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Michel Cassius on Xbox Live

With Xbox Live now up and running in Europe, Kristan chats to Microsoft's head of the platform, Michel Cassius

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Online gaming on consoles has been a stop start affair in Europe, but the launch of Xbox Live last Friday across Europe looks capable of providing a service that can drag the online gamer into the living room, with a fast growing selection of games. But will it just be an exercise in expanding your swear word vocabulary or is this really the brave new world of gaming? We sat down with Microsoft's head of Xbox platform, Michel Cassius, and reminded him once again that while France may have good players, they were shocking in the last World Cup...

Eurogamer What is the number one goal of the Xbox Live service?
Michael Cassius Michel Cassius: To make Xbox live the best possible customer experience. The number one rule we have across Europe, and actually worldwide, in launching Xbox Live is, sure, deliver the best gaming experience but as well to make sure we deliver the best customer experience.
Eurogamer How do you intend to achieve that?
Michael Cassius

Amazingly, I think we are achieving that already. Just in terms of numbers in numbers; right now we have over 350,000 customers on Xbox Live worldwide, of which 20,000 are in Japan, around 15,000 in Europe (on the Test Drive phase). The bulk of it is definitely North America, and those guys are playing more than two and a half hours per day, on average, at one time.

Customer satisfaction is just huge. The recommendations, for example, for the Test Drive phase in Europe, 96 per cent would recommend the service to their friends. These people have recognised voice as being a key element of their experience and they say that social aspects of gaming is the element they most enjoyed.

The accessibility; the fact that when you go in, you set up once, and then it's done. You're done and dusted for the service - not for one game, but all the games that are available on the service. We want the best possible gaming experience, and that's what we're about, and we're doing exactly that.

The second thing we want to make sure is to make a business out of it. Beyond customer satisfaction, we've got another type of customer which are our publishers. And the publishers have backed us with their development resources, by putting Xbox Live capacity in many of their games.

Eurogamer And how many games are Xbox Live enabled now?
Michael Cassius There are around 60 games in development, and that list is growing every day. Every time we receive a concept submission for Xbox, most of the time it's Live enabled as well.
EurogamerWhat's the split between multiplayer games and ones that just have downloadable content?
Michael Cassius

At launch we have nine games, six of which are multiplayer and three have downloadable content. But the bulk of the games coming out after are going to be multiplayer. But one is not exclusive of the other - you can have downloads and multiplayer in the same game.

The second aspect that is a success is the number of publishers coming onboard, and they see the benefit of that, just by the number of games they have sold. Ghost Recon is an example in the US where the Xbox version is outselling the PlayStation 2 version by two to one, and is one of the most played games on Xbox Live, along with MechAssault and Unreal Championship and the US sports games. In Japan, Phantasy Star Online is doing very well.

Eurogamer How do you feel about EA's stance on Xbox Live?
Michael Cassius Firstly, I think you should ask EA again what it thinks about Xbox and Xbox Live, because I think you will have an answer. EA is the number one publisher worldwide. EA is definitely one of our top publishers on Xbox. It's one of our key partners, and we're working pretty closely with them, so you can see all the best franchises are coming to Xbox, and when you look at them, they look better on Xbox as well. EA is making a big big effort, it has a big commitment to making Xbox games, and it is going to deliver strong franchises on our platform.
Eurogamer But can you get EA and other publishers to really maximise the capabilities of the Xbox? At the moment it seems most publishers are leading multi-platform development on the PS2, and it's clear they're not taking advantage of the Xbox at all.
Michael Cassius EA is a fantastic production company. It has a very good way of developing games that makes sense for them. It can do an extension of the game, better graphics, and that's what it's already doing. Of course we want to have more, of course we want EA to push the machine - we know it can do more, but that's fine. Of course we want EA online.
Eurogamer But is EA coming online with Xbox Live?
Michael Cassius We are coming from interesting paths. We have made a strategy on how we want Xbox Live to be rolled out and how Xbox Live is conceived as a unique service and EA has made investments in the past in dotcom that gives it some assets, and it's a question of how the two work together. There are discussions; of course we're discussing it. Can I give you a date; can I give you a time? No I can't.
EurogamerIs that because there's an announcement to be made at a later date…?
Michael Cassius It's not about that, it's just about relationships and the time that it takes, and that's all. Think about it: EA is developing games for all consoles; it is a very strong independent company that is doing extremely well, therefore it is looking at how to allocate resources in a way that makes sense. You've got to respect that, because at the end of the day its results are good, and that's what it's about. Do we want to have EA on Xbox Live? Yes we do. Is it a great partner to work with? Yes it is.
Eurogamer When are you going to let people use a keyboard and mouse on Xbox?
Michael Cassius If publishers say "this is the way to do things" and it particularly makes sense, then we'll do it.
Eurogamer Is there a clear leader in the Xbox Live gaming 'chart'?
Michael Cassius They're pretty close to each other. It depends on how you look at it: either the number of people playing, or the number of minutes played, the length of the session; there are many ways you can look at a game. It really depends on the game itself. Some games, gamers go in and play for more than one hour on just one game. And some people have multiple sessions on one game for a few minutes. Some games you can play a session for five minutes - some just want to go on and have a race, or to blast or whatever. For MechAssault, for MotoGP, the session is usually faster. Once you've tried your quick match, you might want to send an invitation, and start calling your friends. I just jumped in a session one day, saying "fantastic I want to play for five minutes" and I had to play for half an hour because I was number two, and didn't want to be number three. That's the type of thing that happens; after half an hour on MotoGP, you're tense at the end, I can tell you!
Eurogamer Do you have any intention of making old Xbox titles Live-enabled? Perhaps with an add-on disk or patch?
Michael Cassius Firstly, Halo 2 is going to be Live, Gotham Racing 2 will be also. Those games are going to come. The second iteration will be even better than the first. Going back to the future? Adding something on top of what you've already got? No. I think it's better just to conceive the game as an online game from the beginning rather than going back and adding something on top, and that's basically what we are doing.
EurogamerHow will you bill people after the 12 months? What incentives will there be to renew?
Michael Cassius The first incentive is the service itself. With the level of satisfaction we've got on the service, which is a key measurement of success, we expect a lot of people to renew their subscription. It's true that the people who have bought the starter pack will already have the headset etc, so we're going to have renewal offers that will be without the headset. There are many ways we can think about how we go about getting people to sign up again. We can think about it as automatic renewal, changing renewal to three months, six months, and 12 months - as many offers as we can. Another thing we need to think about is retail; retail is definitely a good part of what we do, and has an important part to play in the distribution of Xbox Live.
Eurogamer Do you intend to change the cost of annual subscription?
Michael Cassius Yes, no, maybe. There will be renewal offers, and yes there will be different prices because of the fact that there's no headset for renewal.
Eurogamer Will the content you make available for download ever be available to Xbox users offline?
Michael Cassius

Well, that's a publisher's choice. It really depends how you use the downloadable content. In broad terms there are two ways to use downloadable content; one is something that helps your product and is going to extend the life of your product - refresh the experience and make sure people play and carry on playing your game, playing your franchise, enjoying it, and then guess what? When the next product arrives they come back.

The other way to look at it is to say "downloadable content is adding so much to the experience it's got a value all of it's own," and that exists today in the PC business, right, where you can have expansion disks that you buy at retail, or it can be downloadable. Looking at it this way, I've got X number of people who've got an Xbox and Y number of people who've got Xbox Live. I'm selling my game and Xbox Live people are my primary target audience, therefore I'm going to make it downloadable. But in the future I also don't want to miss the people who don't have Xbox Live. Guess what? Maybe I'm going to pack it into something that then becomes a Gold edition of the game. It's more of a marketing decision. It really depends on how you see it at the beginning, and I expect to see both of these methods adopted.

Eurogamer Will the Official Mag be covermounting Live demos?
Michael Cassius That's up to publishers, if they want to do that, but yes we will see some demo versions of online games, yes. There are other things we can think about, in terms of demonstration. There's nothing that precludes people in the future - I'm not saying today - to watch others play.
Eurogamer Watching games as a spectator? How would that work?
Michael Cassius

There are many ways to make it work. Ok, we'll come back to reality in moment, but let me dream a bit…. When there is a match between Arsenal and Chelsea, I'm thinking about not only what's happening on the pitch, but what's happening as a player, what's happening, around the game, and what's happening with the people watching it in front of their TV. And that starts to be a big big event. So you can play the game, or you can be a spectator. Amazingly, the entertaining part is not only to play, but to watch as well. And you can create a different dimension just by adding that.

There's three elements to this. One: you need a tournament, either a co-operative or competitive element added to your game. And that could be football, or MechAssault, Unreal Championship, or many other types of game. Then there is another element; the real fan that's probably playing football at a grass roots level. They buy their season tickets, and are the real premium guys. They are sometimes going to want to go and play. And then you've got the other guy. They want to watch. They probably don't want to go in competition mode but it would be great to figure out how the best in the world - i.e. the French - do this type of thing.

There's another model that's probably more accessible and basically is close to what TV games are today. I'm taking very simple things: Quiz games - they've existed on paper, on radio; they've been played and played again in any way, shape, form with any type of incentive. On TV, for example, the prize is now it's one million pounds, in the past it was ten thousand. Ok, it's a quiz game - it's very simple. But what about a quiz game that many thousands, or even millions could play Live, at one time. You just say "ok, it's happening at 8pm" and with a good incentive for you. The incentive could be one million pounds.

Eurogamer Would Microsoft ever push that?
Michael Cassius Yes we would. Because I think that's part of the entertainment that we want to provide with Xbox Live, which is broadening as well. Gaming's not just about the core target audience, with specific games that we all know about. It's all about participation into an interactive, social entertainment. There are some very very simple games, like quiz games, that I think will come on Xbox Live and will broaden the audience.
Eurogamer What about online Bingo?!
Michael Cassius Why not? But going back to where we are today, we haven't got that, but I think it'll happen with time. It will happen quickly on accessible games, and I think by doing that, we will have a demographic that will be wider. Right now, what we've got is the core gamer audience; one that basically bought the Xbox at the beginning, has got broadband at home and are looking for the next type of entertainment 'leap', in terms of gaming, and they've definitely got that with Xbox Live.

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