Crispy Gamer

Staying in the Game

At Microsoft's recent Gamers' Day, a few upcoming heavy hitters were featured including the new Banjo-Kazooie title, Ninja Gaiden II, Fable 2, Too Human and Gears of War 2. However, the event seemed like it was missing something. Where the heck is Alan Wake? What about Halo Wars? We chatted with Microsoft Game Studios guru Shane Kim to ask about why those were missing, the Rare Wii remote rumor, and whether or not the company will break the typical five-year console life cycle with the Xbox 360.

Crispy Gamer: You've got an impressive lineup of games here, but there seem to be a lot of omissions from what we saw from you at E3, TGS and Leipzig last year.

Shane Kim: Like what? There are two that I know of?

Crispy Gamer: Halo Wars and Alan Wake.

Kim: Those are the two titles that we've announced previously that aren't here today. They just weren't ready for this show for us to really get out in front of you guys, because if we don't show you something good I know you're going to write about it. And you know what? It's pretty hard to recover from that, frankly. We did that with Too Human before. If you remember, we showed it at E3 2006 and it was too early. That didn't help that title and we took that title back underground. We were very quiet about it and didn't really expose people to it until we felt comfortable that it had gone through all those issues and something about which people would write something positive.

Crispy Gamer: At least Halo Wars we saw in action last year, but Alan Wake -- you're talking about games that are underground -- that game hasn't been above ground yet. Is that something that you think we'll actually see this year?

Kim: I think you're going to see it when it's ready. We're not going to put an end date on when it's going to release and so forth. Whether or not it's going to be at E3, etc., we'll see about that. I will tell you -- and you're not going to like it because I'm going to be vague about it -- but I'll tell you that it's still part of our portfolio, and as we continue to tighten up our portfolio, Alan Wake will be an important part of it. I still have high hopes for it. You don't get very many opportunities to debut a title to a level of success that Alan Wake [could enjoy] -- we've been fortunate -- Mass Effect did that, Gears of War did that. Halo 3 doesn't count. But those two titles were new IP when they debuted, and they all rose above the noise. Alan Wake still has that advantage and, I agree, it's been quiet for a long time. That doesn't mean we should rush something out that isn't ready, either with the final release or even now, pre-release.

Crispy Gamer: So I was poking around the Rare booth looking for that new motion-sensing Wii-mote thing?

Kim: Did you find it?

Crispy Gamer: No!

Kim: We brought a whole bunch down, Billy. I don't know what the deal is. [laughs]

Crispy Gamer: What do you think about all that noise surrounding that?

Kim: You know what my answer is. [smiles] It's just noise!

Crispy Gamer: Microsoft doesn't comment on speculation and rumors? [laughs]

Kim: Do you even need to ask that question?

Crispy Gamer: I do, actually. Look at the success of the Wii. A lot of people are surprised on how well that system has taken off. Do you think motion-sensing in gaming and having that kind of interface is the next big thing and important to have with the Xbox 360?

Kim: Not necessarily. Clearly there's a market for it. I think we have to pay attention to that. You can't ignore what's happened with the success of the Wii. By the same token, I think we have to be careful in terms of thinking that we have to rush to copy it. Because I actually don't necessarily think that would end up being the right strategy for us. We have to make sure that we're innovating in a way -- whether it's in hardware or in the online services, et cetera, that stays true to our competitive means.

What Nintendo did with Wii is brilliant for Nintendo. It's very focused on what Nintendo is good at. What we're really good at is in the online space with Live and how we innovate with that. I'm not saying that hardware can't be part of that, but we need to think about it more holistically. If you just rushed out motion-sensing controllers without software and services to back it up, what good would that be? I'm still not convinced that that would be the right direction for us to go, anyway. Isn't there another way of doing hardware innovation? There's got to be. What I've been telling people is -- even though I can't comment on the rumors and speculation -- I can promise we have a lot of R&D efforts going on in hardware. Whatever the underlying technology is that will support whatever we bring out, we are focused on innovating with hardware, just as in the online service.

Crispy Gamer: With your acquisition of Rare has come a huge fan base that's been with them since their days with Nintendo. As the stuff had leaked out about the new Banjo title, a lot of the gamers who were hoping for a platformer -- since it's been 10 years -- what do you have to say about Rare taking the Banjo license in a different direction?

Kim: I think that's fine. I don't have a problem with Rare deciding that they wanted to try to do something new with the platformer. At the end of the day the question will be was it a good choice or not, right? But I don't have an issue with them doing something different. I think the easy decision would be to make an Xbox 360 platformer with Banjo with which people are more familiar, and I'll tell you, we would be having this interview and you would say, "You know Shane, that's exactly what people expected and what do you have to say to the people who think you should have done something new with Banjo."

I think the title that they deliver is going to be rated on its own merits, and we'll see if we made the right decision about that. I have to put a lot of faith into Rare -- they are the creators of the IP, they are the game developers. It has to be something that they are passionate about. If we'd just told them, Hey, make a platformer in the legacy of Banjo and that's what you're going to do even though you have different ideas -- I don't necessarily believe in that model of creative development. Never have.

Crispy Gamer: This is kind of a two-pronged question. Of all the games, first-party, that you guys are working on -- not just the ones here, ones that are in development -- which one are you most excited for as a Microsoft executive and which one are you most excited for just because you can't wait to play it yourself?

Kim: Great questions. So, running the business, I think you have to look at the big hits because they drive the business. Halo drives the business, right? Gears of War 2 and Fable 2 are going to drive our business this year. As much as I think Viva Pi?ata and Banjo are important, the fact of the matter is we have very big volume expectations and hopes for Gears 2 and for Fable 2. So as a business person I think you're lying if you said you weren't driven by the profit motive.

But for me, for example -- I think most people know I'm not a hardcore gamer. What I'm spending more time with now is playing Rock Band with my kids. Maybe some stuff we haven't announced yet. I'm excited about the two titles that aren't here for different reasons. One of my favorite games of all time is Age of Empires 2. To see what Ensemble is doing with Halo and them bringing that into the strategy space, and making it more action oriented for the console -- I'm really excited about that. And it's Halo. Even though I'm not a big Halo player, I love the Halo universe.

The second thing is that, I'm still pretty excited about Alan Wake because it's different. It's a unique approach to storytelling, and when I think about the industry and the growth of the industry I think that actually getting into interactive storytelling is an important part of the development to reaching a broader audience. It's a really different approach to what Nintendo is doing, but I think it actually has its own merits. We have to execute there and there's a lot to do there, but I think there's potential there.

Crispy Gamer: One of the big themes you had at CES the year before last was cross-platform play with Vista and the Xbox 360. Since Shadowrun we haven't seen anything and you guys have had games on 360 and Vista that would have worked out perfectly. Halo 2 would have been great, Gears of War would have been perfect. Why didn't we see those in cross-platform, and will we ever see cross-platform again?

Kim: That's a very good question. We haven't done it, and we didn't make it a top priority for us there. Maybe we should have. Right or wrong, the more important pivot for us was to get the title out on Windows. I think in retrospect, we wouldn't do that. If we were going to do cross-platform play, we probably would say we're only going to do that if we can simultaneously ship. I would tell you that it's much harder to do that people would think, especially in the case of Halo which the original Halo was designed a long time ago. Going forward, do I hope we'll see that? I hope we'll see that whether it's from us or third parties, but I'll be honest -- we don't have anything in development today where I can say that we have something that we're gearing for a simultaneous release cross-platform play.

Crispy Gamer: The usual life span of a console is five years. You guys cut it to four years with Xbox, but that was a strategic decision to get the 360 out early -- we all understand that. So, the usual lifespan is five years.

Kim: The usual lifespan before you launch a new generation.

Crispy Gamer: Correct. So now today, we're sitting at kind of the halfway point -- this is halftime. Do you think with the Xbox 360 you're going to stick with the five-year lifespan or...?

Kim: Are you trying to get me to announce the next generation here?

Crispy Gamer: The next generation starts when Shane Kim says it starts!

All: [laughs]

Crispy Gamer: You could have a groundbreaking announcement today here.

Kim: We have nothing to announce with respect to that. I'll tell you this, though. I think we ought to challenge ourselves to think about what the next generation really might look like. Whether or not that really is new hardware. Because if you talk to a lot of technical people the amount of graphical enhancement in terms of capabilities in the next three to four years -- you're not going to see the same leap that you saw from Xbox to Xbox 360, or the original PlayStation to PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3. It really makes you think about what the right strategy is. There's no reason why you can't think about innovation in the next generation being in the form of software or in the services.

Crispy Gamer: So this being halftime in the traditional sense, if there was one thing that you could have done differently with the Xbox 360 what would have it been?

Kim: Clearly, we would have liked to have avoided the quality issues. That's a pretty tough thing financially, and a pretty tough thing from the standpoint of consumer confidence and brand. It's amazing working for a company that could take a billion-dollar charge and extend the warranty for three years -- that was the right thing for us to do and that's a pretty amazing thing for us to do. It would have been nice to not have encountered that difficulty. We made the decision to be first to market -- I would not say that the hardware issues were a function of that decision, either. We didn't execute as tightly as we would have liked. It cost us. I can say that the hardware quality and the focus we've applied against it in the intervening year improved dramatically.