J Allard — Corporate Vice Presient, Microsoft
Empowerment to the next level, Allard is a PR guy who really loves clichés that push the envelope. Luckily, he seems to be grounded in what makes games good as he has said many times that graphics are a single component and not necessarily important. He also frequently says he wants to expand the market, mirroring Nintendo’s stated goal. Because dirt on Allard was significantly harder to find than on Harrison, some of the quote categories have been left out and I even added a new one: Inspirational.
(For an explanation of what this article is, please read this.)
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?
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.
[No where near Harrison catty, but still a not very convincing attack against competitors.]
Why did Microsoft Game Studios hold on to games like, oh, Blinx 2, but let go of highly-anticipated titles like Psychonauts, True Fantasy Live Online, and others?
(shifts in his seat) There’s always, you know, a lot of reasons that go into those kinds of decisions. The good news is, uh, that often when you make a business decision like that the creative can go on. Take an example of Oddworld. The second Oddworld in this generation wasn’t published by us, but was published by EA. It’s a lot of fun on Xbox. I was playing it just before I came down to the conference, great game. The important thing is the great creators are on Xbox, and we keep supporting them, and as a platform guy, first-party, third-party, whatever. Great creators, if you’re not on my platform, tell me why, tell me why, I’ll go fix it, OK I fixed it! Come on over. That’s my program, dude!
[But if Majesco hadn’t picked up Psychonauts the game may have never come out. Why not just admit that for all of your pro-gaming talk you ultimately must bow to the dollar?]
Nintendo VP, Reggie Fils-Aime, mentioned to us the other day that…
…to paraphrase, “Microsoft is losing a shitload of money with each unit they sell,” and suggested that this factor is precipitating your advance into the next-gen launch. What would you say in response to this?
Nahhh, it’s the right time. HD era is here. We’ve got big ideas. Hardware advancements, software advancements, service advancements. The vision of the game creators. Go talk to the game creators. I think now is absolutely the right time. I think we are gonna time this next-generation absolutely perfectly. I’m basing my timing based on what the game creative community has said, and what the gaming community has said. You know the gaming community finishes up watching the high-def Super Bowl, pops on their PS2, pops on their Xbox, and they’re like “Huh…I’m ready for the next level. Where you gonna take me guys? Where you gonna take me?”
[Allard mentioned in other interviews that MS is one of the richest companies in the world and they still couldn’t really take the financial beating they took on the Xbox again, which suggests some of the decision to move onto its successor was financial.]
I asked Jay, when you think of the next generation wars, what keeps you up at night? What worries you?
“Nothing,” he said straight-faced.
[Why do all of these PR people have to play such games? A business not worried about competitors quickly dies, and the rate at which MS buys competitors is a clear indication that they worry.]
Why is the hard drive so highly priced? A 20GB hard drive nowadays goes for about 20-30… Why $100? I believe this will deter a lot of sales.
The 20 GB hard drive is a 2.5-inch user serviceable drive and is more expensive than a PC “crack the box” drive. It’s one of the reasons we pushed to create a compelling premium bundle. One of the reasons that we designed a user-removable hard drive is in direct response to the hardcore gaming audience to make it easier to take game saves, game maps, soundtracks, etc. easily to their friends house or LAN party. They also wanted the ability to upgrade to larger capacity drives. And if the drive is not present because someone in the house took it on the road, you still want to be able to use the console for movies, music or games.
[Portable drives are still significantly cheaper than Allard makes it seem. For $100, you can at least get a 40 gig drive, and if you shop around a 60 or even 80.]
We didn’t think about them [Sony] when we thought about our [launch] date. We thought about what was right for gaming, what was right for technology, what type would be available and went from there.
[Comments like this are always at least mostly a lie. Business does not run on sunshine and rainbows, it runs on money and to make money you need to understand your competitors intimately and base your strategy off of theirs.]
Sense of Humor
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?
We have a term for this. It’s a very technical term. It’s called a very hard problem.
Have you heard any rumblings of anybody saying they do want to work with Microsoft?
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.
Well, we force everybody to go buy new hardware every five years. That helps.
Is there any concern that there’s too much being integrated into the next generation of Xbox Live, since simplicity seems to be a big factor in its success?
It’s hard to say since we haven’t shipped yet.
Some of the most memorable titles for any console are usually created by the company itself, with Nintendo of course being the most prominent example. What about Microsoft? What’s your company’s strategy towards first party development?
The first party team is really doing some brilliant stuff, and we’re super-excited about that, but at the same time we’re not confused. We don’t have Mario, and we don’t have Miyamoto. We don’t have Sonic and we don’t have Naka. We don’t have a 25 year history in console gaming, and we don’t have the people that have been creating console phenomenon for the last 25 years, and hopefully we’ll start building some of our own properties that we can use over the years. But we don’t get it for free — that’s a lot of hard work. That’s the challenge for Microsoft, to start building our own properties and our own characters, and our own teams.
Admission of Mistake
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.”
[Not entirely a mistake, but he acknowledges a problem, although it’s almost entirely canceled out by him quoting a business strategy from someone at EA]
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.
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.
[This one’s hard to read. He often says things that make it clear he cares about gaming on more than a business level, but then this quote is also a little condescending. I’ll give him this one as a positive, though.]
We’re almost at the point now visually where we’re like, in videogames, do we need better visuals than what we saw on Monday night? [shrugs] A little bit. It’s not the thing that’s going to sell to the next 100 million people. The thing that’s going to sell to the next 100 million people is creativity; creativity for labouring, creativity from a designer’s point of view and so a hard drive can provide those tools. I think we’re going to take graphics to the next notch, but graphics is not going to be the thing that’s going to sell to the next 100 million systems.
On the Dreamcast point, there are a couple of ways to skin that cat. I remember 9/9/99. I waited in line, probably dropped $999-there were a lot of nines going around that day [Laughs]-and I had the best first-day console experience of my life. It had the best graphics I’d seen. It let me go online. It had the best launch lineup. The sports games took it to the next level, and I loved it. So, if you want to put us in the category of Dreamcast and say we’re going to have the best first-day launch of any console in the history of mankind, I’ll take that.
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