In hindsight - particularly in light of Sony's occasionally cringe-worthy PlayStation Home demonstration the year before, when Jack Tretton showed us his "tricked-out apartment" and Kaz Hirai addressed us from a virtual balcony - introducing The New Xbox Experience with a party of executive E3 Avatars was a gutsy move.
But as the digital Shane Kim knelt and beamed and virtual Don Mattrick rocked a cocksure pose with hands on his hips, the leafy corner of the UK where the electronic execs had been pieced together was quietly confident. At their desks in one of Rare's Twycross "barn" studios, no doubt, Avatars product manager Chris Sutherland and head of art Lee Musgrave were witnessing the culmination of weeks of planning and emails back and forth perfecting the look.
"There was a little bit of that on a couple of those," says Musgrave, as we go through a fuller Avatars demo a few weeks later when the dust's settled. Classic Microsoft: months of approval. "Where's the hairline? How big is my waist? I'm taller than that! All those kind of things." He won't name names. "All of those characters were built from assets that are part of this kit, so although they were actually characters we rendered out through a 3D application for promo purposes, it's all stuff that you could build with the assets in here."
Avatars, officially announced at E3 but clumsily outed a few weeks previously in the great Intellisponse implosion of mid-June, are Microsoft's answer to Nintendo Miis, PlayStation Home's player models and the characters wandering the massively-multiplayer virtual desert of Second Life, and despite decades of experience crafting interfaces in Redmond, the Xbox platform holder decided to turn to its expensive countryside gaming acquisition of a few years previously for design and implementation. "In terms of Rare being involved in this project, I think it was a very specific decision on Microsoft's part to get us involved," says Musgrave.
"We have the ability to develop multiple things at once. So there's an opportunity for us to use this in a very close-knit way with our own team to develop stuff, and that leads onto the fact we can then use those games as a testing bed to make the use of the Avatars for developers very simple. I think that's one reason why we got the nod to do this stuff. People like Scene It [one of the games that will use Avatars], for example, we've given a blob of stuff to them and it's been very simple for them to put Avatars into their game."
From an end-user perspective, though, Avatars are still untried. The Microsoft execs didn't make their own, after all. So apart from checking out Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Viva Piņata: Trouble in Paradise, we've travelled 90 minutes north of London to dig into the process. The most important thing to note, first of all, is that Avatars are an obligatory but easily dodged initial step in the New Xbox Experience. "When you create a new profile or sign in with an existing profile on the new dashboard, you're presented with the ability to make an Avatar," says Chris Sutherland, pad in hand, and if you can't be bothered, three clicks is all it takes to pick a random model and forget about it.
The same goes for people who don't want to dig down into it. Hit a button and ten random Avatars trot merrily onto the screen, and you can pick a favourite or hit another button to cycle in another random ten. Sometimes, says Sutherland, this is enough for anyone: Avatars are a simplified take on human characteristics, so even the randomers throw up the odd recognisable character. "Bald people tend to remind me of J Allard, but I don't know why," says Sutherland. Nostalgia, perhaps.
Starting either with a basic template or borrowing a randomer, users who do want to delve deeper can then start modifying in front of a virtual mirror. As with Banjo, which sports a vehicle editor, Rare's been cautious about this process. "If you give people too much creativity, it breaks things," Musgrave acknowledges. "Especially since we want that balance between something creative and not having it so you can touch every parameter to the nth degree - approachable and simple enough to get what you want and not overwhelm people."
Most people start with the hair, says Sutherland. "Hairstyles is the one thing we found people wanted more of, because it really identifies them. In some of the tests we ran, women in particular pick the hairstyle and say 'that's me', so we want as many as we can." There's a grid of various hairstyles, and you can move between pages and pages of examples. Interestingly, once Sutherland cycles the skin colour, the faces beneath the hair on the grid change to reflect this. "This is one of the ways we're differentiated from other systems," he says, no doubt referring to Nintendo's Miis, which use outlines and require a bit of experimentation. Here you can see at-a-glance exactly how the end result will look. It's a similar process for eyes, chins and brows, rather than a mass of slider bars.
The core, though, is clothing. "You're going to be able to customise and personalise yourself, so we'd expect people to change their facial features once or twice - and that's on the studies we've seen of people who edit with the Mii," says Sutherland, "and what we wanted was a reason for people to come back in here, and the clothing is one example of that. What am I going to wear today?"
The answer is: pretty much anything you can imagine. There will be thousands of items available in a catalogue (handled by Microsoft, so we don't get to see it - but we'll anticipate an elegant solution, since the whole point of Xbox Experience is handling sizable volumes of data), and you can leaf through a few - including seasonal collections and, presumably, a fair amount of game-related attire - and pick out items to bring to your wardrobe. "You've also got the option to save outfit combinations to your local drive," says Sutherland, "so if you've got a particular Tuesday outfit you can wear that, and if you've got something you want to wear for a particular game, you can do that." You can mix and match items as you like.
Upon which note, the conversation goes the opposite way, as Eurogamer TV's Johnny Minkley innocently inquires about the naturist community, and your badly-dressed correspondent mentions, er, amputees. "I think the smallest we'll go is bikini," says Musgrave. "You can imagine the political conversations that surround this sort of thing in terms of ethnicity and gender and, as you said, amputees [a pause] and a whole variety of stuff."
Fortunately, Rare also foresaw an obvious problem here: programmers aren't terrific dressers. "Although we've built them, the source and ideas for the designs come from fashion graduates," Sutherland says. Musgrave elaborates: "We didn't feel qualified as a bunch of developers to make the decisions ourselves. We thought hard about the best way to do it, and got in a bunch of people who were younger, much trendier, much more interesting in a fashion sense." Just so. "That's the overriding thing about the whole avatar project: the underlying character represents you in some way, and communicates your personality in some way on Live, so you can change what you wear as easily as you would with a real-world wardrobe."
Cynics will point to Microsoft's massive Xbox Live Marketplace income and steel themselves for an onslaught of sponsored ranges and expensive designer Avatar outfits, but Musgrave reiterates Microsoft and Rare's previously stated desire to give clothing away as bonuses too - as developers currently do with Achievements and gamer pictures. Does this mean they're doing that with Banjo and Viva Piņata, then? "That's...probably something I can't talk about!" Musgrave blanches. "To what extent and how that manifests itself is something I think will be quite fun. It's not going to be a T-shirt with a Banjo logo on it or anything like that. It's going to be fashion-inspired or IP-inspired or Xbox-inspired, so as cool and compelling as possible."
And of course it's meant to be fun. We don't get to handle the Avatar tools ourselves, but Sutherland shows off a few elements. "So one of those is the ability to move your head around with the right analogue stick," he notes. "If I move the head left and right, it will have an effect on the character. These are little things that, they're not called out on the menu or anything, but just things people can discover." Like the Miis, then, it's about building people's affection for the tool. "Yeah, so hopefully they'll sit here and play around with it and have a bit of fun."
That'll be important, too, if Avatars are to achieve every character-customisation tool's dream and drive a million novelty Hitlers into the wild. Musgrave rolls his eyes a bit. "We have internal emails like you wouldn't believe - all sorts of Solid Snakes and Hitlers and the Chuckle Brothers and there's all sorts. It's proof of the versatility of it. We try to encourage it, so a lot of people have it installed on their kits here and just mess with it and post it around to say 'I've made Jennifer Aniston' or something."
Which is exactly what we want to hear. After all, Xbox Live Primetime's 1 vs. 100 game-show is coming up soon - a TV-style quiz with a real-life host, and a key element of Microsoft's hope to not only dominate the living room, but to transform Xbox 360 into a nightly event. And if the first episode isn't populated ninety-eight Hitlers, Santa and Britney Spears, facing off against a bewildered Z-list reality sleb with a bunch of digital cue-cards, we'll be bitterly disappointed.
Avatars will be released as part of the upcoming Xbox Experience dashboard revamp later this year.