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Interview: Xbox Live General Manager Marc Whitten

by Matt Helgeson on Jan 04, 2010 at 01:00 AM

I recently had a chance to talk to Xbox Live general manager Marc Whitten about some of the new features and issues facing Xbox Live. This is a longer version of the interview that ran in issue 199 of Game Informer.

You’ve just launched Facebook, Twitter, and Last.FM for Xbox Live. Has it been a struggle to come up with interfaces for these applications that work in the context of Live?

I think people are sometimes confused when they talk about how the Internet comes into the living room and what that means. What you’re really trying to solve is what is special about the living room, and what applications and features will magnify what people already want to do there. I always step back and think, “The living room is the most social place in the house.” Take Facebook as an example. The part of that which I’m super passionate about is photos. Photos are a magical entertainment experience, and I think they are underserved. We take billions and billions of photos, and then they sit on devices or PCs because it’s too hard to get them. There’s a thousand ways you can get your pictures off your PC, but it is apparently so hard that no one does it. I think about how Facebook is used in my house. My wife calls me to the den and we look at pictures of my niece or what our friends are doing on vacation. That does not want to be on a laptop. It wants to be in the living room.

Sharing pictures is a huge part of Facebook, but you can’t share video links on Live, which is also pretty important on Facebook.

Yeah, we won’t in our original release, but the other thing that’s core to what we are is that this isn’t like retail software. It’s a constantly changing service. Just because video isn’t there now, doesn’t mean that we don’t think it’s interesting. My vision for Live is really simple. It’s the entertainment you want, with the people you care about, wherever you are. So, when you ask whether we’re working on it, I will say that I want to continue to check those boxes. Is the entertainment you want there? Can I share it and participate with it with my friends? So, the answer is an emphatic yes, we would definitely be working on it.

With Zune video, how many videos are going to be available?

We have about 25,000 pieces of movie and video content, and that’s all the top studios and networks. You’ll have the latest Hollywood releases to the classics in both film and televisions. The one problem we had with our old video marketplace was that it was download and it took forever. If you wanted to download a high-def movie, it might take five hours. Well, I can drive to Blockbuster, rent the movie, come home, watch it, and take it back in less than five hours. That’s not a very good digital experience. Now, with a 3MB connection, you’ll get 1080p streaming that starts instantly in a second. And it’s not like you have to let it buffer before you can start playing. You can fast forward at 16x, you can skip chapters – it’s exactly like it was sitting there physically in the console.

In your games on demand service for the back catalog 360 titles, you’ve allowed credit card purchases that use real dollar amounts instead of the point system. Will you allow that for Zune video?

It’s Microsoft points right now, and those have been very successful for us. Especially at retail – people buy tons of points cards and bring them home. We continue to think about it. I’ll put it this way: we want make it as easy as possible for people to have the entertainment experiences they want.

I’ve never quite understood the point system. You could still sell Live cards at retail in dollar values instead of points? Isn’t actual dollars the most simple and familiar thing to everyone?

Yeah, and I will say that will say that we will continue to focus on making the system simple, without giving you the roadmap.

The on-demand, back catalog games have been up for awhile now. How successful has that service been in terms of sales figures?

I don’t think we’ve released the specific sales figures data, but I think it’s been a huge success. I think that digital distribution in general is one of the phenomenal success stories of this generation of game consoles, and certainly on Xbox Live. I look at what started on Xbox Live Arcade, with 10 games that we launched in 2005 and it now a rock of the industry. Many of my personal favorite games on the system are there – Geometry Wars 2, Trials, or Braid.

Now, when you come to the full games, the part that I get most excited about is that there’s a ton of amazing content that is there for a while, then disappears. That’s the way retail works. It’s a physical thing and there’s a limited amount of space. I think about people buying an Xbox 360 today, and it’s hard to find Civilization: Revolution. But Civ: Revolution is an amazing game. Finding ways to make sure that that’s there for people is great. We see that. The other thing is that, lots of times, users want to pick up what they missed the first time around. A great example is Fable – the Xbox 1 version of Fable – which we have as a downloadable game on 360. As Fable II was coming out, people were buying it, kind of like when a new book in a series is coming out and people want to reread them all. I don’t think that takes away from retail, but what an exciting thing that’s happening.

Is it going to expand to include new retail games, or will it continue to focus primarily on catalog titles?

I think we will continue to experiment with what people want. Retail is an amazing experience in itself, the ability to get your hands on something, to have that collection. That’s working out really well – looking at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 the week it came out. Do I think digital distribution will expand? Yes, but we’re going to see where that world goes.

There doesn’t seem a good formula for marketing and promoting release dates for XBLA games. With a retail releases, you’re pretty aware when a game is coming out. With XBLA, it’s like games just appear with no build-up. It feels chaotic.

I think that’s great feedback and I think you’re right in a lot of ways. Our goal is to make sure people find this amazing content. I think the work we started with the Summer of Arcade – we just did our second in a row – was a little more [about] making it like the retail side, where we get focused about a set of titles that are coming out in a set period. Both of those have been very successful, and people were less surprised when those games came out. The other thing is, the new Xbox experience has been about how we surface and talk about games in better and richer ways. That’s helped a lot. But, I will tell you, and pass the feedback to the marketing team, we think a lot about how we talk about these titles and when they come out. They are a little different than retail. The timelines are much different. The journey they go on in development is a lot different. It’s not an exact analog to retail. I think it’s a shame every time there is a great game on Xbox Live Arcade and people don’t know about it, so I think your point is great.

I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been a really big MMO on Xbox Live yet. It’s been my impression that the reason some of the big MMOs aren’t on Xbox Live is because of disputes about how to divvy up subscription fees between Microsoft and the publishers.

It’s actually not a dispute, they have to give it all to us. [Laughs] Again, kidding. We’re pretty passionate about having great games where communities of people get play together. We talk to people all the time about those kind of concepts. I’ll also say, I don’t know if you want to let it count, but I think of 1 vs. 100 as an MMO. It’s hundreds of thousands of people playing together and I think you’re going to see a lot more of those kinds of games. And I think those will have a variety of business models. We want to work with publishers to get those on the system.

Sure, 1 vs. 100 is obviously a lot of people, but I’m talking about what we traditionally think of as an MMO, games in the tradition of EverQuest and World of WarCraft.

I think we’re really interested and our partners are really interested and you’re going to see all forms of entertainment on the console. You’re trying to get a good scoop out of me, but I don’t think there’s as much of a scoop there as has been rumored. But I will say that it should be about the entertainment you want with the people you care about wherever you are. If we don’t have the entertainment you want, I’m not done yet.

When you first announced 1 vs. 100, you talked about wanting to do more TV style games. Are more of these games in development?

I have nothing to announce but we remain passionate about this space. One thing I think you’re going to see it in lots of different ways – things that look like 1 vs. 100, things that look very different from 1 vs. 100, things that start showing up as core parts of the system. If you check out some of the stuff we’re doing with Sky TV, you pull up your programming guide that looks just like the guide on your television, except if you had a friend watching Manchester United, you’d see their friend icon on that channel and you could join them and participate with them. That is, to me, a very small step towards a very exciting future where those interactive experiences start to become more interweaved.

That Sky thing sounds good. You should do that in the U.S. Do you have anything to announce?

[Laughs] Um…we have a lot of passion for that kind of experience, but I have nothing to announce. Let me tell you how much I had to listen to “Hey, Netflix sounds really good, when can we get it?” My teammates in the U.K. are enjoying the fact that the U.S. guys are annoyed because it’s something they want.

This is more of a cultural issue, but there’s a certain nastiness to the community on Xbox Live. If you jump into random matches in an FPS, you’re going to hear a lot of really ugly racial and sexual slurs and insults being thrown around. Is there anything you can do to alleviate that?

Yeah, you know, I think there’s a lot we’re doing to work on that. You talked about some of the stuff around policy enforcement. We’re actually quite active and that’s something we’re proud of. I think that we started Live with the idea of smart matchmaking. How do people of a similar skill to play together? That’s where we started, but I think that smart match making is a lot more than that. The truth of the matter is that the context of what you want changes based on the group of people you’re with and your mood. I think what you’ll see us do is push towards how smart matchmaking matches me with people like me. If a bunch of guys all want to be in a certain type of experience, fine. They should go be in that experience. Live is bigger than a lot of major cities, and just like cities there are parks and gardens and bars and restaurants and everything in between. What I’d like to do is get better about telling you that you’re walking in to a bar and not the zoo.

It’s not necessarily an accusation. It’s hard to control what people do, but it can be off-putting. Imagine someone buying Modern Warfare 2 for the first time and getting on a match with some of the really macho, hardcore guys. You’re going to get called a bunch of names before they boot you.

While you sit there dead while you watch from death cam. [Laughs] I don’t take it as an accusation, I take it as where we all need to go in terms of entertainment experiences. One of the things I like about Facebook is that, as people download the Facebook app and they link their gamer tags. That’s great for people currently on Live. But the real power of that is for the next person that joins Live. Because one of the biggest problems is who is friend number one? But now I can go up to Facebook and see all of my friends that are already on Xbox. So now I can at least get started with 30 or 40 friends that are on Live. That’s not the only answer. We need to solve it in a whole bunch of ways. Finding the right friends is one way. Smarter matchmaking is one way. Doing a great job on policy enforcement is one way.

Live has been a core part of both Xbox consoles. I’d assume that it’s going to be core to Project Natal. Could you talk about some of the plans that you have moving forward for Natal.

I think you said it well. Live is at the core of everthing we do. I think you’re going to see us doing the same thing with Project Natal. We’re continuing the journey of how do you make the user experience as simple as possible for the broadest possible audience. You probably saw a little bit in some of the videos we had at E3, I think you can see our passion and where we want to go. I think Natal is going to be a really magical thing and Natal plus Live is going to be groundbreaking. It’s going to be groundbreaking in games and groundbreaking in the thing in how I think about entertainment.