10 Years Of Xbox 360 With J Allard
J Allard reflects on a decade of Xbox 360 as we celebrate its contribution to the games industry
As chief experience officer and chief technology officer of Microsoft’s consumer products division, J Allard oversaw the launches of the Xbox, Xbox 360 and Zune, but ended his 19 year run at the company in 2010. Since then Allard moved to Portland, Oregon where he launched a bike security start-up called 529 Garage. Having been such an influential figure in the creation and design of the Xbox 360 back in 2005, it seemed only right to sit with him now to get his thoughts on the impact Microsoft’s second generation of hardware had on the industry and how some of its most iconic ideas came about.
Could you tell is a little about your specific role during the planning for the Xbox 360?
I had two different jobs on the project. The first role didn’t have a formal title, but I was essentially the choreographer of the strategy for the overall program. In order to design a successful ten-year business and product, we not only needed to tap into the best minds across the team, but we also needed to get everyone on the same page. When you have thousands of people working to launch a ten-year program, it’s essential that everyone understands their role and is working towards the same goals. I spent a huge amount of time at the beginning of the program with all of the different teams, leaders and disciplines helping to synthesise the best ideas into a singular vision – and then, infusing that single vision into the culture. I think we executed the 360 program in about half the time that Sony spent on PS3. Because of all of the up front planning and clarity of our vision, we didn’t press Undo very much in execution and we were able to just charge ahead.
The second role was as senior vice president of the Xbox platform, which entailed managing the design, development and deployment of the console, accessories, hardware, developer kit and Xbox Live. Basically, I was on the hook for building the thing, getting it done on time and making sure it was within budget and did what we said it would do – both for gamers and game developers.
Combined, these jobs meant I played the keeper of the big picture, and the leader responsible for sweating the details and making sure it performed. It was a terrific job and I got to work with an amazing team that had deep domain knowledge in all of the key disciplines to turn the big dream into an on-time reality. In terms of guiding hard decisions, I always tried to put the gamer first and would, again and again, ask hard questions like “Are we loading games fast enough?,” “Is the latency of the controller imperceivable?,” “Is this the best possible controller layout for FPS games?”
With the Xbox 360 being Microsoft’s second console, what sort of targets did you set yourselves?
Clear ones, that all fit on a single page. From a business point of view, we had a few simple goals. First was to be first to market by shipping in 2005 in all three major markets. Next was to balance the system costs and our expenses in a way that at 50 million consoles we’d hit a specific profitability target. Finally, it was to exceed ten million Xbox Live subscribers in the first five years.
From an experience point of view, we wanted to deliver a console that really delivered on the potential of online and that felt incomplete if you were offline. We wanted the console to be as simple, reliable and responsive as any consumer electronics product. And, we wanted the gaming experience to not just be “last generation with better graphics,” but fundamentally richer gameplay with online multiplayer, leaderboards, achievements, awesome wireless, downloadable content and a high integrity online experience that was able to address cheating, grievers and bullies.
From a technology point-of-view, we wanted to deliver PS3 performance a year ahead of Sony with an easier-to-program development environment, an online service that could scale to ten’s of millions of gamers and a flawless wireless experience with a cost basis that would allow us to drop price to reach a broader audience in the later years of the program.
What were the key design challenges you faced?
The hardest part of the console business is that you’re designing a product in 2002, that doesn’t ship until 2005 and needs to last until 2015 as a viable consumer electronics product. There are very, very few categories like game consoles in any industry. Most consumer hardware products try and keep the price the same and add features and performance each year to keep demand high. In the console world, you keep the performance the same, but drive the price down so that it is more affordable to more people and you have more sockets for game publishers to target. When you couple that with a firm budget, a target date and a competitor that’s been building consumer electronics for over a century, it puts an incredible amount of pressure on the team to make the right hardware choices. Another difficult design challenge was making the transition from the Intel chipset to a more custom chipset – the PPC core and embedded DRAM – to increase performance and reduce costs. Those choices had huge ripple effects throughout the program on the operating system, our testing, our development tools.
Since it was our second console, improving Xbox Live and making it work across both the original Xbox and Xbox 360 was very interesting to navigate. We had barely launched Xbox Live and were still learning how to operate such a massive service when we had to start doing Xbox 360 features and keep the thing running and transition gamers as they upgraded to 360. I think the team did a stellar job on that one in particular.
Probably the other top challenge I think about was the idea that we would have the system visor that would allow for some common UI and services (like seeing a game’s achievements, notifications and soundtracks) to be activated in context of any game. That was a tough technical and experiential challenge, but also a tough one politically with game developers since they wanted all of the system resources for their experience. It was a difficult balancing act, but I think the team got it right.