"We've seen it a few times ourselves and sometimes we get almost blasé about how powerful it is." So says Chris Lewis - regional vice president, Xbox, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) - of Xbox 360, Microsoft's next-gen powerhouse that can catch even those company men who have had the pleasure of several fiddles by surprise, it seems. And that wasn't all Chris had to say on Xbox 360 when we cornered him recently for a chat about the console...
What was the motivation behind offering two Xbox 360 packages?
Chris Lewis: We want to offer the gamer a lot of choice. That's the key thing for us. We're very keen to listen and to learn about what the gamers want, and we understand that some gamers want to scale the system at their own speed. The Premium system offers the best value and the best scalability for the hardcore gamer because it's got everything in the box, it's got the 20Gb hard drive. But for the gamer who just wants to jump straight into high-def gaming and doesn't yet know how or how much they want to scale the system, then the Xbox 360 Core system is perfect for them.
How do you think people will react to the price point?
Chris Lewis: We've already had a really positive reaction to the price point. We've listened to what people want, we've learned from our Xbox 360 experience, and we're going to reflect that with Xbox 360.
Is it proving difficult to deliver your promised simultaneous launch in the US, Europe and Japan?
Chris Lewis: It's tough, but it's also recognition of just how important Europe is. I personally feel a huge weight of responsibility that we win in Europe. We will be simultaneous with the US and Japan, and sure, there might be a week in between, but in reality its as simultaneous as it could be.
There's been a lot of talk about potential Xbox 360 stock shortages at Christmas. Do you feel confident that you'll be able to meet demand?
Chris Lewis: Yes. Yes, we will. We wouldn't launch in a territory if we didn't have the right quantities to meet the demand. I'm sure we will not only have the right amount of Xbox 360s available, but that they'll also be available in all the key countries of Europe. We'll be in every country where we're active with Xbox, and I'm confident we'll have the right quantities to satisfy demand before Christmas. Hey, you know, coming out of the back of Christmas we may well be sold out or in thin supply, but the critical thing is that we can replenish very quickly. You won't see supplies dry up and then have a long wait. You will see replenishment week on week. That's an important thing to do and I'm confident we'll be able to deliver.
Are you planning any pre-order schemes?
Chris Lewis: We won't initiate our own pre-order system, but our retailers will. You'll see retailers doing pre-order schemes and we'll support that, but you won't see Microsoft having its own scheme. It's something retail does very well.
How much of an advantage does the late 2005 release date give you over Sony's PS3, which is expected in spring next year at the earliest?
Chris Lewis: This is something that comes up a lot and I want to get this straight. The timing's not about the competition. The timing's about listening to what gamers want, and listening to what the market wants right now. It's about giving people the next-generation of gaming, now. People want high definition, they want deeper gameplay, they want more riveting stories, and people want to do a whole lot more things. They want to connect their music, they want to rip tracks, they want to plug their iPod or PSP in, and I think it's about giving people what they want, right now, in a scaleable way. If that works well in terms of timing, then great.
How excited are you about the launch line-up?
Chris Lewis: Hugely. I'm a massive Gotham fan and I've personally been having to rein in my enthusiasm for Gotham 3. I'm not very good at it, but I love playing it. Anyway, that's just one game in a fantastic line-up, so yes, I'm very excited about how gamers will react to it.
There's been a lot of speculation that game pricing will go up to £49.99 or even £59.99. What are your plans for game pricing, and do you think those price points are realistic?
Chris Lewis: We're not talking about game pricing specifically at the moment. There is one thing I will say. We have to make sure that we offer the right price point for the market. If you look at Halo 2, we shipped a limited edition of the game at a premium price point and it went down really well with gamers because people felt they were getting more. The exclusive content was great and even the packaging pleased collectors. So I think you'll definitely see us doing that again. In terms of specific pricing, we haven't made any decision as yet but we will do the right thing for the consumer. That's the main thing.
You've been very vocal about how the Xbox 360 is about music, video and other forms of digital entertainment besides gaming. Is it important for you to provide a entertainment hub rather than just a games console?
Chris Lewis: Yes, it is. With Xbox we found that people want to do more things with their console. At it's heart it's still about games, and I should make that point very strongly. But people definitely do want to use their console for a more rounded digital entertainment lifestyle. Everyone's got a PC, everyone's got a digital camera, everyone's got a digital music player, so for us it's important to recognise that without compromising the power of the gameplay. I think we've achieved that.
How important is Xbox Live for Xbox 360?
Chris Lewis: If you think back to the original Xbox, we built that machine with online at its heart anyway and we were confident back then that all games would ultimately be online. That has proven to be one of the many positive reasons why people love Xbox. They love the community aspect, they love being able to hang out with the people they don't see very often, and they love being connected to similarly skilled gamers. With Xbox 360 we take that to the next level. Xbox Live is ready straight out of the box and we offer a more scaleable feature set with voice chat, video chat, the Xbox Live Marketplace, customised skins.
And there's another thing - people may just want to use Xbox Live to watch, and not to play. That might sound surprising, but I think people might well do that. Things like Gotham TV are built around that - the idea of being a spectator at a tournament or event. I think that will make the online world more and more important for gamers It's only going to get bigger and bigger, and we've built the Xbox 360 with that in mind.
Gotham TV is an interesting idea - any plans to provide other TV channels via Xbox Live?
Chris Lewis: It's certainly possible. Anything's possible, but we're not making any announcements about that at the moment. But it's certainly something we're considering, along with many other things that we've discussed recently. We're keeping an open mind about all these possibilities and we're listening very closely to what people want, and weighing that up against what's practical and what's possible on the platform. If that's the kind of thing that people gravitate towards and demand, then we'll listen.
The camera peripheral will evidently not be available at launch. How important is it going to be when it arrives?
Chris Lewis: Let me give you a personal example. My son is only eleven and one of his best friends is moving to Singapore. He's pretty upset, but I keep telling him not to worry because he'll be able to talk to his friend over Xbox Live and see him face to face. The ability to actually see each other makes it even more real and that's going to add so much to the experience.
How successful do you think the Xbox 360 launch will be in Japan?
Chris Lewis: It's a tough market. I will say that we've learned a lot from our experience with Xbox. We've forged relationships with all the right partners in Japan. We now have an industrial design that will resonate over there, and that was one of many lessons we learned from the original Xbox. It has to be right. With the right gaming partners, the right games and the right design, and by working with the people who can help us capture the Japanese gamer, I think we'll be very successful. We're confident and committed to success in the Japanese marketplace and there's no doubt in our minds about how important it is to achieve that.
Moving back to Europe, what unique challenges does it offer for the Xbox 360 launch?
Chris Lewis: Europe's a very textured environment, and I think anyone who assumes that one size fits all in Europe is very naïve. It's a patchwork quilt of different demographics. The UK and Nordic territories for instance are very sophisticated and mature about their consumer electronics. We're talking multiple consoles in each house. That's a different challenge to break through markets in places like Italy and Spain, where there's less population density and more fragmentation amongst gamers. We've learned a lot about how to work in those different territories and we're still learning.
But it's important for us to be successful everywhere in Europe. We're committed to that and we'll use our experiences with Xbox to make sure we do. It's getting the right stock quantities there, working with the right partners, marketing in the right way, and establishing the right price point. I'm confident we've achieved all those things.
Customisation is another important element of the Xbox 360's appeal. How and why are you going down this road?
Chris Lewis: The Xbox Live Marketplace is a good example of a place where people will be able to customise things in the kind of ways you're talking about. One thing's for sure: people definitely want to customise. If you look at mobile phones, everyone's got their own faceplate, or background scheme, or cover. The faceplates we're offering for Xbox 360 is one example of how we're allowing people to physically customise their console, and the Xbox Live Marketplace is another place where we're letting people customise the games they play on their console. The reaction we've had to this kind of customisation has been amazing.
The original Xbox was seen as quite a hardcore console, but it seems that you are aiming for a much more massmarket audience with Xbox 360. Why the change in focus?
Chris Lewis: We needed to get established. This is a very tough business to get established in, and we knew we had to resonate with the hardcore audience - the real dedicated gamers - first. Moving on, we want to be far more broadly appealing. It's important that we offer the kinds of features that people want for their digital entertainment lifestyle. And it's important that we offer games in every genre that's broadly appealing. We'll continue to do that. I think you can see just from the look and feel of the Xbox 360 that we're opening up the system to a much broader audience, and that can only take us to the next level.
At the pre-E3 Microsoft press conference J Allard famously spoke of Xbox 360 reaching 1 billion people. Do you really think that's possible?
Chris Lewis: I think it was a great comment because it's genuine about our ambitions. Just to clarify, our ambitions are very, very big. If you think back to some of the things we've been talking about you start to see where that number of people could come from. Think about spectating. Think about the digital entertainment elements that we referred to. Think about people who like to work on customised content and put it on Xbox Live Marketplace. When you think about those types of activities it's easy to start getting some huge numbers.
It's great that J made that statement because it opens peoples' minds to the fact that Xbox 360 isn't just about playing games - it's about much more than that. I'm glad J said it, because it lets us talk about the breadth and depth of things about Xbox 360 that will touch people all over the world.