Xbox Interview: Michel Cassius
Our chat with Microsoft's Michel Cassius focuses on Xbox Live, then discusses the possibility of a Live Bundle, Peter Moore, PS2 Online, Sega & Sammy, and Xbox 2. Read it!
Michel Cassius is the Director of Publishing for Xbox in Europe, Middle East and Africa - and he also knows everything that's worth knowing behind Microsoft's closed doors. With the launch of Xbox Live in Europe last week, he decided it was time to spill some beans to Kikizo about what's going down. Enjoy...
Kikizo: Thanks for speaking with us Michel. Could you start by briefly explaining a bit about your role at Microsoft?
Michel Cassius: I'm head of Xbox in EMEA - that's Europe, Middle East and Africa, I've been in the company now for about eighteen months, and it's been very interesting. Before that I was working for Electronic Arts, including running the EA.com business in Europe. Before that, I was at Apple Computers.
Kikizo: Just before launch you announced the Xbox Live Compatibility Program. Are any of those members - BT, NTL and Telewest - going to be competitive against each other?
MC: Well yeah, they are in competition. But it's up to them how they drive more customers to themselves, because they're all in the Compatibility Program. Ultimately we're making sure that we have a great set of broadband partners who are already representing a percentage of the population.
We've announced fifteen partners in all across Europe, in eight countries, and that covers over 75% of customers on broadband. Secondly, it's important for us to make sure we have a great understanding of the technology to make sure that the experience to the customer is good. And thirdly, co-marketing activities with the partners, which helps both of us - Xbox Live, and our Broadband partners.
"Yes, it's a good idea, and it would make sense to have Xbox Live 'in the box' when you buy an Xbox."
MC: The Compatibility Program is something that lets customers have a very clear idea of what works with Xbox Live. Take NTL - I know that today, part of the package they're offering customers is that it will work with Xbox Live. It's a very clear communication. Beyond that - well, the set of criteria we have is the same worldwide. Global online play, from the customer point of view, is something we already do! When you connect to Xbox Live, and play Quick Match in Moto GP for example, you can play people in the US or Japan, depending on what time of day it is.
Kikizo: You said recently that Xbox Live is service-driven, compared to Sony, and that it's not just an add-on peripheral. Would it make sense therefore to have Xbox Live in the box when you buy an Xbox?
MC: Yes, that's a good idea that would make sense. But when you buy an Xbox today it's already the only console that is online enabled out of the box - it already has the ports and the hard drive - there's nothing to add. All you need to do connect the Xbox and the broadband connection on the wall. So it's already there in some ways - but yes, it's definitely a service. Things like the Gamertag, where you take on an identity once and don't need to do it for every game you play. It's all there for the service. Your reputation and everything stays with you through the experience. You can send game invitations to gamers on your Friends List, and play whatever games you like.
"We've provided content download on one game - Mech Assault. What's interesting is that, in the first week, it had 170,000 downloads."
Kikizo: Given that the Xbox Live launch has been phased, what challenges have there been with the full launch, compared to the previous phases since last year?
MC: The reason why we phased it was that the number one priority is customer satisfaction. We want to provide the best gaming experience for customers. Phasing the launch gradually allowed us to test the connectivity, test how the phone support works, and preparing all the information for customers and retail partners before the full launch. The challenge now is the number of people who come on board Live in the first few days - but I think we were ready for that. Then we need to make sure that people carry on having a great experience, using all the features that Xbox Live offers.
Kikizo: We've already seen content download - but one of the things that J Allard discussed with us at X02 was the possibility of content upload. He was pretty excited about it. Do you have any visions for what content upload might entail?
"I see the value of content upload like J [Allard] does, but at the same time it has to be something that makes the game work."
Content upload is interesting because it's so close to the community aspect of Live. We can let the gamers participate in elements of game creation and economy themselves. It opens up questions about security - and we're really paranoid about security - we've taken every measure on security as you know. We don't want people to hack and cheat. There needs to be somewhere secure for content to be uploaded. I mean, we don't want a virus to be uploaded. I see the value of content upload like J does, but at the same time it has to be something that makes the game work. It's popular in massively multiplayer online games for example, and it needs to be handled with care because sometimes it can ruin the games.
Kikizo: There are some strong titles in the launch games line-up for Xbox Live, but do you consider any of them as killer apps?
MC: I think that Mech Assault, Unreal and Ghost Recon are all great 'killer' games and very appropriate for Europe. They're all great games as they are. Having a blast on Unreal with friends is a great experience. In the demo version of Moto GP, you can have loads of fun with a few races during the day. Moto GP 2 is coming very soon after launch. These games are all covering different genres and styles of gameplay, and attracting new people to the service.
Kikizo: There are certainly some huge titles coming out. It leads onto our next question, which is about Peter Moore. When Robbie Bach was talking about Peter Moore joining Microsoft, he talked about Peter's understanding of foreign markets, and especially Europe...
MC: Yes... he's British, you know...
Kikizo: Yeah, he's from Liverpool I think. [PR representatives confirm this fascinating fact]. Well he supports Liverpool anyway. So how is he going to help in Europe specifically?
MC: Peter has got great experience with games in general. He also has great experience with brand, and working in a competitive environment, working with Sega, and also online gaming. He's a business guy and understands things very well. All those qualities will help drive the business forward.
"Peter Moore is a business guy and understands things very well. All his qualities will help drive the Xbox business forward."
Kikizo: When we spoke with J, he said that he views the Xbox business as a twenty year business, that he wasn't fussed with people like Rare taking as long as they need to get a product right. However, when we spoke with Kevin Bachus recently, his new company CEG is there to fund truly innovative and original titles in a way that he thinks all publishers are afraid to invest time and money into. So how much do you recognise the value of investing in titles that are truly innovative and original?
"Halo is a key franchise, so Halo 2 is worth the wait, and it's a franchise that can cope with the wait."
A good example is Halo - which has sold over two million copies, and got great reviews - we could have quickly released Halo 2 to get it out there, but no. It's a key franchise, with an aura of its own. So it's worth the wait, and it's a franchise that can cope with the wait. Sports titles is a different type of content that usually need an update every year, but a lot of our titles are all about the quality of the final product.
Kikizo: Sony unveiled the launch line-up for their online launch last night. Are you concerned by the potential of online, combined with the PlayStation brand?
"Sony are trying to imitate what we're doing online. We've laid the ground, said where we're going, and we're delivering. Play Xbox Live and see for yourself!"
Kikizo: Sega are quite close with Microsoft. Now I know this is not something you can really talk about, but if we can just touch on the Sega Sammy thing. There are lots of credible reports of discussions between you and Sega. Obviously there was a lower than expected performance after Isao Okawa's final "last chance" investment a couple of years ago. The logic behind the proposed merger with Sammy seems strong, but we've heard that the parent company, CSK, have got a major interest in Sammy as well as Sega. So what's the deal - is it not just the case they they're merging together, so that it's a larger payoff for CSK when Microsoft buys it?!
[laughter from everyone]...
"All these rumours, that we're buying the world, and their grand parents too... it's not about that!"
Microsoft has bought quite a lot of development companies in the past, and they're usually very precise acquisitions, where we've worked with the company we're acquiring before, or where there's enough quality coming out where we'll look at it and consider things. As for Sega, ask Sega. More generally, I think the business is going for some element of consolidation, because the overall business is growing for games, we know that it costs more and more money to develop, market and distribute games worldwide. So you need to be strong to even go into this business and do this thing right now. And I think this is a trend, something that was predicted a few years ago, and is happening now.
It's a hits driven business, and big franchises and big development means big costs. And then big numbers, in order to be able to have a return investment, so it takes muscles to pick the right products and develop, market and distribute them in the right way, worldwide.
"Bill Gates is a visionary guy and a step ahead. He needs to say where we're going, and that's where [the Xbox 2 statement] is coming from."
MC: People like Bill Gates as the head of a company - it's normal for them to have a vision. And I think that these two statements are actually compatible. One is talking about direction and vision, and where we need to be. And when we think about entertainment and games in the future, it could definitely happen, we could see things merging together, and things like music for example, as stuff that you can do. But today, we're doing games, and that's what we're about.
So think about it in terms of time. Bill Gates is the head of this company, he's a visionary guy and a step ahead. He needs to say where we're going, and that's where that statement is coming from. We're here, making sure we deliver on this thing. And of course... we've got an idea of where we're going and how to get there, based on what we're doing today, and what we need to do in the coming weeks, months, years.
Kikizo: Well thanks for your time - enjoy wherever you do go in the future, and good luck!Kikizo Games