X05: J Allard on launching the Xbox 360

"We want to do the right thing for gamers."

Never before has a console launched around the world nigh-on simultaneously. In fact, here in Europe we're used to three, six, and even nine month delays. But not with the Xbox 360. For the launch of Microsoft's baby, the Redmond giant is promising a European launch date of December 2nd - just ten days after its U.S. debut.

But that's a task that Microsoft's J Allard knows only too well is going to be a tough one. He knows the launch units will be extremely limited. He also knows that key games may slip, and that it's "really really hard," but far from shirking away from all the supply and logistical issues, Allard is rolling with the punches, prepared to take every piece of flak that will come his way.

"Do I think it'll go flawlessly? I don't, but I think it's the right thing to do," he proclaims, determined not only the first out of the block in the next generation battle, but the first to take on the challenge of launching its new machine all around the world at the same time. In the first part of an aggressively defensive interview, we get a fascinating insight into the challenges facing Microsoft, and how they intend to deal with them...

Eurogamer: What was the hardest part of getting to where you are now? The hardware or the software?

J Allard: It's not just rhetoric; every direct decision we make is hardware plus software and services. It's all combined, and so I think it's all a big part. The Live service, while it's up and running now is not final. The hardware's final, the development kits are final, but the service is yet to be final, so that team is still cranking very hard.

To be very precise, the most difficult part is actually the silicon, and it's not because the silicon is the most complex, which it is, but you want to take the most powerful silicon and the most advanced techniques in silicon that you can find, and put them into your box. And so, in terms of leading edge, the most leading edge work that we're doing is in silicon and that becomes your constraint. People say 'you're not going to have enough units at launch - you're going to sell every one you can make, why don't you just make more?' Silicon is where we're up against the wall with physics and research and what we're capable of doing. We can make more plastic. We can get more memory. We can easily make more software and print more game disks, but the silicon thing is really the bugaboo. At the heart of everything that we did, the silicon we really had to time very precisely for a 2005 launch, and it's where you can't screw up, and where you have a lot of money at stake.

Eurogamer: How many units do you think there will be available for launch?

J Allard: We're not discussing numbers yet. I think no matter how big the number becomes, it still won't satisfy the demand. We're going to sell every one we can make. The allocation issue is a discussion; it's a dialogue with the retailers, and it's not just by territory, it's also by country, and so at an event like this we can actually get some feedback from the retailers in terms of 'my country's going to be more ready when FIFA: Road to the World Cup comes out, and that's going to be the killer app for my country', for example, so we can adjust our allocations.

We decided we're going to take a little bit of heat on allocations, frankly, in all the territories rather than take a lot of heat in one or two territories. So, we're not saying Europe comes four months later, we're saying Europe comes now, but with that combining it with the physics properties of the silicon means we're going to have some disappointment in terms of what we can provide to retail and ultimately to the consumers this year, but that's okay, because we want to get the market started. We want to get started on a worldwide basis, we want to do the right thing for gamers, for our publishers and for consumers.

Eurogamer: Has the launch proved harder than you expected?

J Allard: No, we knew it was going to be really really hard. It's a really hard problem, but, you know, we're stepping up. As Gerhard (Florin, EA Europe chief) said yesterday, it takes guts, but it's the right thing to do, and often the right thing to do takes guts, and some things complicate it. Will it go without a hitch? No. We'll have some logistics issues, it's going to be difficult. We're buying a lot of capacity on planes and on boats and we're going to be co-ordinating a lot. Do I think it'll go flawlessly? I don't, but I think it's the right thing to do, and I think we'll look back on it more convicted [sic] than ever that it was the right thing to do, and we're very committed to it. It's a lot of late nights for a lot of people, and a lot of hard work, and we're going to get some heat. It's never fun to work really really hard and then get heat from the media, from retailers, from the consumer because we didn't have enough of the things or because something wasn't quite as perfect as wed like it to be in our execution, but the team signed up for it, because it's the right thing to do.

Eurogamer: Are you worried that this is going to overshadow your message because the media's going to talk about lack of stock?

J Allard: You know what, I hope not. I hope that the enthusiasm for what we're doing on a worldwide basis and what the capabilities of the system itself are and the launch line-up we have. I think that's the overshadowing message. At the end of the day, Nano screens scratch. Okay, tough, tough message. It's probably a tough message for the team at Coopertino (California) and at Apple, but damn that's a cool product. I think that while there's a hiccup in logistics and some slightly dissatisfied consumers at the end of the day that's the coolest product you can buy in consumer electronics right now, and that overshadows everything. You guys can write about it as much as you want, but at the end of the day I love the thing. Mine's scratched up, but it's fine, it's the coolest piece of kit that I own. That's what matters. I think our customers are going to look at 360 and say 'it's the coolest thing going'. I think we're going to take the mantle from Nano when we ship here in December, with a launch line-up that makes people say 'this is the coolest thing I can get. I'm disappointed I can't get it on day one, but I'll get it.' Or 'I'm disappointed I'm only sharing it over at my friend's house or that one title I was hoping for will ship two weeks later than I anticipated.

Eurogamer: Can you be specific on the launch line-up, because it's still kind of ambiguous what games you're going to launch with the console.

J Allard: The ones that are done! The ones that are done!

Eurogamer: Can I press you on that? Can you say with conviction which ones?

J Allard: You can press all you want, but no games are through certification yet so it's hard to say precisely. What I can say is the first party team is wound up and they're going to try to get as many of the titles that they're hoping for on day one.

Eurogamer: What are you hoping for?

J Allard: We're hoping for all three of the first party titles to be there on day one. We're hoping, though. We're not going to sacrifice quality to do it. I mean you saw that with Halo; everyone was disappointed with the press. We moved the Halo 2 date out to November, and people said 'oh, I expected it in April, this is a travesty, it's disastrous!' No, it's the best game that's ever been created, and we were glad that we waited and didn't rush it out. We're going to take the same approach with the first party content. If something's not ready we'll hold it back.

Eurogamer: Are you saying these three key titles might not be ready for launch?

J Allard: Well, you can never promise something that's not done until they pass through certification. I won't say, Shane won't say, Robbie won't say, Peter won't say. When it's done, we'll say it's done. The original Xbox, PlayStation, Dreamcast, pick your game console, which one two full months before launch said 'this is definitively what you're going to get on day one' and was right? We didn't have those lists, I think it's a higher bar and an impractical bar to set right now. We've shown people what we're aiming for in 2005, and what we're aiming for in 2006. The teams have the final dev kits, we're starting to pass stuff through certification now. I think we're going to have a great holiday no matter how you look at it.

Eurogamer: Does that keep you up at night, the fact that you know you can't guarantee these three key titles from you, and other key titles from other publishers might not be there for launch?

J Allard: No, not at all. I think we've got a great breadth of portfolio and some great deep games. Having played most of the games we showed last night hands-on. I've finished Kameo, I feel great about Kameo, I've played Call of Duty [2] for dozens of hours, I've played Perfect Dark quite a bit, I've played PGR. I know where these games are, I mean these games are not far from being done, and if they're three weeks after the launch, or they're on launch day I don't think it makes a significant difference. We'll have, on day one, adequate content to show that the next generation has started out, that there's a gamer in the world that has a day one console experience that says there aren't two or three games here I can buy. And by the time they're through with those two or three games there's going to be the one that might not have made it on the store shelf. These games are all very very close.

Eurogamer: Would you risk putting a game out that was almost finished?

J Allard: It's up to the publishers, you know, it's happened before. I think Shane would tell you his attitude of first party is that we don't want to risk it. You take an anticipated title like Kameo, and that's a very unique title in our portfolio, let's make sure we get it right. I think of all the first party titles, that's the one that's probably closest. But we want to get it right. If you take something like Perfect Dark Zero and say it's a franchise or take Gotham Racing and say it's a franchise. There are other racing games that are coming out at that time in the launch window. We can't afford to get it wrong. Let's not get it wrong, let's do it right. We're doing some breakthrough stuff in Gotham like the Gotham TV work, like the track editor, that we want to set the tone for the third parties in terms of 'hey, look what direction might work moving forward in games', so I think we're going to be patient there, but the teams are killing themselves to get there. Everyone wants to be there on day one. The content teams are all so motivated, they all want to be there on day one, they want to be there on the very first day that the consumer walks in and shells out their hard earned Euros or pounds and purchase the content. They want to be right there as part of that launch line-up

Eurogamer: Do you feel X05 was a success?

J Allard: Yeah, I mean what was the last console launch you talked about where two months before you launched you invited 1100 journalists out and said go play 30 games? It's pretty unique. In that regard, for me it feels a little bit like E3 the second year, where you could actually get hands-on and you could see a diversity of content.

Eurogamer: Can you tell us a little more about Xbox Live Arcade?

J Allard: We didn't talk much about Live Arcade last night, but we're going to have 15-20 games this holiday.

Eurogamer: Can you list any of those?

J Allard: We're saving it! I think the six that I showed on screen are the only ones I can talk about, but it'll be a combination of puzzle, classic/retro arcade games, and card and board type games.

Eurogamer: It'd be nice to see some retro titles on other systems, available on Live Arcade maybe?

J Allard: You know, some of that could happen as well. I think that most of the publishers focus is obviously on the hard core out of the gate. It's nice that we're rounding it out and doing Arcade, and we've got a great sports line-up, a great racing line-up as well. I think we've got a pretty well-rounded portfolio. But most of the publishers who are thinking about their investment in 360 are saying 'I want to establish that franchise with the hard core that's going to serve me well'. I want the next Halo or the next Grand Theft Auto or the next Splinter Cell. I want to establish or breathe new life into a franchise, and they're focusing their A-teams towards the hard core. I think next holiday is where you start hearing publishers say 'okay, there's an installed base, let's take some of that back catalogue maybe into Live Arcade.

Eurogamer: What about the Xbox Live Market Place stuff? It's intriguing...

J Allard: It is intriguing. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. All the publishers are very excited about the trailers and the demo opportunity, because they just want the content out, in a way, as I mentioned last night, being able to enjoy a trailer on whatever TV you're going to play the game on is a far different experience than downloading a little postage stamp sized video on your PC, and decided whether or not it's something that you want to experience, and obviously there's no substitute for a demo. So all the publishers are very excited about that.

When you get into some of the more personalised content or episodic content I think that is an area where you're going to see different things from different publishers. You're going to see some experiments that work and some experiments that fail and some trepidation from publishers not really understanding how it fits into their business model with their development cycle.

So I think it's going to emerge, and so people say 'what's the business model? What are the prices going to be for a new level versus a new car, versus a tournament entry fee? What are they going to be giving away for free? What's going to be sponsored and free versus non? It's kind of like the cell phone market, in a way, where the cell phones came out and we spent way too much money on the device, way too much money on the service, and three years later the device was free and the service had three tiers and the industry kind of sorted it out. Three years from now I think the marketplace will have a better, more precise view and way to think about it and to frame it. Right now we just want to build the infrastructure and sort of let a thousand flowers bloom and see what happens.

Eurogamer: Is this very much a publisher lead thing, or is Microsoft Games Studios going to be doing experimental stuff as well?

J Allard: Yeah, it's just like the rest of the world in first party where we think we have to do Avant-Garde stuff that showcases the platform. We're the guys that can afford to be a little bit riskier with our content and with our dollars, and we have to pave the way. So, as we did with Xbox Live - I think you remember we had that holiday with Xbox Live where I think we had eight Live titles, and EA wasn't on Live, and other publishers were just starting to wade in. We had more Live games than anybody else, and the next holiday we had our share, and everybody else was on Live. I think you'll see the same kind of thing on market place where the Project Gotham Racing guys will have gamer tiles, even if no-one else wants to do gamer tiles online. As an experiment Activision could look at it and say 'That's a good idea' or 'a bad idea' or 'I'm going to follow' or 'I'm going to wait'.

Join us for the second part of our chat with J Allard, as the Xbox bigwig defends the launch line-up, what makes a next generation game, co-operative gameplay, and his thoughts on PlayStation 3...

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