Sony has spent the last few weeks reaping the rewards of its new redesigned PlayStation 3, so it's easy to forget that Microsoft also enjoyed a big boost on the back of a round of price cuts. The timing was a coincidence, according to MS Europe's Chris Lewis, but the underlying message was perhaps consistent: this Christmas is a big one.
With that in mind, we were delighted, stumbling around the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle a fortnight ago, to bump into Microsoft's Aaron Greenberg, who should be in a good position to comment on the months ahead. Read on to see what he had to say about the impact of the price cuts as the console war hots up again.
Eurogamer: We often talk to console executives, but we usually assume people know who they are and what they do, which I'm not sure is actually true. Could you just quickly explain your role at Microsoft and what you do for the Xbox division?
Aaron Greenberg: My title is director of product management for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, but I'm not sure that tells you very much. I have been on the Xbox team since before we launched the original Xbox, so have played a variety of roles over the years. Currently my focus is on global strategy, planning and communications for the business. I also have the honour of being the person who often gets to answer many of the tough questions that come to us from media outlets like yourself.
Eurogamer: Flattery will get you nowhere, Aaron. I understand you were the executive producer of Microsoft's E3 conference. Could you explain a bit how that process works, and how in particular the Beatles element of the show came together?
Aaron Greenberg: Yes, that was a new role I played for E3 this year and a very exciting one. With that said, I was just one member of a very large team that brought E3 together for us and so I really have to say that it was not so much my work, but the collective team focus that helped us succeed at E3 this year.
The process for E3 is a very long and detailed one to be honest - not sure we have the time to cover off all the points - but the behind-the-scenes strategy, planning, design, negotiations and logistics are all pretty fascinating. Given our great relationship with MTV Games and the work they have done with Apple Corp and the shareholders to create such an amazing game like The Beatles: Rock Band, we could not think of more entertaining way to open our show. It was a tremendous honour to have Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr share the stage with us at E3, surely a moment that will not be forgotten.
Eurogamer: With Tokyo Game Show just round the corner, everyone's expecting another announcement-heavy showing from Sony, which would be their third in around five months compared to your one big showing at E3. Do you plan to make any announcements at TGS? Is it a strategically important show for Xbox?
Aaron Greenberg: We are going to TGS this year, but unlike last year will not be doing a keynote. TGS is more like GDC, where typically only one platform company does a keynote each year and so, given that we hosted the keynote last year, we are going to step aside and let Sony have a turn on the stage. With that said, the Japanese market and the development community there is very important to us, so we will absolutely have some new stuff to show in Tokyo, but unfortunately you are going to have to wait a bit longer for the details.
Eurogamer: Xbox and PlayStation both cut their prices recently, and the results have been big boosts in sales for both. How does the impact of those cuts look from your perspective? Did the new Sony SKU take some of the wind out of your sails?
Aaron Greenberg: I don't believe the price cuts that both companies have made will impact the market dynamics too dramatically in the long term. We typically see a month or two of lifts and share adjustments, but then things tend to settle back to roughly the established market ranking.
We do, however, expect that these new lower prices will bring in more consumers that were potentially a bit resistant to the previous pricing in place. Our focus continues to be on adding more value and more exclusive experiences across games and entertainment, so that consumers will continue to select the Xbox 360 as their console of choice.
And when you look at this holiday I think we once again stack up quite nicely with the list of exclusive Xbox 360 games including blockbusters like Halo 3: ODST, Forza Motorsport 3, GTAIV - The Ballad of Gay Tony DLC and new Liberty City standalone retail title - Left 4 Dead 2, and tons of XBLA titles like the recently launched Shadow Complex. Then you add on top of that things like Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm and instant-on HD movies in 1080p and I think the value you get with the Xbox 360 continues to be quite impressive.
Eurogamer: There were a couple of interesting anomalies around your price cut, like the Arcade price going up in the UK and the removal of the HDMI cable from the 360 box. Do you really save that much money losing the HDMI cable from the box? And isn't it a bit patronising to tell people that getting rid of it is a matter of giving people more choice? It's about saving money first and foremost, isn't it?
Aaron Greenberg: Good question and one I am getting asked a lot these days. I can tell you that decisions like this never come easy and a variety of factors come into play. First we looked at the research, which shows that the majority of consumers who purchased an Elite console were not even using the HDMI cable. Then we also had to consider that when we first added the Elite console to our offerings the value of an HDMI cable was quite high. Today, as we know HDMI cables have become pretty common and commoditised in many respects. So at the end of the day we decided that is was best to remove the cost of that cable from the box, but pass on the savings to consumers in form of a price drop.
Eurogamer: Do you have figures regarding HD uptake on Xbox 360, and could you share your current information about the volume of 360 owners who use HD relative to those who don't - or perhaps, assuming it's less sensitive, your extrapolated feeling about wider HD uptake among consumers in the home entertainment space?
Aaron Greenberg: I don't have such figures handy, so would hate to quote you something that is not accurate. I think broadly speaking in many ways the consoles this generation focusing on HD gaming and entertainment have driven a large number of consumers to upgrade to HDTVs. I am sure there are folks much smarter than I that have studied this and can tell you the difference between sports or gaming or movies as reasons why people are upgrading.
Eurogamer: Over the next few months, Sony has Uncharted 2, God of War III, Heavy Rain, ModNation Racers, Ratchet & Clank and Gran Turismo 5 coming out, and you guys have Halo 3: ODST, Alan Wake and Forza 3, so in effect it's the first winter where they're in danger of outgunning you on software depth. Are you confident you can maintain the install base gap of seven million units you have over them, or do you expect things to be a bit closer when we get to next spring?
Aaron Greenberg: Well again, I think if you first look at this holiday, we shape up really well versus Sony. Sure they have Uncharted and Ratchet, but if you want to play Halo 3: ODST, Forza 3, Left 4 Dead 2 or the GTAIV exclusive games you are only going to find those on Xbox 360. Then you have to add all of the exciting offerings we are bringing to Xbox LIVE with Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm and instant-on HD movies in 1080p.
But of course if you look beyond this holiday you add in even more exclusives like Alan Wake, Mass Effect 2, Crackdown 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Halo: Reach and Project Natal. I truly believe Xbox 360 is uniquely positioned to deliver the leading games and entertainment experiences both today and tomorrow.
Eurogamer: There was a bit of a palaver recently over Valve having to charge for Left 4 Dead downloadable content on Xbox Live even though it's free on PC. They told me that it's because Microsoft insisted on charging for it in order not to upset the Xbox Live economy. Can you explain the thinking behind, if not that decision specifically, then that kind of decision? Most people would assume creators should be the ones to choose what their work is worth, not the platform holder...
Aaron Greenberg: To be completely honest I am not familiar with the circumstances around that, so cannot really comment.
Eurogamer: Isn't Scene It?'s recent announcement as a multi-platform game embarrassing for Microsoft, having made such a big deal out of it - and the family-friendly peripherals - at E3 2007?
Aaron Greenberg: Not really, we were happy to be able to bring to market two exclusive and successful versions of Scene-It. Now that our exclusivity agreement has expired we are still looking forward to new versions of the game coming to Xbox 360.
Eurogamer: It's been a few months since you announced Project Natal now. How have third parties responded to it, and have you confirmed development of any third-party games using the system or is everyone still prototyping? (If confirm - Any game series we might have heard of?)
Aaron Greenberg: Project Natal is going amazingly well. Our biggest challenge has been fielding all of the requests we have been receiving based on the overwhelming reception at E3. As you can imagine, right now our focus has been getting development kits in the hands of the creators and working closely with those folks on bringing to life some of the great concepts they have. We have not announced any official titles or specifics around publisher or developer support at this time.
Aaron Greenberg is director of product management for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live.