Q&A

EDGE - - KNOWLEDGE E3 2017 - Al­bert Penello Se­nior di­rec­tor of prod­uct man­age­ment and plan­ning, Xbox

The Xbox con­fer­ence must be tough, be­cause you al­ways go first. Now you’ve seen every­one else’s hand, how’s the mood around the camp?

I liked our con­fer­ence. We showed a big di­ver­sity of games; I think we showed off stuff that shows off the cut­ting edge of tech on X; I think peo­ple wanted to see di­ver­sity in gen­res and creators. Then we closed off with back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity, which we knew was go­ing to be a huge mo­ment in the show and some­thing I know Phil [Spencer, head of Xbox] and a lot of us that have been around for a long time have been push­ing to see hap­pen. I also ap­pre­ci­ated, as the guy that was re­spon­si­ble for the hard­ware, that we spent a lit­tle bit of time on the ma­chine, and talked a lit­tle bit to peo­ple at E3 about the box. Typ­i­cally that gets pushed to a dif­fer­ent event at a dif­fer­ent time, so I re­ally liked that we took a mo­ment to talk about it.

How hard was it to talk about? You have to sell it, but must also have to make sure that you’re not alien­at­ing peo­ple who are happy with their launch con­sole. How hard is it to get that mes­sage right?

I’ve been in the games busi­ness for a long time – I don’t like to say how long, be­cause it’s a pyrrhic vic­tory. I’ve been around since be­fore we launched the first Xbox, and ev­ery gen­er­a­tion brings its own op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges. We re­ally had to sit down and think, ‘How do we do this right?’ If we’re go­ing to in­tro­duce this con­cept of do­ing a con­sole in the mid­dle of a cy­cle, the con­sole busi­ness doesn’t work that way, so we’ve got to get this right. It has to be sim­ple. Your stuff has to work. It can’t be some weird case of like, which disc runs where un­der what con­di­tions. It has to be su­per pow­er­ful, it has to be a big leap from what you’ve got, and ev­ery­thing’s gotta work – you can’t make any­body feel dumb. Grandma’s gotta go in and buy a disc for the kid for Christ­mas, and she doesn’t want to get it wrong. It’s ac­tu­ally kind of easy to mes­sage it when, in the be­gin­ning, we started by tr ying to ask our­selves those hard ques­tions. It all started, I think, with the right be­gin­ning.

Was the process of get­ting Xbox back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity more chal­leng­ing than 360?

That’s prob­a­bly a bet­ter ques­tion for the em­u­la­tion soft­ware team. These guys are amaz­ing. This is one of the nice things about work­ing at Mi­crosoft: you have soft­ware peo­ple. And the nice thing about work­ing at Xbox is that there are a bunch of us that have been around for a long time. And Phil in par­tic­u­lar is a guy who loves games. I still have my Cole­coVi­sion, and my Atari – I’m teach­ing my daugh­ter about games from the be­gin­ning. The idea that you lose your games is kind of a bum­mer about con­sole generations. And so af­ter we rein­vig­o­rated 360, we thought, there’s a bunch of great games on the orig­i­nal con­sole. We’re go­ing to bring back some fan favourites. It’s not go­ing to be the same size of pro­gramme as the 360 one, but I like the fact that we’re do­ing it. It re­ally shows that Phil and the team care about con­tent. All of the other stuff we’re do­ing – Play Any­where, the stuff be­tween Xbox One S and X, 360 com­pat­i­bil­ity – it’s about this idea that it’s all about the games. That’s what you re­ally care about, and this de­vice is a thing that you buy and you don’t have to lose your li­brary. That’s where we see this in­dus­try go­ing.

It’s an ide­o­log­i­cal thing re­ally, isn’t it? Back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity isn’t the most used fea­ture on the con­sole.

Well, it de­pends on whose data you’re look­ing at...

Sure, but peo­ple aren’t play­ing

Halo 3 to the same ex­tent peo­ple are play­ing Halo 5. It’s some­thing that you want to of­fer, rather than some­thing you nec­es­sar­ily need to.

It is. This is al­ways the clas­sic dis­cus­sion about back com­pat. My daugh­ter is two-and-a-half, and I play a lot of Ge­om­e­try Wars with her. It’s a great vis­ual stim­u­lus, and I don’t have to worry about any­thing, and the mu­sic’s great. Then you’ll get cases like what we did with Call Of Duty:

Black Ops II, where it ac­tu­ally went back and charted. So talk­ing about us­age is tough, be­cause ob­vi­ously the new­est stuff is al­ways the most used. But as Phil said, over half of Xbox One own­ers have played a [back­ward­scom­pat­i­ble] ti­tle. So I think it is an im­por­tant fea­ture, be­cause there might be a time where you’re go­ing to want to go back. Like you said, it’s an im­por­tant philo­soph­i­cal thing that we re­ally be­lieve in.

Af­ter a very rough start to the gen­er­a­tion, we sense ev­ery year that Mi­crosoft is be­com­ing more con­fi­dent. Now you no longer have to worry about a power de­fi­ciency; you will soon have the most pow­er­ful con­sole on the mar­ket. How does that change your at­ti­tude?

I think there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween con­fi­dence and ar­ro­gance. Phil has been in the busi­ness for a long time, he has a per­son­al­ity and an at­ti­tude to­wards this that I think per­me­ates the team. A lot of us have been around for a long time; a lot of us are the same peo­ple that started at the very be­gin­ning. I think what you’re re­ally sens­ing is, we’re ex­cited. We’ve been want­ing to talk about this for a long time. To have worked for so long, to re­ally want to do some­thing spe­cial and then have that land [re­ally well]? I think we’re just re­ally ex­cited about it.

You were deeply in­volved in the hard­ware. Is there one part of it of which you are par­tic­u­larly per­son­ally proud?

For me it’s the com­pat­i­bil­ity, be­cause I think it’s the thing that peo­ple as­sume was the eas­i­est, but was ac­tu­ally the most chal­leng­ing. Be­cause yes, they are all based on a fam­ily of x86 pro­ces­sors, but they are not PCs. There is a lot of cus­tom sil­i­con. And the thing about con­soles is that de­vel­op­ers do find ways to trick them, and do things that get ev­ery ounce of per­for­mance out of them. Build­ing a sys­tem that’s re­silient enough to not only have them work, but have them work bet­ter, and be able to de­liver the level of per­for­mance needed to do all the new stuff, is ac­tu­ally the least ap­pre­ci­ated, but big­gest chal­lenge that the team had to hit. And oh, by the way: it was the one thing that you could not get wrong.

We fig­ured you’d say the form fac­tor. Get­ting that much horse­power into such a small cas­ing is no mean feat.

We knew when we built this thing it was go­ing to be a pre­mium de­vice. And that meant there was not a part of this con­sole that we wanted to un­der­de­liver. That re­ally gave us an op­por­tu­nity to do things like bring in vapour cham­bers. Which we did not in­vent, but they’re usu­ally re­served for re­ally high end cards. They’re very so­phis­ti­cated, they’re more chal­leng­ing to man­u­fac­ture than a typ­i­cal heat pipe, and we are the first mass-mar­ket prod­uct to use one. But you’re not go­ing to get that size with­out one. We talk about the Ho­vis method; there’s a guy at work named Bill Ho­vis, he had to in­vent a process to al­low each and ev­ery con­sole to get a cus­tom power pro­file. We needed to eke that level of ef­fi­ciency out of ev­ery box to get the quiet­ness, the re­li­a­bil­ity and all the things we wanted to get out of the con­sole. The team, they wanted to show off!

To you, Ho­vis is the cut­ting edge of tech. To us it’s an old-fash­ioned brand of bread, con­jur­ing up im­ages of flat caps and cob­bled streets.

OK, some­one owes me money. You’re the first to bring that up.

“Grandma’s gotta go in and buy a disc for the kid for Christ­mas, and she doesn’t want to get it wrong”

Crim­son Skies: High Road To Re­venge was con­firmed as be­ing among the first Xbox ti­tles to be playable on Xbox One. Spencer, charm­ingly, re­ferred to the con­sole as “OG Xbox”

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