Watching Sky TV through your Xbox 360 is now a reality. It's all part of Microsoft's plan to make the Xbox appeal to more than first-person shooter fans, to make it more than a Halo and Gears of War machine. To find out what that really means, we sat down for a chat with Jerry Johnson, general manager of Xbox LIVE Europe. Read on for the latest on HD streaming, Last.fm and the price of Xbox LIVE itself.
VideoGamer.com: Congratulations on the launch of the service. You mentioned during your presentation that the Sky Player is part of Microsoft's effort to position the Xbox 360 as more than a Halo and Gears of War machine. Is that how the Xbox 360 is still perceived by most people?
Jerry Johnson: I don't know if evolution's the right word, but it's a continually changing proposition for our user base. There's no doubt that we still appeal very much to the hardcore gamer. And that's part of our heritage and is part of our future. That's not something that would ever change. What we want to do though is make it so that it isn't a thing that is so targeted solely at that, that it actually provides value. I look at things like introducing sports. Getting Sky Sports on here is something that's going to appeal to quite a few hardcore gamers out there. At the same time it's going to bring some casual people, in this case a lot of times casual males into the fold. They'll say, 'oh I don't game a lot, but I'll sit and watch the football when my friends are around'. Likewise, as we introduce things like Facebook and Twitter, and then the different things such as movies on Sky, all those things start to appeal to a broader base.
One of things we always look at is, how do you continue to provide change, change existing people are comfortable with and welcome, while at the same time things that are comfortable for people who haven't been using it, and at the same time provide some surprises with that change? The ability to start to do things more interactive. I mean, the promise of interactive TV has been around forever. As you start to look at this, where we have a value prop where you're bringing the best entertainment, the best content that you can have in the living room together with the interactivity of the console and LIVE, together with community features from our friends list, our match making and our party systems to things like access to Facebook friends and the ability to Tweet with your friends, all those things, as you start to bring that together with LIVE, we think it's a very valuable offering to a broader base, both the hardcore user and people who might not have ever thought about Xbox in those terms.
VideoGamer.com: You mentioned during your presentation getting away from the image of the hardcore Halo player sitting in their bedroom at night shooting people in the face.
JJ: Trust me, I think you'll find people operate in different modes. Like I said, my wife doesn't like the fact I game sometimes. I'm still going to go game sometimes. There's nothing we're going to change that's going to not focus on those customers more. In fact, not just this year but in the next year, we'll continue to do features that are targeted at that hardcore gamer. At the same time we are going to start to do things that appeal to both the hardcore gamer and the broader user, and continue to do things and start to do more targeted at the broader user specifically.
VideoGamer.com: So not just one or the other, then?
JJ: I don't think it's one or the other. I'll come back and say that Xbox has the best games out there. It's got the best first-person shooter games out there. The exclusives we've had over the past years and what we had going into this holiday prove the point that this is still very much at its heart a gaming console. There's nothing we're going to change with that. You will start to see us, though, do things that are broader marketing and start to expose some of the things that are broader than just first-person shooters.
VideoGamer.com: The Sky Player streams in standard definition. Is HD streaming something that's possible in the UK, given current broadband speeds?
JJ: Yes. In fact, we'll be having press releases coming for the Fall, and with that we'll start to talk more about the ever-evolving technology that's behind some of the streaming pieces and Zune marketplace and those things that'll be coming. And when they come they will be bringing high def streaming with some of the technology that's been rolled out and talked about at E3 and shown throughout the year and demoed throughout the year. Right now there is a worldwide beta going on with Zune, and that includes high def streaming in 1080p, 5.1.
VideoGamer.com: There is a degree of scepticism about streaming 1080p, but it is possible then?
JJ: It works really well. It requires high bandwidth. You're not going to do that on a 2MB stream, but 8-10MB you would have the capability to be able to get, like I say, 1080p, 5.1.
VideoGamer.com: You've now had some time to reflect on the launch and uptake of the New Xbox Experience. How satisfied are you with it?
JJ: It's interesting because you'll find different pieces that different people latched onto. The party system's a perfect example of something received well by the hardcore gaming crowd. We always talk about it - flipping it from making a single piece of content the centre of it and making a group of friends the centre of what you do on the console. There are pieces like that which were received well. Then I look at things like Avatars. Avatars were something we introduced with NXE, and it was something that appealed to different people on the platform. But one of the things it did was it gave a softer face to the Xbox console. It's something you'll see in a lot of the brand and advertising material, as well as something that we're continuing to build out. The numbers that we did on... The silly things people go out and do with them, from buying a lightsaber to things that we're introducing as we do the Sky Player. So I look at the different pieces we shipped with NXE and it was positive. It opened up the platform. It allowed people to again move away from just being task based where it used to revolve around 'I put a shiny disc in the disc tray', and that's what everything was around. Now, turn on my console, let's find something to do. So happy with that.
The other thing is a lot of people looked at NXE and it was very much the UI change and Avatars and these things. The other thing we do is update the architecture for it. One of the things we can do with things like Sky, where we don't have to have the Flash completely update to roll something like this out. We can start to do more modular work like this or Facebook or Netflix, and do those type of experiences broken up from this monolithic release for the service. So all in all, the NXE release was successful and it set us up to have a good foundation to continue to do things like this moving forward.
VideoGamer.com: So there won't be any major redesigns or updates any time soon?
JJ: We're always looking for ways to make the experiences better. We've announced things at E3 this year that will continue to push the platform forward. As we look at this, we'll do what our users want to see with the product considering all the new technologies that are coming out. But I can tell you the interface isn't changing any time soon.
VideoGamer.com: While dabbling with Last.fm on Xbox 360, we noticed you can't listen to music through it while you're playing games. That was a sticking point for some of us in the office. Is that something you're aware of?
JJ: Yeah. This was a good introduction of these different applications. You might make the same comment about Twitter. Why can't I Tweet while I'm doing things inside games? The nice thing is all these different applications are starting to be put into one team, and it's a team I'm responsible for managing now. As we look at these things we're going to continue to evaluate how we start to integrate these experiences more and more. It's the natural evolution for Last.fm to say, 'if I can have music on my Xbox and I can play it no matter where I go, why can't I get Last.fm playing wherever I go?'. All those different things we'll be evaluating .
VideoGamer.com: So it is possible?
JJ: It's software. Anything's possible. That's one of the beauties of the Xbox platform. We have these resources. We have done things so that we can start to evaluate what are the things that make sense both from a user experience standpoint and a contractual and licensing standpoint with our partners, that enable us to do things across the entire experience.
VideoGamer.com: How about live Twitter and Facebook updates relating to Achievements?
JJ: All those types of things are possibilities and things we'll look at. It's a balance. You have to do these things well. You don't want to hook up features that spam accounts and things like that. There are also privacy issues. What you'll see this Fall, just like we've done with Xbox LIVE over the past six, seven years is, we'll introduce some features and we'll listen to the customers and we'll figure out how to modify them, bring them together and match them up in different ways that meet their needs. I don't look at anything we launch as fire and forget. It's not like shipping a packaged title. This is a live service and we'll be continuing to improve on it moving forward.
VideoGamer.com: I wanted to put something to you analyst Michael Pachter said recently. He claimed Microsoft will increase the price of Xbox LIVE Gold membership to $100 a year. Is that something that could ever happen?
JJ: It would be interesting to understand what his basis was for that. It's interesting to have someone come out there and say I think it's worth more than you're charging. That's not something I'm used to! I can tell you it wasn't directed or tied to anything actually going on within our group. So I would say this was an analyst making a comment, as far as I can tell, on what he thought the quality of the value of the offering was. That's why I was asking you if he went into any more detail.
VideoGamer.com: I have the exact quote here, actually. He said: "You can't hook a guy into Xbox LIVE Gold if he's playing on a PC. So, I mean, that's the other problem - is you really wanna hook every gamer who has a 360, you want them to buy all their games on 360, play everything multiplayer, pay you 50 bucks a year so that in a couple of years, it's 100 bucks a year. And that's going up. We all know that. It's a profit deal."
JJ: Yeah I don't know if everybody knows that it's going up. I find it flattering that someone feels that the value of what we're delivering is worth more than what we're charging. That couldn't have been popular with other press. Unless he was trying to be sensationalistic to get a quote out there.
VideoGamer.com: Have you got any update on 1 vs 100?
JJ: The announcement's made for Season 2 to launch [it's coming sometime this year].
VideoGamer.com: What's your assessment of it?
JJ: It's amazing. Some of the numbers that were published... I don't know what we released, but as far as concurrency rates... amazing uptake on the users that were up there. A lot of positive feedback. I look at that and what was done there and some of the things we're doing with Sky and Canal and you start to look at, well what does it mean to have interactive entertainment? What goes beyond just browsing content in my living room and becoming immersed and making it social and interactive? 1 vs 100 was a great entry into that, and I'm excited about Season 2 starting as well. It's one of those things that's fun. Family gets in and plays it.
VideoGamer.com: It's one of the rare things I do with my partner on the Xbox.
JJ: It's bigger. All of a sudden you're taking something mainstream - a gameshow - something people can relate to, and you're taking a live service which for a lot of people can sometimes be intimidating when you first get in, you don't know people. Sky right now, we're showing you some things based on a party of eight. Now all of a sudden you've created almost an MMO around a gameshow in which you can partake at different levels. It's easy to jump in, easy to jump out. It's a wonderful thing. We'll continue to look at things we can introduce that take advantage of this. How do you bring a lot of people together, have them interact in a fun way and tie it into content that people are used to and understand?
Sky Player is available to UK Xbox LIVE Gold subscribers now. For more information go to xbox.skyplayer.com. There you'll also find a couple of promotions for both new and existing Sky customers.