The New Xbox Experience is almost upon us, and we've spent the last week playing around with the beta version on one of our office Xbox 360s. Make sure to check out our New Xbox Experience hands-on for a thorough dissection of the dashboard you'll be staring at for the next few years.
Before we did that, though, we were given a tour of the new features by Xbox Live product unit manager Jerry Johnson, who flew over from Redmond to trail the service launch. Johnson has been working on Xbox Live since its inception, and like a lot of Microsoft personnel, he's desperate for NXE to solve the problems that have become so burdensome for users and developers alike in the years since Xbox 360 launched.
He's also keen to assure us that we're being looked after per territory, too, explaining that the visual elements of the interface will be assembled and distributed locally - by a team in Reading, for UK gamers - and that individual new features, like the Avatar system, have been designed for developers to incorporate easily.
"At launch you'll see some Arcade games that have them in, and it was very simple for them to do it," Johnson tells us. "One of the other titles came in and had a character system they were working on. It took them a week and a half to get our Avatars integrated into their game." It's that kind of thinking that's helped bring ideas like the Party system - a shared voice channel and grouping system across games and media - to life without imposing too much strain on the 360 hardware.
But as well as the user experience, we were interested to find out what else Microsoft wants out of this no-doubt expensive service reboot, and what's going to happen in the future. With that in mind, we sat down with Johnson to go through some of the questions raised by the New Xbox Experience ahead of its 19th November launch.
Eurogamer: How do you leverage NXE to sell more 360s and broaden your audience?
Jerry Johnson: I think we've got a really engaged hardcore base right now. I think if you look at the sell-through, the title attach rate, compared to the other consoles, to me that's pretty clear. One of our big goals with this is how you bring in that secondary user in the house. When this is turned on in the household, the other person who walks by is going to see things and understand how to do some of these things. So I think it's taking that hardcore and almost making them evangelists just by the fact they're using this UI.
Eurogamer: Do you think you'll do another new dashboard in 2-3 years or is that the point you iterate the hardware?
Jerry Johnson: I've been working on Xbox since Live launched - I was part of bringing Live over to Europe. When we launched 360, it was a big thing, lining up hardware, peripherals, publishers. To me, we just finished this last year-and-a-half working on [New Xbox Experience], and it felt like a platform launch. It's totally new. And the beauty of it is we did it all from the service. So if our customers want it, and the market wants it, we can do it again. There's no date set on it though.
Eurogamer: NXE is a work in progress, obviously, and some features haven't launched for November...
Jerry Johnson: What we did with this interface is to change the architecture as well, so it doesn't take a flash update any more. When Primetime comes on, we publish it from the service, and we add a new channel, and it just shows up. The infrastructure's all there to run it. Netflix [in the USA] is an example of something that feels like a platform feature, but we worked with a partner to do it, and it just snaps in as a slot and downloads as an executable. It's the same thing with the photo-sharing app. It was something a partner did that ends up becoming a piece of platform functionality.
Eurogamer: About Primetime, how's that actually going to work, and make money?
Jerry Johnson: From the product development team, I can't comment on how profitable it will be. My work with the team is setting it up so we could bring this new type of content to the platform. We'll be the first to bring this interactive, time-based gameplay to a console. I've seen it running, and when you associate with the Avatar programme and Avatars are integrated in a rich way... the ability to have a host that's moderating the show that's a game show, in which you have hundreds of participants, knowing that there's multiple sessions all taking part, it's an extremely cool thing. I'm dying to get it out there! I can't wait till we launch it.
Eurogamer: What happened to delisting Xbox Live Arcade games? Why mention it in the first place if you weren't going to do it?
Jerry Johnson: I would have to defer. Anything I would say would be speculation and the last thing I want to do is speculate against my vice president!
Eurogamer: Is there even any point getting rid of stuff off there?
Jerry Johnson: Actually, I think there's always reasons to add new content to the programme. One of the things I'm really excited about is the [XNA] Community games. They're some of the most innovative and fun things coming onto the platform at a great price point. So I think there isn't going to be a lack of niche content coming onto the platform. It's going to be coming on from a bunch of different angles.
Eurogamer: At the same time as the delisting announcement, Microsoft talked about internal XBLA projects. Are you guys pushing hard now to create your own internal games?
Jerry Johnson: As a first-party team, we're always trying to figure out if there are places where we need to kick development up or plug a hole or fix some things, just like I think that you'll see when we launch that it was nice we got to work with a lot of the first parties relating to Avatars, so you'll see some first-party Avatar games. I think there's going to be continued focus on kicking out games, and first-party's job is to keep us in balance.
Eurogamer: Speaking of first and third parties, do you know when the GTA DLC is coming out? Does anyone?
Jerry Johnson: You're asking me that? You've at least got to buy me a few drinks! ["Winter," says a PR.]
Eurogamer: What do you think of the copycat Achievement systems like Trophies or Blizzard's WOW Achievement system?
Jerry Johnson: It's flattering, but at the same time I see... I don't want to knock what they've done, but one of the things we've done is keep it simple, because what you're trying to do is create a platform feature you want all games to take part in. We went through a lot of issues where we thought, let's make it different tiers, and make it really complicated, and then let's try to come up with rule-sets that dictate how games do this, and in the end working with publishers back in 2004 doing this, it became clear that trying to over-dictate how you do one of these programmes would be disastrous.
I like our system because games can do what they want with it. If we had set up really tight rules, would Geometry Wars ever have created the Pacifism Achievement? Those are the kind of things it helped generate. As a platform team you don't want to make rules that confine things; you want to give games tools so they can go out and create.
Eurogamer: That said, have you seen anything in those other systems that you like or would like to introduce? Or are you happy with it the way it is?
Jerry Johnson: I think that there's always something you want to try to do. There's not a single thing we've worked on that I wouldn't want to improve upon. I don't think there's a pressing need right now to prioritise some of the things we've thought about around Achievements that we want to do, compared to the opportunity on some of the other areas where we can really continue to grow. To a certain degree, Achievements are growing because of the way the community uses it, and the greatness from that is just going to come from the more people using it and the more games doing interesting things with it. I would be very careful of disturbing that system.
Eurogamer: To go back to NXE, is there anything you regret not doing, or couldn't do for 19th November?
Jerry Johnson: I think we would have liked to take certain parts of the Avatar system a bit deeper out of the gate, and not be waiting for another six months to continue where we roll some of these things out. Another thing I think we did is we put it on a very compressed time schedule. It is the reason why Primetime slipped. We asked a title to release concurrent with an entire platform, and when you release an entire platform you have dependencies on that platform for any content that's going on it. If I could have done anything differently with this release, I would have wanted to get all of the developer-facing things out for us to get more stuff integrated at launch time.
Eurogamer: Last Christmas you had a fair bit of Live downtime. Are you concerned at all about what's going to happen on 19th November?
Jerry Johnson: The service went down almost a month ago for a day, and that was the process of us moving to a new data-centre out in Washington. So many things have happened since that last holiday. The numbers that we were hitting at that holiday... When GTA launched, we beat all those numbers as far as concurrency goes, and concurrency is always our highest hit, and to be honest the type of play that goes on inside of Gears actually put more pressure on our system than the kind of play that any other game did. We were well over our million concurrency.
And since that day, we've not only solved some of the technical problems that were in place for the service, but we've continued to invest and scale up the servers. I've worked on servers for years and I'm always scared whenever anything's being released. If I said I wasn't scared then you should write a note that this guy's an idiot! Because no matter what happens you should always be scared. We're doing everything we can to be ready for it.
I can tell you that when Robbie Bach is on the phone on Christmas Day calling people asking what the hell is going on, and that's coming down from Steve Ballmer... that's the kind of attention it got last holiday. Many things have changed since then, and we realised the kind of growth trajectory we were on and had to prepare for it.
Eurogamer: If all 14 million Live users go online in a 24-hour period, you'll be able to cope with that?
Jerry Johnson: Yeah, I mean, the thing that goes on with this is a little bit different. Some of the things that happened last holiday, there's different aspects to the system. The thing that's going to be hit heavily to get the download is just bandwidth, so we distribute our content and it's all secure packages but we actually rely on other partners that are experts on delivering the volumes of content in a short amount of time.
Eurogamer: Final things, looking at the Xbox 360 Arcade SKU in this country, you get a 256MB Memory Unit, and you're quoting a need for 128MB of space for NXE. Do you know if they'll update the Memory Unit in the Arcade SKU?
Jerry Johnson: I think the clear message is that if you want to get on Live then you should go out and buy a hard drive to actually enjoy that entire experience. So when you see all the things that you're seeing up here - the rich graphics, the quickness and loading of graphics, all these different types of things, the ability to download this content, the ability to get demos, the ability to do this - the message should be clear: you really want to get a hard drive to do this. You want to go and get that 60GB starter pack for your Arcade. The Arcade's a great way to go sample and find out if you like games and these things, but if you want to get into the rich experience you want to go buy a hard drive.
Eurogamer: And when will this go into boxed 360s?
Jerry Johnson: After it releases on the 19th, our certification team... within a three or four week period, they'll start putting that flash - this whole update - on top of game discs, so game discs will start distributing, and then it'll work into manufacturing and they'll refresh the line - and that refresh will happen probably in some time early next year.
Jerry Johnson is product unit manager of Xbox Live.