Dean Takahashi's first book, Opening the Xbox, was released when Microsoft was the evil computer software company encroaching itself upon the innocent and unsuspecting gaming world. It was the ominous creeping fog creeping through our simple town leaving bad PC game ports and "American" videogames in its wake. That was over four years ago. In that time, Microsoft outsold the wily Nintendo and challenged the market leader Sony in the United States; the Xbox became a bit of a phenomenon capturing mindshare and becoming a buzz word among the vaulted 18-35 year old demographic (and the media that covets it). Somewhere between the time of Halo's launch and the maturation of the Xbox Live service, Microsoft had turned the critics who were once against it into supporters and believers in its strategy for the green box.
For all of its success, the Xbox was just a first step for Microsoft in its goal to dominate the living room. In 2005, it followed up the Xbox with the Xbox 360. This launch would be one of the most anticipated and talked about launches in games history, but it wasn't always for positive reasons. A simultaneous global launch proved too ambitious leading to severe hardware shortages—these shortages led to record sales on eBay and auction sites across the country. Reports of hardware defects and software glitches made the rounds quickly on the Internet. However, none of that killed the momentum of the Xbox 360. It remained the console to have that holiday season and looks set to be a must this upcoming holiday season as well.
Just as he was with the original Xbox, Dean Takahashi was there during the creation and build up of the Xbox 360. He returns with another book, this one called The Xbox 360 Uncloaked: The Real Story Behind Microsoft's Next-Generation Video Game Console. GameCritics.com is pleased be able to talk to Mr. Takahashi about his new book.
Why did you write 360 Uncloaked?
I said that I would only do another book on this subject if I had a good story. I asked myself if I had material that was worth another book. And if I had the time and the access to write it. Everything fell into place, so I wrote it. I just kept collecting more and more material and at one point it just became clear that I had insider material that no one had ever written about before.
What was the overall reception for Opening the Xbox? Did it impact your decision to choose an eBook publisher this time around?
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It was a good seller for a game industry book. But it was published through a traditional hardcover publisher. This book moved in real time. It happened so fast that the only way to do it was to write an eBook. I started much of my writing and interviewing in December, and I finished it in April. By early May, the eBook and the print-on-demand paperback were ready to begin selling. We hope to get it into stores as well. If that happens, then the eBook serves its purpose well. It seeds the market, then enables the paper book to get into the stores.
What different challenges did you face when writing the second book compared to the first?
This book happened much faster than the last one. It was good that I saved material for four years, but it was harder getting access to the team on a timely basis that could meet my deadline. We just barely did it. There were also so many more people to talk to this time because the Xbox 360 was a much larger effort than the original Xbox.
There were some people who I wanted to interview but couldn't reach. Some didn't want to talk. Some required that I go through some hoops with PR. I didn't have time to wait for them. When I was writing the book, I would write as much as I could until I found a gap in my knowledge. Then I would have to find some people to answer the questions I had. Then I would resume the writing.
What made it easier and harder was that I needed to construct a chronology this time around to keep track of everything and to see what was the context for certain events. But the chronology was also hard to construct from people who didn't remember everything or remembered incorrectly. So I had to double back with sources and check with them.
Another challenge was that much of the story happened elsewhere, in Europe and Japan, where I didn't have the luxury of being able to travel. I relied on phone calls and other journalistic sources for that information.
The original team behind the Xbox, or at least the idea of the Xbox, has moved on. How are the new caretakers of the Xbox different from that original group?
I think we saw the transition become complete as the team became a real team, not a diverse collection of different types of people. In short, the gamers left. The corporate folks took over. But those corporate folks now have a lot of gamer blood in their veins.
This is very generalized and oversimplified. But I'll give just two examples of what I mean.
Ed Fries was one of those who crossed the divide between game-focused executive and Microsoft corporate lifer. He liked to run his game division as he saw fit. He didn't coordinate his efforts as tightly with the hardware and system software design teams as the other executives wanted. This relates mainly to his refusal to cut short the development of Halo 2 so that a Halo 3 game could be ready for the Xbox 360 launch. Ed defended his game developers against time pressures, but he often put the interests of the game before the interests of the corporation. After he left, there was less division among the executive team. This is not to say that the remaining executives don't care about games. Peter Moore has a good reputation in the games industry. He has gone along with what the executives above him want, but he is also in touch with what gamers want.
Microsoft made mistakes with the original Xbox. What corrections did it make with the 360? What mistakes has Microsoft repeated?
It launched early, not too late, with the 360. That gave it time to fix errors such as the manufacturing glitch. It designed a more balanced box that was both powerful and not incredibly expensive. It created a better-looking fit that was thankfully smaller than the other one. It lined up more support from game developers and publishers than it did the first time around. It eliminated the Grand Theft Auto exclusive. It financed new game franchises such as Gears of War. Microsoft clearly repeated a mistake in Japan: launching without the right games for the Japanese market. Some of the games being released don't look like next-gen games. It was slow to replace many faulty units, earning it a bad reputation for customer service. And there have been some dry spells in the release schedule.
With all of the problems Microsoft was having gearing up for launch, did Microsoft really believe it would be ready in time?
I think that many people underneath Robbie Bach thought that he would allow them to delay the launch for various reasons. He should have delayed the launch in Japan. But Bach was the one who was determined to stay on schedule because he believed it was critical to the overall strategy. So certainly he believed it would be on time because he wouldn't allow small delays to add up to big delays. Others thought that he really didn't mean it when he said there would be no delays. Toward the end, as problems popped up, the Microsoft team had no choice. They were going to launch.
What is your take on Xbox Live and Live Arcade?
I think they are both Microsoft's key advantages. But I don't know if they are such big advantages that the other guys can't and won't copy them. Live Arcade helps them make more money than they planned on, but right now it's a small business. If it grows, the importance could make a big difference in profits.
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Why do you think Microsoft hasn't gotten a foothold in Japan? Does it still perceive Japan as significant?
They should have launched with more and better games. When it was clearly many of the big games were being delayed, Microsoft should have delayed the launch. Now it has a lousy brand image in Japan. Microsoft invested more money in Japan this time, so yes, Microsoft sees it as important. But if they execute well in the other regions, they could still grow their overall market penetration in this generation. So it's important, but not critical.
You dropped a bomb revealing that Microsoft would be releasing a handheld of sorts. Since then Microsoft has announced that it will be a media device more likely to challenge the iPod than PlayStation Portable. How serious is Microsoft about the handheld videogame market?
This first device is likely to target only the iPod. I wonder, however, if they're going to go after the gamers with a second device in the Zune family. That would be a good way to attack the profit centers of Nintendo and Sony.
What do you think of the Nintendo Wii?
I think it is the wild card of this generation. It may capture the top market share, or perhaps No. 2. It depends on how much mileage Nintendo can get out of leveraging creativity and the new controller.
Did you get a chance to play it? What was the experience like? How does it compare to the 360 or PlayStation 3?
I played the Wii at E3. The tennis game was fun, but I thought that the Zelda game was just as difficult to learn as any game with a normal controller. So the trick for Nintendo is to make it simple even though it has a more intuitive controller. The Wii's graphics seem weak. That may hurt its chances in the long run when compared to the 360 or the PS3. Nintendo has been attracting more game publishers to its platform, but it remains to be seen if they can all exploit the Wii controller in creative ways. If they run out of ideas, the Wii runs out of gas. But I think that Nintendo has a much better chance because of the combination of its different creative approach and its low price. If they hit the creative side out of the park, then they could become No. 1.
After a tepidly received E3 press conference and months of public relations gaffes, many journalists and industry analysts have been critical of the PlayStation 3. Can Sony recover in time for launch?
Sony has a tough uphill battle to regain the undecided folks. Clearly, they have a lot of fans who love everything that Sony does. For the rest of us, charging a high price for the console is a slap in the face. I think Sony will lose some share in this generation, but how much is the question.
Of the three next-generation consoles, the Xbox 360 is the only one without a motion-sensing technology in the controller. Do you think Microsoft sees such technology as relevant?
I know that Microsoft claims to have tried it years ago. But perhaps they were just caught by surprise. It may be relevant and important to gamers, but it clearly didn't occur to Microsoft to innovate in this area. Perhaps that is a side effect of being in a rush to go first.
Why is Microsoft releasing an HD-DVD add-on? It won't benefit Xbox 360 games and isn't likely to be profitable?
I don't know where you can get the assumption about the latter part. Toshiba has argued the costs of HD-DVD drives are lower than Blu-ray's. I think Microsoft wants to cover the bases. If they offer this option, they won't necessarily lose the people who really care about this particular feature. This is about matching Sony.
The industry has grown much in the years since the Xbox launched. But the industry still shows great immaturity and videogame journalism in particular. Do you see an improvement or shift with excellent podcasts like GamaSutra Podcast (formerly Tom Kim's FatPixelsRadio), 1UP Yours Podcast and (the slightly okay) Dean & Nooch on Gaming growing in popularity?
You mention only podcasts in terms of the immaturity of the video game journalism. For sure, podcasts are even farther behind. But I believe there are a lot of institutions that are covering games closely now, whether it's academic observers such as Henry Jenkins, big media outlets such as CNN.com, or newsletters such as Next Generation. It's getting better and it has some way to go before it catches up with other big entertainment media such as
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sports or Hollywood-related journalism. Our roots are with the geeks, and we're growing as they do. Game journalism has to be about having fun and being serious.
Public Relations companies and representatives have a lot of power in this industry—largely because it is dominated by the so-called enthusiast press. Has this impeded your duties when covering the industry?
Sometimes PR folks make it easier for you. Sometimes they block your path. When they block it, you have to try to go around them to get to the information you need.
You've covered Microsoft and its Xbox. This makes you almost the default Microsoft guy. Ever wanted to do something similar with the PlayStation 3 or Nintendo? Did you ever try to but found harder to get into the secretive Japanese companies compared to a secretive American company like Microsoft?
I've tried to work more closely with Sony and Nintendo. But it's harder, given my base of operations in Silicon Valley and because I can't speak Japanese.
What do you plan on writing about next? What would be your dream project?
I hope to take a break. I'll write an essay on the making of Halo and Halo 2 for a Halo Anthology from Ben Balla books. But beyond that, I have no books planned right now. There usually isn't a plan. It depends on whether I can keep finding good stories to tell that are best told in a book.
We'd like to thank Dean Takahashi for taking the time to talk to us.
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