The next generation console fight kicked off like never before this week with drama, claims, counterclaims, rumours, whispers and loud opinions that would put a soap opera series to shame. It's been compelling, controversial, surprising, disappointing and exciting all at the same time. You can't take your eyes off it for a second.
If there's any truth in anything we've seen this week it's that no one can really be that confident that know who has the advantage. There are more smoke and mirrors flying around at E3 this week than you'd find at a magic forum, and the best advice to anyone getting caught up in the intense arguments is to enjoy the show but take it all with a huge pinch of salt. Because nobody really knows yet. Be excited. Be disappointed. Be cynical. But don't claim you know any better than anyone else. Even J Allard admits as much in this revealing interview, conducted less than 48 hours after Sony conducted its pre-E3 briefing and played its PS3 hand.
As ever, Allard was in knockabout form. Self effacing, always willing to actually answer the question no matter how leading it might be, and seemingly realistic enough to accept that Sony has the edge in the graphics war this time, but that all three players have taken a different approach.
Allard seems convinced that Microsoft's superior online offering counts for a lot, and that selling to the next 100 million consumers (no sign of billion figures here, tellingly) is not about the graphics. Some may find this a telling statement from a man that spent a long time boasting about the superior power of the Xbox 1, but whether you agree with that statement or not is certain to rage elsewhere. Here at Eurogamer, for us it will forever be about the games, and we certainly took time to grill Allard on its strength in this area - just what's the killer app this time, and why didn't they put fully playable 360 titles on their stand? Read on to find out what one of Microsoft's key Xbox figures has to say...
Eurogamer: What did you feel the reaction was the to the pre-E3 presentation?
J Allard: The reactions over the past week have all been really good, the reactions after the Monday night event were all really positive. People are really excited about what we're going to do with the brand work in terms of getting serious about broadening the audience.
A lot of people talk to me, it's interesting, I think there's probably a contrast between people who are having their first E3, and they don't really know how to make the jump between where we are today to holiday, versus the people who followed us from the very very beginning who say 'I remember in 2001when Halo wasn't that good,' and were saying 'it was a mistake you bought Bungie, the frame rate was bad and how can you show stuff on Alpha kits? It's just not going to happen', and I know how much further things are going to progress in the next couple of months.
Eurogamer: Is that why you kept Xbox 360 games away from the show floor in terms of being able to play them?
J Allard: Well, there are live demos downstairs of several different games, and even those you have to look at with a grain of salt because they're running on Alpha, so we get to final hardware and final game production, you know, it's not showing the full potential.
Eurogamer: But yet SEGA, EA and others have lots of Xbox 360 playable demo stations...
J Allard: Well we have kits running downstairs with Condemned; we're doing it as a controlled demo primarily. We have a different challenge than the publishers do. The publishers all want to show their games, so we've got to show a balanced view. We're still committed to the Xbox 1 business; we've got 200 games coming out this year that we've dedicated to the majority of our booth. [It's] what the majority of our business is going to be this year.
Our Xbox 360 launch is of paramount importance between what the journalists get to see hands on, at the publishers themselves, what they're going to see hands on here, walkthroughs and whatnot, what they got to see in the briefing and the assets we'll be releasing and the frequency at which we'll be reaching out to people between now and launch. Really we want more of the attention on Xbox 1.
Eurogamer: What are you going to be positioning as the killer app for launch?
J Allard: We're not positioning a killer app for launch.
Eurogamer: Is there a Halo equivalent for launch?
J Allard: There will be. I think there will be. Again, E3 2001 was before a holiday launch, and we thought that Halo had a good run, we thought Gotham had a good run, we thought Dead Or Alive had a good run for it, and everyone in the press thought Halo was doomed, so...WHO KNOWS?! You know, who knows? I mean it's a little early to call the winners? It's not up to us to call the winners, let the gamers decide.
Eurogamer: Will you be cheaper than your competitors for launch?
J Allard: I don't know what our price is going to be, and I don't know what their price is going to be. They got a lot of stuffed in, huh? Look at the back of that thing! Holy crap!
Eurogamer: Is it going to be cheaper than the Xbox launch though?
J Allard: We're trying to figure out that price point strategy right now. This is the first week we've had the opportunity to sit down with retailers, publishers, developers, the press, on a worldwide basis where everybody all has the same information and say "how are you going to launch this thing?"
It's one thing to stand up on stage Monday night and say we're going to launch this thing worldwide as closely as possible; we're going to do it all this year, all this holiday in all three territories. It's one thing to say it; it's another thing to do it. So we've got to go and figure out exactly how we're going to do that, what that means and what the price point should be.
Eurogamer: Will you have an exclusive game from Square Enix?
J Allard: You're going to have to talk to Square on that one. My lips are sealed [squirms in chair]. We can only say what we said on Monday night; that's all we can say right now.
Eurogamer: But you chose to show off a game that was released three years ago on the PC and we were expecting much more maybe...
J Allard: Well, there was the other trailer he showed as well... He showed a second game as well.
Eurogamer: That was just a tech demo though
J Allard: It is.
Eurogamer: It's not a game is it?
J Allard: I'm not the one that's going to break the news for Square Enix; you're going to have to talk to those guys.
Eurogamer: Will it be exclusive though?
J Allard: You're going to have to talk to those guys! I'm just the platform guy [throws hands in the air.]
Eurogamer: How important are exclusives for the Xbox 360?
J Allard: I think exclusives, obviously, are critical, but just like I'd say that the platform power doesn't just come down to the hardware but software and services; exclusives aren't the only math, either. So, if you take exclusives out of the equation for a second, say 85 per cent of the content is shared. Well, we've got a better online service. If you want to play Madden Football, if you want to play FIFA Soccer, if you want to play Final Fantasy online we're going to be the best system to do that. I think the community of online service really plays a big part as well in the capabilities of the system.
While all you guys are gaming enthusiasts, and I am as well, the core audience of games - I can't begin to tell you the number of people who came up to me after the press conference and said I am Velocitygirl, or I am Beatbuilder, I'm really excited about the support you're going to have, the fact that I can be connected doing non gaming things as well, or I'm really excited about the industrial design and it doesn't have to be banished to the basement anymore. That this is actually a product that we're going to put in the family's room as opposed to an individual's room in the house, so I think that that's going to be an element of our success as well. It's something that consumers really want.
Eurogamer: You didn't reveal any new Microsoft [Game Studios] exclusives this time around. It was very much sequel sequel sequel sequel, whereas obviously last time you launched with a huge range of first party exclusives. This time it seemed like almost everything had a number on the end.
J Allard: Nah, there's Blue Dragon and Ninety-Nine Nights... There's certainly new content. It's hard to say Perfect Dark is a sequel. I don't know when the last time you purchased a new copy of Perfect Dark... quite a while ago! Kameo is new IP as well, so I think we've got a pretty good balance of first party. It's probably about fifty-fifty between sequels that people love and new IP that they'll be trying out that we've not talked about so far. Gears Of War is new IP as well.
Eurogamer: But is that exclusive to Xbox?
J Allard: It's Xbox and PC.
Eurogamer: It's interesting. Why have you not made those Xbox/PC titles like Call Of Duty 2, Quake 4 exclusive to Xbox 360?
J Allard: I always get back to the gamers. Every decision we make is really focused on what the gamers want. A ton of our gamers are dual gamers meaning that they have PC and console because they prefer some aspects of PC, especially in FPSs. Okay, should we really make Quake an exclusive that you can't play on PC.
Eurogamer: You did exactly that with Halo, though, and that's the point. You yanked it off PC and made it an Xbox exclusive.
J Allard: No, no. We published Halo on both PC and Mac.
Eurogamer: Yes, but that was about two years later!
J Allard: We didn't talk about sequencing. Gears Of War will be on both platforms, but it might be on one before the other. That's a little bit more of a game time decision.
Eurogamer: Why is it important for you to be first in the next generation when you could end up having less power than your competitors?
J Allard: But we're talking about months! They [Sony] are buying the exact same sand as we are. They are! Believe me; I talk to every single person and company in the world that's making silicon. I know exactly what they're doing; they know exactly what we're doing. We're all buying from the same guys, right? I mean, we chose different partners on the graphics front but all three companies have the same partner on the CPU front. We have a price point to hit; they have a price point to hit, right? I mean, it's business. It's business. There's no special silicon that you can go and buy. You can decide how you want to tune your system, but what we really focused on was creating a balanced system, you know.
I don't think there's any material advantage to being four or five months late in terms of the power. If you do look at [Sony's] specification they've got - putting the silicon aside which is going to be a challenge because they've gone for such a complex architecture there - Blu-Ray is a huge problem. Blu-Ray is a power point. You can't buy a drive, right? It's a specification that people are arguing about every day, not just in the press, but in real standards fights. That's a real challenge. It's not as if those drives are being manufactured by 20 different companies that you can go and buy off the shelves, so I think that's going to be a real challenge for them. It might explain their date. We didn't think about them when we thought about our date. We thought about what was right for gaming, what was right for technology, what type would be available and went from there.
Eurogamer: Do you think developers are ready to make the leap to next gen now?
J Allard: Oh yeah, they're ready. The question is whether they're going to get all of the hardware they want at the time that they want it. I mean it's going to be a tough landing. We're doing everything we can. They've had dev kits for over a year now, Alpha kits and the software, they can implement the Live service today, so they're all building in their Live support. We even have camera support for them on the new dev kits, so they're really well prepared.
But as well prepared as we attempted to make it, it's still a tough landing. You know, you go from Alpha hardware today to Beta hardware next month, then you have to get on store shelves in a couple of months. It's going to be a fast landing, and that happens with every single [next gen system]. I think we eased them into it and gave them superior tools, so they can see our launch line up will be better than anyone elses in the next gen.
Eurogamer: Did you see the PS3 tech demos?
J Allard: Yes.
Eurogamer: What did you think?
J Allard: I... I think tech demos are always fun to show. I liked crashing cars at GDC last year, and I think we did it at E3 again. I mean tech demos are fun but you've got to move on. People don't buy tech demos.
Eurogamer: How representative did you think they will be of final gameplay?
J Allard: I was looking forward to the games, because the tech demos - you remember the old man from last generation - I didn't buy a game on PlayStation 2 that had that kind of facial geometry. So I've got to move on to the games footage, and I think that's really up to...
Eurogamer: Was that not also a tech demo then?
J Allard: That was not tech demo. That was rendered.
Eurogamer: But didn't you use the same trick on Gotham 3 the other day?
J Allard: [Bounds up and down in chair, waves arms] We didn't, we didn't... First; I mean there's no trick because it was a combination of in-game footage and rendered footage, just like videogames are. So, I mean we had a combination of both those elements throughout. All the stuff that we did show that was game footage was all running on Alpha kits though, so I think it's coming along really really well.
You show the best that you can show. We tried to show things that were representative of what you're going to be able to buy. That was our part. In some cases it was lower than what we'd like people to think this system is capable of, but it's real, and we wanted to show people stuff that was real and say 'hey, launch is around the corner and you're going to buy games that look like this, you're not going to be disappointed'. We didn't want to set an expectation, and I think there was an expectation, just talking as a gamer, of Namco Girl. Remember Namco Girl on PS2, I remember saying 'I can't wait to get that game'. That game doesn't exist. That game is going to exist; the fidelity of the graphics of Namco Girl for PS2 will first ship on Xbox 360 called Dead Or Alive 4. Dead Or Alive 4 will have that kind of fidelity, but that's years after Namco Girl.
Eurogamer: So in terms of the game footage it was probably misleading to consumers who might expect [PS3 games] to look as good as that?
J Allard: Well, talking of a Spring launch, talking to developers, they don't have dev kits yet. I don't know how you get them. In terms of theoretical performance, maybe five years out, maybe it's possible.
Eurogamer: Were you surprised in any way at the quality?
J Allard: No, I was encouraged by it, actually. I know it makes for good drama because it oh, it's Microsoft versus Sony - I want gaming to get bigger. I think it's great that all three companies are all taking really different approaches and are bringing gaming to the next level in different ways. That's good. That's good for competition, that's good for the consumer, that's good for the industry, because it's going to grow the industry, and if it gives game creators more opportunities to go and push the envelope, that's great. One is pushing the envelope in online, one is pushing the envelope in wireless, you know, that's great. I'm all for it. We don't have to push the envelope in every direction.
Eurogamer: Don't you think in a place like LA that we have to create some dreams for gamers and show some renders and demos that create some hype?
J Allard: Yeah, that's why I'm not at all against what Sony did at their briefing. I think it's good to show people what they think the potential is. But our rule was we didn't want to show anything that we didn't think gamers could buy. I hope Sony did the same thing.
It's hard, it's subjective, right? I mean here you are months before you're going to ship the final hardware and Sony's a little bit further out... It's a guess! It's a calculated guess. You can do a lot of math and talk to a lot of artists and put a lot of time into it, but it's calculated. It's our best approximation of what you think people will be able to do.
And, the thing is, it's so hard to characterise some of the big shifts that we see - the input is going to change dramatically. Voice and video are going to really have a big impact on gaming. You can't show that on the screen. We think that online communities, personalisation is going to have a huge impact on gaming. You can't show that visually in a 30 second exciting trailer. So I think a lot of people get conditioned. It's the easy thing to do, to condition yourself to say 'I just want to talk about the graphics shift'. It's not just about the graphics. Grand Theft Auto: QED. Grand Theft Auto had crap graphics; nobody played it for the graphics. Halo? It could have had weaker graphics, but people would have still loved it because the gameplay balance was perfect, the story was comprehensive enough, the world was exciting, the level design was great. Take the graphics down a notch, I'm still playing those games.
So we can't get all hung up as an industry and say it's all about graphic fidelity. You know, go and get Dead Or Alive . What are they doing about new combo techniques? New tag teams? What they're doing with online and everything else? Are they pushing fighting to the next level and does it look better?
I kind of put the 'does it look better?' secondarily. Not because it's not important, not because I don't think we're not going to have a system to do it, but because we're almost good enough. You know, years ago when we were making Xbox, there was this debate. People talk about the Blu-Ray DVD thing [now, but] they would come in and they would say 'what are you doing about SACD and DVD Audio?' Higher fidelity audio, dadadada. I'm like 'I couldn't tell the difference between vinyl and CD!' It's more convenient, which is nice, and I can play it in my car and I don't have to screw up tapes, but I can't hear the difference, do I need better audio in my life?
We're almost at the point now visually where we're like, in videogames, do we need better visuals than what we saw on Monday night? [shrugs] A little bit. It's not the thing that's going to sell to the next 100 million people. The thing that's going to sell to the next 100 million people is creativity; creativity for labouring, creativity from a designer's point of view and so a hard drive can provide those tools. I think we're going to take graphics to the next notch, but graphics is not going to be the thing that's going to sell to the next 100 million systems.