One of the bigger news stories heading towards the end of the year will be the performance of the new motion control platforms, and with the release of the Kinect for 360 pricing structure today, some of the final pieces of the jigsaw are slotting into place.
As the official announcement hit, we spoke to Microsoft's VP for the Interactive Entertainment Business in Europe - Chris Lewis - to tackle the big question of price, which audience segments would find that appealing, and how software for the motion control system would evolve over time.
Q:The pricing for Kinect has been unveiled - there will be conflicting opinions on that, so give us some insight into why it costs what it does.
Chris Lewis: Well, as you know, we research all of these things very consistently across wide groups of target consumers, and we're very confident - particularly given that Kinect for 360 does come with the Kinect Adventures game. I've played it a few times, and it is deep and expansive, with 20 different levels. It's a very broad gaming experience that comes packed in with Kinect for 360.
So from our point of view, that plus the technology and what that means to the consumer by way of experience - and the innovation it represents - we're confident that it's great value. Certainly all of the testing and research that we've done confirms that point, and we're confident that consumers are happy to pay for great experiences.
Not only that game I've just referenced, but others coming out of E3 - Harmonix' Dance Central for example picked up Best Motion Simulation Game and Best Original Game [awards] at the show. Those kind of compelling experiences give us confidence that people will be excited about Kinect for 360 and what it represents.
Q: Who do you envisage as the main target demographic for Kinect? Is it core gamers, or casual gamers picking up a 360 for the first time and seeking this no-controller experience?
Chris Lewis: Undoubtedly it'll be everyone - we will see, I'm certain, the core audience we're not only synonymous with now but we'll remain committed to. The experience will be attractive to large swathes of the core audience.
But this also does mean for us a new phase in the life cycle - it does mean us therefore reaching out to audiences that are younger, older, female. In particular Ubisoft showed one game at E3, Your Shape, which we think will very much appeal to the female audience - that we've perhaps not been as connected with in the past, as well as families.
So from our point of view Kinect is accessible, it's fun, there is no barrier between you and the experience - there is no physical controller outside of your own body, and from our point of view therefore we think it's the biggest expansion story in Xbox history.
I'd say again, that doesn't mean we're walking away or forgetting the core - it's not about mainstream consumer or core gamer. For us it's about a great experience for both.
Q: It's exciting technology, no question. But there's an argument to suggest that the core gamers aren't going to bite without strong core experiences - which won't be in abundance at launch. Meanwhile, in the casual market - for which the 360 hasn't yet been a key purchasing decision - the cost of a console plus Kinect may be somewhat high. Are you in any danger of falling between the two segments as a result?
Chris Lewis: There are a couple of things I'd say there. Certainly we were very keen to be innovative and not derivative in what we came up with in our Kinect for 360 technology. As you know, it's all about full-body tracking, it's all about non-controller-based, outside of your physical self.
From our point of view it was important to take that innovative step so as to clearly differentiate ourselves in a way that we know our consumers are excited about. That's one thing I think will truly set us apart - and I think that, plus the great service provision of Xbox Live, with people connecting and talking to one another, being able to interact in this community that's frankly unique to us, along with the oxygen of the Xbox 360 business...
I think those factors plus the games you saw at E3, that you'll see through Christmas and beyond - they're very much pure Kinect experiences built around the Kinect sensor technology that really plays into that space.
I think we've got to keep doing that - you'll see that we've set the bar very high in terms of the type, variety and quality of what comes to market with Kinect for 360.
Q: You're right - Kinect has brought innovation to the market with a controller-free environment. But do you think a casual market - that's already shown itself to be comfortable with a non-threatening motion control system such as the Wii has - will really understand that there's a difference?
Chris Lewis: I think there are a couple of things that have to happen. As I said earlier, we've got to bring great experiences to the platform immediately with Kinect for 360 - we will do that, we are doing that. I'm very confident that we won't compromise in any way on what that means.
The second thing is that trial is key - we found that through E3, and you'll see a lot from us by way of what we call the 'experiential tour'. What that really means is that we're going to take Kinect for 360 out on the road, in partnership with retail and on our own, in shopping malls, in stores, in public places - to give people that experience so they can try it for themselves.
Because once you physically get in front of this, and I speak from personal experience, it is a truly compelling experience - and truly infectious. And we want others to watch people playing with Kinect for 360, and sharing that digitally through social networking sites that are already available on Xbox Live... and you know who they are.
So I think that experience over the coming weeks and months is going to further assist in making sure people understand in what this opportunity is.
Q: Sampling is definitely something that worked strongly for Nintendo with the Wii as well, so it's a good strategy. Looking ahead 12-18 months down the line, what's your sense of what the balance of Kinect and non-Kinect games will be? Do you envisage games with which you can use a normal controller or Kinect experiences? Do you see lots of Kinect-exclusive titles coming out?
Chris Lewis: That's a great question - I think you'll see all of those things. Certainly over the launch phase and this Christmas in particular I think you'll see very much pure Kinect for 360 experiences that will appeal to the broad young/older/female/family audiences I described earlier.
I'll say again, at the risk of sounding like a cracked record, that doesn't in any way, shape or form represent us stepping away from the core - which is why, during the press conference at E3 for example, we spent a good solid chunk of time around Halo Reach, Gears of War and Fable. And there will be more coming from us, and our third party partners.
But to answer your question, will we see more of these hybrid experiences coming, where you can complement what might ostensibly be a controller-based experience with gestures, voice and physical movement? Yes, I think that will come. I think there's an overlap there, a logical and a good one.
Again, without compromising on the experience, making sure it's incremental and generally advantageous to the experience, then you'll see those types of experiences coming over time. And therefore I think all of the different types of gaming experiences you describe will become available over the coming 18 months or so.
I think the key there once again is choice - it's not like we're trying to force anyone down a particular route. It's interesting that a lot of the consumer excitement, when you put people in front of Kinect for 360, is just the navigation through their movie collection; navigation through the dashboard; that physical movement to control their Xbox 360 - it's actually really exciting for people... not just the gameplay, which in and of itself is very immersive.
The navigation, the communication, the video chat - those kinds of things - very intoxicating for our consumers when we watched them in front of Kinect for 360 as we have done through the tests we've been through.
Q: I can believe it, having watched the E3 press conference - I wonder if that will be enough on its own for people to part with £100-plus, however. I guess we'll see.
Chris Lewis: We're confident it will - early signs are very positive.
The other thing that we're excited about is that this past weekend we shipped our 250GB new slimmer console that Don [Mattrick] showed at E3 and we've had a fabulous sales weekend. The Uk went up 1000 per cent week-over-week with an 84 per cent market share.
It's only a couple of days of sales, but it does further enforce the appetite that people have for the Xbox 360, and excitement for the 250GB slimmer, quieter version in Liquid Black. And the 4GB version that's coming at the end of August, and will also be available as part of the bundle with Kinect for 360 - again, we're excited about what that's going to represent for families over Christmas.
Chris Lewis is Microsoft's VP of the Interactive Entertainment Business in Europe. Interview by Phil Elliott.