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J Allard remembers Live

All five years of it.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Baby-faced Microsoft charmer J Allard has resurfaced to reminisce on the history of Xbox Live - coinciding rather well with the launch of iPod rival Zune this week.

Now, five years on, more than 8 million people play online games or download demos on 360 - admittedly most of them on Halo 3 or UNO. But Allard remembers when success like that sounded like fantasy.

"We had a lot of people that didn't really believe in Live; some internally, some externally," Allard told Larry "MajorNelson" Hryb in a podcast. "It was really hard talking to some game publishers and even developers thought it was never going to take off in the living room."

Even decisions as seemingly simple as putting an Ethernet port in the back of the original Xbox console met resistance back in 1999, the same year The Matrix was released.

"Thinking about putting in the hard drive was a pretty straightfoward choice," said Allard. "We thought 10-times as much about whether or not we should go modem or broadband.

"Everywhere in [Microsoft] people thought we were slamming the door in the faces of our customers and going against better business judgement by saying broadband."

But it all worked out well for the hooded-jumper-under-suit-wearing Allard, who believes human potential is the key to the future - displaying that he still has a hankering for poetic statements.

This improvisation is common now in features like The Forge for Halo 3, but he first stumbled across it back when a 13 year-old taught him how to play Cat and Mouse in Project Gotham Racing 2.

"Part of the play we wanted to enable with Xbox was always about that make-believe world you would create with your friends in the backyard," continued Allard, who once hurt himself while riding downhill on a push-bike a bit too quickly.

"The early ad campaigns on the 360: Jump In - it wasn't a mistake that we picked jump roping, or cops and robbers, or the stand-off piece, or whatever - because that was what gaming was all about."

Clearly something went right, then, as uptake on the service shot up faster than a rat up a drain pipe. Even film stars couldn't keep their hands off it.

"I remember the first Xbox Live launch party we did in LA: Freddie Prince Jr. is there and he won't put the headset down; Sam Jackson is there and he won't put the thing down.

"All of these people that have entertained us for all these years were having the time of their lives on the thing we created. And that was cool.

He added: "We expected it to be much more of a [gradual] step, but instead we got this real vertical cliff, and it really beat expectations and predictions we had internally every quarter."

Allard also touched on just how difficult it was back then to launch a console against a brand like PlayStation, and how far Microsoft has come since. He likes a good challenge, does J.

"Sony PlayStation had an amazing reputation, and people thought we were nuts for jumping into that category. Not only because we had never done anything like it before, but also because Sony was such a venerable brand," concluded Allard.

Microsoft revealed late last month that it had sold of 13.4 million Xbox 360s around the world, which compares well to 5.59 million PlayStation 3 consoles sold globally. Obviously MS has had a head start, but its come a long way since its "nuts" venture began.

J Allard is currently in charge of getting Zune off the ground, and faces a new rivalry against market leader Apple with its iPod.

It is an uphill battle, but Allard enjoys broadening Microsoft's horizons and moving the company forwards. Back in 1999 Microsoft approached Walmart for the first time to sell its console, today Zune launched in 31,000 shops from the outset.

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