X10 Interview: Aaron Greenberg Talks Xbox's Past, Present and Future

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Underneath the hustle and bustle of Microsoft's X10 - yes, they shoved us in the basement... kind of - we got chance to sit down with Microsoft's Director of Product Management, Aaron Greenberg, to see what he had to say about everything from the competition, to the upcoming Natal. Interesting stuff if we do say so ourselves...

It’s a pretty impressive line-up of games considering that you’re obviously holding some stuff back for E3. Do you think that the Xbox is unique in this respect. Having such a strong line-up before the big show of the year?

We haven’t done this type of showcase this early on in the year historically, I think the fact that we’re showing what many believe as an E3 quality of game line-up in early February here at X10. I think it’s reflective of the type of year we expect to have. We said at CES at the start of the year that 2010 will be the biggest year in the history of Xbox.

We didn’t just want to say it, we wanted to back it up... we’ve got Splinter Cell: Conviction, we’ve got Alan Wake, we’ve got Crackdown 2, we’ve got Fable 3... we even have what people think will be the biggest game of the year, Halo: Reach. These games are all here and are all being shown and it’s only February. And these are all exclusive triple A titles that should sell millions of units, I think it’s a pretty clear sign that this is going to be a pretty huge year. And that by the way is only a glimpse of what we have for the full year. We’ll have more at E3, more for the holiday, it’s going to be a huge year for the platform.

Compare that to the PS3, there’s nothing in terms of numbers to match aside from God of War, Heavy Rain, etc... Is that your business plan?

I think that’s what we wanted to say... you know, “hey if you’re a gamer and you’re really interested in core blockbuster titles, there’s no other platform that offers more titles. No other platform that offers more exclusives.” Obviously there’s going to be great games on the PlayStation 3 and we respect that, but our goal is to have the most blockbuster titles and the most exclusives and I think we clearly have that this year. I think this is going to be a big year for us, not just for core games, but what we’re going to do with Xbox Live, being able to bring Project Natal to market this holiday and it’s really an exciting year for sure.

Did Microsoft miss a trick last year when failing to respond to the PS3 slim? Did you make a mistake in not counteracting it?

Well I think it’s a different perspective. I mean, we were already pretty cemented ahead of them as far as install base goes with the console. You know, we felt like we had a console that was already smaller than their console and we’re being able to innovate with things like Xbox Live, with a great games line-up, we were at that mass-market price point, roughly like €100 cheaper... Oh I should do pounds...  £79 cheaper than the PS3, so that price point is really where we made our investment.

What they were faced with was an entirely different perspective. You know, like... how do we get our price points down? How do we get more competitive? So they did that by releasing a different console. There’s trade-offs, right? They took out a lot of functionality by doing that. We feel good about our hardware and we’re really thinking about how can we continue to innovate with this console? We did it with the New Xbox Experience, we did it with Project Natal, we did it by a lot of the things we added like Facebook, Twitter, the move store, etc, this last holiday. I think there will be more to come, but who knows... we’re always going to have to respond to the competition and think about new ways to innovate.

Do you think the fact that Xbox 360 exclusives are appearing on the PC is holding back PS3 owners from purchasing an Xbox?

Well I can’t think of any of our big triple A exclusives that we’re showing here that is available on the PC, so if I think about for example, Crackdown, Alan Wake, Halo: Reach, Fable 3, all these titles as far as I’m aware are being designed primarily, if not only, for the consoles. The fact that some of these titles do end up on the PC, I don’t think impacts us that much. I think that we still have a larger exclusive line-up on the console.

Is this true Xbox 360 exclusive label the reason why Alan Wake isn’t PC bound and Fable 2 never ended up there?

I think that’s just more of a business case, like what’s the cost in having a team dedicated to making that game on the PC, how many units will you sell. I think the real market opportunity today with those types of titles is primarily on the console and so different types of experiences on the PC are driving that space.

There’s no, “we’re not doing it because we only want it on Xbox,” if there’s a business case for it to do well on the PC, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t do that. We do have resource issues, so we have a number of people that work on these teams, and how many people can work on a game across multiple platforms, but beside those trade-offs, there’s no other real motivations.

You recently announced that you were cutting support for the original Xbox. How big a decision was it? Was it because numbers were dropping or because it was holding back the infrastructure?

We gave it a lot of thought and it was not a decision we made easily. We had a lot of people talk to us, our partners talked to us about cutting off Xbox Live support, you know, a long time ago, and it was really something that we didn’t take lightly. We knew that Halo 2 for example was one of those titles that was the first time millions of consumers really played multiplayer games online, but we are at that point now where that community has largely transitioned off and on to the Xbox 360, and now, by discontinuing that support, we’re able to add more functionality into the Xbox Live service on Xbox 360, so not having to think about the legacy of Xbox Live on Xbox 1, and really being able to optimise for the new service will allow us to bring new features to the market.

Is one of those a friends list extension?

It’s something that we get asked about a lot and we have heard from folks that they want to be able to extend the friends list. It’s something that we are looking at. We haven’t officially announced anything but it is something that we’re aware of.

The difference between the services as you probably know is that Xbox Live on Xbox 360 is built into the platform, so as we did things like the New Xbox Experience, as we added new features, we were able to add that at the platform level. With Xbox Live on the original Xbox, many of those features are actually hard-coded into the original games. So now we’re working in an environment at the platform level, we’re going to be able to innovate and add more features without having to necessarily support that... like that friends list integration where you could see your friends on Xbox 1 or Xbox 360. Having that new flexibility will allow us to bring more features to the Xbox Live community on Xbox 360.

So Project Natal, would you say it was aimed at the mainstream or core market?

So I think that Natal will bring an entirely new category of experiences to the platform. I think that who they appeal to will range. I think of it as additive. Controller-free gaming entertainment. The ability now to interact with games and have entertainment experiences where you don’t have to use a controller. Where it can see and track your body. Where it can hear your voice. These are going to be new things that have really just never existed before. I think that we’re focussed on delivering original high quality experiences, so I think that, when you think about those, I believe that many of those will appeal to the core and the much more broader consumer.

We absolutely believe that there’s an opportunity to allow consumers who maybe haven’t played games before or are much more casual users to interact with the Xbox and make it much more approachable. Without a doubt, that’s a key focus, for example, our vision is to allow you to navigate the interface and be able to do that with your hands... with your voice.

As we all know, you probably have stories with relatives or parents that, you try to explain to them how to play a movie on the Xbox and first they have to pick up the controller and it just starts to become an interesting process, but if they could use their hands to navigate or say “play movie” with their voice, these are things that now anybody can do. Really making it as simple and accessible as possible is one of the key tenets of it.

A lot of naysayers say that Natal is just a jazzed up Eye-toy, how do you respond to that?

I think we could have obviously done a motion controller if we wanted to do that. We really felt like that would be much more like an iterative experience. Our belief was that there was an opportunity here to really do something that’s transformative and to bring a whole new category of experiences to life. I think the fact that now we’re saying to creators, we can see when you move your hand, we can see when you move your feet, we can track your body... I can stand in front of the sensor and it can recognise my face and can recognise the difference between me and my brother, or my sister, or whoever it may be, so I think that the richness of the technology is going to really enable experiences that have never existed before.

We’re not just thinking about what we’re putting out this year, but I think 2, 3, 4, 5 years from now as this evolves. We believe that millions of consumers this holiday will be able to experience Project Natal and that this is just the beginning of something I hope will change the way that consumers interact with entertainment and change the way that our publishing partners think about game development.

Have you though ahead to whether you'd like to go one better in the future and create a Project Natal 2 if everything is successful?

That’s a tough question. I think for us it’s hard to think 2, 3, 4 years out, I think that what we feel like today is that we’re not even halfway through this lifecycle and so, we feel like what we’re doing with Project Natal, many people feel like that is a next generation experience, but we’re able to deliver that this generation, so that’s the exciting part about it. You don’t have to go and buy a new console to get this experience and it’ll be interesting to see how that experience evolves and what type of things get brought to market.

Are you planning on bundling Natal with the console?

We haven’t announced any of those types of details or where we’re at, we’re still in a codename status. We unveiled the technology last year at E3, now we’re heavy in the development process, working with our development partners. We’ll showcase the actual games and experiences and talk about what the consumer name for the product is later this year. Definitely make sure you come to E3, we will be announcing a lot of things there, but we’ll share those things when we’re ready.

Do you see this as a repositioning of the hardware? Should core gamers be afraid of this focus shift? Do you feel you are betraying them somewhat, like Nintendo did with their motion controller?

I don’t think they should because what we’re saying is that it’s additive to the experience. I think what Nintendo did was they said, “we’re going to remove the controller and give you a wand and all your games you’re going to play with a wand.”

What we’re basically saying is, we’re going to have the best controller based blockbuster games that exist anywhere, the most exclusives. I mean we showed multiple rooms filled with games here at X10 and then, on top of that, we’re going to enable all these controller free games and entertainment experiences, so it’s not a matter of making the trade-off, we’re just saying this is just additive on top of what we already have.

I think our commitment to core gamers continues with the outline that we lined up for 2010. But we're able to say on top of that, in the same box, you can get all these great ways to play controller free which is fun for not just gamers, but for other folk in the household that aren’t necessarily going to play Halo: Reach, but may want to pick up and play games with other members in the household or access their entertainment in new ways. It’s an exciting time and I absolutely think that there won’t be any trade-off from a core-gamer standpoint.

"Social networking" seemed to be the buzz words for Xbox Live improvements in 2009, what direction are you planning in 2010? Can we expect to see improvements to the existing applications as well?

As you can see, the last couple of years our focus with Xbox Live has really been on this social entertainment type applications, you’re right: Facebook, Twitter, LastFM, bringing things like the Sky player to the UK, so we’re going to continue, every year to add new experiences, make new improvements to the experiences we have. The specifics around that we haven’t announced, but I know, in the US, there’s an example, when we launched Netflix, we had a certain level of functionality, the following year we added more functionality, we continue to already take feedback from our owners... if there are things that people want us to add or to change, we’d love to hear from them. We obviously try to prioritise and address as much of that as we can.

What about "tweeting" in-game?

We’ve had a lot of feedback on Twitter and I think that’s something that we’re looking at. More details to come, but nothing to announce today. Here we’re focused on core games, but know that the Live team are doing a lot of work and we’ll probably share those details closer to E3 time.

It seems recently that previous Xbox 360 exclusives are heading to the PS3 – GTA IV DLC, Netflix – and Microsoft are relying on 3rd party exclusives. Are these timed exclusives and are Microsoft trying to nail those down permanently?

I think what we’ve shown this generation is that we are the platform that has the most exclusive content and I think what we’ve seen is the way you define exclusives has changed, so there are: on the one end you have games that are completely exclusive, that will never appear on another platform, Halo for example. Halo is never going to appear on another platform, that will be exclusive to Xbox 360. You have exclusive game add-on content that’s only being made for the Xbox 360 and will not appear on other platforms. Then you have timed exclusives where you get things first and so, I think Netflix is one example... we had a full two years where we had Netflix before it appeared on another platform and in fact, today, we’re the only place where Netflix is native in the application so there’s no disc required to load, it’s actually built in. So I think whether these things eventually over time come to another platform is not as important as the fact that we want to continue to be the platform that gets more exclusive content and gets things first.

Sure we’d love to always have them forever, but in some cases some of these things do end up on other platforms and we understand that’s the nature of the business. I don’t think you’re going to see things like Alan Wake or anything that we do from a first party standpoint appear on competitive platforms, just like you’re not going to see titles that Sony publishes themselves appear on other platforms. I think that’s pretty safe, but the third party arrangements are case-by-case and some of those things have been disclosed and some of those things haven’t, but we’re obviously excited to have more exclusives in 2010 than the other platform does.


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