J Allard reflects on a decade of Xbox 360 as we celebrate its contribution to the games industry
As chief experience officer and chief technology officer of Microsoft’s consumer products division, J Allard oversaw the launches of the Xbox, Xbox 360 and Zune, but ended his 19 year run at the company in 2010. Since then Allard moved to Portland, Oregon where he launched a bike security start-up called 529 Garage. Having been such an influential figure in the creation and design of the Xbox 360 back in 2005, it seemed only right to sit with him now to get his thoughts on the impact Microsoft’s second generation of hardware had on the industry and how some of its most iconic ideas came about.
Could you tell is a little about your specific role during the planning for the Xbox 360?
I had two different jobs on the project. The first role didn’t have a formal title, but I was essentially the choreographer of the strategy for the overall program. In order to design a successful ten-year business and product, we not only needed to tap into the best minds across the team, but we also needed to get everyone on the same page. When you have thousands of people working to launch a ten-year program, it’s essential that everyone understands their role and is working towards the same goals. I spent a huge amount of time at the beginning of the program with all of the different teams, leaders and disciplines helping to synthesise the best ideas into a singular vision – and then, infusing that single vision into the culture. I think we executed the 360 program in about half the time that Sony spent on PS3. Because of all of the up front planning and clarity of our vision, we didn’t press Undo very much in execution and we were able to just charge ahead.
The second role was as senior vice president of the Xbox platform, which entailed managing the design, development and deployment of the console, accessories, hardware, developer kit and Xbox Live. Basically, I was on the hook for building the thing, getting it done on time and making sure it was within budget and did what we said it would do – both for gamers and game developers.
Combined, these jobs meant I played the keeper of the big picture, and the leader responsible for sweating the details and making sure it performed. It was a terrific job and I got to work with an amazing team that had deep domain knowledge in all of the key disciplines to turn the big dream into an on-time reality. In terms of guiding hard decisions, I always tried to put the gamer first and would, again and again, ask hard questions like “Are we loading games fast enough?,” “Is the latency of the controller imperceivable?,” “Is this the best possible controller layout for FPS games?”
With the Xbox 360 being Microsoft’s second console, what sort of targets did you set yourselves?
Clear ones, that all fit on a single page. From a business point of view, we had a few simple goals. First was to be first to market by shipping in 2005 in all three major markets. Next was to balance the system costs and our expenses in a way that at 50 million consoles we’d hit a specific profitability target. Finally, it was to exceed ten million Xbox Live subscribers in the first five years.
From an experience point of view, we wanted to deliver a console that really delivered on the potential of online and that felt incomplete if you were offline. We wanted the console to be as simple, reliable and responsive as any consumer electronics product. And, we wanted the gaming experience to not just be “last generation with better graphics,” but fundamentally richer gameplay with online multiplayer, leaderboards, achievements, awesome wireless, downloadable content and a high integrity online experience that was able to address cheating, grievers and bullies.
From a technology point-of-view, we wanted to deliver PS3 performance a year ahead of Sony with an easier-to-program development environment, an online service that could scale to ten’s of millions of gamers and a flawless wireless experience with a cost basis that would allow us to drop price to reach a broader audience in the later years of the program.
What were the key design challenges you faced?
The hardest part of the console business is that you’re designing a product in 2002, that doesn’t ship until 2005 and needs to last until 2015 as a viable consumer electronics product. There are very, very few categories like game consoles in any industry. Most consumer hardware products try and keep the price the same and add features and performance each year to keep demand high. In the console world, you keep the performance the same, but drive the price down so that it is more affordable to more people and you have more sockets for game publishers to target. When you couple that with a firm budget, a target date and a competitor that’s been building consumer electronics for over a century, it puts an incredible amount of pressure on the team to make the right hardware choices. Another difficult design challenge was making the transition from the Intel chipset to a more custom chipset – the PPC core and embedded DRAM – to increase performance and reduce costs. Those choices had huge ripple effects throughout the program on the operating system, our testing, our development tools.
Since it was our second console, improving Xbox Live and making it work across both the original Xbox and Xbox 360 was very interesting to navigate. We had barely launched Xbox Live and were still learning how to operate such a massive service when we had to start doing Xbox 360 features and keep the thing running and transition gamers as they upgraded to 360. I think the team did a stellar job on that one in particular.
Probably the other top challenge I think about was the idea that we would have the system visor that would allow for some common UI and services (like seeing a game’s achievements, notifications and soundtracks) to be activated in context of any game. That was a tough technical and experiential challenge, but also a tough one politically with game developers since they wanted all of the system resources for their experience. It was a difficult balancing act, but I think the team got it right.
What do you consider its greatest contribution to the gaming world?
I think when we took calculated risks, sweated the details and persevered through the scepticism to hold to our vision is when we contributed the most to the industry.
Xbox Live was the biggest example. We had the belief from the beginning that online was the next key inflection point for the industry and that no one else in the console market really shared that vision, or had the right experience to bring that to life. I think 15 years later, it’s become pretty clear that we were correct in that, and frankly I’m shocked at how weakly most have followed. Certainly there are PC gaming companies like Valve that really understand the transition from packaged goods and solitary play to virtual goods and online multiplayer, but the console business was pretty rigid in their posture – most of the players in the business had only recently moved from cartridges to disc media, they were incredibly dependent on retail as their only channel and multiplayer in many categories was an after thought because of the limitations of split-screen. Live was by no means a slam-dunk – a lot of perseverance was required to get support from the industry and to convince them of the value of a single identity and friends list, unlockable game trials, a unified leaderboard, achievements, required updates to prevent cheating and downloadable content. Today, it’s hard to imagine gaming without these features, but a decade ago, these were very difficult discussions – especially as the new kids on the block.
Beyond Live, remember that Halo was slammed at E3 2000 – people didn’t think it was fun and thought it would never work on a console. We got hammered for not having a modem and committing to broadband and insisting on the importance of voice. Generally speaking, the industry didn’t have faith in mass storage, downloadable content or digital distribution. Concepts like trial versions of titles and non-retail titles like Xbox Arcade were met with resistance. Unified Gamertags and Friends, Achievements and user-generated content seemed like outrageous asks of publishers and developers. A decade later, FPS is probably the biggest category in console gaming, everyone has broadband, almost every title has downloadable content, all game platforms have achievements, leaderboards and friendslists and the massively successful Minecraft is about user-generated content at its core. Had we not persevered through the difficult discussions, many of these aspects of gaming would likely have played out much more slowly, and Xbox would not have become the brand that it grew into.
What was it like watching Achievements become a massive movement in gaming?
Its success is no surprise. Achievements was the textbook tough sell, even internally in a lot of cases. This was one of a small number of things that I personally fought very hard for knowing that it was going to be a terrific boost for the gaming experience – some on the team would say that I jammed it through. I felt that it was a new level for creators to guide a gamer through their experience, a new way for gamers to challenge each other competitively and a different way to keep score that could persist across games. Who hasn’t tried to eat all 16 ghosts on the first level of Pac-Man? I just thought of Achievements as a formalisation of what core gamers have always done and a universal scoring system that could let you show off how much game you have. The people that fought it, or didn’t get it were generally people that didn’t bleed games. True gamers got it right away and it’s been terrific to see the concept get adopted by virtually all gaming platforms out there and even extend into non-gaming under the guise of gamification. Sure, it’s been done poorly, or overplayed by some, but I think gamers still get giddy when that Achievement notification pops up on the screen after doing something heroic and you earn another 25 Gamerscore. I do.
How much were you watching the competition and reacting to what they were doing?
I’d say a modest amount. We kept a keen eye on Sony’s hardware performance and watching both companies’ early attempts at online, but that was about it. There was enough history with both console companies that their next moves were fairly predictable. Nintendo leads each generation with content and adapts the controller uniquely to suit early titles with new mechanics. Because they focus on younger gamers, cost of the console is very important so their hardware is generally underpowered relative to the market. We correctly anticipated that online, again because of their young audience, would be a low priority for them. We believed Sony would push their media format (Blu-ray) heavily, push the hardware to the limit and be difficult to program like all previous generations. We incorrectly guessed that they would buy up a bunch of online companies because of the critical shift from traditional media to digital distribution given that it was the next obvious format and so much of their overall business has been dependent on the shift to next generation media formats.
Obviously, online is the ultimate and final format and it would have been very wise for them to make a major play there, but clearly they struggled with killing the sacred cow of physical media that had served them so well for a half-century. There were definitely factions within the team that did worry more about the competition and we spent a stupid amount of time on stuff like HD-DVD in response to the competition that just distracted us from our core beliefs. A new format for high-resolution movies was not important to us. Leading the charge in online gaming was – and the HD-DVD effort was a good example of how worrying about the competition can take you off your game.
Was there ever a big turning point or eureka moment for what the console would become?
Not really. When we approved the Xbox program in 1999, we had a very good sense for what we thought the first three generations would look like. The original Xbox was out of cycle relative to the competition and we knew that the second generation would need to follow quickly. In most ways, Xbox 360 was simply satisfying the vision that we had for a new game console that could disrupt the marketplace with something new for gamers and creators and hopefully usher in more participants in the category. The original two-page memo written to Bill [Gates] and Steve [Ballmer] even had several concepts that became part of Xbox One spelled out. I know it lessens the romance of the story, but when billions are at risk and you’re designing ten-year platforms, there aren’t a lot of eureka moments or wild flashes of genius – you need to be mindful, planful and hold steady on the rudder.
Did attitudes towards the Xbox brand and division change within Microsoft?
Xbox was always an interesting beast within Microsoft’s culture from the get-go. Microsoft had a very rich history and success with productivity, developers and enterprise, but very little depth with consumers, hardware, retail or games. The part of Xbox that was very Microsoft was the platform element – the idea that Microsoft would do the heavy lifting to build a terrific foundation for developers to build on top of, but a lot of the program was very different than Microsoft’s culture. In many ways, I thought about Xbox as the starting point for a second Microsoft – a company totally focused on consumers, entertainment and artists. There was certainly a lot of pioneering, or cowboy culture, ingrained in Xbox, but its soul was very Microsoft in terms of building an awesome platform for creators to do amazing work. I’m disappointed that it didn’t become more for Microsoft than it did. Yes, it was a success in the gaming category, but I had always hoped it could be a launchpad for a consumer-minded platform, brand and set of products and services that complemented the productivity and Windows side of the business. Apple has done tremendously well with its focus on consumers, media, consumption and non-PC form factors. There was always the tension and appetite internally to try and twist Xbox into something that could help Windows be more successful. I always believed that being a smash hit for the company and building new muscles around consumer, entertainment, media and artistry was the best way to help Windows. It always felt like asking Windows to serve Xbox and Xbox to adopt Windows was a recipe to slow two great teams down and complicate two otherwise really clear businesses with different objectives.
Were there any features or ideas that you were unable to implement that you would have liked to have achieved?
After we wrapped up 360, about a month before launch, one of the founders of 360 that had left the company came in for a full day visit and to see what the team had done in the year since he left. His comment was “I’ve never seen a product meet 95% of the original spec, you guys nailed it.” I asked him what 5% was missing and he said, “I don’t know, but I couldn’t give you guys a perfect grade!” The team really did what we set out to do in terms of the core functionality for gamers and creators. Following the launch and into Xbox One, I think the excitement around and incredible sales of Kinect became a huge focus for the team and the advancement of much of the rest of the platform slowed. There’s still a lot more that could be done with the achievements infrastructure, for example, and we had designed most of it but it remains unfinished. I think that user-generated content is still a very second-class citizen in most game experiences.
The idea of persistent worlds is really the realm mostly of MMORPGs still and not a universal concept in most games. The new shiny object is clearly the VR/AR space, which I think is at least a decade away from approaching mainstream and being able to deliver a flawless, affordable experience with intuitive UX mechanics. I hope the team still has the passion and focus on evolving Live into its full potential because I see a lot of remaining runway there and awesome stuff that can be done for gamers.
I think most people think creativity is running around with a new crazy idea everyday and having breakthrough eureka moments. On something like the Xbox 360 project, I think sweating the details and solving hard problems demands incredible creativity, but not the type that the media likes to romanticise. The Xbox 360 project was really simple. It wasn’t easy, but relative to the army working on it, the goals and specs were very clearly defined. The creativity was in working through the hard problems that came up to meet those goals to get it done on time, on budget and with the features we promised. We sweated a lot of details to make sure that gamers wouldn’t be disappointed and that developers could realise their creative vision. Looking back and seeing the many positive things it’s contributed to gaming and how it’s inspired other companies and teams to deliver better experiences is very satisfying… Building a delightful product isn’t a lot of sexy, fun creative work. It’s a lot of hard, demanding and exacting work.
What you’ve been doing since leaving Microsoft?
I still play a lot of games, although I’m embarrassed to still be shy of 50,000 Gamerscore on Xbox. I moved to Portland a couple years back and I’ve been helping out a couple of companies that I really believe in by sharing the experience and lessons I picked up at Microsoft. I’m also spending a lot of time riding and racing bikes. After having my bike stolen a few years back, I dove deep into researching the problem of bike theft, which was very eye opening. It’s an insidious epidemic and the bad guys are both using technology more effectively and are better organised than the good guys. Realising that no one has done much to address the problem, myself and a few friends started a company and built a service and tools to attack this problem.
It’s called the 529 Garage and it’s fun to be working on such a massive, multi-billion dollar problem with no budget, a tiny team, a completely new industry and a brand no one has heard of. It’s definitely a big departure from Xbox 360, but I’m lucky enough to have those experiences and lessons to apply to this new challenge and have been learning a ton and having a blast.
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