Today sees the global launch of a redesigned Xbox One user experience and the highly-anticipated addition of Xbox 360 backwards compatibility.
To mark the occasion, we spoke with Xbox engineering brain Richard Irving on what's new - and what's still missing - from the redesigned console experience, and talked about how Microsoft has transformed the console's initially disappointing dashboard into the impressive suite of features available today.
The discussion ranges from the reasons why Xbox One originally arrived without some basic features, to the new dashboard's move away from Kinect and the return of Avatars.
And, in terms of backwards compatibility, we ask about the initial list of games and try to find out why certain big names (cough - Red Dead Redemption) are noticeably absent.
It's a big day for Xbox - is there a big red button to push?
Richard Irving: I'm not the one that pushes it - we reserve that for people who are a little closer to the operational detail...
Richard Irving: ...but there is a symbolic red button.
Why now for the new dashboard? Is it just a convenient launch time for your engineering teams or was it timed to make a splash for the holidays?
Richard Irving: There's two really big factors. The most important one is with all the great fan feedback we've received, there's been a set of stuff we could work on in a 30, 60, 90-day timeframes. But there was also a set of feedback that really required some deeper thinking, more design research, testing and ultimately fan feedback through the Xbox preview programme. A lot of it was long-lead stuff that we had to spend time on to ensure we got right.
From an engineering perspective, for example, you know how long it used to take to load your friends list and now how long it takes with the new dashboard today. That's not the sort of thing that you can turn around in 30 days - it needs time to really deliver in the way fans wanted.
The second factor is the confluence of platform evolution going on within Xbox and Microsoft. There's the breakthrough we had around backwards compatibility, another is the launch of Windows 10 and the big investment we're making in gaming - making that a core part of the Windows 10 experience and bringing that technology to Xbox.
The new dashboard doesn't include Kinect gesture control now, something which got a few headlines this week. I can understand why it wasn't prioritised, probably quite rightly, as it seemed like it didn't get much use. Is that the end for the feature now?
Richard Irving: With the new dashboard the impetus was to look at how the Kinect sensor was being used for input. We did not implement gesture controls within the UI in the new dashboard experience. We looked at the suggestions and feedback for improvement and it was really around voice controls and Cortana coming to Xbox next year. So that's where we put our engineering resources.
That said, we're going to monitor fan feedback on gestures. Another area of feedback is from game and app developers, something we don't really talk about but something we'll also be looking at that to inform our decisions.
I know you must get asked about background music a lot. How much longer will you make fans wait for that?
Richard Irving: [Laughs] I like that you're not trying to back me into a corner on that. It's certainly a popular request and something we'd like to do sooner or later but not something we have a specific timeframe for right now.
The monthly updates were great - it was really impressive to see the turnaround of new features on a 30-day timeframe. Will that still continue?
Richard Irving: Absolutely - we're not looking at this update as the destination but as a refresh. It's a new ground of oppurtunity for fans and the team. The folks here are just as much fans of Xbox as anyone who has gone onto the Xbox Feedback website and suggested ideas. We'll continue to look at feedback, work on it and continue that cycle.
I got to speak to Kudo Tsunoda back at E3 this year and he asked me what I'd like to see in the next dashboard update. And, Xbox 360 fan that I am, I asked about the return of Avatars. Now they're back but used pretty sparingly - is this it for their big return to the spotlight?
Richard Irving: We think Avatars are an incredible part of your identity on Xbox Live and when you look at the combination of what we're doing with the new Xbox app on Windows 10 we're still trying to find the balance between the richness of the Avatar and the fact that not everyone wants to use one, as well as the need for speed and performance. It's all a careful balance.
It's a new start - it's not the end. We're definitely still invested in Avatars and finding ways of implementing them into the experience - without effecting speed, performance or the number of clicks it takes to get to anything. We absolutely love Avatars.
That's great because I have a couple more Avatar questions for you! Xbox 360 had Avatar rewards, which were a nice way of showing off your achievements via character items. Will they return now too?
Richard Irving: It sort of depends on feedback from games developers. We're still working with developers and publishers on Avatar-specific things to find the right ideas and get them invested in the Avatar experience. Nothing to announce today but whether that is Avatar rewards or Avatar store items, we're talking with them to find the right next step.
What about Microsoft Studios, though? You guys are a developer - is there anything you can say?
Richard Irving: We're part of that collaboration, definitely.
One final question on Avatars - the current Avatar store on Xbox One just redirects to the web version. Are there any plans to change this and make it more part of the experience?
Richard Irving: Let's see - just bear with me, I'm just going to load up the website... So if the Avatar store hasn't already, it is getting a refresh shortly. [Pause] Oh, for some reason the web page isn't loading but it is getting refreshed and updated with a newer and more modern feel.
Cool - it's pretty messy right now.
Richard Irving: Yeah - so we're looking at the right ways to integrate the store in the app and on the console in the long term. The investment right now is focused on the web this holiday as that is a client that is accessible to all.
Something else big that's launching this week is backwards compatibility, although some of the big games that people were hoping for - like Red Dead Redemption, GTA, Skyrim - aren't there yet. These were among the most highly-requested games on the Xbox Feedback website. How much did that poll really affect the list of games that will be included?
Richard Irving: So, let me explain a little how it works so you understand how it was a huge influence, but why we can't deliver on all the titles that fans are asking for right now.
After the technological breakthrough that got backwards compatibility working, the next step was to figure out how to license all this content, originally released on Xbox 360, for Xbox One. As you can imagine, publishers have cut very specific deals on some of that content. For example Madden - you can imagine how many licenses go into a game with the players, the NFL, sponsors and so on. And there's over 1000 games at this point on Xbox 360.
It didn't seem fair to ask our partners to go off and find licenses for all this Xbox 360 content so what we opted to do instead was to give fans the opportunity to prioritise which games they want. So then we can re-engage with publishers and ask about specific games and say, 'please let us know if this is something you can do'. So it's really up to publishers to approve it.
Publishers are super engaged and responsive to that stuff, the response was overwhelming from fans. It's just that some of the content takes longer than others to organise, so we weren't able to get all of the top 50 or 100 games, but we have a good number of them.
The list was notable for its lack of any game from Rockstar - no Red Dead, none of the Grand Theft Auto titles, no Bully. Can Xbox owners be hopeful that Rockstar back-compat will happen?
Richard Irving: We're definitely engaged with all of our publisher and developer partners - including Rockstar - on when and how we can developer on that fan feedback.
And, just for me, where's Alan Wake? I wanted to play that again this weekend!
Richard Irving: [Laughs] My wife loves Alan Wake and gave me a bit of crap when she saw it wasn't on the list.
Richard Irving: I actually don't know the details on that, though.
It's your game, though! Well it's Remedy's game published by Microsoft.
Richard Irving: It was a fun game.
Ok. Multi-disc games aren't working with back-compatibility right now, meaning no Mass Effect 2 or 3, for example. Is that something you guys think can be solved in the near-term?
Richard Irving: Unfortunately I actually don't know the specifics there.
Microsoft PR: It's something that's not technically possible now but it's something we're looking into - which I believe is a comment that Phil [Spencer, Xbox boss] has shared before.
What feature would you like to see added next?
Richard Irving: You're asking for my favourite feature for the future in the hopes of getting a pre-announcement for fans?
Let's go with me being genuinely interested!
Richard Irving: [Laughs] I'm excited to do more with the Guide. On Xbox 360 it was a feature that just evolved, to the extent that pretty much anything in the dashboard was put in the Guide. And now we have the same architecture on Xbox One where we can offer the same seamless, fluid experiences that are augmented by the platform. Bringing Achievements in, was something that was part of fan feedback. We talked about the possibility of background music too.
I've had an Xbox One since day one and I've seen how far the console has evolved. For people who still remember how basic it was when it lauched, can you explain why it arrived without many of the features that Xbox fans had come to expect? For some people it was like a backwards step in terms of the user interface from Xbox 360.
Richard Irving: It's important for us to look at the evolution of things. A new console generation, a new platform launch, means you have to look at what features to bring forward and what to build for the future - five to 10 years away.
If you look at Xbox 360 now, you have 100 times more features than you did when the console launched. You didn't have streaming HD video services at the time, and now that's the future of television. You didn't have a common friends list across all of your games, and now it's expected as standard. So with Xbox One we looked at what we want to accomplish, what publishers want, what fans want, and you make trade-offs based on what you will leave behind, betting on the future.
In some areas I think we made some great decisions. In other areas there was an opportunity to learn from the launch and there was a lot of space to - in the two years since then - build on that. And that's why the new dashboard is the next step but not the final step. We have addressed a lot of the highest priority stuff from fans and from game developers but there's still so much stuff we can do to evolve how games exist on the platform and on Xbox Live.
I completely understand that you can't predict the future, or that some things can be passed over as simply not being necessary anymore. But there was also really basic stuff missing, like a controller battery indicator. Also, the design of the dashboard features where they were split into their own apps ensured that the loading time needed to reach simple things was seriously lengthened from Xbox 360. These criticisms have been addressed, but it's just a strange thing to look back on since Xbox 360 was so polished.
Richard Irving: Yeah, the benefit of hindsight is what it is. Xbox 360 required a huge engineering effort plus engagement with developers and fans to get to that point. Specifically with apps, the architecture we built with and that we're still built on allows us to update apps at a monthly pace. Compare that to Xbox 360 where we really only could do two major releases per year. The flexibility of Xbox One allows us to provide real value to fans and game developers month upon month. In doing that, we wound up doing some things that impacted user performance, experience, expectations... and I personally didn't think that they would receive some of the negative feedback they did receive, but I'm glad that they did because it has allowed us to get to a much better place.
And I'm wary of always looking back with hindsight because, again what's there on Xbox 360 took us 10 years to get there. On Xbox One we're evolving at a much faster clip than we ever were on Xbox 360, so I feel like there's a really bright future for the user experience.
One final thing - [Xbox exec] Mike Ybarra teased yesterday that Xbox fans in the preview programme would get a small reward for their efforts providing feedback. Any clues as to what that might be?
Richard Irving: I couldn't say - but I think you specifically are going to be delighted.
I'll enjoy my Avatar T-shirt, thank you!