NEWS - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Interview with Xbox V.P. about Xbox Live

Interview with J Allard from TriXie: We’ve been seeing a lot of gamers clamoring for more games. What can you tell us on that front? J: I think they’re going to be really happy with the few that have released in the last couple of weeks—I know I am. Clone Wars, Phantasy Star Online, and Castle Wolfenstein are all getting regular rotation in my Xbox at home now. We’ve also been busy launching in Japan and Europe, but we are on track to have 100 more Xbox Live enabled games by this time next year. TriXie: We’ve also seen some concern that the Phantasy Star Online Hunter’s License is the shape of things to come. Gamers are worried that nothing will be free in the next year. J: The simplest way to look at the base subscription and the premium content model is to think of it like cable television. The base subscription is like basic cable. Premium content is like HBO and Showtime. The fact is, basic cable has to be good enough by itself, and it has to keep getting better. Basic cable didn’t always include MTV or ESPN, but it evolved that way, and Xbox Live needs to do the same thing: we’ll keep adding features that gamers want, and all the great new features we’re planning will be part of the base subscription. There will be premium content; PSO is just the first. We’re trying to establish a healthy business model so that we CAN give you 100 new Xbox Live enabled games as part of the base service. TriXie: Some gamers are speculating that Xbox will use the release of Halo 2 to jack up the price of the subscription. J: We don’t look at it as a chance to jack up the price. Halo 2 is the most anticipated game—ever. It’s a great opportunity to grow the Xbox Live community. We’ve figured out the pricing for the second year of the service and we—and business analysts—feel it’s very reasonable. I think gamers will too. TriXie: Can you tell us what it is? J: It’ll be $49.99 to renew your subscription for a year, or you can pay $5.99 per month. An Xbox Live Starter Kit will cost $69.99, or you can get just the Communicator for $29.99. TriXie: Gamers are not very happy with the cheating that goes on in some games. How are you going to handle this? J: There is an element of cheating that you can’t avoid. It’s just like neighborhood hoops or sandlot baseball. That’s happened since the beginning of time, and you can never eliminate it completely. The hard part in a virtual world is that you can’t test it. You don’t know what’s going to happen when two million people buy Halo 2 and they all start looking for ways to beat it. One thing we can do about situations like that is that the game designers can add rules in auto-updates. That’s what happens in professional sports. In hockey they’re thinking about eliminating the red line. Coaches and players try to find ways to win and the rules have to evolve to address new issues. TriXie: What about plug pullers? J: The change is going to have to come from game designers. They have to figure out what they want to do with a dropped game. Another challenge is to find a way to pause the game. The other day I was playing Clone Wars and the phone rang and the pizza guy came to the door at the same time. Now I can multitask, but I can’t play Clone, answer the phone, and get the door simultaneously. I just had to say, "Sorry guys," and when I came back to my Xbox all the other players were clustered around my AAT, destroying me! If the pizza guy shows up you should be able to call a timeout. TriXie: Is there anything gamers themselves can do about cheaters? J: We do have mechanisms in place. You can choose to play only with people on your Friends List, you can leave negative feedback on cheaters, or you can play in leagues where there are strict rules about cheating. TriXie: The service has been live in North America for about six months now. How is it living up to your expectations? J: It’s definitely exceeded my expectations in terms of popularity. I didn’t think we’d have this many gamers this soon. That just shows the passion and competitive nature of gamers. TriXie: Have there been any surprises? J: I’m surprised at all the clever ways people try to beat the game. One of the coolest things about Xbox Live is that I’ve learned so much from our customers by talking to them while playing. I learned better targeting strategies in Clone Wars from talking to other players for example. I’ve also been surprised by how much time people spend in lobbies. Society deems the gaming community as very antisocial and escapist. So it surprised me how social the early adopters were. In fact they’re incredibly social and intelligent. It’s interesting—it’s sort of the coffee shop vibe. The other night people talked for ten minutes about the 8 Mile DVD before starting the game! Another thing I’ve discovered about gamers is that when a new game comes out they try to figure it out and help each other, but there comes a point when it’s war. And it’s just silent. You can tell who the new guys are because they’re talking in the back of the pack. TriXie: We saw that in the tournaments. We fly these guys down to New Orleans and they’ve got the Communicators on ready to go and then… nothing. They’re too busy playing to talk trash. J: Maybe we need to have an award for the best trash-talking. TriXie: Have there been any disappointments in the first six months of Xbox Live? J: Yeah, I’m surprised and frustrated with a couple things. First are the rotten Gamertags. It’s no fun having to do a forced name change because of an obscene ’tag. Also, I’m amazed at the sheer amount of feedback. There are people being jerks, just like in the real world. I guess some people haven’t met my expectations for the community. Maybe I’ll make an appeal to the community to step it up. People should just do that as part of being on Xbox Live. I definitely call people on it when I hear it. TriXie: What do Xbox Live gamers have to look forward to in the coming year? J: We’ll be covering this in detail at E3, but the big news is we’re expanding content, expanding community, and expanding competition. The content we already talked about—100 new Xbox Live-enabled games. Most will be playable on the Xbox Live service, some will be content download or stats only. When we talk about expanding the community, we mean the ability to hook up with your friends from the Dashboard, chat with them, and see what’s new on the service. The ability to receive invites and notifications about games and tournaments from any MSN Alert–capable device—cell phone, PDA, SPOT watch, etc. The ability to hook into the service via the Web, check your stats, see if your friends are playing online. And what we call Xbox Live "aware" games. These are offline games that will let you be "logged on" while playing, even if playing single-player, so that you can receive invites and keep up with what your friends are doing. Expanded competition is the ability to easily form teams with your friends, and to create and participate in tournaments and structured competitions. This has great potential for all kinds of games, but think of how it could work with sports games. The technology system allows you to set up a league with people who don’t pull the plug, or with your college buddies that you play fantasy sports with. What’s going to happen with sports is that we will see a combination of 3D action sports, fantasy league sports, and manager mode. It becomes a completely new genre. Your typical sports fanatic reads the box scores in the morning paper, then listens to sports coverage on the radio on the way to work. He subscribes to and watches the games on his computer. He gets premium cable to watch his team’s games and TiVos them all. These sports nuts buy sports games as another way to get on the field. We want Xbox Live sports to keep you plugged into the experience even when you’re not on the field. These new features will make it more like real sports. For example, you get paged on your cell phone when you fall out of the tournament bracket. We’re also adding Voice to the Dashboard and the ability to get to the Dashboard without taking your game disc out. Gamers said they wanted it, so we did it. TriXie: What do you see as the future of console gaming? J: First of all, people are more digitally savvy than ever before. We thought we were so clever to put a hard disk and soundtracks in the Xbox and were surprised at how tech savvy the early adopters were. Right away they wanted to know if they could rip their MP3s onto the Xbox. There are 150 million PCs out there—a lot more than consoles. We need to find the right ways to integrate the PC world and the console world. That’s why Music Mixer is such an exciting product. It lets you use stuff where it’s most natural to use it. You edit and organize your photos on your PC, but you can watch the slide show on your TV with Music Mixer in your Xbox. I see Xbox becoming the ultimate digital entertainment amplifier. But the heart and soul of Xbox will always be gaming. The other thing I see happening in the future of gaming is that the market will continue to broaden. Even now gaming is becoming more mainstream. Forty percent of last year’s content was licensed—based on movies, books, sports, etc. This makes gaming more approachable. Just fast forward 10 years… there may be an Xbox next to every TV! I also think that the premium content is really going to make a difference in the games we see. Right now you don’t ever see a game with a 50-million dollar budget, like you do with movies. But once game publishers start to make money, they’ll respond with more and better content. If money is made, there will be money to spend, and production budgets will go up. Imagine what a 50-million dollar video game would be like! TriXie: Do you have the best job in the world? J: Absolutely. It’s an exciting blend of technology, art, and business. And we’re just at the beginning. We’ve gotten to a point where games are becoming a true art form, like film. The record and TV and film industries are going sideways, but right now we’re going from black and white to color and sound. Fifteen years from now people are going to look back and say, "Wow, that was a turning point." People will look at 2000–2005 as the golden years of gaming, and to be part of that is awesome. TriXie: One more question. If you weren’t V.P. of Xbox, what would you be? J: A pro skateboarder wishing I could be the V.P. of Xbox.

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