Exclusive: MS on 1080p, BluRay, Expansion
Director of Microsoft's Game Technology Group speaks to Kikizo on future direction for the Xbox 360 and more.
As Microsoft this week announces its latest development initiatives at GDC, we caught up with the company's Director of the Game Technology Group (formerly ATG), Scott Henson. You can watch the full 20-minute video interview feature here, but here are the highlights:
A down-to-earth Xbox exec who knows Xbox 360's finer technical points and the overall strategy as well as anyone, Henson shared with us details on system upgradeability, and where things are headed in the 'HD era' of gaming.
You may remember our recent PS3 feature in which the reality of 'Full HD' 1080p games for the console was thrown into some doubt. Scott openly offered his opinion, stating: "I think 1080p, just to address that directly, will be basically impossible. I think if you talk to any developer they will tell you that they will not have a performing game at 1080p."
So is 1080p destined to be a standard purely for a tiny minority of Full HD owning movie fanatics? "Whenever you make a series of bets about technology transition you have to find the centre of gravity; where's going to be that 'sweet spot' for the next generation? We looked at all entertainment - movies, television, games, and the television sets themselves worldwide over the next decade, and 720p and 1080i is absolutely going to be the sweet spot.
"Of course every game is HD enabled from the get-go, but [developers] are going to get more and more out of the processor and out of the graphics chip as time goes on, as they get more familiar with multi-threaded programming and multicore architecture. Games are just going to get better and better."
Meanwhile in HD land, the recent announcement of the HD-DVD add on for Xbox 360 has not exactly set the world on fire, judging by polls (including one of 1,009 voters on this site in which 75.52% say they would not but the add-on, 14.27% say they will, and 9.91% remain undecided). So how exactly does Microsoft intend to make the device a success? "This is like any conversation we'd ever have about any technology," says Scott, "it will all come down to content."
"There's going to have to be some compelling content that's available for HD-DVD [just as] there's got to be compelling content available for whatever game consoles that come out. There's also a compatibility factor... I think one of the lynchpins for the next generation is going to be the compatibility for your existing library... that's another thing that HD-DVD has going for it. If you sum all that stuff up, I think HD-DVD is going to do quite well."
But what if Sony's BluRay format wins the next-gen movie war? Could we still see a BRD add-on for Xbox 360, or maybe even a combo drive? Henson pipes up, "I wanna make sure everyone understands this! The system itself is architected so that we can continue to add components over time. Could we do that kind of stuff technically? Yeah. But have we announced anything, no - high definition movie formats is going to be a really interesting thing to watch objectively - and we'll be ready to adapt to what consumers want." He also clarified, just for our own satisfaction, that "HD-DVD the accessory is for movie playback only" - no gamers will be alienated by Microsoft putting games on HD-DVD.
Another area that some of us found initially a little disappointing about Xbox 360 were small elements of the system's front end, Guide. Will the company seek to improve disappointing features like the music player? "The short answer is yes, we have the ability to upgrade that. There are all kinds of feature requests that have come in. One of the top requested features is the ability to download from Marketplace in the 'background'. So we're looking at, and prioritising, that list of requests. So yes, the capability is there."
Furthermore, the fact that video media can only be streamed if you have the Media Center Edition of XP, was another bone of contention. "Are we looking at streaming [the user's video content] from [non-MCE] Windows XP systems in the future? That's one of those list of features that we're looking at right now, and figuring out where it fits in the overall priority scheme. I am not going to commit to anything specific, but I think what you're going to see in the coming months and year is us add more and more capability for both Windows XP systems, as well as Media Center Editions."
He added: "It's space and time; we built a lot of stuff into this console, and you have to test it and ship it - it's a lot of stuff! We'll continue to evolve it, I promise."
And hot games for 2006? Apart from obvious titles like Gears of War, Henson offers: "I think [Viva Piñata] is such a unique game and has such unique play elements - and I think people will be very surprised at what we're doing with its Live implementation. There will be a lot of discussion about that. And of course, people always seem to want to know what Bungie is up to, so I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion about that [in 2006] as well."
In the full video interview, we challenge Microsoft on Windows Vista conspiracy theories, their official line regarding competitor influences, and the infamous iPod compatibility issue. Other answers to questions including, why the likes of Team Ninja pulling out so much more from Xbox 360 than many other developers, plus striking, newly updated performance stats for Xbox Live, are also included. Check it out here.
Editorial Director, Kikizo