TechRadar interview: Xbox UK boss, Stephen McGill

30th Oct 2008 | 23:54

TechRadar interview: Xbox UK boss, Stephen McGill

On the past, present and (a little bit about the) future of Xbox

TechRadar: Xbox 360 is nearly three years old in the UK. What have the last three years been like for you, personally?

Stephen McGill: Well it's been great. I've got a fantastic team. I work with some incredibly sound people. I think we are extremely pleased and happy with where we are. If you think back to this time last year, when we launched Halo 3 – which was a massive event, a milestone in gaming history (for us particularly) – and we had a great line-up for that Christmas too.

So you had people saying 'oh, that was the golden age of gaming' (certainly for this generation) but then we have such an amazing line-up again for Christmas this year. Probably even better. We've got some huge hits, both from ourselves and from third parties. We've got things like Fable 2, Gears of War 2 and things like Banjo coming up. And we are broadening our audience because we are at an affordable price now for a lot more people. Xbox Live is really coming up, with some very cool stuff happening there, with the new Xbox Experience coming out next month.

And we are going broader with some of our content – Lips, You're In The Movies, Scene It?… new Disney content, Rock Band and Guitar Hero doing really well. I think that has been a big change. Having that fun, party, social gaming experience which we didn't have back in 2005. As a platform we were known as the gamers' console of choice back then. And we continue with that 'label'…. We have the best content and the greatest choice for gamers AND… and it is that 'and' (not 'instead of')… we have great content for girls, for the family. And lots more to come this Christmas.

So, yeah. It's been an amazing journey. And lots more fun still left to be had!

TechRadar: So the new Xbox Live Experience launches next month? Are there still two tiers – a free one and an unpaid one?

Stephen McGill: Yes, it launches on November 19th. And yes, we have Xbox Live Silver and the Gold services. Silver is just plug and go, for new customers who are buying a console for the first time, it makes that process a lot easier, a lot smoother and a lot quicker. And Xbox Live Gold gives you the full-on, multiplayer side of gaming in particular, which is the paid for service.

TechRadar: So you don't feel the criticism that this year's Xmas line-up doesn't match last years is justified?

Stephen McGill: Not at all, no. I think that goes back a little bit to E3 2007, because we only talked about Christmas then and then this year we didn't talk about 2009… but I don't think anybody would dispute that we have an amazing line-up of games this Christmas. It is easy to find something – from stuff that's already on the box through to stuff that's coming out this Christmas – we are the only place where you have got something for everyone. Whatever you fancy, whether you are a hardcore gamer or whether you are looking for a bit of snack-sized bit of entertainment, just a bit of fun to enjoy with a glass of wine or a beer on a Friday night. Or again, with the family, you might want to play Scene It? or Lips. And obviously with the recent price drop we are much more affordable. We are passing the cost reductions we have down to the consumer to make it much more accessible for more people to get involved.

TechRadar: What are your thoughts on the 'return' of E3?

Stephen McGill: Well it will be interesting to see what happens. I didn't go to E3 last year due to family commitments. The first E3 since it started that I haven't been and I kind of really missed it. So it will be great going back to having a bit more 'public showcasing' and the more people that get to go the better really. I think that's a good thing!

TechRadar: I noticed that the marketing for the new Viva Pinata: Trouble In Paradise this year has been a little different. Is that part of this 'broadening' strategy?

Stephen McGill: Well I think we realised that the first game was actually a very cool game for gamers, you know, as well as teenage girls! So we've taken that on board and we've also made it a lot more accessible for youngsters. It's a lovely title.

TechRadar: One thing that you are often accused of is of copying your console competitors – so with Viva Pinata people point towards games like Nintendo's Animal Crossing and with the new Xbox Live Experience people point towards Nintendo's Miis. What is your response to that type of criticism?

Stephen McGill: I think, well, we've been going down the journey since J.Allard first introduced what Xbox 360 stood for. Nintendo didn't invent character pics. You know, for us, we've had gamer pics there for you to personalise your console experience since day one. So you can customise the whole user look and feel. You can put your own photos on there. So – making it personal, having fun, being social, it's all about entertainment and great games. It is what we've always been about. It's never changed.

And what we are showing with things like the avatars – I don't see this as copying at all – we are very fixated on our own journey which we started to map out many years ago and continue to map out going forward. So we are very focused on what we think we should be doing with our products and our services and we will leave the competition to figure out their own strategies.

TechRadar: You mention J Allard there. The last we heard he was involved in Zune. What is the latest on Zune for UK consumers?

Stephen McGill: We don't have any announcements on that right now. J [Allard] has a big team looking at technologies across the business right now.

TechRadar: What about controllers? You are bringing out new types of game controllers – Lips being a good example – and there are those recurrent rumours of motion-control on Xbox 360. Plus, a number of third parties are developing their own motion-controlled tech that is compatible with Xbox 360. No plans internally for a motion-controlled device?

Stephen McGill: We've not announced anything and to be honest we are very focused right now on what we are doing for Christmas. You're right about the Lips controllers. I mean, wireless mics, why didn't anybody do that before?! But also, technology wise, we are just doing it really well, simple things like 'which mic is active' and having a light that indicates when it is your turn to sing. Really cool innovation in hardware. Which we do all the time. You can see our new gaming mice and keyboards here [indicates demo]. So making software and services better through hardware is something that we're pretty good at.

TechRadar: What of the 'Live Anywhere' strategy [originally launched by Bill Gates at E3 2006] – the idea of bringing PCs and Xbox 360s and mobile phone gaming together seamlessly?

Stephen McGill: Yeah, we're still working on it and we are seeing some bits come together. We've seen Live on PCs. Right now I'm very focused on the new Xbox Experience, but you are right and as we have more to talk about we will. We have lots more going on in the mobile space as you have seen here.

TechRadar: This idea of 'casual' versus 'hardcore' gamers, which we talk about a lot in the games industry… Do you think they are useful labels any more?

Stephen McGill: Well I think they are very interesting labels that are very easily banded around. I mean, there is definitely an audience who love their games and love and buy a wide variety of games. But it would be a mistake to miss the fact that they don't also enjoy what people might label 'casual' games, stuff like You're In The Movies or Lips.

I think a lot of it comes down to the situation that you are in, you know, whether or not you or married, have kids, have a girlfriend. What do you want to do this evening? Depends on who you are with and what sort of mood you are in, really. You might bring out Gears or you might bring out You're In The Movies.

There are some people who are genuinely only interested in snack-sized games. And, equally, there are those people who are only interested in playing Pro Evo or FIFA or a shooter like Halo or Gears of War. But I think we are seeing a lot of people enjoy 'entertainment' – whatever entertainment means for them – and that is what we are trying to deliver.

TechRadar: Talking a little about developers – Microsoft has bought some high profile games studios in the last few years, such as Rare and Lionhead. Is this strategy working for you? And do you intend to buy up more developers?

Stephen McGill: That's a question for the head of our game studios really. I think, from my point of view, buying up two amazing UK studios in Rare and Lionhead is clearly working. Fable 2 went straight into the UK charts at number 1 – particularly good when you consider there were so many multi-format releases that same week, which I think shows a lot. Rare are doing a cracking job with Viva Pinata and with the avatar side of things for the new Xbox Experience. Having that come out of a British studio is just fantastic for us.

TechRadar: Mentioning Peter Molyneux, and thinking of other 'celebrity' developers like Cliffy B, do you think that perhaps the games industry should focus more on its creative talent? There are thousands of developers out there doing great work not getting that recognition.

Stephen McGill: It's a really interesting question and I'm not sure what I personally believe, because on the one hand a great idea can come from anyone. And it doesn't take named celebrities in the industry to have 'a great idea' and we should nurture those gaming experiences and opportunities for people. On the other hand, this industry is about having fun and about story-telling and entertainment and there are – as in every other medium, whether it's comics or books or music or movies – big names who really deliver and people like Cliff Blesinski and Peter Molyneux are great talents and great storytellers with incredibly talented teams behind them helping them bring that story to life. So you want those kinds of 'celebrities' as shining beacons, steering the big experiences. And you want to nurture the talent that is coming tomorrow.

TechRadar: At the other end of the spectrum from the massive games like Fable 2 or Gears 2, you have the smaller level, bedroom developer scene which you are encouraging with XNA. How is all that panning out?

Stephen McGill: Well we are launching a community games service for the US and UK next month. People have had XNA development tools for a little while now, so it will be great to see what the community comes up with. Over the next few weeks (and indeed, over the next few years) it will be interesting to see what kind of amazing experiences people have thought about and what they come up with. And that just comes back to the fact that anyone can have a good idea.

TechRadar: And how does the quality control work for XNA games?

Stephen McGill: Well we will talk more about that as we get closer to launch, but essentially it will work on a peer review type system. If everybody in the community loves a product, then it will go up the charts, basically.

TechRadar: What do you think of those arguments by people like WildTangent's Alex St.John that the current generation of consoles are the last standalone games consoles we will see? (He bases his argument on cost considerations and the claim that MMOs and community-based gaming are what gamers are going to be willing to pay for in future).

Stephen McGill: Well he is of course entitled to his own opinion. I think there is plenty of opportunity for games consoles – Xbox 360 and Nintendo and Sony – which have clearly got a lot of life for those kinds of experiences that you have in the living room. You only have to look at things like Rock Band and Lips and Scene It! as well as things like Gears of War… I just can't imagine things like that being done in any other ways. But of course we can look back in five or ten years time and see whether or not he was right!

TechRadar: So what of the Xbox 720 then?

Stephen McGill: Hahaha! What's that?

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