J. Allard leaves Microsoft, the world will hardly notice

J. Allard and Bill Gates.This is the big story today. J. Allard, father of the Xbox, will be retiring from his position at Microsoft. I say “retiring” because there has been so much speculation about why he was leaving and whether he got fired and what he’s going to be starting and on and on and on. He’s just retiring – taking a leave to go explore the things he didn’t have time to explore when he was working a billion hours a week at Microsoft.

To me, though, this isn’t really news. Allard was involved in some great projects – projects that made Microsoft a ton of money – but none of it has really been incredible. In many cases, the Microsoft products Allard has worked on have succeeded not because of incredible innovation but because it was the only game (or one of very few games) in town.

Consider the original Xbox. We knew about it for years leading up to the launch, and the best thing about it wasn’t the controller or the processor or the original Live experience (which was terrible, by the way). The best thing about Xbox 1.0 was a game called Halo. To me, the Xbox was the natural evolution of consoles, and Live was just the maturation of the console form to keep up with multiplayer standards PC players had enjoyed for decades prior.

The Xbox 360 followed the same path as the original – the natural evolution of console gaming. The Live system is better, but still not great by any means, and I know very few people who use their 360 in the ways the commercials would have you believe every geek has his home connected. There are some neat features, like Netflix streaming for one, but there isn’t anything that is truly innovative about the 360. It didn’t change the way I see the entertainment world any more significantly than, say, an iPod video did when it was announced. It performed virtually the same function as the device before it, just a bit better.

My point in all of this is that the last decade or so of devices coming out of Microsoft have been pretty mundane. Anticipated. Expected. I haven’t seen much in the last decade that has made me say, “wow,” in that breathy, holy-shit-you-just-blew-my-mind kind of way. Allard was at the helm for some good stuff, but it was just that – good. Nothing great. Nothing spectacular. His decision to retire will have about as much impact on the gadgets we see as will his decision to pursue “adventure sports.” All the best to you, J., but I can’t say I’m going to miss you.


Jimmy Fallon/John Krasinski Demo Project Natal

Last night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Xbox’s Creative Director for Project Natal, Kudo Tsunoda, showed up with a prototype Natal to demo in front of a live crowd. It’s very cool to not only see the Natal in action, but to see it played by people who are obviously not directly connected to the device’s development (or completely in control of the demo).

The demo starts with the breakout style game shown at E3. Control looks a little laggy, and there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve. Kudo could play just fine, but both Jimmy Fallon and John Krasinski whiffed their first swing at the ball. One of the first things Fallon noticed when he stepped up to play was his hair, which changed from Tsunoda’s shoulder-length mop. Pretty cool, even if his exclamation sounded more than a little scripted.

The second demo showed off Burnout: Paradise, a game Microsoft has adapted to Natal just to showcase the precise control capability of their new peripheral. As you’d expect, Kudo took off without a hitch and flew through the streets. Fallon, on the other hand, maintained reasonable control for all of four and a half seconds before blasting into walls. All four people for the demo jumped in and out of the “driver’s seat” fairly smoothly, though the Natal did take a moment to recognize foot placement for putting the pedal to the floor.

So what of the red suits? It’s hard to say whether everyone threw on the Beastie Boy jumpsuits as a theatrical gimmick or because it made them that much easier for Natal to read. My guess would be the second. No one wants to demo the hottest news in the gaming world just to watch it flop live.

In any case, this is the first we’ve really seen Natal debuted by “consumers,” and it’s at least good to see that it works, even if the situation was constructed on Microsoft’s terms. Hopefully as development continues we’ll get to see more elaborate demonstrations in less controlled environments.


Can Natal Support 5 years of “Maxed Out” Development?

Xbox 360 and Project Natal.In a recent interview with Official Xbox Magazine, Electronic Arts Senior VP Patrick Soderlund said his company has “maxed out the 360.” As a major developer for the 360 platform, EA hitting the development ceiling could be an issue, particularly considering Microsoft’s 10-year plan for the 360.

The news isn’t all bad for Microsoft. Soderlund said he’s been very impressed with the 360, but that he would have a headache if he were running Sony. It’s unclear exactly what that means, though he’s probably referring to developer support for both platforms. Plenty of folks have mentioned the ass-chapping support coming from Sony. Soderlund told OXM that EA has yet to max out the PS3.

If the 360 is already getting maxed by developers, what’s in store for the next 5 years? Obviously we have Natal to look forward to in 2010, but can motion control keep the console alive into 2015? Obviously Natal has the potential to win a non-gaming consumer base, but what about the Halo demographic? What of the competitive gamers? Will they be looking at the same graphics 5 years from now? If so, is that all bad?

Several genres have relied heavily on graphical improvements to keep people interested (FPS comes immediately to mind). Graphical stasis could give developers a chance to focus more energy on gameplay, which is a great thing for gamers in any genre.


Microsoft Confirms Xbox 360’s 10-Year Life Cycle

Project Natal in Action.I’ve had a hunch, ever since Sony announced the 10-year life cycle for the PS3, that the Xbox 360 would take the same route. After all, who wants to launch a console months or years in front of a competitor, giving them plenty of time to get their hands on your stuff and gain some serious advantage.

While talking to Venturebeat, Microsoft VP in charge of strategy and business for interactive entertainment, Shane Kim, has confirmed the 10-year plan as official policy. This is no surprise whatsoever coming on the heels of the Project Natal announcement, but it’s nice to hear you won’t have to give up on the big investment you’ve likely already made into your console.

Kim also took to the interview like a victor in battle, claiming Microsoft “won” E3 with their keynote address. “We had a lot of content for a normal E3 briefing. But Project Natal doesn’t come along every year, and it is very difficult to match,” Kim said. True, and with Sony’s new wand device, Microsoft is sitting just where Nintendo was before E3, the the pioneer trying to get more people playing games, instead of getting gamers to play more games.

Kim said Natal is a mid-cycle release for the 360, so we’ll have at least another 5 years to see how Sony and Nintendo plan to answer.

Source: Venturebeat


Famed Wii Hacker Part of Project Natal

Lee.Last month we ran a highlight on Johnny Chung Lee, the notorious Wiimote hacker responsible for making things like smartboards, multi-point touchscreens, and virtual 3D environments capable of responding to a user’s location, all from a $30 Wiimote. Lee gained notoriety not only for creating complex equipment from simple parts, but because he kept his work free, available on YouTube and his own website.

Well Lee’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed, particularly by Microsoft. Remember that little thing they debuted yesterday? Project Natal? Yeah, that little game-changer (both the development game and the game itself). As it turns out, Microsoft managed to yank Lee away from his Wiimote hacks (probably by stuffing his pockets) to work on the development team for Project Natal.

“Now, I should preface by saying I don’t deserve credit for anything that you saw at E3,” Lee wrote in a blog post last night. “A large team of very smart, very hard-working people were involved in building the demos you saw on stage. The part I am working on has much more to do with making sure this can transition from the E3 stage to your living room – for which there is an even larger team of very smart, very hard-working people involved.”

Hard work indeed. If you haven’t seen the demo videos, you need to, because Natal points to some really groundbreaking possibilities. As Lee puts things, “We would all love to one day have our own personal holodeck. This is a pretty measurable step in that direction.”

I said yesterday that I was having trouble being skeptical about Natal. It is some incredible technology, but my excitement’s wearing off and I’m beginning to think my dreams are probably bigger than the device. Can it really be as great as Lee says? And when he says a step, how big is that step (and obviously it’s one of MANY before we’re anywhere close to a holodeck)? Are you bouncing-off-the-walls excited or just watching from the corner of your eye?

I do know this, if Lee is involved, Microsoft is compiling a pretty incredible team, and it would take a load of bureaucratic problems to turn their hard work into a lackluster device.