relationships are really built about … partnerships. The announcement of the partners and all of them coming – you will hear more about this.

Q: The message has been it’s coming in 2011.

A: The message is this year.

Q: Will the Xbox get a lift from Windows 8 users who like the user interface, and want it on their TV as well?

A: I do think there’s a real benefit to consumers not having to learn a separate UI [user interface] paradigm … People don’t want to spend time to learn a new UI; they just want something that’s pervasive across their screens. I don’t think we’ve modeled any kind of uplift on 360 based on satisfaction with the UI.

Q: Is the pressure on for you to deliver games playable on both Xbox and Windows Phones, especially since Sony is doing this with its new mobile devices?

A: The opportunity for us to use devices that people already have or want to have … is strong. Those are things that we’re incubating this fall. We don’t really have anything to announce yet, but you can imagine there are some incredibly exciting things to announce that the science labs are working on. You won’t have to wait too long to see us start.

Q: Will sales of “Gears” overcome the delay in Kinect “Star Wars” during the next quarter?

A: Getting the games right is always the biggest opportunity/challenge for us, especially when you’re working with a partner like Lucas to deliver absolutely the best experience. “Gears” is going to be massive … it will do incredibly well. Having the right “Star Wars” game is more important than having the game at a certain time.

I look at this as the property to make the “Star Wars” game everybody expects. The delay won’t be too long.

Q: So it’s almost done then?

A: There will be a unique opportunity for us to do some great Kinect things early in the new year and “Star Wars” will be one of them.

Q: Will that delay hurt your quarter though?

A: No I don’t see any individual game moving out having that impact. And we are landing things like “Gears” and “Forza” and “Halo Anniversary” looks strong – maybe even stronger than I thought it would. So I think the quarter will be strong.

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Comments | More in Interviews | Topics: gears of war 3, Microsoft, modern warfare 3

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