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Inside Xbox 360: An interview with Jeff Henshaw (Part One)

In my earlier showcase, MSN: The Inside Story, I noted that part of MSN's aura comes from its physical isolation from Microsoft's main campus in Redmond. But MSN, ensconced in the so-called Red West campus, is at least located in the same neighborhood as the main campus. The Xbox team, by comparison, is miles away at the Millennium Campus, found in the far end of Redmond. Sandwiched between an extremely rural area and the type of rapidly growing suburb that now dominates Seattle area's West Side, Millennium Campus might as well be on a completely different planet from the main Microsoft campus. It's that far removed.

The differences between the place the Xbox team calls home and the main Microsoft campus are further amplified when you walk in the door. Everyone there seems to understand that they're in the business of entertainment, from the receptionist who instantly started joking around with me to the Master Chief statue that guards the entrance (Figure): A now-wilted flower had been taped to one of the Chief's guns in an apparent bid to tone down his otherwise violent pose. On the walls in reception are shipment awards, commemorating various milestones such as Halo's 1 millionth sale or Project Gotham Racing's 3 millionth (Figure).

Then I found out I was in the wrong building. Hey, it was my first visit. When I arrived over in Millennium B (I had walked into Millennium D by mistake), I discovered that even the Xbox team's meeting rooms were different than those found throughout the rest of Microsoft. Instead of the Death Star meeting room effect that dominates so many of my Microsoft meetings, the triangular meeting room in Millennium B features plush chairs, an HDTV flat panel display, a 5.1 speaker surround sound system and, oh, an Xbox 360 prototype system with four wireless controllers. Yippee.

Of course, at this stage in the game, the Xbox 360 is really three linked Power Mac G5 development systems. But Microsoft has already made progress since the Xbox 360's debut last month at E3 and I was able to get a few demos that only recently started working, such as portable audio player and digital camera support.

I met with Jeff Henshaw, the Executive Producer for Xbox Digital Entertainment at Microsoft. Jeff was part of the team that launched the original Xbox, and these days he's behind the push to make Xbox 360 a mainstream entertainment device. This was the second time I'd discussed Xbox 360 with Jeff, but the first time in person. Jeff is a great guy and, as you might expect, he's passionate and enthusiastic about Xbox 360 and its potential to change the face of entertainment. Who wouldn't be? He's got the greatest job in the world.

The bastard.

Paul, meet Jeff. Paul, meet Xbox 360

Jeff: I manage the software and a leeeetle bit of hardware---not too much, just the occasional peripheral. My team is really focused on the core system software, the platform software that goes into the console, the tools and assistance that we give to developers who are writing cutting-edge games for the Xbox platforms, and then also a lot of the new digital entertainment experiences we're building around Xbox Live. I'll give you a glimpse of that stuff today, both in-game and out of games. I'll show you a mix of things that happen while playing games and the evolutions and revolutions we've built there, as well as some of the new digital entertainment features that we've built that are completely outside of games. Half or maybe one-third of what you'll see doesn't take place in a game but appeals to a broad audience of consumers as an entertainment value proposition. These are things like digital photos, digital music, real-time communications, and video chat. They aren't necessarily hard-core competitive gaming [features] but they work really well on a console, and they're really fun for a broad audience.

You're going to hear me really drive home three key points about the next generation of console gaming. This is really how we tee up the entire Xbox 360 program that we're going to be launching later this year.

Leading the high-definition revolution

Jeff: The first real wave of revolution that we think Xbox 360 is going to bring to gaming worldwide is high definition gaming. You heard this a lot at E3. If you walked out of E3 without hearing high-def, it would be a miracle.

Hi-def to us is, partly, about pixels on the screen. Every Xbox 360 game is going to be 720p minimum, high-def resolution, 16 x 9 aspect ratio. It will look great on both high-def and standard-def televisions because we built in enough graphics horsepower that Xbox 360 in real time can scale down high-def images to standard def.

Paul: Is it scaling down to the same aspect ratio? Or is it scaling it down to 4:3?

Jeff: We will actually give the game developers a choice. They can either have the Xbox 360 automatically crop or scale. Or, they can render a different aspect ratio scene of their game if they want to. Or, a game developer can say, "let the user choose." And there will actually be a setting in Xbox 360 to tell the box what it should do. And game developers can just hand it over to the box to decide what's best from a user's perspective.

Paul: Not to get completely off topic, but there are a couple of things from E3 I'd like to cover. One of them is that Sony talked about 1080p, and there was sort of an ... issue ... there about whether that was even real or not.

Jeff: The total number of 1080p-capable TVs on the planet today is ... zero. There are none. Sony has got a dual ... I want to make sure I say this right, because it's science fiction. They had dual HDMI outputs off the back of the console. And I think that there's some theory that you could take dual 1080i signals and interlace them together to have a progressively rendered scene. But again, there are no TVs that actually support this. I think most people are going to actually take one of the HDMI outputs and just feed it out at 1080i.

"I want to make sure I say this right, because it's science fiction. Sony's 1080p claim is just marketure. Let's sit down and look at a 1080p game on a 1080p console on a 1080p television as soon as those things are all there. I'm eager to see it. We can all guess as to what year that might be."

-- Jeff Henshaw

Our focus is on really recognizing that people today are buying HD-capable sets as a mainstream purchase. The price points have really come down. You're starting to see really basic tube-based HD sets now for just $200. So people have got hi-def capable sets at home. Occasionally, you'll see someone with an HD cable or satellite feed--I have HD cable at home--but people are screaming for content to really exercise these hi-def sets that they've bought.

Meanwhile, our retail partners are screaming for something they can show in the stores that promotes the value of hi-def programming and lets them bring customers into a location and show them hi-def content, and let them hear surround sound, and experience that. So they're not just selling a game console, they can also get that TV sold or that surround sound system sold. Both our customers and our retail partners are looking at Xbox 360 as the catalyst that will really get the hi-def revolution burning.

All of that is focused around 720p and 1080i today, and occasionally even 480p on the lower end. That's what people have, and that's what people are continuing to buy. With 1080p, I don't know when 1080p TVs are going to hit the scene. I don't know what they're going to cost. I don't know how quick the adoption curve is going to be. We're focused on the adoption curve that we see happening over the next five years, which is 720p and 1080i. And that's why we've architected the Xbox 360 system to shine on those sets and protect the investments that people have made.

Paul: So Sony's 1080p claim is just...

Jeff: Marketure. Let's sit down and look at a 1080p game on a 1080p console on a 1080p television as soon as those things are all there. I'm eager to see it. We can all guess as to what year that might be.

Hi-def to us means more than just the graphics resolutions we've been talking about though. It also means how people hear the game. On Xbox 360, every single game will support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound at a minimum. Many games will go higher than that, will use 1080i graphics and 7.1 channel surround sound. But 720p and 5.1 channel surround sound are the minimal hi-def visual and audio aspects of Xbox 360. So hi-def is really that first key pillar for us.

Always-connected entertainment

Jeff: The Xbox 360 will also bring "always-connected entertainment" to people. And by always-connected, I mean no matter what game you're playing, users will always have access to their friends online through Xbox Live. On Xbox 360, every single game is Xbox Live enabled because the system itself is Xbox Live aware. So even if you're playing a single player offline game that has no multiplayer functionality at all, you still have the ability to receive invitations to play with your friends. You also still have the ability to bring up your friends list and see who is playing what, and see whether you'd like to join them.

That goes beyond just gaming. If you're listening to an audio CD, or watching a DVD movie, you're still always connected to that group of friends. Even if you're watching live TV through Media Center Extender, you're still connected to all of your friends.

Paul: On the Xbox today, when you're playing just about any game in single player mode, it's not really possible to get that sort of thing, is it? Or is that something that individual games can choose to support?

Jeff: It is. On Xbox today, it's up to the game developer to decide when the game is online and when the game is offline. Of the overall [Xbox game] portfolio, about 90 percent of the games are pure offline games. They are completely unaware of Xbox Live. Now 10 percent of the games are Live enabled, and they actually connect to the service for multiplayer gaming. And when you're in a multiplayer match, you have access to your friends. And a few of the games, even when you're playing single player, they're smart enough to still connect to the service.

Paul: Halo 2 is an example of that.

Jeff: Yes, Halo 2 is an example of that. Even when I'm playing single player in campaign mode, I'm still connected to Xbox Live and my friends can still send me invites. Another example is Ubisoft's Prince of Persia, which is interesting. Prince of Persia doesn't even have multiplayer mode, it just works in story mode. But Ubisoft is such a huge supporter of Xbox Live that even the single player, offline, non-multiplayer game still connects people to Xbox Live so they can keep in touch with their community. I found that I really loved playing Prince of Persia because my friends could always get a hold of me. If Sean [Xbox PR rep] wanted to invite me to play, even though I'm just playing this story mode game, he still had access to me. And then when I went back to the next offline game that didn't have that functionality, I felt like someone had disconnected the phone and pulled out the cable. I felt totally isolated. It's a bad experience.

Paul: So on the Xbox 360 version of Live, this is no longer an issue?

Jeff: On Xbox 360, this is absolutely no longer an issue. Every single game will have that always-connected functionality built into it. Always-connected means connecting to devices as well as your friends. So I'm going to show you some demos of how you can connect digital audio players and digital cameras directly to Xbox 360 and get at the content on those devices that people care about, in a really easy, plug-and-play way.

Personalized for your enjoyment

Jeff: The third and final pillar is "always personalized." You're going to see personalization everywhere in what I show you today. It begins with the hardware. On Xbox 360, we actually let people pull the front faceplate off of the console and put a custom faceplate on there. It extends into the software, where users will be able to download custom themes and skins to make the software look exactly the way they want. And it even extends online, in [users'] digital identity, where they can customize their online profile. And that stuff I'd rather just frankly show you because I've already customized my profile and you can see exactly what that looks like.

Wanna see some software?

Paul: Not really. Oh wait, yes.

Jeff: That's what you're here for. I know that's what you're here for.


A look at the hand controllers

[I was able to play around with a mockup hand controller that is a bit different from the final shipping unit. There are six controllers in the room in total, three each of two different designs. Jeff uses a controller that represents the final design. The hand controller is white and resembles today's Xbox S controller, but features a fat, square batter pack on the back where the memory unit slots used to be. Also, the black and white buttons have been moved to the rear of the unit.]

Jeff: One of the key elements of that hi-def pillar is high-definition communication between user and console. In this case, it's all done wirelessly. Every Xbox 360 console is going to support wireless controllers out of the box.

[I turn the controller over in my hands and examine the squared off bulge on its rear.]

Paul: This is the battery pack then?

Jeff: That is the battery pack.

Paul: And it looks like you've moved the white and black buttons to the back [of the controller].

Jeff: We have. Those have become what we call Shoulder buttons. The right and left triggers are the same, and you've got four analog buttons, a couple of thumb sticks, and a D-pad [directional pad].

Paul: Right.

Jeff: On Xbox 360, everything is wireless. You're going to see me do this entire set of demos wirelessly except for one part that we've mocked up on an Xbox 1. And when you watch me connect to this Xbox 1 with a wired controller, I just get miserable, because I'm chained to that corner of the room. Wireless is really becoming the de facto way for people to interact with their consoles. There are no cables with dogs and kids tripping over them or pulling them out just as you're about to beat a game. It's definitely the way to go.

Ring of Light: The Xbox 360 Friends List and Invites

Jeff: So I want to start you out in a game called Crimson Skies, which is actually an Xbox 1 game, which I'm just using as a backdrop to show you some of the new platform innovations that we made. With Xbox 360, our heart and soul is all about thrilling the hard core online gamers, so I want to start you out in this experience with an Xbox 360 version of Crimson Skies.

One of the first things you'll notice is that I've gotten one of those gamer invites. You know what those invites look like on Xbox 1. On Xbox 1, literally, all you get is the Gamertag of the person that is trying to get a hold of you. Online, I'm [Gamertag]. So if I were going to try to get a hold of you on Xbox Live, you would see something pop-up from [Gamertag]. You would have no idea who I am or what I want unless you happen to know the person behind the Gamertag, which in my case you wouldn't. You just get an invitation, it tells you nothing.

On Xbox 360, we've really innovated with the invitations themselves. They include a lot more detail, right there in the invite. In this case, I can see that Sniper Monkey is sending me a Friend invite, which means they want me to be on their Friends list. We've also added what you see there on the left, what we call the Ring of Light. The Ring of Light is one of those really consistent design elements that you see elsewhere with Xbox 360, like around the power button on the console itself and around the Xbox 360 button on the controllers. And you'll see it in the software in exactly the same way. It's a design element we made common throughout the entire family of Xbox 360 components, so that people have a very familiar experience no matter what they're doing.

In this case, the Ring of Light is also functional. You'll notice that the upper left quadrant is lit up there. It maps to my upper left quadrant being lit on the controller. And this tells me that this invite is specifically for me. This way, if there are four people all playing together on a couch with wireless controllers, and you get four invitations lined up across the bottom of the screen, everyone knows which one is for them.

Paul: So it's the same quadrant that's lit on yours?

Jeff: Exactly. You know who its for just by looking at your controller. [The onscreen invitation] also has the Xbox 360 logo flashing there in the middle of the Ring of Light. That tells me that the key to unlocking the experience that's behind this invitation is activated by pressing that Xbox 360 button [on the hand controller]. And when I press that Xbox 360 button, an entirely new user interface, designed just for Xbox 360, appears. We call this the Xbox Guide.

The Xbox 360 Guide

[One thing you don't get when you see screenshots of the Xbox Guide is how beautiful it is. The Guide slides seamless in and out of the left side of the screen and overlays about 50 percent of the screen when activates. It's an amazing effect.]

Paul: So that kind of overlays the game screen.

Jeff: Exactly. I'm glad you noticed that. It overlays right on top of the game. What that means is that these Invitations and the Xbox Guide are available any time, in any game, or any other Xbox 360 experience. The game will usually pause, if it's a single player game. In this case [the demo version of Crimson Skies] the game is still running, but most games will pause. With online multiplayer games, we'll let the other people continue to go at it. But it's up to the game [developer] to decide what it does here.

But the key here is that I haven't had to exit the game. I haven't had to get up and eject a disc. All I've done is pressed that Xbox 360 button and immediately that Guide is available. And I could have been doing anything else that Xbox 360 can do [when the Invitation was received]. I could have been watching digitally recorded television [using the Xbox 360's Media Center Extender functionality], I could have been having a video chat, I could have been listening to an audio CD, anything. In any experience, this stuff is always available.

Now because I brought up the Guide while this invitation from Spider Monkey was on the screen, this version of the Guide actually shows me more information about who this person is. We've got what we call a Gamercard here in the upper left, which you can think of as a quick thumbnail view of what this person's all about. In this case, Spider Monkey has actually customized her Gamercard with her own photo, that she snapped with the Xbox 360 camera. The camera will give people a really great way to snap a photo and blast it onto their Gamercard, giving it a really personalized look. She's also got some key, top-line statistics here, based around what kind of gamer she is. Some of that comes from community reputation, a score that comes out of game play--the more games you play, the higher your score is going to be--and ....

Paul: How does that map to what we see now in Halo 2? I know in Halo 2 [on Xbox Live] you have a rating that goes up and down. Is this based on that?

Jeff: This is a ubiquitous score across all games. The Halo 2 rating would feed into this. You can actually drill into someone's digital profile and see which games are contributing to this score. If a game has a lot of specific stats, which Halo will, you'll be able to drill into those specific stats here as well. They contributed to this score.

Let's say you're online and you have a Gamerscore of 5,000 and you see Spider Monkey has 5,300 and think, "well, we're pretty close in terms of overall accomplishments. But let's see what kind of player she is." 4,900 points in my score came from Halo. Let's see where hers came from. And you look and find out that she only plays soccer. All 5,300 of her points come from soccer. She doesn't even own Halo. That will give you a little more detail, and in this case tell you that maybe you don't want to hook up with her.

But overall, Spider Monkey looks like a pretty cool person for me to hook up with, so I go ahead and accept the Friend Invite. Now, it's going to drop me right back into the game. I can pick up the action right where I left off.

That Xbox 360 button is a really cool tool for bringing up the Guide to field information on the system in real time. If I press that button while there is no invitation on the screen, I will get some view of the Guide that's based on what I'm doing right now. It's system wide. Any time I press that button, I'll get the Guide. If I'm listening to an audio CD and I press that button, the Xbox Guide is going to appear and give me a little bit of information about the artist and album or whatever.

Paul: So you're in Crimson Skies right now and one of the things you can do is download new game content.

Jeff: Exactly. And this version of the Xbox Guide is focused on me. It has my picture, my Gamerscore, it's got access to my community, and--even for offline players who have never connected to Xbox Live--the Guide still has value.

[I point out some music controls in the Guide and asks whether that has something to do with music that's been ripped to the console.]

Those are music shuttle controls that will let you replace the game's built-in music with your own custom playlist.

Paul: So you've customized this game to play your own music.

Jeff: Exactly. And that can be music that I've ripped onto my Xbox, or it can be music that I'm streaming from a PC or a Media Center [elsewhere on your home network]. Any music source can be piped in to your custom music that plays instead of the game's built-in music.

Xbox 360 community features

[I ask about the three Community buttons I see near the top of the Guide].

Paul: Is that [first button for] email?

Jeff: That's actually not email. It's what we call the Xbox Live Message Center. It's very similar to email, but there are a few key differences. If you've used email, this is going to be very familiar. It gives you a list of messages just like your email Inbox, but this isn't connected [directly] to the Internet. This is part of the Xbox Live service. So all of those messages are going to be gaming-specific or entertainment-specific messages from trusted people that you've given the OK to.

[The Message Center contains messages from people (like Friend Invites) but also messages from the companies that made the games that you've played. Some of these messages will be geared toward new game content.]

Paul: So you've got an invite from Spider Monkey there. This is the same invite that we handled earlier, right?

Jeff: Yes, it shows up in both places. The thing that appeared on the screen let me know that this [message] was here.

I can also get an invite to chat, have an audio chat with someone. But with Xbox 360, people that have a camera can also send video messages to anyone, whether [the recipient] has a camera or not. And then they can play those video messages back.

Paul: Now, would any one of these messages would pop-up up a notification if you were using the Xbox 360 when it came in?

Jeff: Yeah, but only if you have it set up to do that. By default, we're not going to pop-up every single received message, it will just be invitations from people. If you want to be notified when any message comes in, you can turn it on.

As for the other Community buttons here, one of them is your Friends list. If you play Halo 2 online, which I know you are doing, then you know what the Friends list looks like. The big difference here on Xbox 360 is that this Guide and this Friends list is always available, in any game. So even if you buy an offline game, this still works.

The other thing that's brand new, that you haven't seen in your Friends list in Halo 2, is what we call the Recent Players list. And I'm glad you're a Halo 2 player because some of the press we've talked to aren't.

Paul: Now, Halo 2 does have a Players list.

Jeff: Halo 2 introduced the concept of a Players list, yes, where even if people weren't on your Friends list, you could at least go back and look at previous matches and write down people's Gamertags and then send them an invite if you wanted to. With the Xbox 360 Recent Players list, that works ubiquitously across all of the games. So you can step back in time and sort the list chronologically, or by the game you were playing, and see all the people that were in there, and go back into that list and invite people to play again, or to be in your Friends list, or to give them a rating.

Paul: What information do you have about what you did with them?

Jeff: It will tell you the game that you played, when you played with them, and usually who won, or what the score was. There is a game defined field that [game makers] can fill in. Depending on the game, some might just say, "You lost by 3 points." Others might say, "This guy slaughtered you by 14 frags." It will be up to the game developers. It will give you a bit of context.

So that is all of the support that is available on top of any game or on top of any entertainment experience in Xbox 360.

Continue with Part 2...

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