Inside Pulse 12

Retrograding 02.25.03

Well, here you go, You’re getting a Retrograding and RG: ADVANCE this week, but until Sega decides WHEN Shining Soul is coming out, you’ll have to make do with the usual blather from me.

Since it’s a long interview, I’m going to cut my usual commentary and go straight into the Meat! Todd’s another American over here in the UK, working specifically for the UK division of the X-Box. My comments are in italics, his aren’t. What more do you need?

1. What exactly is a Game Evaluation Lead?

A: Microsoft, like all hardware manufacturers in the videogame business have teams that play each of the games and provide feedback to the publishers and where they might make improvements to make the game more fun. Generally the publishers that seek this feedback are happy to get a professional viewpoint, as their testers can become too close to the project. And focus groups usually lack the expertise or language needed to refine complicated issues like game controls. This helps the publisher’s games individually, while in the broader sense strengthening the entire game portfolio for the console.

As a lead, I write the reports in such a manner that my team of evaluators’ comments comes across as objective, clear and constructive.

2. I know you worked for Nintendo before Microsoft? Why the switch and what’s the difference between the working environments?

A: Well, like a lot of moves from company to company within the software and hardware business, it was so that I could get a better job. When six people work for one manager, only way to improve your lot is to have him quit and hope that the company picks you to replace him, or to change departments or companies. But I did feel that the marketing know how and the reputation that Microsoft had for smart staff would give the Xbox some advantage over the GameCube, first in the US, then later abroad. I felt that being part of that would be a good thing. Of course, given the PS2’s position, I still get the opportunity to play the underdog. But I feel secure here because Microsoft entered the videogame business for the long haul.

Where I worked for Nintendo, in Redmond, the company was actually a subsidiary of the parent company back in Japan. That meant that on many issues the US management had to follow the orders and expected procedures of the management back in Japan. My understanding is that this is not the case with Microsoft. A lot of autonomy and ability to work within the specific cultures has been given to both the Japan and European teams; in fact the Xbox group is moderately autonomous from the core of Microsoft as well.

I have found that Microsoft, despite all the bad things it’s detractors have to say about it, is a place the fosters innovation from the employees and supports the development of new skills in order to further both your additions to the company and your personal career. There are many good reasons that it scores high on surveys of the best place to work. Add constant videogames, and I’m very happy indeed.

3. Like myself, you’ve had to adjust from being an American gamer to the UK scene with less games, later release dates and higher prices? How do you cope? I’m still playing US imports and my GBA!

A: Well, number of games has not been substantially lower in the UK, when it comes to Xbox. The U.S. has over 200 games out and the UK is barely behind them with about 200 as well. But it is true that the entire marketplace for games in Europe is more expensive than the U.S. Actually, this is true for just about any home electronics item; quite frustrating when I went to buy a PAL TV after moving here. I am not sure what all of the factors are that make these items more expensive, but consider one sample fact: the UK has a 15 per cent import duty on electronic goods manufactured overseas. (Alex’s Note: The import duty is random. Out of the dozen plus times I’ve had things sent here, I’ve only been hit with it once.)

4. How difficult is it to convert a game from NTSC to the UK PAL system? And which do you prefer?

A: I couldn’t answer the technical details of conversion. Actually that would vary from game to game depending on factors like the amount of FMV, whether action or facial movements were synced to the sound, etc. But I have no preference. Generally you can only tell the difference when the conversion was not done well.

5. Are there any 3rd party publishers you’d personally like to see develop for the X-Box? (Say Atlus or Working Designs?)

A: Yes.

6. We all know the X-Box Live surpassed expectations everywhere when the Sega’s online attempts with the Saturn and Dreamcast met with less success. Do you think it’s because you had a better strategy towards getting gamers online, or do you think timing was just right?

A: It is due to a combination of factors. First and foremost, the feature set that we offer with Xbox LIVE. Talking to your opponents and team mates ultimately makes this online experience incomparable to what any other console has done before, or what they are trying to do now. Downloading levels or other content, having one cross-game identity so that your mates can find you whenever you are playing–well, you’ve all read reviews. It’s what you get that is making the difference this time. People really love it.

Timing, or more accurately waiting long enough so that huge numbers of people have or can hook-up to broadband certainly is a factor. But that is less a matter of waiting for the right moment and more the ability to identify that the online experience will be accessible to many gamers soon after the Xbox comes out. So we saw that we should build the console to be ready for that. When you have to buy what seems to be another console to hook onto your console to enjoy new hardware features, well that’s a scheme that’s never really worked before.

7. Unlike the US and Japan, Europe obviously has a plethora more languages that you have to program into the games. Do the extra languages cause different marketing strategies?

A: Not only the various languages, but different game rating systems, different cultural issues, different genre preferences. Xbox has set up individual marketing groups in different countries and regions specifically because of this. These groups pursue strategies that have been shown to be appropriate for that group’s area, and they live within countries they are marketing to.

These differences also have an effect on what games are released, often requiring content changes on Germany, for example, due to their stance on videogame violence. Other games produce country specific content, as Codemasters did with Club Football 2002, producing 15 different versions centred on different clubs across Europe. Overall, this is an issue that videogames makers must be cognisant of if they are to succeed in Europe.

8. In the US, HALO was the big Xbox game, while in Japan as FPS games aren’t as popular, it didn’t get the same fanatical following. I’ve noticed FPS games seem to be even bigger over in the UK than America (probably because of the wacky light gun laws we have back in the states). Is Halo THE Xbox game over in the UK/Europe, or is there another King of the Hill?

A: I understand that despite having the number three install base in Japan, DOA Extreme Beach Volleyball, an Xbox exclusive, is the number two selling game in Japan at the moment. I’d love to see that game do as well in the other regions, but I think that Halo, and more recently Splinter Cell, have more overall appeal in North America and Europe. But I think that ‘THE’ game at the moment, or more accurately in March for Europe, is Xbox LIVE. As great as Halo is, people that have gotten LIVE have been playing Mechassault or Moto GP non-stop instead.

9. As we’re seeing some companies put out more all region DVD’s for viewing, is there ever a chance we’ll have all region XboX games, or is that a sweet sweet pipe dream?

A: Actually, you’ve already asked me questions about the two biggest obstacles to multi-region games: PAL conversion and language/cultural considerations. Only type of game that would easily jump over that barrier would be a football or tennis title with no FMV or spoken comments. I don’t think anyone would want to buy that; I like hearing sports commentators, personally. But those are the only two real issues that I am aware of.

10. The Xbox is the #2 system right now across the globe, which has rather proved naysayers wrong about a system needing Japanese support to survive, pointing to the TG-16, Jaguar, and 3DO as proof before the X-Box. Do you think it was the global Juggernaut of Microsoft that made a US based console sell this well, or do you think the market is finally strong enough for a multi-console war?

A: Well, since Genesis it’s been strong enough for a console war. As for three competing consoles, I think the overall sales show that a profit can be made for three, yes. But scrapping by is not the desire of any of the manufacturers hoping to climb to first place, of that I’m sure.

Microsoft’s strengths have been in forming a great partnership to provide the most powerful console and continuing work with the publishers to get great games, ideally exclusive for the Xbox. I think we also identified the target audience and what games they wanted (and how to communicate to them that those games are available) much better than Nintendo did. Technically the ‘new market’ are the kids that have not played videogames yet and in many ways Nintendo tries to draw them in and build brand loyalty. But in actuality the person that is ready to move up from their PSone or N64 is a new buyer for this generation of hardware and those experienced players are not eight years old. I think that brand loyal did to some extent bolster the fact that the PS2 came out first, but great marketing and a richer play experience on Xbox games has put us in an increasingly strong number two position.

11. We’ve seen Euro exclusive games for the Game Cube (Doshin the Giant) and PSX 1 & 2 (All being Konami stuff). For US collectors and Euro hopefuls, are there any special European exclusive Xbox games or paraphenila coming out?

A: Well, football club management doesn’t sell in the U.S. or Canada, so those are generally exclusive. Occasionally French publishers consider making a niche genre title for just France, but I don’t know what the outcome of that will be. Ultimately publishers don’t serve themselves well by making a region exclusive game; given the costs of development they need to sell as many copies as they can. That is why there are almost no U.S. exclusive games–I never understood why they sold Madden Football in Europe, but if they can cover the costs of translation, new manual printing and focused marketing, it’s another change to increase the profits and set aside capital to make the next game.

12. As an American living in England be honest? Do you import/play/prefer US games more? (I know I do! ^%&%&** England not getting Persona or Lunar!)

A: Actually, at home, my Xbox is the region 1 (North America) box that I brought over when I moved here. As I play all of the UK Xbox games at work it is only the rare copy of some U.S. game that I blagged here at work that I need to play at home. Reading your question, that answer probably risks making you jealous, but it took me a long time to get to this place in my career, and I’m just being honest.

13. Nintendo recently proclaimed their newest system will be out before the next MS and PS system. Do you think it actually will be the first out and if so, do you think it will help them get a stronger foothold in the next VG war, or do you think it will go the way of the DC?

A: As they don’t know when Microsoft is putting out their nextgen system, I’m not sure how they can confidently make that proclamation. As I don’t know when we are putting it out either, I have no idea who is going to be first. It’ll be exciting to see, won’t it! But that won’t mean I have to stop playing Halo at home, will it?

14. Nintendo has a massive stranglehold over the handheld market. As a person who owns and loves his Neo Geo Pocket Color, Wonderswan, and GameGear (And also tolerates his crappy Pocketstation), I have to ask: Any chance of a Handheld product from the Xbox team?

A: I wouldn’t know.

15. We’ve seen a lot of developers either die out completely (SNK/HUMAN) or end up merging from bad business decisions (Square with Enix). Although a lot of these companies are primarily Japanese only developers, how does the shake-up in the 3rd party development world affect the Xbox?

A: Well, if people would just buy more games, less companies would go out of business, then there would be more developers…

Seriously, new start-ups and off shoots happen more often than mergers or acquisitions. And not all of these new developers will make it. But we have a programme that keeps an eye on prospective Xbox developers and provides them support in making their playable demo work on Xbox so that they can shop it around to publishers. Forming strong relationships early on helps to weather the storm of 3rd party shake-ups.

16. With everything from Rygar to Ghost N Goblins and Metroid making
everything old new again. Any classic retro games you personally want to see come out for ANY system?

A: Pong? No, actually I prefer innovation. There is always another Warcraft or Castle Wolfenstein or Street Fighter or some other game out there that is going to create a whole new genre of its own. I’m not sure how much money has actually going into the purchasing of retro games yet. Certainly not as much as GTA3.

17. Bundles: Good thing or bad thing?

A: Brilliant thing! Great savings for the buyer, ties the idea of the console together with the reality of the game you buy with it. But, that said, you need to have choices. I certainly wouldn’t want every DVD player in the store to come with a mandatory copy of the movie Vanilla Sky. Maybe I want the choice of buying a DVD player $15 cheaper without a movie at all if Tom Cruise is my only choice. Same goes for consoles, in my opinion.

18. Did you get a choice to move to the UK to work for the Xbox or was that just part of the job?

A: They were in need of someone that had previous game evaluation experience and they could not find anyone at all in the UK. When I first started at Microsoft and Howard Phillips and I were creating the first game evaluation group in Redmond, I stated as a work goal that I wanted to help in the UK. Turns out that I reminded the right person of the year-old goal just at the time that they decided that someone from the US should jump-start the team here. They might have picked me anyway, but pre-expressed interest turned it into a permanent job rather than a six month stint training people.

It’s been great living in the UK, taking short little holidays to the rest of Europe. London has exactly the same weather as Seattle, so I was well prepared there.

19. What’s your favorite retro system? (From Atari 2600 up to the 32 bit systems)

A: I was rebuilding SNES at Nintendo right when they started coming back through customer repair. That was my first job in the industry, actually. I saved money and bought one at the company store, played every game I could get my hands on and eventually parlayed that into a job on the phones gameplay counselling. Having played nearly every SNES game, I still have fond memories of that system, especially Zelda and Castlevania IV.

20. Any words for UK and US readers?

A: Learn a foreign language! It’s only fair. Many gamers in Europe find themselves having to learn English for the best selection of games, although that has been improving recently.

I’m in Introductory Italian class and it’s great fun. Plus there are several attractive women in the class and that’s more than I say for my gaming den. :-)