Last week's E3 reveal of the motion-sensing Kinect and new Xbox 360 was a preemptive strike on a potential mid-life crisis for the console. Microsoft wants to expand beyond its core gamer audience and attract a wider demographic by trying to lower the barriers of modern gaming.
Albert Penello, director of platform marketing for Xbox, knows that the road ahead won't be easy, but is confident that once skeptical core gamers get their hands on (off?) the Kinect, they will be convinced.
But attracting current and potential Xbox 360 gamers to the motion control market will be a difficult proposition. The price has to be appealing to the target mass market, the third-party developer support has to be there and market fragmentation between traditional controllers and Kinect must be addressed.
All of these factors are currently big question marks. In this in-depth interview with Gamasutra, Penello makes his case for the Xbox 360 strategy a week after having digested the major L.A. conference.
How do you think Microsoft did at E3 in relation to your competitors. How do you think you stood up against the new offerings everyone else has?
Albert Penello: Oh, we were terrible. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, like you're going to say that.
AP: I feel like we had the single biggest piece of news, which was the new console and the fact that it was shipping. [Nintendo] let a lot go about the 3DS before the show, and even though there were rumors about the new [Xbox 360] console, nobody had seen anything before we announced it that day.
I think everybody had some interesting things. We were going to be a tough spot because we were going to be talking about a product [in Kinect] that the core gamer is inherently nervous about. Obviously, when you're building something for a different audience with a new type of content, I think we knew going in that we're not going to get the best reaction from the briefing. But once people play it, they're going to feel better. I wish that all of the people online could actually play it.
I agree that the new console was some pretty big news to come out of E3. But it seems like it was so overshadowed by all the Kinect stuff. It didn't seem like quite the exclamation point that maybe it should have been.
AP: We intentionally wanted to leave it as a surprise moment at the very end. The fact is, we weren't going to spend a ton of time on it in the briefing because it's shipping. That's the big news, that you probably would be able to pick one up in the next three days. … Maybe in retrospect, it might have been good [to spend more time on the announcement], but that's the fun of looking back on these things.
I assume that you've seen some of the rumors about the price, and nothing is official yet, even though it's on Microsoft's online store for $150. Has Microsoft been gauging the reaction to that rumored price point?
AP: The Microsoft store is just a retailer, so don't take that as being anything official, although we had a conversation about that today. We didn't want the discussion at E3 to be about price until you got to see the experiences. There wasn't some sort of a nefarious fear or any kind of weirdness about not talking about price at the show. We'll announce the price when we feel the time is right.
You know what happens. We're three minutes into the conversation and we're talking about price. … We didn't want price to be the primary discussion at the show. Our goal was to prove it to people. … We'll talk about price when the experience is what people want it to be.
Pricing is such an issue though because a lot of people are already under the impression it works and we've known about Project Natal for a year. But there's a conflict because it's aimed at a mass market that wants to buy a console for $200, yet we have a peripheral that could potentially cost more than $100. How do you communicate the value of a $100 or $150 Kinect, or a $400 Kinect-Xbox 360 bundle to the mass market? And these are all speculative prices, of course.
AP: How do I want to put this… I think we did a pretty good job listening to people about the Xbox and features they wanted, and we added a lot of value to the new box and we kept the price the same. We haven't announced our full lineup for the holiday, so I would say let's talk again after we've announced price, and after we've announced our full lineup, and then perhaps it will be more clear.
There's maybe over a dozen announced games so far for Kinect. As far as third-party publisher support goes, are you satisfied with where that is right now for the Kinect?
AP: This industry thrives on being able to take an engine or game and put it on as many platforms as possible. … We don't want shovelware, we don't want ports, we don't want stuff with motion controls tacked onto it. That's not a slam to our competitors. We wanted original games that were really taking advantage of what our technology does.
I know we're going to have less games for [Kinect] than our competitors, but I think each one of those [games] is doing something interesting, and our system works differently and has different advantages than the wand, quite frankly. We're basically asking publishers to go out and make exclusive content for this new technology and this new customer. … To me it's way more important to have a handful of really good game titles that take advantage of the tech than 40 titles of which half of them are controller games with waggle added onto them.
We continue to say that the controller is the best experience for controller games. When people say, 'Why don't you have Halo?' Well, I don't want Halo on Kinect. I want Halo on a controller. Now would it be interesting to see what kind of game they could make using Kinect? Yeah, I would love to see what those guys could do, or what the Call of Duty guys could do. But I don't want to play Call of Duty 4, I want Call of Duty: Black Ops on the controller. So yeah, I'm really, really happy with the stuff that [publishers] are doing. … The most interesting stuff is going to be what comes out six months to a year from now when people come to grips with the technology and really start taking advantage of it.
When you talk about controller games, it brings me to the next point, market fragmentation. Unlike the Wii, the Kinect isn't integral to the Xbox 360 experience. You'll have games that are better with a controller. Is Microsoft worried about the fragmentation that could affect developers as well as the market?
AP: That's a concern that people have expressed. I think what you've seen us do is we're aligning a lot of our efforts around Kinect. We unveiled the new branding, we unveiled the new console, the name, the sensor -- Kinect does not look like it's something that's sort of tacked onto the side of the ecosystem.
I'd say stay tuned. I believe it's our goal to make Kinect a core part of our experience going forward. We're not abandoning the controller stuff at all, I think we're going to continue to want to make those games and support that. But we're trying to avoid exactly what your concern is. We want people to think of Kinect as part of our console offering.
A year or year-and-a-half from now, will today's core Xbox gamer see Kinect as an essential part of the Xbox experience?
AP: I hope so. And we teased some stuff. There's more technology in Kinect. We talk about the motion and full body recognition, but we also showed the UI working, the multi-array mic with echo cancellation that lets you do a lot of voice stuff. Even if Dance Central isn't your style of game, the integration with the system is going to be pretty robust. I think it's going to be a must-have thing, even if there's only a handful of experiences for the core gamers, I think the integration is really going to get better and better over time.