Interview: Xbox India Chief talks about competition with PlayStation, Windows 8, Next Xbox And More

Grab a cup of coffee.

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We talked to Anshu Mor, who is the category lead of interactive entertainment business at Microsoft India, about a lot of things concerning the Indian gaming market and the Xbox brand as a whole. He had a lot to say, so grab a cup of coffee and give it a read, it will take a while.

Ravi Sinha: Tell us about the scenario of the competition between Xbox and PlayStation in the future.

Anshu Mor: When we look at our platform and we look at others who are playing in the same space, there are multiple levels in which we are competing against them. One is around how motion sensing is as a technology, more so from here, and the reason that is important is because that attracts family audiences, new audiences which are coming onto a console and gaming. The second area we see is online services, how the entire platform plays, specific to the gaming world, and the third area we see is what else can the console do in terms of more services that could be offered, which is really the entertainment space, so that the console is not just a gaming console, but an entertainment console as well. Fourth, would be the IP we build our system around.

When we look at the competition…when we look at Sony, we’ve seen them make a lot of moves in each category but from our perspective, I think we give a far more wholesome experience. So when we say motion sensing, for example, it’s truly about full body motion. It’s not about holding another piece of hardware in your hand. When we talk about Xbox Live as an experience, it’s a mix of both hardcore gaming services, entertainment services, and now with the launch of Windows 8, integration between different devices. So I think in terms of innovation, we are far more advanced in terms of what we are offering to the consumer with just one single box and the services associated with it,

RS: Could you tell us about the integration of Xbox Live within Windows 8?

AM: Windows 8 as a platform would carry three services from the Xbox portfolio, which would make them land across multiple devices or different screen sizes including phones, PCs, tablets, etc. The first is Xbox games services, in which you would look at games coming from the Xbox Live Marketplace, which could be created for those smaller screens. They would get associated with your gamer ID, which is a secondary area of integration – the entire identity of the gamer – and that’s something you carry along. So your friends on Xbox Live, messages, notifications, which friend at what point has started playing a particular game – all of that lands on your smaller screen when it happens. The other level of integration that we bring to games per say is that we bring part of the gaming experience onto these small devices.

Anshu Mor

Today the reality is that when you watch a TV screen, you are not just looking at the TV screen. You always hold a second screen in your hand and multi-tasking. Now with gaming, what happens is…while you’re immersed in a game, like say, Halo 4, there’s a lot of gaming information that can help you play the game better, or can help you compete better if you’re online. So the game information lands on your smaller devices via SmartGlass, which is a direct connection between the device and the Xbox console. The third scenario in terms of integration is around music and videos. Whichever country we have the Xbox music and videos launched, that same service is available across all the screens that carry Windows 8. So if you see the music app in Windows 8, it is the Xbox music app, the videos app is the Xbox videos app.

So the music service, the videos service and the gaming service, all three are integrated and all of them have interplay between devices using SmartGlass as an application. So I could be playing a video through the Xbox Live video services on my console, and if I decide to leave the house, I can just transfer the movie from my TV to my Smartphone or to my tablet using Windows 8. And it’s not just Windows 8, by the way, the integration of SmartGlass would also be available on iOS and Android so we make sure that more and more customers get to have that experience with their Xbox.

RS: Can you tell us a little bit about Xbox-exclusive titles coming to Windows 8 tablets or hybrid PCs? Will we be seeing Halo 4 or any other titles releasing on Windows 8 tablets/hybrid PCs?

We have no announcements to make on Halo 4 coming on the PC screen. Just as a general trend, given that the service is integrated at the back-end, which is that you get Xbox Live on all screens now, it is just a logical movement from hereon that there would be games available which would play across all 3 screens…

RS: Even though there are no concrete plans right now?

AM: Yeah. Even though there are no concrete plans. We don’t have a game in particular to announce which would…especially a blockbuster game, which would get ported on to smaller screens but it is a logical next step.

RS: So there are no announcements to “make” (laughs), but potentially there could be something that we don’t know about.

AM: (Laughs) There isn’t any announcement. We haven’t heard of or any plans as such of any of the Xbox 360 blockbuster titles which are getting ported on to it. As soon as we have, we’ll be the first persons to talk about it because I think it’s a brilliant thing to have.

RS: Could you tell us a little about the Indian sales for Xbox 360 and how it compares to previous years?

AM: While we don’t share official numbers at a subsidiary level – at an Indian level – in the past two years, the general gaming industry, the console gaming industry, has been growing at about 30-35%. For us, the option of Xbox console as such has grown by 70% so we’re going at about double the rate of what the market is going at. And one of the biggest reasons for that is that we’ve essentially opened up an audience that never used to exist earlier, especially in India, which is the family audience. That happened when we came out with Kinect. It’s a very important thing to understand because in India for lack of knowledge for what a console could do, there was always this apprehension of bringing a console home, and parents would feel that a console would go against the key priorities of studying…it was considered addictive in that sense.

With Kinect, all that changed because suddenly, the console is considered very healthy. Playing a game on Kinect is as good as going down to the park and playing for a few hours…Normally if you play on Kinect, you’ll realize within 20 minutes that you’re sweating, and it offers a chance for the family to learn different things. Dance Central, for instance, might just be a game for some people but others look at it as a way to learn how to dance. Parents put their kids in dance classes, and right now they could just do this home. And not only the kid, but it would be the whole  family learning. That’s a large chunk of the 70% growth rate that we’ve seen, while the core gaming community has grown at its decent rate.

RS: As you know about rumours surrounding the next Xbox, what is Microsoft’s status on the next console to come out bearing the Xbox name?

AM: At a fundamental level, we’re committed to innovation. It’s about bringing new experiences, new scenarios to the end consumer. When you look at Xbox 360, the current generation of console, we are in the 7th year or so of the console. In the industry, normally after 5 years of a console, you start seeing a decline in the overall volumes that you’re doing on a per year basis. In our case, our 5th year has been better than 4th, 6th year has been better than 5th, 7th year has been better than 6th, and last year, we became the number 1 console in the world. The reason why that has happened is not because there was a promise of an upgrade that would happen with the console. The reason why it became number 1 is all the innovation that we’ve done – and there’s been plenty of it – has happened around the box.

So while the Xbox 360 has remained the same, we’ve innovated with Kinect’s motion sensing and voice recognition, we’ve innovated with the entire entertainment and music space with Xbox Live, we’ve innovated with devices integration using SmartGlass. So the experiences, even with the current generation of Xbox, ahs been improving year after year and it continues to do that. SmartGlass was just a week ago, and it takes the experience to a new level. We don’t have any formal information to share, again, if and when the next version of Xbox happens but we do believe that there’s a lot of innovation besides the box, which will continue to happen through Live and Kinect.

RS: When did this transformation happen, that the Xbox which was first known as “the most powerful console” at the time, trying to capture the core gaming market, shifted to what Kinect currently offers?

AM: If you consider the larger trend of what is happening, we want to be the guys who own your living room. We want to be the center of your entertainment and gaming experience. And if you look at the broader vision of Xbox, it’s not just a gaming device, it’s an entertainment device. The reason why we look at it like that is because multiple players in the market are trying to do multiple things to be the center of your TV experience. Some are coming in through the video route, some through the music route, and some through the streaming route via whatever television operator you may have. We realize that as a box connected to the TV, there’s an opportunity for us not only to enhance the way people interact with that box, essentially thanks to Kinect which took away the controller and brought in voice and gesture movements.

We also realized there was an opportunity for us to make that box also an entertainment box. That single box then giving you the entire experiences around Video on Demand, Live TV or music, and that’s how the transformation over the years happened. We see this trend continuing, we see the single box connected to an IP network being the center of all your gaming and entertainment needs. And then if you want to carry the experience across multiple devices, we obviously have applications like SmartGlass that will continue to evolve as we go forward.

RS: Are we going to see Microsoft continue down this path of more refinement of current technologies or will there be something new and revolutionary to come out of the stables soon?

AM: Very difficult question to answer. In the sense that, it’s very difficult to classify innovation as revolutionary or not, or just a refinement. For us, Kinect is revolutionary because it’s brought in a new audience and a new way to interact with the device. The way Kinect has gone away from Xbox and also into other applications…it’s just kind of developed a world of its own. Bringing entertainment or entertainment services on to Live was possibly a refinement to a certain level. It’s a mix and match. Our attempt is fairly simple: we understand that you as a consumer, at least from Xbox standpoint, would look at us and say, “Hey, I want my gaming needs. I want my music needs, I want my video needs and maybe also my app needs, or social media needs to be fulfilled through you guys”.

So I need to find a way in which (a) your experience is simple enough, especially in countries like India. It is simple enough to get into the experience and then it is engaging enough for you to sustain that experience. Some of what comes in the future could be revolutionary but some of it could just be refinement of what we do today. When you look at SmartGlass, it’s very difficult to say whether it’s a refinement or revolutionary. Devices talking to each other – was that revolutionary? No, it is not. A lot of devices talk to each other. Can you throw content from one device to the other? Maybe you can, even in today’s scenario. But what SmartGlass did was it just made the experience so much simpler, and it brought it in a larger portfolio of things we could do within that app.

It was no longer about saying “Hey, I’m going to play a movie here and then I could throw it on the same Wi-Fi network to my TV”, which is possible today through multiple devices. But if I said, hey, if you’re watching a movie, what if I give you information about that movie on your Smartphone? What if you want to know the location of where a particular shot has been filmed? What if you want to know about the clothes that the characters are wearing? So stuff like that. We’re just making the experience far better in some cases with just refinement of what we offered and in some cases it’s purely revolutionary like Kinect was.

RS: Concerning indie game development for Xbox Live, we talk about Introversion, and it’s co-founder stating that it’s more difficult to develop for Xbox Live and for PSN – essentially, console digital media platforms – as compared to PC, because you have higher development costs versus lesser returns.

And then the development kit, which is available for $10,000 USD, and is non-refundable. What are your thoughts on this?

Console gaming over the past few years is at a stage where you need to define an experience which is radically different from what you see on PCs. I think that’s the reality of gaming. There’s a lot of debate in the market, like “Hey, will consoles be dead, will gaming land on smaller tablets and phones, etc” but the reality is that when you develop a console game, you’re developing something completely different. Now, to develop a game which different, there are multiple factors that come into play like graphics, gameplay, storyline but most importantly, the quality of the experience that you give to the consumer.

Even with indie games, or for that matter, I would probably generalize it across all games, the reality is: If you need to create an experience which is fundamentally different from what you would get on PC and smaller screens, there is a cost of development that you would need to bear. That is just to insure the kind of quality that consumers expect from console games. We’ve also seen multiple examples of lesser quality games being developed in the name of localization but those games have never worked. Even if the IP has worked with a particular audience, those games have not worked because people don’t accept that a low quality game would be available on the console. There is cost which is associated with it.

My personal belief is that that cost could continue to rise but at the same time, if the IP you are building has attracted the attention of gamers, the returns would also be higher. Yes, the risks are higher today on console gaming but if you develop the right IP – you have instances like the Halo franchise, which is more than a $3 billion dollar franchise which has been built up. So it’s like high risks, high rewards kind of scenario.

RS: But when you compare it to something like what Steam is doing – they’ve just recently launched Greenlight, and it generated a lot of hype and excitement.

At first, any game could get on there because it was the community that was choosing the games. Then you had to pay $100 to get your game on there, and then it would go through the community voting process before going to the Steam store.

How do you look at Xbox Live – or the console digital media platform – competing with Steam which launching these new measures?

AM: First, I think that whatever Steam is doing is very encouraging for the industry as such, with What they’re bringing in as a new model of adoption for people to buy gaming content and play gaming content. What remains to be seen is that at what level – and I say this keeping countries like India, emerging markets, in mind – at what level would you be able to provide the experience given the entire bandwidth of the country? The entire internet experience you have in the country. How much can you stream, at what levels can you stream and then where do you compromise – do you compromise on the experience, do you compromise on the quality or gameplay of the game – that remains to be seen. I think it’s a very interesting model to look at, if you were to look at the music and video industry, you would imagine the gaming industry would go the same way. It just seems to be logical at this time, but a lot of factors need to be solved before the same experience like you get on music and streaming videos happens on the gaming side.

RS: Before all the power goes to the people?

AM: Before all the power goes to the people, the experiences are delivered through the pipe…all of that…a lot needs to happen. It’s a good start, it’s an encouraging start but it remains to be seen how successful they are and what kind of experiences they give. But you know, looking at media, just like any other media, it seems like a logical extension of where things would land.

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