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Monday, December 26, 2005

“We have the best launch line-up of any console ever”

“We have the best launch line-up of any console ever”

"Xbox 360’s chief architect is in bullish mood now that his far-reaching console vision has turned into reality

Sitting down with Xbox’s J Allard six months ago, at the 360’s unveiling, two things became very quickly apparent. The first was that this was a machine built around a philosophy, not a set of tech specs. The jargon of an ‘interactive entertainment experience powered by human energy’ and the ‘iconic gesture of a martial artist drawing in breath’ has been lampooned enthusiastically enough, but the idea of tailoring the machine to fit the user’s needs, rather than just maximising the possible processing power, has produced a very distinct console. The second was that, despite leading a project whose stated goal was to produce a machine that would appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, it was clear Allard had built a machine around a very personal vision. So, as it readies for launch, we spoke to him again to see how well it lived up to his expectations and to hear where he thinks it leaves his competitors.

Now that the machine is in production and on your desk, how well does it fulfil your original vision?

I think it’s pretty much spot on. I spoke with someone who was very involved in the planning about three years ago – he came over for about five minutes to drop something off and ended up spending three hours looking at all the capabilities of the machine, and he said, “Son of a gun, if you guys didn’t do 95 per cent of the original vision of the machine!” And I looked at him and said, “Well, what was the other five per cent, what did we drop?” and he said, “I don’t know. I couldn’t find it!”

With the first Xbox, you were launching into a very sceptical climate. How different was it this time round?

Well it’s interesting, there are pros and cons. The tricky thing is, once you have a reputation it’s a little bit more challenging to grow that reputation. Our reputation is very strong with hardcore games, so expanding the brand to mean more than the hardcore gamer’s machine – that’s a challenge. And we’ve talked about it an awful lot for the last year or year and a half, but you’re not going to change your reputation by talking about changing your reputation. You change it through your actions, and our actions are really going to start to prove out with the first product, the first set of the games, the first set of online experiences. And I think people will experience a broader and more welcoming kind of product. And they can look at it and squint five years down the line and say, “Yeah, I see how this will become more mainstream without alienating the hardcore.”

So what will the 360 be delivering five years down the line?

I would actually think a little beyond 360. I am a huge believer in the notion of persistent worlds and environments that you can portal into from multiple viewpoints. So I think the hallmark of a fantastic gaming experience three to five years from now is going to be a great universe with amazing characters and plotlines and conflict and whatnot. But it’s a world – a living world – that I can participate in whether I’m on my cellphone, a handheld gaming unit, a PC or a console. And I think in that vein the 360 brings some unique attributes to the table, particularly the investments that we’ve made online. I think we’ve done all the right things to be the preferred way to access that kind of entertainment. But not the only way – I think what’s crucial is the notion of being able to create a central universe that you ‘project out’ instead of ‘insert in’ to the drive – online environment that could be projected out to any smart devices which have screens and buttons. I think that’s going to open up gaming to a lot of people, to a lot of casual players. It’s a silly notion, but say someone who’s into really simple puzzle games could be playing that kind of game, but by doing that, you know, making food for the troops in Halo. And they have a simple puzzle game that they’re participating in, but I’m playing with the troops on hardcore consoles, playing a full action game, and our health is going down so we have to go to the kitchen and get some food! And it’s either there or it’s not, and either my teammates are letting me down or they’re not, and those types of interaction experiences will open gaming up to new people. And finally the last piece of the world is that the consumer gets to have a hand in it – the future of gaming is not going to be read-only, it becomes read-write. Where the consumer gets to play a little producer, to leave a mark on the world, and build a reputation for themselves and their character and leave a persistent impact on the gaming world. Make it a little bit more like reality. So far, for the last 15 years since the advent of 3D gaming, we’ve been very fixated about what the pixels look like on screen. But that’s just one attribute of reality, a lot of these games are still very linear, very predictable and quite frankly boring – they’re very fancy versions of Pac-Man, you just kinda go through the motions, as opposed to the unpredictability of human behaviour, both the positive and the negative." [more]

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