X05: J Allard on launching the 360

On Sony's plans, next generation gaming, Live, and more...

In part one of our extensive interview with Microsoft's J Allard, the mood was very much one of an aggressively defensive showing from the effervescent Xbox front man. Justifiably proud of the company's decision to launch the Xbox 360 nigh-on simultaneously worldwide, Allard was nevertheless dogged in his refusal to reveal whether certain games would make it into the launch line-up.

Preferring to stick to the U.S. mantra of 'when it's done', he conceded that key titles could well slip through the net if they failed certification at this late stage.

But regardless of the precise identity of the 360 games that will emerge on day one, some in the industry still need convincing that the overall quality of the games is truly 'next generation'. Do higher resolution visuals offer a different experience, or are we just being asked to pay for games that would have been just as exciting on current generation technology?

And how much does the looming threat of the PlayStation 3 worry Microsoft? All this and more was posed to Mr Allard in another revealing account from the mouth of one of Microsoft's most senior execs...

Eurogamer: So far we haven't seen any real "genre busters" for the 360 - just lots of franchise titles and multi format titles. Obviously it's early days, but are you confident that we're eventually going to get true next generation gaming?

J Allard: Well yeah, I think that in many ways what we've done with 360 in creating great development tools is we're going to attract more developers trying bigger and broader ideas. The difficultly, and the focus at launch is that people [publishers] want to do conventional things, and they want to hit all the conventional categories, they want to make sure all their franchise properties are out there, but we're going to do some breakout stuff. I've just played through Kameo - I haven't played a game like that [before]. The closest thing to it is Zelda, but in Zelda you just play one character with one gameplay mechanic throughout the entire game. Kameo has very diverse gameplay mechanics. I've played a lot of games in my day; I haven't played a game that's just like Kameo. So, I don't know if you call it 'genre-buster', or whatever category you put it in, or your opinion on how successful it'll be, but that's going to be right there at launch

Eurogamer: How long will it take before the gameplay will live up to the [next gen] potential?

J Allard: That's going to be up to the game creators. It's hard to say. I think the Live Arcade, by reducing the cost of manufacture and saying you don't have to manufacture discs, you don't need a ten million dollar budget, etcetera, and etcetera [means that] anybody can make a Live Arcade game. I you have a crazy nutty idea with three friends in a garage that wants to do something "genre-busting" breakout that's going to broaden the audience, you should give me a call and you could do that with a hundred thousand dollars. You could go and invent a breakout kind of game.

We didn't talk much about it last night, but we do have an Arcade station set up, we'll have 15 to 20 games, somewhere in that neighbourhood, this holiday, and more will be coming out every month.

Eurogamer: At what price, though?

J Allard: I think it'll be a combination of prices, we have to be very careful with pricing - we don't set the prices - the publishers of the content do, but in general we're saying ten to 20 dollars. This seems to be the natural price point for where the casual market is on the PC, but we've also talked to publishers without naming names or particular titles about free content on Live Arcade that would be sponsored, you know, brought to you by sponsor X. You download the content, there's a sponsor screen and maybe some in-game placement and you play the game for free, and I think you'll probably see more…you'll certainly see some experimentation on Live Arcade. To what extent, you know, two years from now on Live Arcade you might have all three games that have some kind of advertising model on them like television does, I don't know, but I think you'll see some experimentation.

Eurogamer: Do you think some third party publishers might give their developers more time on titles rather than rush them out pre-Christmas or in the first few months after launch?

J Allard: In some cases they may hold off, but not because of the allocation issue. The allocation issue is kind of BS. We shipped Halo, we had allocation issues on day one; we ended up selling five or six million copies. So, if you sell a great game, eventually the allocation issue will go away and it'll move units. I think the bigger hesitation that you might see with publishers in general this generation in terms of rushing things out is what's at stake? The amount of money they've invested, and the expectations for the franchise; if you play Call of Duty 2 on Xbox 360 and you're disappointed, that will really hurt, and it’s an important part of Activision's business - but they know that. And so whether we sell 10 units or 10 million units on day one, I think it's kind of irrelevant at that decision point.

If they cream the Call of Duty franchise, that will materially impact their business long term. If they nail it, and it means they have to wait a day or a week or a month to really nail it, I think that's in their best interests for the franchise, and the best interests for the gamer. I mean, one of the criticisms that some people have of late towards some PC games is that games ship before they're ready. And, son of a gun, I think it's very unfair to characterise the PC gaming industry as like that, but we've seen a reaction from gamers in terms of content that's rushed out, even when there's an easy way to fix some of the mistakes. And we've held to our commitment to the certification process to make sure that the quality of the game is there - in terms of an experience point of view - I think the publishers are actually ratcheting it up and saying 'I've got ten million bucks invested in this game, and a hundred million bucks invested in this franchise, and I'm expecting to make 200 million dollars on it in this generation - I can't afford to rush it'.

Eurogamer: What makes a next generation game?

J Allard: It's a lot of things. Obviously the visual fidelity is the one thing you can take a screenshot of and publish it in your magazine or on your website. People are drawn to that, we're visual thinkers. But, you know, honestly, for gaming, the real magic in gaming is the experience itself and the interactivity. My view is that the visuals, aside from being the thing you can print in a magazine very easily and recognise, historically the visuals shatter the illusion that the creators try to generate. I've played the same level of Call of Duty 2 that we showed off, with all the smoke in the building at the very end. Just the intensity of that experience; I'm no longer looking at poly counts. The graphical fidelity is now sufficient that the illusion is not instantly shattered, and that's where all the other magical components come in. Cutting the controller cord is magic; it just makes it that much more immersive as I don't feel like I'm tethered, it's not dragging across the carpet or across the coffee table. I'm more in the experience. The audio: Kameo's full orchestral score actually draws you into the game even more, and finally the community is the underplayed part; the part we don't know how to talk about yet. As much as and as passionately as I believe in it, I think it's hard to articulate what the community does.

If you see Perfect Dark's co-operative mode, you say 'wow, every level I can play in single player I can now play co-operatively'. You saw the co-operation [at the X05 presentation] between the two team-mates and you could get a sense for it. It's hard to give that to 1100 people [in the audience] who don't have game controllers. When you actually have a game controller, you're not looking at the pixels, you're now collaborating. You're enjoying a different gameplay experience.

I don't know if that's genre busting or not, but that's what I want to do, and that's not what videogames have been historically, for me - a real collaborative experience like that, where I've got the full screen to myself, they've got the full screen to themselves. Most importantly, the game designers said 'what's it going to take for two people to come through this level co-operatively, and design a level around that?'

Eurogamer: Are all the Perfect Dark Zero levels co-operative?

J Allard: Yes, every level you can play single player, you can play collaboratively as well.

Eurogamer: How long do you think you've got before the PlayStation 3 comes out?

J Allard: I don't know! I read what you guys write. I hear what Mr Kutaragi says, and I keep hearing Spring, Spring, Spring, Spring, Spring! I wouldn't have believed Spring 06 based on everything else I've heard. It'll be interesting to see what their reaction is to our worldwide launch, and whether or not they follow suit.

I think Gerhard [Florin] was very eloquent last night in saying 'We're doing the right thing, we're doing the gutsy thing, and everybody else should have the same kind of thinking'. Hint hint! I think that was, in no small way, a hint to the other console manufacturers, so whether you're doing a handheld or you're doing a full console, do the same thing because it's killing publishers. They've got more at risk, they put more money into it, and if they can't capitalise on that on a worldwide level…. they're trying to design games worldwide, they're trying to do regional content and regional derivations on content and when they can't do it all on the same schedule it's a killer for them. So, it'll be interesting to see what they decide to do.

Eurogamer: You don't expect Sony and Nintendo to do a worldwide launch, do you?

J Allard: I don't know! They've got an awful lot of claims lined-up. What they have claimed versus what they have shown is a very big gap. In order for them to show all of the things they've claimed, they're going to need an eight hour press conference sometimes in the very near future to give everyone confidence that Spring 06 worldwide is going to happen.

We tried to keep the (X05) conference as short as we could, but unfortunately we had a lot of stuff to show. We didn't show Arcade, we didn't show family setting - a concern that a lot of parents have when we talked about getting more Live subscribers on. We've done a phenomenal job of letting you control what your child might be able to do on the system and given you more comfort with the content both offline and online. We don't even get to tell the whole story. We're giving you a whole day here not only to talk to us, but to go and play the games because there's a lot of meat to this story.

I think Sony's talked a lot more than they've shown, and it's hard to line-up their claims versus Spring 06 and working out how they're going to get there. It's very ambitious. I still can't buy a 1080p television set in the US, let alone two of them to enjoy it! I don't have Gigabit Ethernet in my home, so I can't enjoy that, and they don't have vent holes on the side of their console yet so that air can flow through those very very powerful chips, so it still feels like they have a lot of work to do. They have nice movies though! Very nice movies! [laughs]

Eurogamer: Talking of Live, you keep mentioning the two million [worldwide subscriptions] figure, but we still don't know how many of those apply to Europe.

J Allard: Not enough.

Eurogamer: It's mainly the US?

J Allard: U.S. is certainly the driver. I won't give you a number because I don't have a number off the top of my head

Eurogamer: Is it 90-10 in favour of the U.S.?

J Allard: No, it's not quite that bad; it's not quite that extreme. But I'll tell you what some of the challenges have been in Europe for us. The biggest challenge is frankly credit cards - the requirement of a credit card when we use that both to establish a billing system that we can manage as well as overcoming the hurdle of the different laws and policies that everybody has in all their countries to say that children should be online using voice and that kind of thing. We've actually removed that restriction now and upgraded our entire billing infrastructure, and we're working with retail, and we're working with broadband providers so we're going to find new ways to get people online. So I think eliminating the credit card requirement was the biggest problem in Europe.

The second biggest problem in Europe has been trials, and actually allowing people to try it. Now you [will be able to] go online and you can try it. We can do a free weekend where you don't have to go to a store, you don't have to scratch something off. You just plug in broadband, try things out, if you want to go and do some multiplayer we can give you gold for weekend to go and try it out. Trials will drive participation.

The third problem that we have in Europe in particular is regional community. There's a critical mass issue where if you don't have enough people speaking German it's a very nice service, but I don't want to use my second language to enjoy it, and so we need to have a better installed base, particularly for the non-English speaking territories, and we're working on that as well. On thing, with Xbox.com, many of the features that I demonstrated for the community are going to be available on the web.

You'll be able to go online from the web and see what friends are online. You'll be able to leave messages; you'll be able to see what they're doing. You'll be able to compare your gamer score with their gamer score. You'll be able to leave positive and negative feedback. You'll be able to take your gamer card (that little tile of your accomplishments, with your little picture, your score, your gamertag) and you'll be able to put that on your webpage.

Eurogamer: Are you integrating all of [the new Xbox Live features] with MSN Messenger?

J Allard: Yes, we're doing all of those things to try to increase the community. So between all of those thing where you remove the credit card requirements, you have a free entrée, you have easier trials, and you also have the web aspect so you can start growing the community there and connecting the dots for people who aren’t ready to bring their console online, I think we will overcome the hurdle and get to a critical mass in the different non-English-speaking territories and Europe more generally and really get the ball rolling. Europe is very important to us, not just with consoles, but Live growth as well.

The Xbox 360 is due for release in Europe on December 2nd.

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