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

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RS: Steam’s Big Picture wants to transfer the PC gaming experience to the TV, only they want it to be, as an interface, something that people in the living room would be better used to.

They can use Xbox 360 controllers to play, and devices to wirelessly transmit their PC display to the living room.

Does this appear as a very big threat to what Xbox Live is trying to achieve, especially since Steam is completely free?

AM: I don’t think the concept of taking a PC gaming experience on to the TV…I don’t think that’s the big picture here. There’s two parts to the gaming experience. One part is the game itself, and the quality that you get. The other part is about your identity as a gamer, and what you do in a game. Seeing people come on stage [Halo 4 launch] and talking about Halo…these are hardcore Halo fans. Their thrill in life isn’t winning mini-competitions such as what we’ve held here, as much as it is about bragging rights about how much they know about Halo. That’s the reality of gamers.

There are different ways to look at how you can give a user a complete experience of different games meant for different screens. Xbox Live has games that would work on an Xbox, would also work on a Windows Phone – there’s just a few but there are – there could be more for the future. There could be games which are just meant for PC but the experience could be delivered on Xbox. But that is not technology innovation. That’s the easiest thing to do, to kind of give a smaller experience or a smaller quality experience on a higher platform. The experience could be what could I do with your identity as such, and keep your identity consistent so that when you play a game on TV, on a PC, on a phone, your Achievements, your score, your bragging rights around a game, are consistent across your network.

I think we’re already there to a certain extent, we enable the platform across all three devices, and it’s a matter of getting the content. More so, it is about getting the blockbuster content of Xbox on to the smaller screen, which could provide the “wow” factor so to say. But the other way around, seems to be there in most of the cases, and I don’t think that’s a difficult thing to do.

RS: Let’s talk about the intellectual properties scenario: Sony seems to be introducing new IPs every year whereas in 2008 and 2012 the biggest games seem to be, for Xbox 360, Halo and Gears of War.

So, what do you look at as the benefit of new IPs vs. timed exclusives or even yearly sequels?

AM: I think at a fundamental level, new IP is good for the industry. It provides a refreshing change from the standard franchises running. But having said that, from an Xbox standpoint, given the past 2 years, the focus that the company brought in to Kinect, every title that we’ve brought in was a new IP – every single title had a new experience. So, there’s a lot of innovation in terms of new IP when it comes to Kinect. When it comes to hardcore Xbox games, the reason these franchises have done well is because they have kind of created a personality of their own.

But the experience that you get every time you pick up a game from a franchise, especially the Xbox games, is very different. Today, if you pick a Halo 4, you could say that this is another version of Halo. But the reality is with the kind of multiplayer experience that we’re giving, with the kind of co-op experience, the changes in the storyline that we’re bringing, it just adds to the aura of the franchise itself. What do we see in the future?

I personally see that in the last two to three years, it’s kind of been an era of just franchises, whether it’s our platform, some one else’s or third party games, it’s just been one version after the other that’s come. I expect that to carry on for another year or two years maybe, at max, but I do see an opportunity where new IP would be created, especially because multiple devices would come into play and that just gives an opportunity for some one to create an IP, which would work across multiple platforms, and which isn’t bound to a console, or a phone, or a PC alone, and that just provides scale for taking the risk to create a new IP. I think today the industry realizes that it’s kind of risk-free if you have a big franchise and come out with the next version.

There isn’t any urgent need to create an IP, because while I said the past 2-3 years has been just one sequel after another, the fact is, most of the blockbuster sequels have worked. Whether it’s Call of Duty, FIFA, Gears of War or Halo, for that matter, every sequel, the large ones, seem to work in the market. So there’s no real reason why anybody would say that “Hey, I shouldn’t be doing this” as opposed to creating a new IP.

RS: Speaking on the next era of game development, Take Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick stated that he doesn’t see the next generation of development coming with increased development costs.

So if we were to see the next Halo coming to the next Xbox or something like that, then would we see a higher cost of development or lower, and how would that affect the overall quality of the experience?

AM: It’s a very subjective thing to define the cost of development. Now, just kind of speculating, the next Halo version…our intent could be to just take the storyline further, with the same functionalities and people would love that because the storyline, especially with titles like Halo, is very strong with the characters in it. We could choose to define the experience across different screens, a very different experience across different screens, or we could define the integration levels to be far bigger or higher with the next Halo game, or for that matter, the next Gears of War game. It depends on what I want to do with the game. If I just want to carry a franchise with the storyline, where the basic construct of the game remains the same, development costs could go lower because we already own the IP, the royalties don’t work that way, there is a set module of development for that particular game. But if I want to add innovation in terms of multiple devices or multiple UI, or multiple experiences, then the costs could go up. It depends on the franchise.

Halo is a big enough franchise – very profitable franchise – and to look at the next version and say, “Hey, what could we do different?”…there could be some franchises which are looking to just make good money and not risking too much of development cost to do too much with their franchise, because that’s what the consumers want. Fairly subjective in that sense, but I think both modules would exist…depends on which franchise you want to look at.

RS: Were there any prerequisite to making Halo 4 that “kind” of Halo experience or was there a mandate that something different has to be done this time?

AM: I’m again speculating here, than actually knowing about what went on with 343 Industries and the making of Halo 4, but from plain logic, the idea was we’ve had a Halo trilogy which has been out there. We’ve had different version of Halo after that – Reach, Anniversary, Halo Wars, etc. Now if were to invest in something like the next trilogy of Halo starting with Halo 4, we’d have to create an experience which is better than before, as simple as that. I think that would have been the fundamental point at which people would have started. And when we a “better experience than before”, the way it’s turned out now is that our online experience is better, even basic things like knowledge of the Halo franchise as such…I think it’s turned out better than before.

The entire Forward Unto Dawn series, that captures the entire story so to say, the way we’re building up Spartan Ops with the online experience and the co-op experience…it’s all very different, innovative stuff. And that would continue with any large franchise. You cannot have the same experience again and again, it just doesn’t make sense. This isn’t just Halo or Gears of War – you’d even see it in third party titles. FIFA 12 was different from 11, 13 was very different from 12 and there’s always things that would get added to the platform, otherwise you would lose the consumer.

RS: What are your thoughts on Nintendo’s Wii U console?

AM: I think…when we look at the Indian market specifically, Nintendo hasn’t really created a dent out here frankly because they don’t have operations in the country. So whatever comes into the market is essentially through parallel imports. But overall, we see that if you have to come with another version of the console as such, and this is  applicable to pretty much all the platforms, something has to be radically different and game changing for you to make a dent in the market. It’s not a matter of bringing out smaller innovations which others either already offer or can bring in very easily. You have to do some thing radically different. When we did Kinect, it was radically different. The way we are positioning Xbox Live is radically different, it will take a lot for others to even copy that kind of scenario. When you look at India, it’s really us versus Sony. Wii’s attempt…it remains to be seen how the market takes it up. A lot will depend on the kind of content they bring into the market and the innovations they do around that content. I don’t think our concept or our fundamental philosophy is…calling another device coming into play as true innovation, as truly next generation.

RS: For some developers, like Vigil Games who developed Darksiders 2, they’re finding development on the Wii U…to translate their games to that platform is much simpler than say if they were to create an experience on the Xbox 360 and port it to the PS3.

What audience do you see them garnering in the long run, because right now we’re seeing a lot of big-name titles, but it’s still positioned in such a way that it’s something that the entire family can enjoy.

AM: Fundamentally, taking an industry view and not just an Xbox view, all the three platforms would try to create the right balance between family audiences and core gamers. It’s just a stage in the industry where we are, where it’s a very delicate balance, and it’s a more marketing problem than anything else. How do you position a brand which is just as hardcore as a core game and then position a brand which would be as neutral or soft as a broad, family game category. With Nintendo, they were completely, at least in the recent past, having been very focused on the family side.

They’ve been trying to win the market through the family side, but there wasn’t really much innovation to happen to create that experience, and I think we and Sony have really taken the lead there, to capture most of the market. Now whether they create that balance with the core audience remains to be seen but I don’t think it will be a matter of one or two titles. It’s kind of -

RS: Kind of been an uphill battle.

AM: It is.

RS: For both you and Sony, because the Wii just found this family audience that loved the console so much for whatever reason.

And from there, it’s been that you can’t just offer the same thing that they have. You have to do something different. 

AM: Wii, at the time when they were unique from a motion gaming perspective, was a wonderful experience, there’s no doubt about it. But as a console, it is extremely important that you continue innovating. More importantly, that you continue innovating at a very fast pace. That’s when they saw the heat coming from Kinect, which is very new, which is far bigger than what they used to offer, and it’s probably a lesson for all of us in the industry, to understand that if just sit on a platform’s capability for too long, there would be others who would offer an experience or could offer an experience which will be very unique. And that could take a whole chunk of audience away from your platform.

From an Xbox perspective, I don’t think they’re doing anything that we’re not doing right now but I do see them not doing a lot of things that we’re doing. So it’s a fairly comfortable position for us to be sitting in.

RS: One thing that comes to mind, and this is something that Sony was pushing very hard with the Move, was 3D gaming.

And almost a year after touting it, almost no mention of it. So, what happened in terms of 3D gaming, or was the hype that time more than the actual momentum?

AM: I’ll give you a more India-specific answer for that. 3D Gaming has it’s dependencies on the TV. You need to have a 3D TV, etc. What we’ve seen in India is that while the technology is very well appreciated, there’s a lot of hype around it but the adoption of 3D in itself is not that much. It has a lot to do with the current experience you have, wearing the glasses, etc. I don’t think there’s anything as such that Sony did which was innovative in that space. We had Gears of War last year, around the same time, which was 3D.

A lot of games on our portfolio have in fact been 3D games. But the dependency is on some other device that needs to proliferate in the market, and people need to have that with them to experience a 3D game on the console. The console is capable of delivering it, even Xbox is for that matter, but it remains to be seen how 3D as a technology lands. I think it has to be made simpler…the experience has to be more smoother right now and maybe, in an Indian context, much cheaper, before 3D comes into homes at a scale at which everybody would want it to happen. When you’re playing a game in 3D, its fun, and a fairly good experience.

RS: Regarding the blockbuster development that we’ve been seeing in the past few years, we’re seeing these big releases but they’re essentially yearly sequels.

Like how many set pieces can cram in, the biggest names in composing, voice acting, what kind of scenarios we can create to just add on to the core experience, rather than trying something new.

This kind of “bubble” that’s being created for AAA game development in these yearly sequels – do you see it going bust soon or maybe evolve into something else entirely?

AM: I have a slightly different view to that. I don’t see that as a bubble at all. I think there’s a lot of value that the franchisees, the blockbuster franchises, have to offer, and they will probably continue to do so. The reality is that despite there being a Gears of War 3 last year, and despite the fact that there are multiple sequels of Forza and other titles, the biggest selling title in India was Kinect Sports. Which is a fairly new game to the Indian audience, and wasn’t a sequel to anything. Every single Kinect box we sold in the country, had Kinect Sports attached to it and given a gap of one to two months depending on the cycle of the second title which people were buying, the second title they bought was Dance Central. Much of this is also viewed in other emerging markets and even in more developed markets, but you see in a title like Kinect Sports or Dance Central, become blockbuster titles just because there was innovation in how you were interacting with the game itself.

I don’t think these are things that will change over time – you will get new IP and it’s difficult to see new IP reach the scale which the other blockbusters have reached, but at the same time, as long as the blockbusters have value to offer , as long as they have something different to offer, they will continue to do well. There’ve been instances of blockbusters – and we won’t name them – who in the name of the franchise have come out with multiple versions but have not done well, and that’s probably because there was nothing new to offer to the end consumer. For them it was just extended gameplay that they were getting, which in any case you get out of DLC.

That innovation is very important of the franchisees. Just as these franchisees have become big, they can lose customers very easily because the expectations are very high.

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