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LOS ANGELES — Marc Whitten faced some tough questions from the press after Sony outshone Microsoft on Monday in the dueling press briefings on the eve of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. On the surface, Sony scored a victory when it told a cheering crowd that it would price its PlayStation 4 at $399, $100 cheaper than Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox One video game console. It also pleased the gathering by saying it wouldn’t charge for used games.
But the fight for the hearts of consumers is just beginning. The Xbox One goes on sale in November, and Microsoft has plenty of time to fight back. We went deep on some of these questions with Whitten, the chief product officer for Xbox at Microsoft. Here’s our edited interview.
GamesBeat: Remind us of what you do.
Marc Whitten: I’m the platform guy, so I deal with how we use the cloud, the Xbox Live system and how it works, apps — all that kind of fun stuff.
GamesBeat: So do you want to talk about the price and used games? [Laughs] Sony seemed to get a lot of applause when it announced its policies for the PS4. If you look more into it, I wonder what your answer would be. It seems like there are some asterisks to what Sony has as well. The PS4 don’t have Sony’s camera in the box so it can make that box cheaper, but you’re paying extra for it on the side. It matched the cost of Xbox Live by making multiplayer something you pay for with PlayStation Plus. Sony exec Jack Tretton got quoted [Tuesday] as saying Sony will leave used game fees up to its partners.
Do you think you have something to answer with, given these are some of the details?
Whitten: I’m not spending time looking at what they’re doing as far as their policies. What I will say is that I’m focused on how we build an amazing premium entertainment experience for our users. To me it’s key, as we look forward, to think about the advantages that come with digital. Once you have a complete digital ecosystem, it’s a better experience. You can instantly switch. Your family can see your games. You can see all of your games regardless of which Xbox One you’re on. You don’t have to remember to bring discs with you. All those things become second nature once it’s a digital ecosystem.
That said, we know that there are still a lot of advantages to physical discs. They start with some basic things. A physical disc gets down to the hard drive very fast, because the games are big. It’s a good way to get it on to the console. We know people like to sell their discs back at retail. So what we’ve tried to do is bring forward many of those advantages from physical discs as we transition into this digital future, which we think is really key. That’s why we’ve focused on enabling scenarios like gifting or the ability to resell.
We’ve also focused deeply on how the family can have one shared view of all their content, regardless of who bought it. We’re starting to build the foundation of how my digital content just works for me wherever I go. I hope that when people get a chance to see how it works, they’ll like the way they get to interact with their content.
Whitten: Again, it doesn’t have to do with used games. It has to do with how we create a digital ecosystem for content. How can we make sure that all of your content is always with you? That requires thinking about the architecture for the future. Suddenly, you’re talking about how I have my content stored in the cloud and how it’s everywhere. Now we have to start to think about how we can bring forward into that world many of the things people were used to in the physical one. It’s been about how to add that into what we see as the digital future for content.
GamesBeat: Is it unfair that some people are simply characterizing this as Sony scoring some points against you Monday?
Whitten: Sony’s building a great program. I actually think it’s great to be a gamer right now. I hope that it’s a great time for platforms to be successful, for there to be amazing new games. That’s what makes it fun to be here right now.
What I’ll say is, I feel proud of our games lineup, games like Titanfall, like Project Spark, like Forza. They show off both the fidelity of what you can do with Xbox One and what happens when you can start counting on the cloud for new ways to interact. When you look at what we’re doing with Kinect and with all of your entertainment coming together, we’re building an incredible value for people.
GamesBeat: Could you address this interpretation – is this right or wrong from your point of view? Both companies were able to tap very similar PC technology from AMD, tweak it for their own purposes, and put it in the box. You guys invested more in Kinect, putting dedicated processing for that in the box, which probably costs a little more. You have three operating systems running, which takes some of your RAM.
All things being equal, it would seem like Sony would have more power dedicated directly to games performance, whereas you guys are multitasking more. But the cloud processing is one thing they haven’t talked about. I don’t know if they can do it or not, while you guys can compensate for processing power that isn’t in the box itself.
Whitten: Again, I’m not spending a ton of time thinking about the architecture of their system. We’ve built an architecture that we think is going to allow the true next generation of gameplay. The raw power that exists in the box; you saw that in the games. Clearly, it looked next-generation. But it’s also a matter of how we can interact with that content, how Kinect and your gamepad can work together to create a better experience. By using voice, I have more control inside of that. And then of course, as you said, the ability to use the cloud natively in games is key.
There’s a lot of complexity behind the tool set you give to people to create these experiences. [Turn 10 Studios creative director] Dan Greenawalt talked about Drivatars and what that was going to mean for the end of A.I. in Forza 5. When you step back and think about what’s happening, they’re running these massive neural networks to understand how you drive – and not just you, but how everybody drives in Forza, so that they can be constantly calculating how that would play out across the universe of Forza players. They can do that only because they have access, in an incredibly deep way inside the architecture, to drive that experience end to end inside their game.
The other thing about the architecture that is key for what the next-generation gaming experience is going to be like is things like Twitch. The power of Twitch to say that in any game, I could decide to start broadcasting, and our platform natively allows that to happen so that I can create my own gaming experience. That is about gaming. It’s about how gaming gets better with Xbox Live and this architecture.
GamesBeat: And that’s a benefit of multitasking.
Whitten: Right. The architectural choices we’ve made are key for that. If you don’t make some of those key investments, you can’t do that in a seamless way.
GamesBeat: Would you say that you can pretty much match their processing performance?
Whitten: I haven’t spent enough time to know what their processing performance is. When I look at the power of the cloud and the power of our local processer and what our architecture allows, though, we’re going to have the definition of next-generation in games and experiences.
GamesBeat: The exclusives that are coming these days — how are they coming? Is it because people see the installed base and the larger momentum you had in the last couple of years? Is there a strategy behind how you bring in exclusives?
Whitten: We work closely with first party around a large set of content which you could call exclusives and with our third-party community to craft a system that allows them to get the most out of it, that allows them to do things that they couldn’t do on other systems. You heard Ben’s talk about what he can do with the cloud as he thinks about how to build Titanfall. They get very excited about that.
GamesBeat: Back to some of the answers that some people might feel are too complicated. How are you going to explain some of these interesting concepts to people? You have cloud processing. You have policies on digital content that will deliver benefits, but they’re not the same as the policies of the past. You have a lot of value in your box, but you have an apples-and-oranges comparison to Sony. How do you message this?
Whitten: The first thing I’ll say is that I’m focused on how to make it all simple and intuitive to use the system. I can walk into a room and say “Xbox on” and have it turn on and I understand how it works and things just magically work for me. Frankly, I hope to explain less and have people experience more. I don’t want to have to explain how these things work. I want them to just work for you, and then you feel great about them. I want that to go for any of the steps in our program, whether it’s how resale works for games or anything else. It should be simple. The tools are right there in front of you and you can use them in a simple way.
There are other things, like cloud, where I mostly want to talk about how great Drivatars are. To me, cloud is like GPU and CPU and the rest of the palette that we give to game creators. The best way to describe that is and will always be, “Let me show you something cool. You should play it right now because it’s awesome.” It’s about building that canvas for creators to fulfill their imaginations, not just me talking about, “Hey, here’s how our vertex buffers work.”
GamesBeat: On the cloud, one thing I don’t understand – I’ve talked to some of the chip experts, and they’re also a little puzzled – has to do with what happens when there’s a peak performance or processing requirement or an interruption that changes things. You could lose your Internet connection, or it could bog down for a period of time. Somebody else in the house starts watching Netflix or something. That bandwidth you had for the cloud is no longer there. What happens when something like this occurs?
Whitten: People are getting a little confused on the bandwidth versus the power of the cloud, because those are not actually directly related. The question you’re asking is about bandwidth. This is using a ton of processing power in the cloud, but it’s not using a ton of bandwidth to transmit the results. You go back to the thing we were talking about in Forza with Drivatars. Again, the Drivatar concept is these massive neural networks and machine learning and advanced server-farm computation. The results from that are things like position, A.I., here’s what you should do now. It’s not trying to send back the entire data set. It’s just sending back the results, which does not take a lot of bandwidth. The things that take a lot of bandwidth are what you talked about – streaming a movie on Netflix, things like that. Not necessarily using cloud computation.
GamesBeat: We saw Sony’s framerate drop unexpectedly yesterday in parts of their demos. That always seems to happen in most games. All of a sudden, you get to an intense part of the game and the framerate drops. How do you deal with that particular issue, whatever’s causing that?
Whitten: One thing I’ll say, shipping is hard and you’re always in the middle of working on your platforms, wherever they are, to get through those things. One other thing, as game developers, typically what you do is you spend a lot of time understanding the complexity of your scenes. You try to understand what are the degenerate cases. I remember early on in Halo, it was spinning around in a 360, which made the game try to pull in all this data really quickly. That’s what you try to focus on optimizing. You figure out how to work around that.
What we try to provide – and this is one of the benefits of Microsoft and the investments we’ve made around this for decades – are the tools, so that game developers can understand everything that’s happening inside of their game engine. They get that detailed ability to click inside of frames and understand that this is when they got blocked on CPU or GPU. Here’s what they can optimize. This is the overdraw. Here are some misses. That’s optimization. This is what game creators are great at, doing that optimization. As platform holders, we try to tell them as much as we can about the console and how it works, and then we give them the tools so that they can discover how their engine is working on it.
Whitten: It’s still a console. We think of it as a fixed set of hardware. It’s an important thing, to allow game developers to have a target that they can continually optimize against. But as you say, because that’s backed by the cloud—the cloud will get better every day. We’re always adding more servers. We’re always working on how to optimize that experience, and we’ll have more and more abilities to take advantage of that functionality.
GamesBeat: Were there any significant details you didn’t quite have time for at the press conference, anything that’s available now?
Whitten: There were a couple of things that I shared. You do things so quickly at a press conference. I’m obviously very proud of the things we’re doing with Xbox Live – what we’re doing with Project Upload and how game DVR works. Likewise, what we’re doing with moving to real currency versus Microsoft Points and how you think about guests being able access some of the Gold features. I sent out a letter to the community that captured a bunch of those. As always, we’re going to continue to roll out more features inside of Gold and inside of the platform to make the experience better.
GamesBeat: I missed the SmartGlass feature that showed you how much of a level you’d completed until I saw it here.
Whitten: The other one I’ll show you on SmartGlass—one of the things we see with SmartGlass is, I think you’re going to have two uses cases. There’s core control, and then there are games creating really neat experiences. Project Spark is an example where you can use the touch display to carve the land and do things like this.
What I have here is my full guide running for the TV integration. I can see my trending shows. I have basically the full experience down on SmartGlass. I can also switch that into remote control mode, where I can change channels or volume. I can even treat it as a universal remote. Now, the thing that’s cool about this—I’m going to buy an Xbox One. Suddenly my smartphone is going to become a really great universal remote. I didn’t have to do anything else. It just started happening for me. It’ll provide all of this access into how television integration works inside of the console. It’s part of the power that you get by investing in the SmartGlass platform.
We’re spending a lot time on what you call the haptic feel. The key here is, how do you make a really great control experience? I want to be able to do it while I’m looking up and feel good about how that works.
GamesBeat: If I had a criticism of the Microsoft press briefing it would be that if you added all this hardware just for Kinect — if you built it into the box, you maybe should have shown something that really knocked everybody’s socks off that uses Kinect. Almost every game there was a typical controller-driven game.
Whitten: This is a long series of beats between now and launch. For us, this started three weeks ago at the Xbox One unveil. We did show a lot about Kinect and how it works with television and the integration that we’re doing there. What we said then is that we were going to focus a lot of E3 on our games portfolio, and specifically a lot of our core games portfolio. But you’re going to see more things coming out around how Kinect works, and the Kinect and controller integration. You’re going to see a lot more of that integration, and it’s going to feel very natural in a lot of gameplay scenarios.
You make a good point, though. The beautiful part now is that we’ve shared a ton over the last three weeks, and now we can get on our path of constantly showing and helping people understand the system. We’ll be showing people more of the experiences. The fundamental thing I would say is that all of these platforms are about the experiences that you can have, what’s unique and different about the experiences. It’s how the living worlds work in Sunset Overdrive or the community in Project Spark or how Kinect works in a bunch of gaming experiences. That’s what’s going to excite people about what we’re going to do with this.
GamesBeat: The force feedback demo you have is a good one, but now you’re going to need a kiosk in every store to show that to consumers.
Whitten: So much of the stuff is experiential, yeah. The thing you’ll also find is that you learn about a lot of this at your friend’s house. That’s always been an important part of how Xbox works, that word of mouth. People have great experiences and they want to get hold of them for themselves.
Whitten: It’s actually a mix happening in both. There are things we’re doing with cloud processing in some scenarios. There are things we’re doing with local processing in the Kinect sensor. There are things we’re doing on the console. A lot of it depends on the scenario. What we’ve focused on is how we build a complete architecture that allows you to make the experiences that you want by mixing that local and cloud processing. It’s about how you balance the right architectural choices there.
GamesBeat: The $500 price again — does this have anything to do with anything in particular? Former EA chief John Riccitiello has been asking if you, the console makers, can guarantee enough supply to be bold during this holiday season. People tend to price things high if they’re not sure they can do that, and so they use the price to reduce demand.
Whitten: Before you even get to price, we’re focused on delivering an immense amount of value to our customers and delivering a lot of premium entertainment experiences that they can’t get anywhere else. I feel great about where we’re landing with the product, and I feel good about the price. I don’t think we’re trying to game some economic system or something like that. We’re trying to deliver an entertainment system that is amazing on day one.
For me, one of the things I’m most proud of in my career is that the Xbox 360 today is so different from the Xbox 360 in 2005. It’s the result of a lot of the decisions we made in 2003 and 2004 and 2005, to build a system that you could expand over time to become something even greater. It’s the same thing with Xbox One. It’s amazing on day one and we’ve built for the future. Over the next five, ten years, you’re going to get incredible innovation inside the platform.
GamesBeat: There was a lot of industrial design work done in-house this time. Is that because you guys had built up more competence?
Whitten: We’ve focused a lot over the last several years on building up core industrial design, as well as in-house deep expertise in things like CMF – colors, materials, and finish. You’ve seen that. You didn’t know it was us building our capability, but when you saw things like the C-3PO controller and the other nice special editions we’ve done, that’s been because we’ve now built a new level of capability that’s allowed us to own our design language, from the software all the way through the hardware, at a richer and frankly better level than we’ve ever been able to do in the past. That’s a place we’re going to keep investing.
GamesBeat: Are you going to talk about more peripherals at some point? It doesn’t seem like there’s been much mention of them.
Whitten: You’re going to see a lot more from us there. The accessories on Xbox 360, we’ve obviously invested a lot there over the years. We’ve provided a lot of options in multiple categories. When you launch a platform, there’s so much to talk about that it takes a while for you to get it all out. We want people to focus on our platform and our games lineup. There’ll be more from us in the future.
GamesBeat: The 360 is staying around this time. Last time, the original Xbox went away. Does that make things different in some ways for your strategy?
Whitten: From my perspective, I think the community we have on the Xbox 360 – especially where it is internationally – is amazing. Look at Xbox Live and the number of people that are constantly playing on it. My belief is that ecosystem is going to continue to be vibrant for years to come. We’re going to keep investing in it from a platform level — which you saw with our announcement of the new console form factor – and a content level. As long as it’s a vibrant community and it continues to get a lot of development from game creators, there’s going to be a lot to do.
Also, for me, this is the first time we’ve had a family of devices that we can talk about in this particular space. You’re going to see the 360 continue to drive into new markets and reach new types of customers that can take advantage of the catalog of games and entertainment we have on it.
GamesBeat: We won’t see a new Halo until next year. Is there any particular reason for that? You’ve had a Halo game coming out every year for a while. We’ve got the mobile gaming coming, but not a main console Halo.
Whitten: Well, we have an incredible lineup for launch. We also wanted to create our best Halo yet, the one that runs at 60 frames per second with a next-generation story for Master Chief. We want it to be great, and I think people will agree when it comes out.