Xbox’s Sarah Bond on the importance of representation, future games and Canadian indies

Xbox's VP of game creator experience and ecosystem unpacks the company's big showcase and what's to come from the brand

Xbox leadership

On June 11th, Xbox held its annual summer Games Showcase, showing off dozens of upcoming titles alongside a dedicated 40-minute ‘Direct’ deep dive into Bethesda’s Starfield.

It was a particularly important event for the company, giving fans a sizeable look at the exclusive portfolio it’s been slowly building up over the past several years through acquisitions. Whether it was long-awaited updates on the likes of Playground’s new Fable and Ninja Theory’s Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II or new IP from the likes of Montreal’s Compulsion Games (South of Midnight) and inXile (Clockwork Revolution), the company was providing answers to the ever-frequent “where are the games?” questions.

After the event, MobileSyrup sat down with Xbox’s Sarah Bond, corporate vice president for game creator experience and ecosystem, to talk about Starfield, other first-party titles, the importance of representation in the industry, the pending Activision Blizzard acquisition and more.

Question: There’s a lot of attention and pressure on Starfield right now, especially after the mixed reception to Redfall. Xbox gave the game its first deep-dive ‘Direct’ presentation today, but beyond that, how are you supporting Bethesda to ensure that it releases the best possible game?

Sarah Bond Xbox

Sarah Bond.

Sarah Bond: We have been really focused with Starfield on making sure that they get everything they need to take advantage of all the depth and breadth of the technology and the expertise across Xbox — and that includes my team. I’ve worked with Todd’s [Howard, Starfield game director] team for the past 18 months, but also collaborating with Matt’s [Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios] teams on various scenarios and things that they want to do. And then also honestly, beyond even gameplay, like our marketing team, or the other teams, like some of what you saw on the Starfield Direct came out that. So they’re actually part of Xbox and get to leverage all of the benefits of being part of our platform.

Q: Something that’s notable about Xbox is how a lot of the executives, like you, Xbox chief Phil Spencer and Xbox GM of marketing Aaron Greenberg, are very public and transparent, which we don’t often see in the gaming space. You come on stage at the Showcase, you’re at events like FanFest, you hosted panels, and you have a social media presence. Why is it important to have that visibility from leadership, especially in an industry that’s generally pretty withdrawn and secretive?

Bond: It never really occurred to me to be anybody else but me. But in all seriousness, what we do is something that people love — like good times or bad, the passion is there. Things don’t go well, there’s passion, when things do go, there’s passion. And I think it’s important that people recognize that that’s what this is. And it’s not a functional thing, it’s an emotional thing. And that’s about human connection. And so that’s why I made the choice, a couple years ago, to get on Twitter, to be more public, to engage with fans — is there’s that emotional connection.

Also, I’ll tell you, I learned a lot from it — I’m better at my job for it. It’s easier for me to understand how people react, what they care about, the games that people want to see, how to explain things. Because I’m actually sitting and engaging with the people who are using our product in more ways. And so it started as, ‘this is an emotional connection,’ and then I’ve just learned such a ton from being with fans.

Q: On the subject of visibility, there was a conversation about the lack of women in the Summer Game Fest showcase. When people pointed this out, there was the usual “why does this matter?” sort of pushback. With Xbox, there were several women in the showcase, including you, Hellblade II star Melina Juergens and multiple members of the Starfield team. Why is it important to have women be featured in these sorts of events?

Bond:  I want to be thoughtful about how I answer that. First of all, if you want to build something for everybody, the team needs to represent everybody. We don’t get to create authentic, innovative, evocative, new experiences that meet people where they are if only one set of people who look a certain way and have had a certain life experience are building those. It’s impossible. And that’s our goal. So we’re a more successful team in realizing our strategy for the choices to have a team to continue to push, to have a team that represents the broadest swath of people possible. And that’s gender, but that’s a lot of other things. That’s life experience. That’s where you’re from. That’s racial background. That’s language. It’s ability. It’s a bunch of other things I didn’t list. And we made a ton of progress as a team and the five years that I’ve been on the team on that and we have a ton of distance to go and you’re never really done on that.

So that’s what’s happening. And so then what you’re seeing is us choosing to let our team represent us. We did not have a discussion about, ‘oh, how many women we got? Let’s put them on the stage, because that’s important.’ That’s not what we did. What we did is we put people on the stage, in the roles that would be on the stage, in the roles on the stage. And that’s what people saw. But it starts with, ‘what do I want to build? What do I want to create? What are my business goals? How can I create the team that gets the most success to reach those goals?’ And then putting that team where they need to be in the moment they need to be there.

Q: I’m Canadian so I have to mention how you gave a shoutout to Toronto’s Cococucumber (Ravenlok) during the leadership panel. I spoke to that team earlier and they love that support.

Bond: Clearly I like Canadian games! [laughs]

Q: You also put the spotlight on Montreal’s Thunder Lotus (Spiritfarer), who revealed its next game, 33 Immortals. You’ve also tweeted many times about Cococucumber’s Echo Generation. Of course, you work with developers from all across the world, so why is it important for you to take the time to promote these kinds of smaller games?

Bond:  I loved it. I thought it was rad — the music was cool to hear, the [voxel] graphics I love. I just genuinely loved it. So first of all, it was like, ‘I genuinely loved it.’ Secondly, once I started to get some traction on Twitter, I thought, “what am I gonna do with this? What is an incremental good?” There are games that everybody tweets about. There are big things people always talk about. And then there are these amazing games, built by people who have incredible vision, who took a huge risk with limited resources, and they built something rad that I love. And I’m going to use this social handle to make sure that I can make them see. Honestly, it’s why I do it.

Q: When you strike a deal with, as an example, small Canadian teams like those, what does that back-and-forth look like in terms of planning and supporting them?

Bond: There are a million variables that go into it. In this case, [Thunder Lotus] really wanted to work with us again. They wanted to be in Game Pass again because of their positive experience before. We work really hard on long arcs on partnerships. The start 2019 was the last showcase that they were in for Spiritfarer, and how we build relationships, trust, and understanding over time. How do we help someone launch their game, market their game, but also continue to realize success? How do we give them feedback on what’s happening? How do we give them support in the dashboard? How do we educate them on various things? And so, each thing that you see that manifests on a stage or comes into Game Pass is actually the result of dozens, hundreds, of interactions that my team is driving with partners over many, many years.

Q: Some of Xbox’s most well-received games in years have been smaller passion projects, like Pentiment and Hi-Fi Rush. Of course, there are people who love massive games like Starfield, but with games and budgets becoming so big, those smaller titles find their audiences. Going forward, is Xbox planning to continue to experiment with different kinds of first-party games to diversify the catalogue?

Hi-Fi Rush

Hi-Fi Rush.

Bond: It’s all about what you said — the diversity of the catalogue. We want everybody to be able to come to Xbox and find something for them, or find something for that moment in time. And there are deep immersive games, there are massive multiplayer games, there are special experiences. There’s something you’ve never seen before. There’s something that celebrates a culture. There’s something that takes you on an emotional journey that you hadn’t imagined. There’s something that teaches you about history. There’s something that allows you to create an entire world. I saw Cities Skylines II [in the showcase], by the way — I thought that was pretty amazing. And it’s about, ‘how do you have all of those things?’ So anybody in the world can come to Xbox and find that experience that they’re looking for in that particular moment.

Q: On that note — you mentioned Cities Skylines. Was there a particular game in the showcase that you’re personally most excited about?

Bond: Cities Skylines gave goosebumps, you know? [hums theme] Starfield is so amazing, it’s distracting, and it’s hard to think about anything else. But I thought that 33 Immortals also looks, frankly, pretty fun. So I can’t wait to try that out. And I happen to know that Phil tried it out and really liked it — a Phil Spencer review!

Q: During the ‘What’s Next For Gaming’ panel, you talked about cloud gaming and announced PC Game Pass is coming to Nvidia GeForce Now. At the heart of the Activision Blizzard deal is anti-competition concerns surrounding cloud gaming. On top of moves like the Nvidia partnership, what are some of the other ways that you’re trying to address regulators’ concerns regarding the cloud?

Microsoft has been making cloud gaming deals with companies like Nvidia to address concerns from regulators regarding its pending acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

Bond: One of the things that’s important to understand is that cloud gaming is not a market; it’s a feature. And it’s a minuscule feature in terms of the breadth of the hours of gameplay that we see across platforms today. But we do know that people love it as complementary to a native gameplay experience. So, you know, we did the Nvidia partnership, we did one with Boosteroid, which is one of the top game cloud gaming partners in Europe, we did another one with Luminous that powers the back end and many other cloud gaming companies. And we’re just going to continue to work with partners across the breadth and depth to give people choice, which is what it is ultimately about — just opening up the aperture and allowing people to play how they want to play.

Q: Looking ahead over the next few years, what are you most excited about with the future of the Xbox brand?

Bond: In the end, people want games. I say this all the time, almost to a point, but it’s become a meme. [laughs] So what excites me is we started making some major incremental investments in our first-party game portfolio. About five years ago, we made some acquisition announcements at E3 2018. And now we’re at a point where those studios are showing games that they have built up, conceived of, and are about to launch all as part of Xbox Game Studios. And so when I look forward, we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor. We’re starting to see that creative opportunity we gave them — how we sheltered them, protected them, and invested in them for years and years and years. And you guys are like, ‘where are the games?” and we’re like, ‘we promise!’ Now, we actually get to bring them to you. And so that’s what the future is going to bring, and that really excites me because I know that that’s what fans want.

This interview has been edited for language and clarity.

Image credit: Xbox