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Man of vision: how Phil Harrison could spearhead new Xbox exclusives

Signing up Sony's old Worldwide Studio boss was a smart move, say analysts

I'll never forget first laying eyes on Phil Harrison, though that has less to do with the immensely tall, follicle-deficient man himself, as with the game he was presenting at the time. It makes my Xbox-green blood boil to admit it, but LittleBigPlanet's GDC 2007 presentation is among my most cherished gaming memories. Soft toys wobbled and meandered across a 2D plane, piles of cushions imploded, and grown men collapsed in fits of girlish giggles.

OK, so the much-praised "unique" aesthetic had more than a whiff of Rare's Viva Piņata about it, but credit where credit's due. Xbox could do with some of that, I thought, a cuddly underbelly to balance out the sharp edges and explosions. And guess what - there's a strong possibility it'll happen. Phil Harrison is now corporate vice president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business, charged with "growing the division's European business" through "strategic partnerships" and "bringing cultural relevant entertainment experiences to Microsoft platforms".

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It would be bonkers to attribute LittleBigPlanet's existence entirely to Sony's former Worldwide Studios boss, of course, but there's no over-emphasising his role as shepherd, or what this bodes for Xbox. Harrison is intensely well-connected in Europe, having served on the boards of Infogrammes and Atari, and represents an unusual combination of hands-on and laissez-faire - willing to bury his brain in whatever project he's presented with, but equally willing to step back when teams need room to breathe. He'll oversee Lionhead Studios, Soho Productions and Rare among other talented Microsoft studios. Given the strong likelihood that all three are currently at work on Xbox 720 games, the results should be fascinating.

Analysts agree that Harrison's signing is a masterstroke. "I think the biggest impact of Phil Harrison will be increasing the European business," David Cole of DFC Intelligence told GamesIndustry International yesterday. "MS has been very strong in North America, not so strong in Europe. I think there is a huge opportunity for MS to expand its core Europe business and that is where Phil may have the strongest impact. That is a huge potential growth opportunity for the Xbox platform."

IDC Research Manager Lewis Ward added: "MS has a significantly smaller X360 installed base in WE than it does in NA and that Phil H may be able to help drive additional sales there partly through ramping up more 3rd party game and content/video partnerships.

"Secondly, MS is viewed as being somewhat tougher to work with in the developer community so bringing on a former Sony/SCEE exec may be read as a sign that IEB is seeking to soften some of its sharp edges."

Interestingly, Ward believes that Harrison's presence may hint not merely at Microsoft's future software launches, but also the make-up of the next Xbox. "I now suspect the next-gen Xbox will launch toward the end of 2013. The fact that Phil H was on the board of Gaikai is interesting since I think the next-gen Xbox will have a strong cloud focus and so his arrival may also be about laying the groundwork for next-gen connected console services in Europe."

More than one Xbox 720 rumour has pegged the console as an online-focused machine - last week, it was even suggested that the console would dump discs in favour of solid state storage and digital distribution. Does Harrison's arrival indicate that there's a grain of truth to these tall tales?

Whatever the consequences for the hardware, presumably well into development, Harrison's impact on Microsoft's games portfolio will be more significant. The start of a new console generation is an obvious time for seeding and growing exclusive IPs, and the manufacturer has teased that we'll hear more on that front at E3 and Gamescom this year. Hopefully, a Harrison keynote is in store, and hopefully, LittleBigPlanet's 2007 showing will look positively lifeless by comparison. What do you think?

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