During its just-completed Tokyo Game Show press conference, Microsoft revealed the release date for its revamping the Xbox 360's environment, doing away with the "blades" menu system and making titles easier to find.
But beyond a simple UI update, the addition of avatars and a "party" system has fascinating implications for future game development.
The official GamerScore weblog has been going through many of the features of the new interface individually in its "NXE" series -- but Gamasutra also got a chance to look at and comment on the new interface ahead of today's release announcement.
Here, Microsoft senior platform strategist Rob Gruhl and global platform marketing manager Albert Penello talk to Gamasutra all about the precise ins and outs of the update.
The duo answered all the prevailing questions that have surrounded the "New Xbox Experience" since its announcement: how the avatars and party system will work, the changes in how games are listed, where XNA Community Games fits in, and how developers can take advantage of all these new features.
How will the avatars work, from a technical standpoint?
RG: On the technicals, there's two ways you can do it. One way is you call the platform and ask the platform to run with the avatars. So if you're creating a classic card or board game and you don't want to have to manage 3D assets and lighting and rigging, you can just say, "I want you to render this person's avatar from the waist up over here, and make him wave." And we'll handle that through the developer.
It makes it really easy to get in. The second way is that the developer calls the platform and says, "I want all of the assets from this avatar," and the developer chooses to rig, render, light, and animate that avatar. That's the technical side.
And from a policy perspective, it's an up to E10+ situation?
RG: E10+ is not an official policy, and we're not using the ESRB to rate avatars. It's more of a way of communicating the type of behavior that we think is going to be appropriate for avatars.
We do want avatars to be approachable. We do want them to be something that people can relate to and that they feel embodies themselves and they feel safe with. So an M-rated game can use avatars. If you have an M-rated game that, at the end of it, you always wanted to show the top three players by showing their avatars on a little Olympic podium, you can do that. They just wouldn't be allowed in the game mechanic where M-rated things are happening.
I'm sure there are going to be gray area issues, where the developer thinks things are okay and you guys are a little bit less...
RG: Absolutely. And we're working on those policy guidelines now. We're sharing those with the developers as we work with them. And I'm sure it will be an evolving process.
And who do the developers work with on that?
RG: They would work with our account manager.
Albert Penello: It turns out you can't run a policy for everything, so there's always scenarios where there's questions.
RG: But we've got a number of titles underway that are using avatars, so that process is in full swing.
I want to talk about a broad scale. You're in charge of the platform for the Xbox. What does that mean, in terms of the decisions you make?
RG: My team is the game platform strategy team. We work with the different platform feature groups around the organization to build features.
I don't run the feature teams that build them. What I do is that I work with those feature teams, and work out what is the feature and how it's going to be attractive to people.
For example, there's a lot of different ways you can do something like party-style social communication. When we went and talked to gamers, they told us that they wanted something that would work while they were in games, and they wanted something that would work with all of their games.
So we used that feedback to drive the fact that you can be playing Halo 2, bring up the party menu, invite someone in, and start chatting with them, while you're playing Halo 2 and they're playing something else.
You don't have to leave. You don't have to go out and do something else. The feedback was, "Let us do this while we're doing a thing we love doing on the Xbox 360." That's the kind of thing that led to this.
And did you get developer feedback, too, on what people felt was lacking from the platform?
RG: Absolutely. We are constantly talking with developers and getting direct feedback from them. And it turns out that developers are gamers, too.
Half the time, when I'm out talking with developers, they're giving me feedback like, "Here's what I need to make my game better and what I need to sell more games," and then as an aside, they're like, "And last night I was playing, and can you add this feature?" or "I'd really like to see this," or "I have this in this other game. Can you make that available on the platform?"
Even if they wouldn't use it in their game, they're gamers and they love playing games, so they get passionate about it, and that's part of the fun.
It seems a lot of things are being added simultaneously. First of all, there's a whole new look and feel, but are also the avatars, and I think the party system is also a real biggie. Are these the main things?
RG: Marketplace. All of the work that we've done on the Marketplace, both on the Xbox 360 and on the web.
And the XNA games and the Creator's Club are going to go live at the same time?
RG: Yes. When you get the new Xbox experience, you'll be able to go to the games marketplace, and then... if you go up to "games marketplace," and select "shop for game content," you go up to what we call community games. We'll have a set of featured games that we select -- the most popular -- that you can filter by.
You'll also be able to go online and read articles by journalists about, "Hey, here's a cool community game that some guys from Sweden created called Colosseum, and it's got these fighting mechanics that are clever. Link here." You click that link, then you go to the webpage, and now you can download a free trial of that. When you get home, it's queued up on the Xbox 360 download queue, and you can try that without remembering what it was called or how it was spelled.
That seems especially useful for the community games, because it's going to be an absolute grassroots effort on the part of the developers -- they don't necessarily have a marketing budget.
RG: Right, and for them to create an effective awareness campaign that gets across the name, that creates a brand, makes sure it's easy to spell, and make a jingle so you remember -- it is not realistic.
But getting fans in forums chatting it up and getting really excited... every fan who talks about it says like, "Link! Now go get it and download it." And when that gamer gets home and turns on their Xbox, they can play it right away.
CN: To return to the party system, that seems like a very sensible function. One thing that you talked about is that older games that aren't party-aware are still going to be able to use it as a mass-invite tool, but for new games that are party aware, it's going to be very instantaneous access for multiplayer.
RG: Yeah. We're making a set of APIs available to all new games starting in the November SDK. Those APIs will allow developers to be aware of the status that a player has in a party. So there's two major changes to the way that a game runs that will take place in a party-aware game.
The first one is, if a player starts a game and the game recognizes that the player is in a party and nobody else in the party is playing that game yet, the first thing it's going to ask the player is, "I noticed you're in a party. Would you like me to create a multiplayer session and invite all of your friends?"
It's a very natural question, because if I'm in a party and I've traded a game, there's an excellent chance that I want to play that game with my friends. All they have to do is hit A. If they hit B, they go to the regular menu, no harm no foul. Just do whatever you want.
If they hit A, the game has a number of options, but I think clever games will create a multiplayer session, choose some basic defaults, create some private slots, send out invites, and then maybe go into a loading screen where people can decide exactly what they want to do. That's going to be up to the game to decide how they want to implement and what they want to do, but I think developers will figure that out right away.
The second way that games can be party-aware and integrate is that if players in your party are already in a session that's joinable, then when that new player launches the game in their Xbox 360, they close the tray, the game launches, they hit Start, and the game is going to say, "I noticed other people in your game are already in a multiplayer session. Would you like to join them?"
And you don't even have to manually pay attention. You can just load in the game you want to play without having to check your friends list.
RG: Exactly. And my guess is that one thing this is going to lead to is more joinable games, because joinable games is a great feature. It's a casual and a core feature. Co-op gaming is getting more and more popular.
We saw Co-Optimus -- a whole new fan website just about co-op gaming. You're seeing more and more games get that. So I hop on mine, I notice Albert's online, and I start a party with him. "What are you doing?" "I'm halfway through Gears of War." "Oh." Pop in Gears of War, and now I can join. Joinable in Gears is a great feature that we're looking forward to, and as more games become party-aware games, you're going to have a smoother experience.
So it comes out in the November SDK, but the dashboard update also comes out in November to end users.
AP: It'll be a little time. It'll take time.
I don't want to jump to conclusions, but it sounds like it's the kind of thing that might not be easily -- and correctly -- implementable instantaneously.
RG: Parties is pretty straightforward. It's a small set of APIs, and... the feedback that we've been getting from some of the early partners that we've been working with -- because we are working with early partners with early code -- is that parties is very straightforward.
It's a solid architecture that the team put together. Avatars, obviously, is a more in-depth integration. It has a lot of UI elements and a lot of decisions that the game needs to make about how they're going to integrate. So that may be a longer lead time, but we're already engaged with a number of developers that are working on titles that integrate both avatars and parties.
I'm going to guess that Gears of War 2 is probably going to support parties. Has that been announced?
RG: I don't believe that has been announced.
Back to the avatars, then, I think devs are going to appreciate the fact that you can just export the model, and they can do all of their own customs on it, because Nintendo is extremely restrictive with Miis.
RG: There's a lot of frustration in the people that I've talked to about that. I think that if I were a developer, knowing that gamers are going to invest a ton of their identity as an avatar, if I wanted to do just a quick-and-dirty avatar implementation in my title, especially if I have a hardcore title, I would feature the top three or five players' avatars in my end-of-game screen, in my leaderboards, and all over the place.
Because if I know, as a gamer, that if I get in that top three or five spot and my avatar is going to show up for the world, I'm going to play the hell out of that game. I'm going to make sure I'm in that top spot, and when someone knocks me off, I'm going to play a whole lot more and get myself back in, because that's glory.
The gamertag is great, and it's great to see your gamertag in lights, but when it's your avatar that's up there, I think that's going to be extremely powerful. So that's one really easy way that game developers using the platform -- that first technical implementation -- will be trivially able to integrate avatars into their game.
And there's other places where they can feature it. A lot of games will pick a random stat and say, "Here are the top three people..." Kingdom of Loathing does a good job of this. They just pick a totally random stat out of their game and then show the top three. Why not show the top three avatars for that and give some of that glory back to the players?
The players that have invested so much in how they look are going to glow with pride when they see themselves up there. It doesn't take a lot of work or effort.
You've also said developers will be potentially able to provide unlockable avatar customization in games down the road. Is that something you've actually formalized?
RG: No. I should clarify that. What we were saying is that the technology backend that we've built around avatars, we've built it as a powerful platform. So we're leaving all of the doors open in what we can do in order to give out additional avatar items.
We have not locked down any policies about how those items are going to be given out, like, are they going to be free, on the marketplace, tied to achievements, or are they going to be given out by games in a different fashion? But as a gamer, I would love to see that.
When we talk to gamers, there's a lot of desire from gamers to wear their trophy case and to show off, "Hey, I got the shirt because I got 20 headshots in a row, and you can't have the shirt unless you did that." That's a real point of pride. That's an obvious direction for us to go, but we have not announced anything around that policy.
But Microsoft won't be the only one contributing to the item selection for avatars? Is that a decision that's been made?
RG: I would be very surprised if we ultimately were the only one. I think there's so much opportunity for working with partners.
Do XNA Community Creators have access to any of these features? XNA is like a separate stem.
RG: That's a good question. If they build a multiplayer game, the party support works in all multiplayer games. Party support for existing games is really just a piggyback on top of the existing invite system. So if their title works with the existing invite system, it'll work with parties.
With avatars, we're not currently enabling that. It's a new technology, and there's a ton of work to be done, so we want to get it out first to the platform and the retail titles. You'll see Arcade titles with avatars in them as well, and we're thinking about avatars in community games as well.
It seems like it could be a real benefit to people who want to build a game, and have a main character up and running quickly.
RG: Sure. And especially if it were done...because we do want to maintain the integrity of the avatars, it may be that we look at something where we allow creators to call the platform render service, but maybe we didn't allow them to pull the assets into a full render, just to make sure there are some constraints.
So there's possibilities there and there's conversations there, but right now, it's a big work item, so we're focused entirely on making sure that new Xbox experience gets avatars and they work great.
In terms of the Marketplace and the way the Marketplace is changing its presentation, do you think that is going to have an effect on XBLA and making it more accessible?
RG: Yeah, absolutely. If you look here in the Game Marketplace where it says Shop for Game Content, the first entry here above All Games is Arcade. We have featured games, the most popular games, new arrivals...
How do the featured games get chosen?
RG: Featured games I believe is an editorial decision, so it's like content that's featured today on the dashboard. If you go into Most Popular, this is going to be the most downloaded.
Is that like a ranked list? Is number one actually the most popular game?
RG: Yes. And then it goes down from there. For example, if I go into All Arcade and I really love the classic retro titles..."Asteroids, Battlezone, Castlevania, Contra..." there's a really easy way for me to identify, as a classic game player who likes the retro titles.
If I don't like those retro titles and I'm really most interested in puzzle and trivia games, I can sort by that, and now I have AstroPop, Bejeweled, Bliss Island, Boogie Bunnies, Braid, Brain Challenge...those type of games. So it's going to be much easier for a player to identify with either a genre or quickly go by using the letter filter function to find a title there.
Overall, what was the goal that you really wanted to achieve with "The New Xbox Experience?" It's kind of a grand title. It's not "The New Xbox Dashboard."
RG: Absolutely. Throughout the history of Xbox, we've always had this philosophy of continuous innovation. It's part of our DNA. We shipped Xbox 1 with an ethernet jack on the back of it, and it meant that we had the opportunity to continually improve the experience.
I think the New Xbox Experience is yet another example of that. It's a big example. There's a lot of changes to it. But really, we've been making changes all along. We've been adding features, adding blades, and updating codecs with every release every month.
So having said that, the major things here are one, it's now a dynamic system. We're no longer relying on major updates to get out new functionality. We can add channels, change slots, and add new features without having to go through that bulky release process.
The second one is that more people will be able to sit down and access the content. My wife doesn't tend to turn on the Xbox and dig through it to find stuff because it's a little intimidating and hard to find. With the new Xbox experience, you'll be able to browse through and find out what's going on.
Third, we have a ton of content, and sometimes it's hard to find that content, or if you see it, it's hard to go back and find where it was again. So things like Inside Xbox and Events & Spotlight will help bring that to the top.
Even having an alphabetical list that you can drill down easily seems to help.
RG: Yeah. That's a great one. It's also tied in all over the place. For example, there's multiple entry points. If I'm here in Game Marketplace down at the end, I'm going to get access to my game library.
There's multiple entry points put throughout the new guide that makes it faster to get to things wherever you are, and it's going to be a big hit with core gamers.
So there's a ton of features in here, but ultimately, it's just yet another example of the kind of continuous innovation that we do and we're going to continue to do. And in fact, this is just the starting point for this new set of content and this new set of services that we've making available.
AP: And they still didn't show Netflix or Prime Time, but there will also be new experiences and ways to find entertainment and things like that, that I think will be more evident over time. Prime Time will be completely different than anything we've done before.
Have you nailed Prime Time down? When will its applications launch?
RG: We don't have a time to announce about that, but I think conceptually, it's lots of people coming together for a shared experience. It's a scheduled experience, and it's also an experience where you have a lighter-weight client and most of your content is coming from the server side.
So if you think about those three items, there's actually a lot of gaming experiences that can fit into that mold. The easiest ones and the ones that come most readily to mind are the ones that are like 1 vs. 100 -- trivia games. It's an obvious first step in that direction.
But there's a lot more experiences that I think developers and publishers are going to come up with that build off of that model and build off of that set of capabilities.
AP: We'll be talking about it a lot more, but I think the basic thing is...we talked about 1 vs. 100, and it could be you and a thousand people who are all playing at the exact same time. The questions could be something that happened a few hours before that was newsworthy. Today's presidential debate could be a question in a few hours. It's completely updated by hosts, and there will be prizes and things like that.