The name Aaron Greenberg has become increasingly familiar in recent months. Officially, he's the director of product management for Xbox 360 and Live. In practice he's Microsoft's most vocal spokesperson, hitting the headlines for everything from having a go at Home and taking a pop at Blu-ray to predicting who would win the battle for Christmas cash.
Seeing as he's got so much to say for himself, we thought it would be a good idea to catch up with Greenberg for a longer chat. Read on to find out his views on the console war, how important Europe is to Microsoft and what's next for Xbox Live.
Eurogamer: Sony recently put out a press release attacking you for "putting a burden on the wallet" with Xbox 360. What was your reaction?
Aaron Greenberg: [Laughs]
Eurogamer: Apart from laughter.
Aaron Greenberg: I don't think we had much of a reaction, to be honest. We need to focus on delivering as much value as we can to consumers. Today, Xbox 360 delivers more value out of the box than any other device connected to the TV. We're the ultimate entertainment system, delivering movies, music, pictures, games - all together. Doing that starting at GBP 129 makes us unique.
When you go into the store, you walk up to the cash register, they ring up your system, and one system is half the price of the other. I don't think consumers really bring these grids and charts into the store with them.
Eurogamer: Yes, the sticker price for your machine is cheaper, but Sony would argue you then have to buy a lot of add-ons to get the full value of Xbox 360.
Aaron Greenberg: Our philosophy for this generation was that we didn't believe the marketplace was about a one-size-fits-all solution any longer. That's why we designed a variety of different console offerings, in the belief there are different sets of consumers who want different levels of experience at different price points.
A big part of that is having a console on the market that's at a mass-market price-point. Consumers who are new to the experience, or who want a more casual experience, don't have to pay a premium for features they would probably never use.
Eurogamer: But the best-selling console in the world right now is not the one that's the cheapest. Nor does it have any pretentions of being an "entertainment centre" - it's a machine for playing games on. Isn't it really Nintendo who has cracked the formula?
Aaron Greenberg: Consumers are being much more cautious about how they're spending their entertainment dollars. As a result, the two consoles that are at mass-market price-points are, frankly, the only two really seeing success.
It proves consumers are looking for new types of experience. We've focused on delivering an all-purpose device and I think it's a different strategy to what Nintendo's done. Their device is much more single-purposed and focused on just gaming.
Eurogamer: Their strategy's proving to be the most effective one though, isn't it? You've sold 28 million consoles, but back in September Nintendo was talking about having sold 35 million. Plus it's only taken them two years to hit that figure, rather than three. Do you expect to close the gap this year?
Aaron Greenberg: I don't think we're really comparing how we think our hardware will sell this year relative to the Wii. The nature of this business means that typically, you sell your hardware at little-to-no profit, and you make your money on the games. That's where third-party publishers make their money.
Xbox 360 is the system where the most games are being sold. We now have an attach rate of over eight games per system. We're clearly the platform that's driving the majority of all third-party profits, and that's before you even get to online. Nintendo may benefit when they sell hardware, but if third-party publishers aren't selling games the whole ecosystem doesn't benefit.
Eurogamer: But does that really matter to Nintendo when they've got properties such as Mario Kart, Zelda and Wii Sports to shift anyway? Doesn't it benefit them if their first-party titles are doing better than third-party games?
Aaron Greenberg: I don't know. You'd have to ask EA, Ubisoft, Capcom and all those guys. They would say that for the most part they're selling and making most of their money on the Xbox 360... From their standpoint, we're the platform driving the majority of their revenues.
Eurogamer: What about Microsoft's first-party line-up? In 2008 you published 11 boxed first-party games in Europe. At present, the only titles on the schedule for 2009 are Halo Wars, Halo 3: ODST and Ninja Blade. Will there be more out before Christmas, or did investment peak last year?
Aaron Greenberg: We don't share all our news at the beginning of the year. You saw that last year - we waited until July and E3 to announce things like the New Xbox Experience, You're in the Movies, Lips...
We sure have not announced our line-up for the full year, and we'll probably wait till later to do that. We typically take the under-promise and over-deliver approach; we like to talk about products a little bit closer to when they're ready to share with consumers.
Eurogamer: So there are games in the pipeline for this Christmas that we just don't know about yet?
Aaron Greenberg: Absolutely, without a doubt. I wouldn't even isolate it to games. I would also remind you that we have a massive team focused on innovation. The same team that built the New Xbox Experience is bringing in all types of new experiences to consumers in 2009.
I can safely say that if you're an Xbox 360 owner today, you will end 2009 with a whole slew of new features, new content, new partners, new games that today you don't know about.
Eurogamer: Speaking of stuff that's on the way, you recently announced game-creating game Kodu. It sounds similar, at least in principle, to LittleBigPlanet - do you think that's a fair reading?
Aaron Greenberg: I think everyone is looking for different ways to allow consumers to participate in the creative process. We've given away the XNA software tools for free and we're not just letting people create their own games, but allowing them to sell their games and actually make a business out of it.
There's new, up-and-coming talent in this industry. Music and movies have an indie scene where people are able to create unique types of experience and get discovered. Videogames have never really had that because it's been so cost prohibitive. We're excited to have that in place.
With Kodu we're building a creative extension on top of that, and allowing people of all ages to have fun, to create and share content. So everyone takes a different approach, but at the end of the day we've seen it work in other products, so we're all looking at ways to allow consumers to participate.
Eurogamer: Have you played LittleBigPlanet?
Aaron Greenberg: Sony very nicely sent me a copy, and I haven't played it yet. It's on my list. It was one of those holidays where there were just so many games to play in such a short period of time, and I'm still catching up now. LittleBigPlanet is definitely one of the games on the top of my list, I look forward to checking it out.
Eurogamer: Kaz Hirai recently announced 1.3 million copies of the game have now been sold, a figure he seems happy with - but some have suggested that's got to be below Sony's expectations. If LittleBigPlanet was your product, would you be pleased with sales of 1.3 million?
Aaron Greenberg: It's hard for me to say. It's not my title. The game seemed to be loved by the critics but yeah, I don't think it had the type of commercial success people were anticipating. Even with the buzz it had among the hardcore circle, it didn't sell like Gears of War or Call of Duty or Fable, or anything near a blockbuster title.
I don't know if that's a reflection of the PS3's much smaller installed base, or the fact the game might not have appealed to the broader audience they were hoping for. It's hard for me to speculate.
Eurogamer: Sony aren't the only ones banging their own drum, of course. Last year, Microsoft put out a press release comparing the launch of New Xbox Experience to the introduction of colour television in 1954. You've also personally been quite vocal in recent weeks. Do you ever worry that all this bravado could alienate some people - particularly in Europe, where there's a different mentality to the US?
Aaron Greenberg: Xbox has really focused on the European marketplace as our top priority this year. You've seen that from how aggressive we've been on price, what we've done with New Xbox Experience and our games line-up. We had a lot of content and games that were really designed for the European market, and we're continuing to invest there. Europe has become a hotbed for great ideas, content and design, and I think we've just started to tap that potential.
At the same time, we realise it's a different market with different tastes. You can't just create a global solution. We'll continue to think about each country specifically. The UK is obviously very different than Southern Europe, et cetera. We'll take unique approaches.
Eurogamer: Now the New Xbox Experience has launched, can we expect a familiar spring dashboard update that introduces further changes?
Aaron Greenberg: The team is focused on launching the Primetime channel for the spring. New Xbox Experience allows us to provide new features on a more regular basis, so you'll see us deliver smaller updates throughout the year.
We will definitely package some things together, but we haven't specifically committed to doing just two big updates. We want to add new features when they're ready. Then, for holiday perhaps, we'll do something big. But exactly how that will work remains to be seen.
Eurogamer: So you're saying smaller features will be added frequently, with the possibility of another big overhaul in time for Christmas?
Aaron Greenberg: Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment. Primetime's going to be a significant update, and others will be coming in the spring, but we won't necessarily have a day when the switch gets flipped.
The great benefit of the design is that we're able to add new features, new channels and things like that pretty quickly. So yeah, you'll see us do more regular updates throughout the year.
Eurogamer: Speaking of Primetime, hardcore gamers comprise a large part of your audience. They want to play games like Gears and Call of Duty. Do they really want games like 1 vs. 100?
Aaron Greenberg: Primetime has great potential to appeal across both hardcore gamers and more mainstream users... We've seen great examples of things like Uno becoming a big hit with hardcore gamers and more casual users, and I think Primetime has the potential to do that.
The types of content we can bring to that infrastructure can range quite a bit, and you can have hardcore feature segments. So at eight o'clock it may be videogame trivia, and then pop culture trivia at nine o'clock. There are ways to appeal to different segments with the same product.
Eurogamer: Both the US and the UK economies are in trouble at the moment. What do you think the ramifications of that will be for the Xbox business, and how will your rivals be affected?
Aaron Greenberg: As you saw this holiday, consumers are being much more cautious. We have all types of research showing people stayed in more for entertainment this year, and they were looking for ways to be entertained at home. As an industry, videogames saw the benefit of that.
The silent phenomenon that's happening now for us is that consumers are starting the transition to digital distribution. We're seeing record revenues, particularly in the UK, of consumers spending money on digital content... It's quickly become the fastest-growing portion of our business. I think that will continue to accelerate at a rapid pace.
Eurogamer: David Reeves recently stated that Sony's top priority for 2009 is to "start making money". What's Microsoft's top priority?
Aaron Greenberg: We have been fortunate to build a profitable business for some time. We sustained profitability through our entire previous last fiscal year. That's partly due to being first to market, being able to cost-reduce our console, and being able to get to mass market price points.
We're focused on delivering great games and entertainment throughout the year. This is the first full year where we're at a mass-market price-point. We saw a lot of momentum coming out of holiday, but now we need to deliver and build on that.
I think we're fortunate to be half the price of the PS3, and even price-competitive with the Wii. So we expect to drive record console sales and software sales in the coming year, and continue to grow our online business at the same time.
Aaron Greenberg is the director of product management for Xbox 360 and Live.