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Interview: Astro A-Go-Go: Designing The Look of the Xbox 360
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Interview: Astro A-Go-Go: Designing The Look of the Xbox 360

July 12, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

The evolution of the look of the Xbox 360.

The Xbox 360 will be the first of the next-generation consoles to hit the market, and as such, it has to make a bold statement if it is to gain the interest of the cynical modern consumer. To this end, Microsoft hired the design firm Astro Studios, already successful in other areas of consumer electronic styling, to help handle the new console's physical design alongside a consulting firm, Hers Experimental Design Laboratory, based in Japan .

From the subtle X branding, to its attempts to incorporate design cues from end users, to the very naming of the console and how it impacted on design, Gamasutra had a chance to talk to the San Francisco-based Astro Studios as it took us through the process of helping design the Xbox 360's look - the goal was to make a machine that seemed powerful, vibrant, and aesthetically different from the first Xbox, and we sat down with studio president Brett Lovelady to find out just how they went about achieving it.

Gamasutra: Tell us a bit about your company.

Lovelady: Astro Studios is a company I started about 10 years ago to essentially blend technology, lifestyle, and design into product development. In the past, we designed mainly hardware - industrial design based, graphic design based, that sort of skill-set - but working on fairly high-impact consumer products.

Gamasutra: So you've designed consumer hardware before as well?

Lovelady: Yes - earlier on we were most well known for developing Nike's original sports watches and the iPAQ PDA for Compaq. And we've been moving more towards some game-related areas, working with Electronic Arts on cover art and logo development for SSX3 and NFL Street. At the same time we're doing all the Alienware hardware. So the Alienware thing is probably what set us off in that direction.

Gamasutra: What aspects of the 360 are you responsible for?

Lovelady: We are responsible for the whole look and feel, the outward aesthetic. This includes the features, how it looks as overall design language, how it works with the controller and peripherals - working on the camera, the charging systems for wireless remotes - and then the box itself, obviously.

Gamasutra: How were you asked to work on 360 - did you pitch, or were you asked?

Beyond designing Nike's Triax line of sport watches, Astro Studios is also responsible for the look of Nike's Slingshot golf clubs.

Lovelady: We were asked. There were 6 or 7 other design firms, and Microsoft had received concepts from all of them. While going through a huge internal editing process, Microsoft liked a few things, but the designs weren't connecting to the whole experience design. So they invited us in to pitch ourselves, and they chose us to take over and start over from scratch. All of the work that had been done was set aside. The Japanese firm that we worked with was one of the firms that Microsoft was working with in the beginning - Microsoft liked their ideas, but didn't think it was totally resonating, so they had another pass at it as well. Then from that point, there was a lot of cross-talk with Japan.

Gamasutra: How many iterations did you go through?

Lovelady: We went from early ideas into three major idea directions. Once the main idea was chosen, we went through four or five refinement iterations. These iterations were not as major, and covered aspects from materials to control functionality. We found the changes to be very important, but some would see them as not as crucial.

Gamasutra: Did you have input into the hardware features?

Lovelady: Yeah, we had quite a bit, especially the interpretation of those features - discussions of if [elements of hardware are] going to be wireless or not - going from the long connectors to a wireless scenario and strategy, also whether [the console will stand] vertically and horizontally, how do things switch and interplay; how do we deal with memory; how do we deal with add-on modules, via wireless or hard drive for example?

Gamasutra: What goes into designing consoles? How do you plan for it?

Lovelady: There is a lot of interaction between engineering and marketing - we're really living in both of those worlds a bit. Marketing has a lot of goals: who do you want to sell to? You need to make sure of the core gamer, for example, and what their needs are, but also branch out into other areas with marketing goals and big-picture ideas.

And then we talk with engineering to see what's feasible: we need to pack all of this into a small box. It can't burn down, it can't blow up, it can't melt, and it has to put out the right power. We lay out the electronics so there is access to everything, and blend that with what we think is a good design. It's kind of like getting all of the ingredients before you can make something, and then pulling it all together.

Gamasutra: So you had to work around the guts of the system. Could you move those components around within the console?

Lovelady : We get some say. It's a give and take - there are some realistic things, like you can't put a heat-sensitive item near a super hot chip, but things like ergonomics, physical access, and elements like that have to communicate in a common sort of way as well. But then you're looking for a sense of design as well.

Gamasutra: Do you go through an approval process as well?

Lovelady: It's a funneling process, that's probably a better way to think of it. We immerse ourselves in as much information as possible, and then start creating ideas, and through a series of review funnels until you get to the chosen [design], and work on that really hard to produce it.

Gamasutra: What statement does the name "360" make?

Lovelady: It's interesting that [Microsoft] chose "360" as a name, because it was well after a lot of what we'd already come up with. Part of it was that Microsoft sees it as an amazing digital portal, an access point. They wanted something that would be this gateway from the physical tangible real world to the voyeuristic world of gaming. So the idea is that we've got this box that's a containment device, that is containing some pretty amazing power. You can't just let anyone in or out of the portal, or the access point.

So the idea of containment and protection, and even a sense of there being something pretty [powerful] inside this - we've got to make sure it's safely contained. Also, the console has to stand vertically as well as horizontally, so when they chose the name 360, one of our main goals from the beginning was that we had to design it from every angle. There are a lot of products which have one side where you say: "Oh, that's where they had to put all the nasty stuff, all the connectors and everything else." And when this is out in the homes and kiosks of the world, there will be connectors and plugs in it, but you don't want there to be an ugly side [to the console].

Gamasutra: So is that some of where the idea for the name came from?

The Xbox 360 realized.

You know what - a lot of the real Xbox 360 came from the kind of circle/ring of light aspect of it, and the wireless. Even the idea that it starts with people, and no matter where you go, it comes back to you. So the completion of the circle became kind of a theme.

Gamasutra: Did you listen to a lot of feedback from users of the original Xbox console?

Lovelady: Yes - interestingly, we couldn't resolve everything. There are some aspects where we say: "Yes, we're propagating some issues that were there in the past, but you can't resolve them all." So which ones do you choose? And that's everything from what it costs, to manufacturing time, to the legacy of the color green, or the Nexus mark - how does that evolve, or does it change completely? That goes through an editing process, and prioritization process, and the final decision goes to the people in power who make the decision and have the resources to build the end unit.

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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