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Xbox Adaptive Controller: Why Phil Spencer greenlit the accessibility project

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Microsoft unveiled its Xbox Adaptive Controller today, an accessory for the game console for those with limited mobility to play games. It makes games accessible to a wider audience, and that’s what drew the attention of Xbox head Phil Spencer, who was ultimately responsible for greenlighting the project.

The controller enables people who don’t have thumbs, fingers, limbs, or good motor control to plug in alternatives that they can control. And that enables them to play games on the Xbox One consoles that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to play. There are as many as a billion people with disabilities in the world, and even more who are sometimes temporarily disabled (like those with broken arms), and the Xbox Adaptive Controller is built in a way that allows them to create their own custom solutions for playing games.

The controller started as an idea at a hackathon in 2015, and it slowly gathered steam as Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, put effort into changing Microsoft’s culture to be more human. The Redmond, Washington-based company created its Microsoft Inclusive Technologies Lab, and the researchers associated with it were critical in building the controller. Spencer, who recently gave a talk in support of diversity at the Dice Summit game event, spoke with a small group of outsiders at Microsoft’s Inclusive Technologies Lab. We talked about why doing good is sometimes the best thing to do, whether or not it means that you will also do good business as a result.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Above: Phil Spencer believes doing good will turn out to be good business when it comes to accessibility.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Phil Spencer: This is an important story for our industry, I think. Not through any competitive lens at all. It’s an important product and an important initiative for our industry. I know teams, when they see cool things happening, will want to take it in their own direction. That’s the great thing when the word gets out.

I think this dialogue for us as an industry, about not only things like the adaptive controller, but also our online community, the content we put out, who we are as an industry, are important discussions for us to have. Helping us with this discussion is part of that, so thank you.

I can give a bit of perspective on our journey and my journey with the device and how we landed here. We’ve been on, let’s say, a multi-year journey of thinking about how we build products, games, services, and hardware that can be used and delightful for millions of people. The game industry is coming up on 2 billion people. As we look at that market, as we look at all of the people who play games across all these different devices, it’s expanded our view of who our customer is.

Traditionally, at Xbox, we’d say our customer is someone with a big shiny TV who plugs a console in and plays. We’ve expanded the definition of somebody who’s an Xbox gamer, somebody who looks at Microsoft and the products we build as something important to them.

Our relationship with the community of really smart people – a lot of them here who helped us in the building of this product – goes back multiple years. We’ve done products and services like Copilot, which is the feature where two people can play, through two different controllers, the same game. Some of the text-to-speech work we’ve done—obviously, working at Microsoft, we get the advantage of seeing lots of technologies built in different parts of the company that can help. For us, the adaptive controller was pretty unique to the gaming audience we had, at least initially. It was an opportunity for us to look at the Windows platform and the Xbox console as a great place to launch this.

We talked with a lot of the third parties out there building accessories in this space, which is why you see all the ports on the controller. We knew this was an enabling technology for a lot of companies out there. We wanted to be part of that industry. We didn’t want to create something that was a closed ecosystem or vertical. We knew that this was a foundational part, but clearly not the part that would open up gaming for everyone. That’s really a joint effort by the community, which is why it’s great that people in the community who work so hard in this space are here today, and have been instrumental in building this product.

The learning that we get through having the product in the market will continue. Whether it’s software that we need to build, whether there are modifications we need to make – no product is perfect when it launches – I think we have done a lot of great testing on this product with a lot of great input. But just as with our consoles, our games, and our services, our ears and eyes will remain open as we go forward with it.

The fact that we were able to make it compatible with both Windows and Xbox was important. Clearly there are gamers across multiple platforms. Both this market, these players, these users—we want this to be an enabling technology for as many people as we can make it, which is why we thought about it relative to every device we have a platform on. How do we go and build that out?

More personally, with the team, this is a project that was driven by some really big people who are in this room, on their own. Our teams run fairly autonomously, meaning they have an ability to—there are certain things we know we need to hit on a certain date. They’re part of E3 road maps and product road maps. A lot of our teams have small incubation projects that sit to the side. Sometimes that work happens at night in rooms like this after people are done with their day job. They’ll come together.

But this is a project that lived for a while as we were trying to make sure we had the product right. I’d see it at reviews every so often. We were excited about the opportunity, but it was always unclear whether we were going to create something that was helpful, or something that was just us trying, but maybe not succeeding. It was great when we started to get some validation from people outside of us here, when we were working with them. That’s really when we greenlit it as more of an official project, something that we really wanted to land.

The point I want to make is, the teams here—this is such a great example of teams and people that are passionate about who our customers are and the experience they have. Seeing people take our controller and tear it apart and wire it up in some pretty creative and unique ways, just to enable them to play games we create—the fact that we were able to work with them to create something that didn’t need to be broken open and wired, that allowed more people to play, was very special. It’s something that the team really did out of their own passion. It’s pretty awesome to work at a company that can fund something like this and make it possible for millions more people to play games with friends and family and challenge themselves.

GamesBeat: Do you feel there was a kind of trade-off the team here had to get right, as far as doing good versus doing business?

Spencer: There’s something I’m going to say and you’re probably going to eyeroll a bit when I say it, but there’s a real product truth to it. That’s a term I use a lot, “product truth.” We have learned, and this has been validated externally as well, that as we focus on making our products and services and games more accessible, the things we learn actually make the experience better for everyone. That’s not just something you put on a poster on a wall.

At some point you’ll see this in its native packaging that will be on a shelf. It’s fair to say that this is the best packaging work we’ve ever done. It will influence how we do packaging going forward. But it was created from a specific point of view of who the customer is for this product.

On the question of business sense versus what I’ll call social goodness, with the products and services we build, I do fundamentally believe – and it’s been proven out for us – that whether it’s text-to-speech capability in our platform, whether it’s text size, whether it’s community filtering and clubs, things we do to make our products more accessible and more inclusive to more people, as we raise the bar on ourselves and our products, it does create more enjoyable products for more people, which fundamentally leads to a better business. We believe that. That trade-off wasn’t there.

Above: The Xbox Adaptive Controller (upper right) is a platform for other accessible accessories.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

The trade-off that was there, and people in the room know it was real—the precious resource we have in this organization is people. The trade-off you make is, do you do this or do you do something else? There are clearly, specifically in the areas of control, things where we’ve decided that this is what we’re doing and we weren’t able to get other things done because of that. But given where we ended up, and the reception this is getting from the community of people who rely on experiences like this in order to make our art form accessible to them, we feel great about that trade-off. But that’s the most difficult thing when you look at all the work you can do in this space.

In terms of the business opportunity, we are a platform for content. We think the more people that can play, it creates a good business opportunity. It’s not about the margin on this specific device. People know that in the console business, we sell our console at a loss in order to create sockets for players. That’s traditional. You don’t make money on hardware. You make money on software and services. If you really think about the work that people go through in order to experience the products we build, creating something like this that opens up the games we and others build for our platform to more people is good business for us as well.

I’ve been lucky enough in this role to be exposed to some people who go through some real hoops to play games on our platform. To see the commitment and passion they have—I’d almost say, at some level, for certain people, whether it’s mobility or function, that gaming can be a real outlet. We’ve seen it in so many cases, like the work where our consoles end up in children’s hospitals. People who play games online as a way of social interaction, when maybe that is their form of social interaction.

There’s a business opportunity to get more people to play, where these two things can really intersect. The opportunity to open up gaming to a constituency that isn’t able to play as easily as you and I can, and the goodness in bringing more people to the platform—that’s a pretty special moment.

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