J Allard speaks on Xbox

Microsoft's general manager for the Xbox talks to us extensively about the console's marketing, technology, and future games.

Shortly after Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox press event in San Francisco Wednesday, GameSpot had the opportunity to sit down and talk to J Allard, general manager for third-party games and the Xbox platform at Microsoft.

Allard gave us a new in-depth perspective on Microsoft's (msft) incubation program for smaller developers, the progress of the Xbox's technology, and the types of games likely to debut alongside the console next fall. We also asked him about the reasons why - despite rumors of a new name - Microsoft decided to keep the Xbox branding.

GameSpot: Xbox's hardware consistently figures in the argument as to why the console will be different. Can you tell us how the hardware has progressed since GDC in March? What's left to be done?

JA: It's really all just execution at this point. The plan and the specs are all solidified. The business model is solidified. The whole team is pretty much just executing at this stage. From the technical point of view, we really tried to design a balanced system. At GDC we were really announcing nine months of work with the development community in figuring out whether we should use, say, UMA [Unified Memory Architecture] or not. We went and talked to a lot of these folks [on the developer list] today and got their input on it. That's what makes it so easy to develop for.

Now it's just execution. The marketing guys have a bunch of work to build up the momentum and build consumer awareness. The hardware guys have to start [putting] stuff together, and we have to get the final chipset from people. We have to [revise] the dev kit when new hardware becomes available. I think the big challenge we have now is to deliver on the promise of technical support.

GS: So what are some of the key technical challenges you see to hitting the specs you've released? It's been said that the graphics are based on the Nvidia NV25 chip that's two generations away. With the NV20 said to be slipping a bit, will it be hard to make your schedule?

JA: I can't really go into a ton of detail about the Nvidia relationship and our approach to the engineering of it. But I can say the NV20 is the core of the Xbox graphics. The guys who are working on the NV2A - we call it the NV2A inside of Xbox - are working in parallel with the NV20 folks, so they sort of marry back upafter the NV20 hits the shelves. Our developers should be getting NV20s real soon.

GS: The Xbox's graphics specs call for performance four times that which the NV15 - the GeForce2 GTS - is doing currently. Do you feel confident that the hardware will jump ahead to reach the ambitious projections?

JA: Yep. Absolutely. The Nvidia guys are tracking real well. What they're doing is unprecedented - some of the problems they've stumbled over are things like the tools break, because nobody's built a chip like this. It's so sophisticated and it has so much power. They're really going all out. We're going to hit those marks.

GS: Were the games we saw during the presentation running on Xbox dev kits?

JA: It was kind of a collection of things for what you saw today.

What I can say is that all the stuff we showed today has all been part of a submission process to bring those titles to Xbox. So the publishers have the intent or the desire to bring those titles to Xbox. They all came in different forms. Some are prototype code. Some are totally playable levels, and there are 12 levels you can play on an XDK (Xbox developer kit) today. Some are more like: Hey, here is our vision. These are the poly models that we know we can drive and a quick rendering of the look that we're looking for, and it's going to be two years out before we can deliver the game.

So it's a bit of a spectrum, but the really important thing is that we're not just getting black and white concept forms, talking about people's ambitions on paper. We're getting code - today. One of the biggest reinforcements of our decision to go with the PC architecture was that there were 100 guys out there working on Xbox games before there were dev kits. They can say that, because they were going to an NV15 [GeForce2 GTS] and a touch-up set using DirectX - and these are the tools, right? It's great to get code with concept. Shortly after Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox press event in San Francisco Wednesday, GameSpot had the opportunity to sit down and talk to J Allard, general manager for third-party games and the Xbox platform at Microsoft.

Allard gave us a new in-depth perspective on Microsoft's (msft) incubation program for smaller developers, the progress of the Xbox's technology, and the types of games likely to debut alongside the console next fall. We also asked him about the reasons why - despite rumors of a new name - Microsoft decided to keep the Xbox branding.

GameSpot: Xbox's hardware consistently figures in the argument as to why the console will be different. Can you tell us how the hardware has progressed since GDC in March? What's left to be done?

JA: It's really all just execution at this point. The plan and the specs are all solidified. The business model is solidified. The whole team is pretty much just executing at this stage. From the technical point of view, we really tried to design a balanced system. At GDC we were really announcing nine months of work with the development community in figuring out whether we should use, say, UMA [Unified Memory Architecture] or not. We went and talked to a lot of these folks [on the developer list] today and got their input on it. That's what makes it so easy to develop for.

Now it's just execution. The marketing guys have a bunch of work to build up the momentum and build consumer awareness. The hardware guys have to start [putting] stuff together, and we have to get the final chipset from people. We have to [revise] the dev kit when new hardware becomes available. I think the big challenge we have now is to deliver on the promise of technical support.

GS: So what are some of the key technical challenges you see to hitting the specs you've released? It's been said that the graphics are based on the Nvidia NV25 chip that's two generations away. With the NV20 said to be slipping a bit, will it be hard to make your schedule?

JA: I can't really go into a ton of detail about the Nvidia relationship and our approach to the engineering of it. But I can say the NV20 is the core of the Xbox graphics. The guys who are working on the NV2A - we call it the NV2A inside of Xbox - are working in parallel with the NV20 folks, so they sort of marry back upafter the NV20 hits the shelves. Our developers should be getting NV20s real soon.

GS: The Xbox's graphics specs call for performance four times that which the NV15 - the GeForce2 GTS - is doing currently. Do you feel confident that the hardware will jump ahead to reach the ambitious projections?

JA: Yep. Absolutely. The Nvidia guys are tracking real well. What they're doing is unprecedented - some of the problems they've stumbled over are things like the tools break, because nobody's built a chip like this. It's so sophisticated and it has so much power. They're really going all out. We're going to hit those marks.

GS: Were the games we saw during the presentation running on Xbox dev kits?

JA: It was kind of a collection of things for what you saw today.

What I can say is that all the stuff we showed today has all been part of a submission process to bring those titles to Xbox. So the publishers have the intent or the desire to bring those titles to Xbox. They all came in different forms. Some are prototype code. Some are totally playable levels, and there are 12 levels you can play on an XDK (Xbox developer kit) today. Some are more like: Hey, here is our vision. These are the poly models that we know we can drive and a quick rendering of the look that we're looking for, and it's going to be two years out before we can deliver the game.

So it's a bit of a spectrum, but the really important thing is that we're not just getting black and white concept forms, talking about people's ambitions on paper. We're getting code - today. One of the biggest reinforcements of our decision to go with the PC architecture was that there were 100 guys out there working on Xbox games before there were dev kits. They can say that, because they were going to an NV15 [GeForce2 GTS] and a touch-up set using DirectX - and these are the tools, right? It's great to get code with concept. GS: Many of us came to this event thinking there might be a change in the Xbox's name. What about the name made it stick?

J Allard: We kind of got lucky with it.

GS: Xbox wasn't the planned name from the beginning?

JA: Literally, it was five guys in a garage who said, "We'll take DirectX and put it in a box and we'll make it for games and put it in the living room. We'll call it Xbox." [laughs] It's been the working name for over 20 months.

We did six months of focus-group testing and had all these different names. The number one was "Xbox," even from people who had never heard it before. We expected the [gamers] who read all the magazines and sites to say Xbox, but people who knew nothing about games said stuff like: "That's kind of mysterious." "That's the name of a car right?" "I like that - it's weird."

GS: How long have you been working on the logo and the new look?

JA: Oh. Five or six months probably [in addition to the time spent testing the name].. We went and we tested all sorts of different treatments. The X was always in there somewhere. We didn't even tell them the name of the product, but they came back to it. People were just naturally gravitating [toward the X].

This particular logo has no beginning and no end. It's like unlimited potential, and [you] want to go through the hole or dive through the portal. The energy is just great, and people really resonated with it. There was a big gap between it and the others.

GS: Who worked on the logo? Was it in-house at Microsoft?

JA: It was coordinated in-house. [We] worked with Cinco Designs up in Oregon.

GS: Some big names were missing from the list of 162 developers you named during the presentation, such as EA and Square. What are you doing to get them working on the Xbox?

JA: Well Robbie [Bach, vice-president of the Xbox division] is in Japan and I'm in the Bay Area. [laughs] That's one component of the answer.

What I will say is that this is an incomplete list. There are other developers not on that list - both very large and small - working on Xbox titles today. It's just a matter of when we choose to announce the developers not there. It's a live list. It'll be constantly growing, but we felt that at 150, we had pretty good critical mass to go out there and say the world is coming to Xbox.

GS: Is it important for you to fill in those missing names and reach parity with the other platforms?

JA: That's not really as important as just having great games. Our philosophy is that games are about creativity and about talent. You can't really decide that talent comes from big companies or small companies, or that talent only comes from the East or the West. We've tried to take an approach where we've invited everybody to come to Xbox that's passionate about it and can take advantage of the system's potential.

We've got names that have been around for 20 years, like Namco. We've got names on there you've never heard before and companies formed around Xbox that your kids 20 years from now will think of as the next Namco. What we've really tried to do is get the best ideas and the best developers. That's why these 150 are on this list. GS: Many of us came to this event thinking there might be a change in the Xbox's name. What about the name made it stick?

J Allard: We kind of got lucky with it.

GS: Xbox wasn't the planned name from the beginning?

JA: Literally, it was five guys in a garage who said, "We'll take DirectX and put it in a box and we'll make it for games and put it in the living room. We'll call it Xbox." [laughs] It's been the working name for over 20 months.

We did six months of focus-group testing and had all these different names. The number one was "Xbox," even from people who had never heard it before. We expected the [gamers] who read all the magazines and sites to say Xbox, but people who knew nothing about games said stuff like: "That's kind of mysterious." "That's the name of a car right?" "I like that - it's weird."

GS: How long have you been working on the logo and the new look?

JA: Oh. Five or six months probably [in addition to the time spent testing the name].. We went and we tested all sorts of different treatments. The X was always in there somewhere. We didn't even tell them the name of the product, but they came back to it. People were just naturally gravitating [toward the X].

This particular logo has no beginning and no end. It's like unlimited potential, and [you] want to go through the hole or dive through the portal. The energy is just great, and people really resonated with it. There was a big gap between it and the others.

GS: Who worked on the logo? Was it in-house at Microsoft?

JA: It was coordinated in-house. [We] worked with Cinco Designs up in Oregon.

GS: Some big names were missing from the list of 162 developers you named during the presentation, such as EA and Square. What are you doing to get them working on the Xbox?

JA: Well Robbie [Bach, vice-president of the Xbox division] is in Japan and I'm in the Bay Area. [laughs] That's one component of the answer.

What I will say is that this is an incomplete list. There are other developers not on that list - both very large and small - working on Xbox titles today. It's just a matter of when we choose to announce the developers not there. It's a live list. It'll be constantly growing, but we felt that at 150, we had pretty good critical mass to go out there and say the world is coming to Xbox.

GS: Is it important for you to fill in those missing names and reach parity with the other platforms?

JA: That's not really as important as just having great games. Our philosophy is that games are about creativity and about talent. You can't really decide that talent comes from big companies or small companies, or that talent only comes from the East or the West. We've tried to take an approach where we've invited everybody to come to Xbox that's passionate about it and can take advantage of the system's potential.

We've got names that have been around for 20 years, like Namco. We've got names on there you've never heard before and companies formed around Xbox that your kids 20 years from now will think of as the next Namco. What we've really tried to do is get the best ideas and the best developers. That's why these 150 are on this list. GS: A big part of your message today was the move to create new game brands. What are you doing to take some of these ideas and turn them into major new franchises?

JA: In terms of exclusivity, I think that everything on Xbox will be special, by virtue of being the most technologically advanced platform and the easiest one to develop for in this next wave of consoles. I think everything is going to look great, even if it's available on other consoles. Games on Xbox that are available on other consoles will also have online components to them on Xbox. They'll have new levels on Xbox. The polygon counts on models will be higher. The audio, rather than just being Redbook Audio, will be a truly dynamic score that has a lot more impact. So we think that even if it's not exclusive, it's going to look pretty darn special.

I think that our approach, as compared to some of the other console manufacturers, is to invite creative independence to come to the platform and really do some magic. To steal from film industry examples, I want Run Lola Run, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and The Blair Witch Project. I want those types of zany things that don't really fit into the mold to find their way into Xbox. We've got a program to do that.

One thing we're doing that's very explicit is our incubation program. If you're a couple of guys in a garage or a few rich playboys that want to play around in the game industry or whoever has a great idea, you just come to us with an idea. If we think it works and you have the talent and the technical ability to pull it off, we'll seed you with a dev kit. Even without a publisher, without a plan, without financing or anything else, we'll let you go and bring it to prototype stage. We'll give you some development support - not the same level of development support as we'll give Mr. Okomoto at Capcom who's working on a launch title, but we will support you to the stage where you can start shopping around for publishers. Right now that's really hard to do in this industry. I've known a lot of great people who have had a heck of a time getting started. That's one thing we're doing to invigorate development.

GS: Do you have an eye to concentrate attention on certain genres or spread early Xbox games across the genre spectrum?

JA: Over time the Xbox market is the world. It's everybody. We think the level of sophistication and realism Xbox will bring will be very appealing to a lot of people. It will be very mass. To that end, you want a super-diversity of content.

But for launch, we're totally focused on the hard-core gamer. That's where it all starts. There's an epicenter of 16- to 26-year-olds that play games for 15, 20, 30 hours a week. You ask them what they want and they say action games, sports games, and fighting games. If you throw them a curveball, it might stick or it might not. So I would say that probably 80 or 85 percent of our launch portfolio is going to look pretty traditional but will be nontraditional in the actual experience. It is going to take the experience to the next level, and we'll have some new and innovative stuff to see what works with the hard-core set.

That's what we'll be focused on to start, and then we'll sort of expand, because that core group is really only three or four or five million people out there. So we'll expand the radius and, naturally, some of the content. GS: A big part of your message today was the move to create new game brands. What are you doing to take some of these ideas and turn them into major new franchises?

JA: In terms of exclusivity, I think that everything on Xbox will be special, by virtue of being the most technologically advanced platform and the easiest one to develop for in this next wave of consoles. I think everything is going to look great, even if it's available on other consoles. Games on Xbox that are available on other consoles will also have online components to them on Xbox. They'll have new levels on Xbox. The polygon counts on models will be higher. The audio, rather than just being Redbook Audio, will be a truly dynamic score that has a lot more impact. So we think that even if it's not exclusive, it's going to look pretty darn special.

I think that our approach, as compared to some of the other console manufacturers, is to invite creative independence to come to the platform and really do some magic. To steal from film industry examples, I want Run Lola Run, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and The Blair Witch Project. I want those types of zany things that don't really fit into the mold to find their way into Xbox. We've got a program to do that.

One thing we're doing that's very explicit is our incubation program. If you're a couple of guys in a garage or a few rich playboys that want to play around in the game industry or whoever has a great idea, you just come to us with an idea. If we think it works and you have the talent and the technical ability to pull it off, we'll seed you with a dev kit. Even without a publisher, without a plan, without financing or anything else, we'll let you go and bring it to prototype stage. We'll give you some development support - not the same level of development support as we'll give Mr. Okomoto at Capcom who's working on a launch title, but we will support you to the stage where you can start shopping around for publishers. Right now that's really hard to do in this industry. I've known a lot of great people who have had a heck of a time getting started. That's one thing we're doing to invigorate development.

GS: Do you have an eye to concentrate attention on certain genres or spread early Xbox games across the genre spectrum?

JA: Over time the Xbox market is the world. It's everybody. We think the level of sophistication and realism Xbox will bring will be very appealing to a lot of people. It will be very mass. To that end, you want a super-diversity of content.

But for launch, we're totally focused on the hard-core gamer. That's where it all starts. There's an epicenter of 16- to 26-year-olds that play games for 15, 20, 30 hours a week. You ask them what they want and they say action games, sports games, and fighting games. If you throw them a curveball, it might stick or it might not. So I would say that probably 80 or 85 percent of our launch portfolio is going to look pretty traditional but will be nontraditional in the actual experience. It is going to take the experience to the next level, and we'll have some new and innovative stuff to see what works with the hard-core set.

That's what we'll be focused on to start, and then we'll sort of expand, because that core group is really only three or four or five million people out there. So we'll expand the radius and, naturally, some of the content. GS: Some of the games we saw during the Xbox presentation we've seen before in early or final forms for the PC and other platforms. Some of them didn't look quite as good as we'd come to expect from these other versions we'd seen. What would you say to explain that?

JA: Well, understand that it's a year before launch. None of the things you saw on the screen today will be done for another 12 months. So, a lot of the stuff is going to look a lot better. The other thing is that it's video. Some of the stuff comes over the Internet in MPEG form or comes on a DVD in MPEG form. There are artifacts, and it doesn't look that hot.

But frankly, Xbox games at launch will look better than PC games. Even though you can buy a PC with equivalent hardware, the reality is the guys writing PC games have to aim lower so that they can get a broad audience. Not everybody will run out and buy an NV25-capable PC with a gigahertz processor for three grand for the next holiday. Even though the systems will exist, I don't think the games will look as good as Xbox games. Xbox developers can count on the performance.

GS: How does Microsoft plan to come in pricewise, as compared to the other consoles?

JA: We know we need to be competitive. We know what it's going to take for consumers to be willing to embrace it, but it's too early to talk about pricing because we don't know what's going to be out there and what the pricing will look like. We've heard rumors that PS2 in the US is going to have the hard disk and the Ethernet built in. Gee, it sounds like a good idea on the one hand, but it's hard on developers on the other hand. If that happens, are they going to change the price point? I don't know. It's really too early to talk about, other than to say it's going to be competitive.

GS: How many games do you expect for launch? About what percentage will be exclusive?

JA: We're totally focused on quality over quantity. But the quantity target is probably around 15 or 20 titles at launch. That's probably healthy. You want to have the diversity. You want to have more than one driving game, but you don't need eight. It would be nice to have a snowboarding and a skateboarding game, but you probably don't need four snowboarding games. And that type of thing. It's really going to be predicated on quality. What we've seen so far is that we're going to have plenty of quality.

So 15 or 20 games - probably 25 or 30 percent will be published by Microsoft, first-party. The lion's share is really going to be from these guys we were talking about today.

From an exclusivity point of view, it's hard to speculate, but as I said before, I think all the games that will ship at launch will look best on Xbox. Bar none. And they'll have the most complete feature set. Bar none. So there will be a certain degree of exclusivity there. We've got some arrangements with a couple of companies that are going to do stuff only for Xbox. Of course, the stuff we publish will only be for Xbox. Maybe half of it [will be exclusive.]

GS: As far as first-party content, will most of it be original or will you be bringing games from the PC games division?

JA: It's going to be mostly original stuff. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. [laughs] I'm not the first-party guy.

GS: Well, thanks so much, J, for talking to us.

JA: No problem.

JA: No problem. GS: Some of the games we saw during the Xbox presentation we've seen before in early or final forms for the PC and other platforms. Some of them didn't look quite as good as we'd come to expect from these other versions we'd seen. What would you say to explain that?

JA: Well, understand that it's a year before launch. None of the things you saw on the screen today will be done for another 12 months. So, a lot of the stuff is going to look a lot better. The other thing is that it's video. Some of the stuff comes over the Internet in MPEG form or comes on a DVD in MPEG form. There are artifacts, and it doesn't look that hot.

But frankly, Xbox games at launch will look better than PC games. Even though you can buy a PC with equivalent hardware, the reality is the guys writing PC games have to aim lower so that they can get a broad audience. Not everybody will run out and buy an NV25-capable PC with a gigahertz processor for three grand for the next holiday. Even though the systems will exist, I don't think the games will look as good as Xbox games. Xbox developers can count on the performance.

GS: How does Microsoft plan to come in pricewise, as compared to the other consoles?

JA: We know we need to be competitive. We know what it's going to take for consumers to be willing to embrace it, but it's too early to talk about pricing because we don't know what's going to be out there and what the pricing will look like. We've heard rumors that PS2 in the US is going to have the hard disk and the Ethernet built in. Gee, it sounds like a good idea on the one hand, but it's hard on developers on the other hand. If that happens, are they going to change the price point? I don't know. It's really too early to talk about, other than to say it's going to be competitive.

GS: How many games do you expect for launch? About what percentage will be exclusive?

JA: We're totally focused on quality over quantity. But the quantity target is probably around 15 or 20 titles at launch. That's probably healthy. You want to have the diversity. You want to have more than one driving game, but you don't need eight. It would be nice to have a snowboarding and a skateboarding game, but you probably don't need four snowboarding games. And that type of thing. It's really going to be predicated on quality. What we've seen so far is that we're going to have plenty of quality.

So 15 or 20 games - probably 25 or 30 percent will be published by Microsoft, first-party. The lion's share is really going to be from these guys we were talking about today.

From an exclusivity point of view, it's hard to speculate, but as I said before, I think all the games that will ship at launch will look best on Xbox. Bar none. And they'll have the most complete feature set. Bar none. So there will be a certain degree of exclusivity there. We've got some arrangements with a couple of companies that are going to do stuff only for Xbox. Of course, the stuff we publish will only be for Xbox. Maybe half of it [will be exclusive.]

GS: As far as first-party content, will most of it be original or will you be bringing games from the PC games division?

JA: It's going to be mostly original stuff. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. [laughs] I'm not the first-party guy.

GS: Well, thanks so much, J, for talking to us.

JA: No problem.

JA: No problem.