21st Nov 2011
The good people at Xbox India have been an elusive lot. Things have been relatively dormant in their camp when compared to the media-savvy PlayStation India side. Many people are curious to know the reasons behind Microsoft India's apparent lack of enthusiasm for a platform that is otherwise doing well internationally. Therefore, when MS sent us an invitation to demonstrate its new-fangled Xbox LIVE avatar with Kinect integration (which isn't available to Indians at the moment), we grabbed the opportunity to quiz Anshu Mor, Category Head for Xbox, Kinect, and Xbox LIVE on these issues.
How difficult is it to proposition a paid Xbox LIVE service to Indians who are very particular about value; especially when Sony's free-to-play PSN service is already well-established here?
I would disagree about Indians liking just free stuff. I think they pay for real value. Our online services aren't just built upon giving a simple gaming or a multiplayer experience. The experience is across multiple things. Even in gaming per se, the kind of content that you get — whether it's our games, third-party games, or add-on content — is far higher and richer. In terms of online multiplayer experience, our community is far more interactive. Then there's the entire communication piece, video Kinect, and all the apps etc, along with other stuff that we do with Facebook and Twitter. So the value proposition is far bigger. It's just not gaming. It's gaming plus content, apps, and communication tools.
The consumers know that if they just want to download demo games, they will get the Xbox LIVE free subscription. Anything else beyond that is a value proposition, which they understand and are happy to pay for. And I just want to throw some numbers: we have 35 million people connected worldwide. Netflix is close to 23 million, so this is the largest paid-for consumer online service.
I'm still not convinced about the happy-to-pay part. Most Indian gamers are interested more in online multiplayer gaming, which Sony offers for free. The value-added services that you speak of are a tough sell for the nascent Indian market.
Our approach is that anybody who joins Xbox LIVE, does so because they want to see a portfolio of games. Game downloads is a very big deal for India. Our game demos don't run for just 30 seconds. These are almost 1 GB - 1.5 GB downloads, and you can play a decent game in that. All of that is available for free. Users can then obviously migrate onto larger applications and different stuff, for which a paid version is available.
I don't think free game demos will be enough to match up to PSN's free-to-play nature. Anyway, the Xbox platform is considered homebrew-friendly. This is evident from the recent Kinect hacks used in the field of science and engineering. Will the next-gen Xbox be similar?
There is no talk of a next-gen console yet, because the console that we have is the next-gen console today, right? It offers all the functionality and is far higher in terms of the features that we offer. From the usability perspective, the intent is always to have a community that not only uses the product but also creates innovative ways and mechanisms to use it. Even with Kinect, there was a clear roadmap as to when we would release our SDK for the developers to start churning out applications.
Since we don't have anything to share in terms of he next version of the Xbox, I would imagine that whatever we have today as a strategy in terms of coming out with products will continue. It's working for us and it is working for the community at large, so there is no reason why we should deviate from such a strategy.
I'm still trying to make sense of what you said about the "next-gen console today" remark. The X360's success can be attributed to the fact that it had released well over a year before the PS3. Meanwhile, Sony has already started slashing its prices. Some say it's meant to clear up stocks for the next PlayStation console, and that it may happen as soon as next year. Will Microsoft use the tried-and-tested strategy of being the first one to launch, yet again?
No. I'll give you an actual example of what has happened. The redesigned Xbox 360 has been around for two years now. It gives you basic functions that will remain relevant maybe 4-5 years from now. It gets you connected to the internet and it has HD capability. Innovations have happened with Kinect, right? However, in totality it's an Xbox experience — the controller goes out of the equation and you are the controller. Now you could term this as next-gen, because you have changed the entire experience.
Then there's parallel innovation that is happening on Xbox LIVE. It's not just the content that we are adding, but the way in which the LIVE content interacts with Kinect, where you use the hand gestures to control the interface. It's not just about bringing out another console just for the sake of bringing out a new console. None of these things happen with any other platform. Others have been using motion sensors as a technology, but none use full-body motion [tracking] with nothing in your hand. That's the reality of motion sensing. So innovation has been happening and will continue to happen.
I say this because consoles are showing their age. PC-exclusives, for example, cannot be replicated on consoles. In fact, the converse leads to graphically watered-down PC games. I believe this is holding back video game technology.
It's a great thing that you've pointed out. See, it is also about hearing from the customers in terms of what they want. Halo Anniversary is a classic example of a PC game being replicated on the console. That's the first version of Halo, which was launched just on the PC and never on the console. Given the demand was so high, we actually went back and refurbished the entire Halo experience to make it as realistic as the newer versions, while keeping the storyline and essence of the original. So if there's content relevant to move from the PC to the console, we will continue to look at that. [Note: Halo was the launch title for the original Xbox console. It was ported to the PC two years later as Halo: Combat Evolved.]
I'll ignore the fact that your answer had absolutely no relation to my question. The Kinect has been integrated in some mainstream titles such as Forza Motorsport 4, but is perfunctory at best. Will the Kinect continue to exist solely as a casual gaming accessory? What are you doing to break into mainstream gaming?
This is a great question, and again what the end-user experiences depends on where these games are headed. In the casual gaming space, titles with full-body motion tracking such as Kinect Sports will continue expanding. However, we are also pushing for Kinect integration into core gaming. We have just announced that Halo Anniversary will also incorporate Kinect, and so will third-party titles such as Mass Effect 3.
We are being careful to maintain a relevant experience with Kinect for core gamers as well. In shooting games, for example, if I were to allow gamers to fire a gun with their hands, that wouldn't necessarily make for a great experience. However, if I could use Kinect to collect a few components and create a gun, that's a great experience. If I could talk through my character and affect the gameplay — that's a great experience. Such innovation will continue to happen. There's Child of Eden and whole load of such titles in the pipeline. Kinect is not restricting itself to casual gaming. The intent was to make it relevant even for the core gamer.
Xbox LIVE is a paid service where users' credit card details are involved. Do you securely encrypt your database? What are you doing to prevent a breach similar to the recent PSN hacks?
We always take the right security measures. More importantly, we aren't new to the online business. We have been hosting MSN and Hotmail for many years now, so we know how data security works. We have the right infrastructure in terms of data centres and security setups.
I tried to procure an Xbox LIVE Gold voucher during the Gears of War 3 launch. None of the authorised retailers stocked it, and the best they could do was order it in two weeks. That's rather concerning on the eve of a big Xbox game launch. Why isn't the service being promoted properly?
That's a great feedback. Of course, the service is picking up. There's a great demand for Xbox LIVE memberships and vouchers, and we are doing all that we can to meet that demand. If there has been a one-off experience where you cannot find a voucher — trust me, that is an aberration. However, we will definitely take a look at that.
An aberration that seems to be going on for a while. Moving on, consoles ship with subsidised hardware to offset high software costs. Why do you charge Rs 9500 for the Kinect, when it has been found to cost only $56 (Rs 3000) to make?
Frankly, nobody's told me how much it costs to manufacture [laughs]. We obviously have a mechanism in place that makes relevant business sense to price a particular product, and that's what is followed with the Kinect as well. I frankly don't have an idea on the actual dollar price of the Kinect.
Sony replicates its PS2 DVDs in India to insulate gamers from import duties. Does Microsoft plan to do the same and pass on the savings to its customers?
We have nothing planned at the moment to replicate games in India, so we will continue to import titles. However, we focus on getting relevant content at the right time. If there's a global launch of a particular game, we bring it to the Indian markets at the same day. But no local production plans for us, as of now.
Have you planned any other means of subsidising game prices?
It's not a subsidy, but a policy discussion involving the government and two industry forums that we are a part of. We are trying to ensure that gaming is perceived and given its due place, as far as policy creation is concerned. There are duty structures that hurt the pricing of games in India. This is an ongoing discussion. We are hopeful that the government will listen and work out the right duty mechanisms, which would then help decrease game prices.
XBL Arcade is an excellent platform for independent game developers, with plenty of good games. Is Microsoft India doing anything to rope in local talent?
We have a developer organisation that exists within Microsoft — not only for gaming, but across products. That development community interacts with us regularly. There is of course a quality mechanism in place, and I'm here to make sure the quality of every game on the platform meets a certain standard. Talks are on with such developers. You will see a lot of local developers either making full arcade games or contributing to larger retail games soon.
Indian gamers were spooked by the high failure rates associated with the earlier versions X360 — the dreaded and ubiquitous RROD (Red Ring Of Death). What have you done to address that perception?
You're right about the perception issue, which could have been due to the old console. There are two things that we clearly did at that point of time. (1) We obviously came out with this new console, which hasn't had that issue at all, at least to our knowledge. (2) Even when we were experiencing those issues, we ensured that the consumer experience remained intact. If you got the RRoD and called customer care, we would get a new X360 to your house — no questions asked. Hopefully, that has at least given them a sense that we are behind every purchase they make, and that we are solidly behind the product.
Agreed. Now, digital content distribution systems such as Steam are doing pretty well internationally and even in India despite the lack of broadband internet penetration. What do you make of it from a console perspective?
I think it will be one of the fundamental pillars of console gaming strategies. You're right; internet penetration is pretty low in this country, but it is growing. Our impetus on Xbox LIVE is primarily because of that. However, I believe both forms will exist. Some prefer retail stores, while some want to experience it online right in their living rooms. We're making sure that both the experiences are consistent and that they provide right value to the consumer. Our portfolio is the largest available in any online gaming service today. It has 35 million people across the world and we will continue building on that.
Do you see it replacing the optical drive on consoles?
I don't see that happening. Both will exist because there is a demand for them. Even now, there are a lot of consumers who prefer to buy a game DVD and have that sense of owning a title rather than it sitting in bits and bytes in your hard drive.
Speaking of optical media, the big format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD ended in Sony's favour. Much of the PS3's success can be attributed to its ability to excel as a Blu-ray player. Do you plan on moving to Blu-ray with the next iteration of the Xbox?
There's nothing to share in terms of a roadmap for the next console. We believe that our current offering serves a majority of the market that is happy with HD content. No comments at this stage about future plans.
Gamers hate it when Games For Windows LIVE forces them to download large files without the option of resuming or even indicating how long it will take. What is Microsoft doing to make it more user-friendly?
We are revisiting that piece specifically for India in terms of how we get the right experience and value for our customers. We know it's not been something which... well, there have been issues. Let me put it this way: the customers believe that they are not getting the right experience. We are looking at the issue carefully. Again, no fixed date on when we will solve these problems, but it clearly figures in our strategy.
Well, at least that was honest. Do you play any games?
I play a whole lot of games. In fact, I get to play our games before anyone does in India. I believe I'm in the best job ever [laughs]. I'm a huge gamer myself, and my favourite titles are Gears of War, FIFA, and the F1 series. I love car racing, so Forza Motorsport 4 has been a delight. I especially like Fruit Ninja on a larger screen through the Kinect. Can you imagine, I can play at home for as much time as I want and tell my wife that I am working!
Lucky you. What are your favourite gadgets?
[Laughs] They are the Xbox 360 and Kinect — the entire gaming thing. I love the new Windows Phone 7.5 devices. They are fantastic. You should try it. It even has Xbox LIVE integration, so you can get your Gamer Profile out there. Between the Windows Phone and Xbox, my life is pretty much taken care of!
Looks like true happiness does exist after all.