In a closed door interview with Microsoft's Corporate Vice President and XNA Chief Architect J Allard at X05 two weeks ago, we saw something different in the man behind the system. It was a first for me. Allard loosened up. He dropped the sales shtick. For him, a man whose brain moves about 20 times faster than the average human and whose vision for the Xbox 360 is impressive and encompassing down to the last detail, loosening up meant showing frustration, disappointment, even a little anger. It meant laying down some jokes, answering questions with a direct, even raw tone, and, perhaps more than anything, it meant being brutally honest. The behind-closed-doors interview session took place near the end of day two at X05, which meant Allard had been answering the same questions all day. When we sat down with him, the usually energetic, buoyant Xbox 360 brainchild, gave us a glimpse behind the scenes of the Xbox 360 operation, and behind his normally well-guarded rhetoric. The interview took place with a mixed group of European and American journalists, including GameSpy's Will Tuttle, Game Informer's Andy McNamara, Team Xbox's Rob Sempsey, OXM's Rob Smith, yours truly, and one really "interesting" European "journaliste." Q: What's the status of XNA? Are developers using it and how is it helping them? J Allard: XNA Studio Package will come out next year. It will have more influence on how people will design their games then. We're having marginal influence right now. We're seeing little wins right now with XNA. The PC-enabled game controller, for instance. The audio tools we've put together for Xbox 360, so you can demonstrate games on your PC. I would say we're seeing little wins right now, and the bigger wins are coming in the future. But all that said, look at what id Designer John Carmack said in the video last night, "Finally a console system that has better design tools then the PC." He's saying, "I'm trusting the game that helped build my company, Wolfenstein, to Xbox 360 as a primary development platform." I'm hoping that says something. I hope it says something that we're doing something right in the software space. But I'm not complacent about it at all, I consider that a little win. Allard: "We've got to do better on compression. We're not totally where we want to be with compression." Q: I've spoken to several developers and they're all telling me they're filling up their DVD pretty quickly, that the media isn't big enough. What's going to be done about that? Allard: Well, we've got to do better on compression. We're not totally where we want to be with compression. Honestly, to be frank, stuff comes in hot. We're trying to do a worldwide launch of this very ambitious program, and developers will tell you that they're not very satisfied with the DVD emulator or compression. And therefore they are layouts with DVD, they're struggling with that; they're cutting corners. Basically what happens when you get final hardware late, you're sloppy. With all deference to the developers, you've got to take every out you can and so they're not applying all their talents, as they will next year and the year after to get every little bit they can out of it. They're being a little sloppy with the CPU, they're being a little sloppy with the discs, they're being a little sloppy with their formats and compression to make launch. And next year, you'll see that they tighten that up so they can get more out of the system using the same disc capacity, using the same compression, and the same art tools, and so they'll get a lot more out of the system next year. That's why games look better year over year. It's primarily because hardware comes in hot, and developers use the deficiency of the schedule not to just learn the hardware but to cut a couple of corners. Q: How important is downloading games on Xbox Live Marketplace to the future of Xbox 360? Allard: We'll see. Well, obviously I think Xbox Live Arcade is really important. Bigger games are hard, you know. You take music, and you say, music is one size of content, and you take movies, and you say, that's the next size of content, televisions are in the middle as well, and games are the biggest content you'll ever download. But we talk about, "Will I buy Halo 4 online exclusively online?" I don't know. I don't think about it that way. I think about the marketplace as a place to have a real friction-free relationship with a gamer where you can say, "Hey look, try the trailer on your TV." If you have a 23-inch high-DV TV, a 12-inch, a black-and-white rabbit-ear TV, or a 75-inch, cutting edge, state-of-the-art plasma TV, enjoy the trailer, enjoy the demo in the setting that you're used to. Not at a kiosk at retail, not a month after the game is already on stores, but the day that Activision is ready, Boom! You can play it on your TV set. And with bandwidth restrictions, the hardware size, which is practical to offer, and digital rights and all that, trailers and demos are about the right size for people's patience right now. So I think it starts there. I think it also starts with, "How do I think about accessorizing games?" You know, just like when you look at all the accessories on cell phones in Asia, how do I accessorize my cell phone, or accessorize your fashion? How does a game like Halo or Doom or something else that's on a three- or four-year cycle, how do they accessorize a game and keep people motivated? You know, we have a lot of level hacks on Halo. We kept a lot of artists employed on Halo 2 by creating new levels after the game went out. Would there be a whole lot more we can do if we have themes? We'd have a Halo 2 theme. Might be free, might charge you for it. Gamer tiles. We have gamer tiles for you. Soundtracks. We have sound tracks for you. You know, we might be able to pump out a lot of stuff to you in the Halo universe. Maybe we're broadcasting Red Vs. Blue on your TV rather than on your PC. You know, the marketplace lets you do all that. What's going to work? I don't know. Some things are going to work. Some things are going to fall flat. Some people will feel like they're jammed, some people are going to hate the advertising, and I don't know how it's going to happen. But I think all those models will be explored, and I think it's going to be health for the industry long-term. Only 30% of it will be good. Q: What kind of themes will there be? Are they only first-party ones? Allard: Oh, no. There are many others. There's a Dead or Alive one, and EA tiles. Same thing with gamer tiles. There's Tony Hawk American Wasteland, so we're opening it up. The tricky part is, to be frank, it hasn't been a primary focus with us to establish what the right business model is, what the right price points are, how do we manage the portfolio, what's the right number of gamer tiles on day one? We're a little more focused on the right number of games on day one. And probably our secondary focus is around Live Arcade. And then, very tertiary to that, is how many gamer tiles, and who should they be from, and what should the approval process look like? Instead it was like our team said, "Hey, we can personalize the crap out of this thing!" Here's how you make a theme, here's how you make some tiles, do what you can; happy to chuck it in. and you can chuck it in the marketplace, you can chuck it on the hard drive, your choice. So, there will be some stuff up on marketplace on day one. Some additional ones will be on the hard drive. Q: So, what will be on the hard drive? Allard: Some cool stuff. There will be a little video content, a little audio content, I don't know if we're actually allowed to say what's on there... (whispers to PR director...) OK, I can talk about this. I'm the boss. (Smiles.) Yeah, so there will be a soundtrack. We're putting together a custom soundtrack, so it basically comes with a free album. We're going to have a video on it. We'll have a little "Making of Xbox 360" video. And it will come up on your video samplers. It will have gamer tiles, and a game, Hexic. That comes on the hard drive. You know, we're giving users a reason to go somewhere. You know it's a little more fun to go to the video section and find a video there, than nothing at all. So, you'll see a little 3-minute video on the making of Xbox 360, and you'll go, "Oh, OK. I understand what that section is about." So, you'll see stuff in the marketplace, in the trailers section, and part of it is to get the customers to understand the capabilities of the system, to discover more on their own. Part of it is to give them a little bonus for buying the hard drive. Allard: "We designed a worldwide product with worldwide partners, and with worldwide ambition, and the world deserves to see it all at the same time, and we're not going to have enough." Q: Your shipping schedule is very ambitious. Nobody has tried to ship to three different territories simultaneously and for a good reason. It's very difficult. You've got chip manufacturers hopefully churning out perfect chips, and how is your yield of good to bad chips? Then you have assembly, manufacturing, shipping all over the world. So, how are you going to do it? How many units will you ship to North America, and how many do you plan on shipping total in North America? Allard: We have a term for this. It's a very technical term. It's called a very hard problem. It's just hard. So, the first thing is, I cannot comment on the numbers. You can try all you want, but I won't give any up. Partly because we're only in the beginning of manufacturing. The ramp rate we're aiming for is very, very steep. We're hoping to manufacture them at a rate that's much more aggressive than anybody's done before. And it's going very well. But until that sort of evens out, attaining a cruising altitude in manufacturing, I don't even have a very accurate forecast for my boss. And until that happens, we don't really tell anybody else. The other thing is, with the financial community, we have to be very deliberate about releasing information like that for all sorts of reasons. We have to be cautious of regulatory issues. That's why we don't comment on the numbers. But manufacturing is going very well. And honestly we decided as a management team that we'd rather take the heat from all territories saying we wish we had more. And we'll have to say "sold out" in too many places. We'd rather take that heat, then take the heat from Europe saying, "Why do we have to wait a year?" We designed a worldwide product with worldwide partners, and with worldwide ambition, and the world deserves to see it all at the same time, and we're not going to have enough. That's the fact. No matter how aggressive we are with the ramp rate, no matter how good our yields are, that's going to be the fact, which is another reason that manufacturers are worldwide. So hopefully you guys are thoughtful of that in how you report the news, and there will be "sold out" signs out there, and we know we're going to take some heat, but hopefully it's the right thing for the industry. And I think that Gerhardt Florin (Executive VP at EA Europe) said last night, "You know, sometimes the right thing to do is the gutsy thing to do, which is the hard thing to do." And our partners are certainly glad we're doing it, and I think that gamers worldwide are glad we're doing it. Q: Where are the Xbox 360s being manufactured? Allard: We're making them in China at two different manufacturing facilities, one by the name of Wistron, and the other by the name of Flextronics. Both companies that we've used. [Microsoft is also using Celestica, which is a new business relationship.] We're actually using additional companies on top of that who are providing peripheral supply. We have boat containers, we've got planes, we're going to have machines leaving on boats, you know ahead of the ones leaving on planes, and they're going to arrive at the same time to hit the distribution centers to get them on the shelves at Wal-Mart, EBX, and it's a logistical nightmare. It really is. It's going to be a hell of a thing. It won't go perfect. It just won't. And like I said, I'd rather apologize for having an imperfect worldwide launch and not having enough units, than saying, "Yeah we got it right for this set of customers." You know, "Sorry Activision, all that money you poured into those franchises and those games, those are going to be old by the time you get around to sell them in Europe, and never mind." No, we're not doing it that way. Q: It looks like a lot of publishers are going to be releasing their games a week before the launch. A week before November 22. Those games will be stores, and it's highly unlikely that retailers are going to hold onto those games for a week. Allard: Could happen. I don't know. Q: How about Microsoft? Will you be shipping your first-party games a week before launch? Allard: I don't know. Haven't certified a game yet. There is no game in manufacturing yet, that's the only thing I can attest to. And when we do, you know, retailers did that a little with Xbox, it's going to be a retail by retail decision. I don't think we're doing anything to try and coordinate that. Allard: "We're hoping that all three first-party titles will make day one. We're on a good trajectory with all three of those. Can I guarantee day one? You know, there is a chance they won't all make day one. But they'll all make this holiday." Q: Will the first-party games be out a week before launch? Allard: We're hoping that all three first-party titles will make day one. We're on a good trajectory with all three of those. Can I guarantee day one? Well, what we learned with Halo is you don't ship a game before it's ready. Not because we're shipping a game before it's ready, but because we were very wise to wait until November, and putting in all the capabilities we wanted. Each of the three first-party teams that are working toward launch have a bar, and they say, "Where we want the game to be needs to be over this bar before we say it's ready." They're all incredibly motivated and working very, very hard. But you know, there is a chance they won't all make day one. But they'll all make this holiday. Q: One of my favorite things about the system is that you can plug in your iPod or a portable music player into it, and stream music. Are there any worries that certain companies will update their software to somehow make their systems not work with the Xbox 360? Allard: You can't worry about stuff like that. I'm pro consumer on this one to the end. Anybody in my company who thought this was a bad idea to plug in Sony or Apple devices into this thing, I ended that conversation pretty quickly. This is the right thing to do for consumers. Once they invest $500 in their digital media library, you can't ask them to go buy a 360 music player and a 360 digital camera, and a 360...NO! They got their stuff. They're going to want to plug it in. We're going to be open here, guys. And if anything, I wish we could be more cooperative with the other companies that are doing those things. And if Sony or Apple were to call me up and say, "Hey, we want to some special things with the 360," I'm on it. I think it would not be in anybody's interest to say, we're not going to work with 360. It's good for them, it's good for us, and it's good for consumers. Q: Have you heard any rumblings of anybody saying they do want to work with Microsoft? Allard: Oh, Steve (Jobs, president of Apple) asked me for one. He's like, "Hey, when this thing comes out, I want to get one, they're pretty cool." And I'll be like, "You didn't give me much of a break on those 7,000 G5s I bought Steve...you know, Jeez. (Laughter) We'll ship you as many as you want, full retail, baby. (Laughter.) No, that's not true. Apple is a good partner with the development kit program. Q: Some people say the Xbox 360 looks the same as other systems. That it is just more of the same, just more powerful than the other systems. That it's just more graphics, more polygons, more, more, more. What will it do that is different? Allard: Um, that's difficult to contend with. I mean, we are making a system to play videogames. It is a rectangular box with a power supply that hooks up to the TV with a game controller. (Laughter.) What do you want? You know, it's an interesting question. You know, do you want it to be a holographic experience that you play in your bathtub? We could have made it different What we've tried to do is build off the what's been successful historically, and said, look, the category of games that hardcore gamers are going to want, well, we're going to have those covered, we're going to have sports, racing, fighting, RPGs, and the shooter category, which, if you were talking about five years ago, you would have said, "What are you doing with first-person shooters on your console? These are crappy PC ports, this is a really bad idea." Many people have that opinion, and now first-person shooters are a very big category, so I think we are doing some breakthrough stuff. What we're doing with Xbox Live Arcade, with the integration of media, the ambition we have with high definition, and the commitment we have to wireless. And while the competition is saying they'll do wireless too, it's fact that we're the first console that's ever shipped with a wireless radio in the box and world-class bi-directional audio, with wireless controllers. So, I think we've taken the very best of gaming and made it better, and I think we've taken the best innovations with, whether it's Live, whether it's voice, or whether it's Live Arcade, and integrated that more deeply into the system -- and connecting out to the media stuff is what gamers want. So, is my cell phone the same thing, but a different thing? Yes, it is. But I'm glad it's got a color screen, I love the text messaging, and the camera I can't live without, and it's really nice that it connects with my schedule. At the end of the day, it's still a thing I use to make phone calls with, and I still call the same people, but heck, it's a lot better. It's next generation. If I compare this to the first cell phone I had, it's a whole world different. And if you go too far, and you try to change the category altogether and we give you a wacky controller, or I'm going to give you wacky games that you don't really understand, and we're going to market it or price it in a wacky way, I think we would have been very much a failure. Q: Let's step back for a second. What do you think Sony is doing right now? I'm asking from a pure speculative perspective. Let's just look at what they have said and done. What is your opinion of what Sony is thinking and feeling right now? Just your opinion. Allard: "I hope that Sony is nervous. Their list of claims versus their list of proof, well, there is a big, big gap there to close between now and spring 06." Allard: I hope that Sony is nervous. Honestly, because our launch lineup looks great. They've shown two really good movies. And a picture of a console that doesn't have any ventilation holes in it. Their list of claims versus their list of proof, well, there is a big, big gap there to close between now and spring 06. So, if I'm in Sony's shoes, I'm a little nervous right now because our lineup looks great. Our hardware is the same. We have a kick-ass online service that just got better. Our media support is really, really good. And we got the industrial design right. If I'm sitting in Mr. Kutaragi's shoes? I've got a lot of work to do between now and spring. But hopefully that's all goodness. Hopefully it's spurring the Sony team to go, "We have to get serious about online, no more rhetoric, let's go build a service. Let's go buy somebody, let's go buy somebody else, let's get serious." They went and they bought a systems company, God bless 'em. If my GDC keynote contributed to Sony having better tools on PlayStation, so developers can be better on PlayStation, and focus more on games, god bless 'em. That's a good thing. If they are embarrassed by their controller design as a result of having played with our wireless game pad, and they make a better controller? That's a good thing. God Bless 'em. That's good for the industry. I hope that it's healthy competition. And that they are a little nervous and they're looking to see what we've done and done well and said, "Hey, for the things that we're not quite finished with, let's make them better. You know, we aspire more to do more as a result of Microsoft being in the market;" that's what I hope they're doing. And I hope they're not getting complacent, and saying, "Hey, we've got a great brand, we've got a couple of great franchises, we're unstoppable because we've had two rounds." I hope they're not doing that. I hope that they're going to put up a real good fight for position number one. Because if they do, consumers benefit, and we'll grow that market. Q: Do you think PS3 is still coming out in spring 06? Allard: I keep reading spring 06. You keep writing it. He keeps saying it, you keep writing it, and I keep reading it. I don't know what to believe. The only console I have seen doesn't have holes in it. You can't have a 200-watt-plus system and not have air flow through it. You know? Nobody has tried the boomerang yet. I hope they do something better than that.