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.