When it comes to building community -- and profiting from it -- Microsoft's Xbox team is helping write the playbook.
That fact isn't lost on the rest of the company. Increasingly, other divisions at Microsoft are studying what the Xbox folks are doing right and trying to apply those lessons to their own products and services.
Microsoft launched the Xbox in November 2001. Xbox Live, the accompanying online gaming service, launched in November 2002. Halo 2 hit in November of 2004. The Xbox 360 subscription business went live in November 2005. And the Web-chat camera and video marketplace functionality launched in November 2006.
I recently chatted with JJ Richards, General Manager of Microsoft's Xbox Live unit, about what the Xbox team has to teach the rest of the company.
Rule No. 1 is "Everything needs to be live now because customers are demanding it," said Richards. That realization has set the tone for the Xbox team, in terms of how it designs products, to how it rolls out updates, he said.
"You want to go to where your community is and build around it," Richards noted. "And once you are connected, your ship cycle is totally different. You can roll out new stuff every six months. This changes your staging and prioritization of features."
What are other Xbox learnings that various Microsoft teams -- from Windows, to Office Live, to CRM Live -- are looking to adapt and apply to their divisions? Richards offered up a number of examples:
1. Tiers need to be clear and simple. In Xbox Live, there is gold and there is silver. Fewer, simpler SKUs are better.
2. The dashboard is the UI. Users want access to lots of data, all in one place. They don't want to have to hunt for it.
3. An online marketplace sells content. The Windows and Office Live teams already grok this one. Making Microsoft and third-party wares available as a one-stop shop helps move more add-on hardware, software and services.
4. Arcade: Not everyone is a shooter-game pro. Users come with different skill sets and interests. Some prefer "Geometry Wars" to "Gears of War." Microsoft's Developer Division gets this, and is launching Express versions of its tools for hobbyists/nonprofessional programmers.
5. Achievements are a way to stay in touch. The more ways you can encourage community members to stay in touch, the better.
6. Ubiquitous voice and text are de rigeur. In the Web 2.0 world, everyone's a multi-tasker. All services and apps should bake-in messaging, mail and other unified-communications technologies.
7. Roaming accounts are key. Users want their audio and video content, contact lists, address books, favorites and other settings available on any device, anywhere at any time.
8. Build communities within your community. Gamerzones in the Xbox world allow similar types of users to more easily connect. What's the business equivalent of Xbox Live's "Underground"? Good question.
9. Points are the new online currency. Office Online already is moving in this direction, and other Microsoft Live services will likely do the same.
10. Gamerscore = reputation. Other divisions at Microsoft have been wrestling with how to rank community participants by "reputation" to help users gauge which content/commentary to trust. Gamerscore could become the model here.
Richards acknowledged that the Xbox Live team can learn a thing or two from other Microsoft divisions, as well, such as how to handle child safety settings in world with more and more user-generated content. But it seems to me that it's Microsoft's non-gaming businesses that have more to learn from the Xbox team -- at least when it comes to building community -- than the other way around.
There are more than 6 million Xbox Live users now.
"With online services (like Xbox Live), you are always in touch with all of them" all the time, Richards said. "We don't really have to do customer research any more."
Any other Xbox/Xbox Live technologies or techniques that you think could be well-applied to Microsoft's Windows, Office, tools and/or other products and services?