For many gamers the Xbox 360 is all about Halo and Gears of War. Microsoft wants to change that. It's on a mission to spread the word that the 360 is about more than shooting people on Xbox LIVE. It's about social games, sharing media and renting movies. At a press conference to announce a content deal with NBC Universal to make available to download on demand 30 flicks from its back catalogue, we caught up with Microsoft's head of gaming and entertainment in the UK, Stephen McGill, to talk exclusive DLC, questionable claims from Sony and... Alan Wake.
VideoGamer.com: Let's start with your announcement regarding additional movie content on Xbox LIVE. What are the details?
Stephen McGill: We already had Paramount and Warner Bros. We've hundreds of movies already on the service. We've added Universal and 30 movies today. They've got such a huge library of content, so we'll add more every week. So things like Mamma Mia! is coming out next week. They've got some great licenses.
VideoGamer.com: The US has Netflix but we don't have anything like that. What's the deal there?
SM: Netflix was already in the States. They already had a service that worked really well, integrated with what we were trying to do with Xbox LIVE. There isn't really an equivalent over here. There's lots of postal things, but the video on demand service, there isn't any at the moment. Xbox LIVE was already the largest video on demand service in the UK, in your living room, under your TV. There isn't a comparative partner that we can go and work with right now. We're very focused on getting movie companies on board and you'll see more and more of our content come along. Netflix isn't here in the UK unfortunately.
VideoGamer.com: Microsoft has to become Netflix in the UK, then?
SM: If you look at what we're doing we already are. We've already got the great content on the service. The fact that it's not streaming, it's downloading, but I'm on a 2MB broadband service at home and on a standard definition download I can start downloading and then start watching within seconds. Obviously high definition takes a little bit longer. It's almost like streaming anyway, so we're already there.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think that Microsoft will ever provide this kind of content to purchase and keep on your hard drive, or are hard drives still too small for that?
SM: It's really about how the content owners want their partners to use their content. So that's entirely in the hands of the movie studios and what they want to do with the content. They feel comfortable with downloading it to rent and obviously watching it, watch it any time over the next month and within a number of hours once you've started. That's not something we control.
VideoGamer.com: Would Microsoft like to be able to provide content to purchase outright? Is it something Microsoft is working towards?
SM: It depends on what our consumers want. They seem very happy right now when you talking to them about the services we're offering from a download to rent model. So that's what we'll offer them.
VideoGamer.com: Moving on to 1 vs. 100, is that the beginning of a commitment from Microsoft to bring similar social-focused games to the Xbox 360?
SM: We'll get 1 versus 100 out of the way first! We're only just starting to tease about what we're going to do there. I think we'll answer that one in the fullness of time. It's a little way away yet before we launch that one. It's great to show a little bit more about what we're trying to do with that whole interactive entertainment thing, bringing TV games into real fun entertainment in the living room with mates.
VideoGamer.com: The 360 is known by gamers as a real gamer's machine, but events like today highlight that it can provide more than that. Is it a challenge from Microsoft's point of view to get that message across, to convince consumers that the Xbox 360 is more than just Halo and Gears of War?
SM: I think you hit a really interesting nail on the head there. The gamers recognise we're a great games machine and now we're opening things up to a broader audience. It's the word and. We can do both. I think when you look at the strategies of some of our competitors out there, I think they're a little bit more confused about how they do that. Are they trying to be too entertainment focused, and maybe not even delivering on that, and forgetting maybe their gaming roots? So, for us it's about continuing to service the needs of gamers with great games and great add-ons to those games, because obviously particularly in this current climate people have to watch pennies a bit more, people are staying in a lot more, so extensions of the games, game add-ons that extend the life of your games, is a benefit for people who are having to watch what they spend and how they spend it, so I think that's a good thing. Continuing to service that, absolutely critical. But as is introducing new experiences and new people to what we offer. We're very focused on continuing to broaden our audience and, I think, some of the stuff we did pre-Christmas changed people's perceptions of what we were doing. I think a lot of people may of, certainly in the past when you think of our heritage, back on version 1 and the type of games you could get on Xbox 1, compared to the experiences you get now, you get those same experiences and so much more. We haven't compromised our heritage or what gamers want, to be able to build those other services and experiences around entertainment. And there's different ways we would market. A lot of people would like to see more games advertising on TV. Well we do that but we also do our marketing around games in other ways, and TV happens to be a great way to get to a broader audience about a broader message as well. I think we can do both and I hope people would agree we're doing it quite well. If you look at the momentum we had going into Christmas, we were the fastest-growing console in 2008 and we've continued some great momentum through 2009. I hope people are enjoying what we're offering.
VideoGamer.com: It's interesting you mention the competition. Does Microsoft see the Wii as the competition?
SM: It is and it isn't. It's not a yes or no answer. It's both. They're doing what they're doing, they're focusing on what we think is a very different audience. They're going after what we think is a younger audience. But ultimately we are competing because we're competing for people's money around entertainment, in the same way we're competing with people who, do they go to the cinema, how much time do they spend watching terrestrial television? So everyone's competing with each other in the form of entertainment. So yes we are but we're very focused on what we're doing, which is very different to the others.
VideoGamer.com: I wanted to ask you about Sony's recent announcement that they have over 20 million PSN subscribers. What was your reaction to that announcement?
SM: When we talk about our numbers we feel they're active users who are actively engaged in all the forms of entertainment we offer on Xbox 360. I think if you look at the comments made on the forums, or the comments made by analysts at Screen Digest then there's questions over, well what does Sony's numbers really mean? Are they duplicates? I think there's a lot of questions there. All I'm really worried about is, I know I'm the largest online video on demand service in the UK, we are worldwide, we've got a great online service the others can't come close to. They're not right now. When you think of our heritage as a company Microsoft has proven we are probably the only company in the world that can offer great online experiences for millions and millions and millions of people. And that's what we do every day with Xbox LIVE.
VideoGamer.com: Some people have said the Sony announcement is not a fair reflection of how PSN is doing. Would you subscribe to that view?
SM: Sony do what Sony want to do and if they think that's right for their business to say those kind of numbers then they can do and will do whatever they want to do. Do I believe them? No.
VideoGamer.com: I wanted to ask you about the Xbox 360's line-up in terms of exclusives. Some fans have expressed concern over the number of 360 exclusives that are coming out this year versus previous years. We've had Halo Wars and we're going to have Halo 3: ODST. Can 360 owners expect exclusives on a similar level in 2009 to what they've enjoyed in the last couple of years?
SM: Yes and yes! The word exclusive is an interesting term. Have we got exclusive content as far as game add-on goes? In many cases yes. Have we got exclusive games coming out on our platform that you know about? Yes. Obviously you know some of our games that we've got from Microsoft Game Studios, you know some of the games that are coming out from third-parties. I'm pretty sure you don't know all the games that are coming out from both us or third parties. I hope we surprise people, but I feel very confident in our catalogue of products that we've got coming out from our own stable and from third-parties in 2009 and beyond. When I look at just 2009 I feel very good going into the summer through to Christmas this year.
VideoGamer.com: What's the latest on Alan Wake?
SM:There's been a few teasers recently. That's all we're saying right now. We're just teasing things a little bit. When the development team are ready to take the lid off they'll take the lid off.
VideoGamer.com: Has the 360-exclusive GTA 4 DLC met expectations in terms of how many people have downloaded it?
SM:Yeah absolutely. It's an amazing game and it's an amazing add-on experience. It's incredibly deep. We're obviously very excited, they're very excited about it. I think Rockstar will in the fullness of time be able to talk about numbers and stuff. It's only been a few days. When you look at the retail numbers, there's been a good uplift in sales of the original full-priced game in retail, which I think from a retailer point of view is a good thing. People are obviously more engaged this week in the whole GTA franchise than they were two weeks ago. It's great for them, great for us, great for our partners. As far as numbers go I'm sure they will release those in the fullness of time.
VideoGamer.com: What can 360 owners expect from GTA 4 DLC in the future?
SM: That's a great question. I think it's something you should talk to Rockstar about. It would be amiss of me to spoil any of their secrets or let any of their secrets go. It's no secret that there's more content coming exclusive to Xbox LIVE.
VideoGamer.com: Exclusive DLC is something Microsoft is clearly pushing and we've seen a number of examples of that in recent months. Will that continue in 2009? Does Microsoft still see the value in securing exclusive DLC for its games?
SM:I think the publishers and the developers are seeing good reasons to have exclusive content for Xbox 360. We've got such a proven audience for that content so I think we're the natural place to put content that extends the life of a game through game add-ons. And there's lots of great content coming over the next few months and plenty more over the summer and this Christmas.
VideoGamer.com: Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures, which is coming to Xbox LIVE Arcade, is an episodic release. We haven't seen many episodic releases on Xbox 360. Is this game testing the waters? What's the feeling regarding episodic content?
SM: I think it's very much in its infancy right now. I think there are quite a few opportunities around how people tell their stories and if they're great stories told in a great way we're very excited about that kind of content. And I think Wallace & Gromit is going to be amazing!
For around 2.50 you can download a movie through your Xbox 360, which remains on your console's hard drive for 14 days. Once you start playback, you have 24 hours to watch the film before it expires. Many of the titles are available to rent in either standard or high definition formats.