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Microsoft’s Albert Penello talks Top Gun, Xbox One’s digital past, and online infrastructure

Microsoft’s Albert Penello talks Top Gun, Xbox One’s digital past, and online infrastructure

Albert Penello is the director of product planning for Xbox One, Xbox 360, and the Kinect, and for someone with a system coming out in a week or so he seems… remarkably calm. It turns out I had already seen the demo he was giving to the press, so we had a rare thing in this business: Time to sit down and shoot the shit.

The conversation ranged from movie ratings to raising children, including a brief but odd detour into a deconstruction of the sex scene in Top Gun. Penello threw his head back and began singing “Take my breath awwwwwaayyyyyy,” as we discussed the way nudity and violence has changed in the past fifteen years, and we were off.

How to be heard

The Internet is a heated place these days, especially in the early days of what looks to be a pretty tight sales contest between the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. Gamers throw a lot of vitriol around online, so I was curious about how Penello separates the feedback that’s worth listening to from the noise, and to the extent that he dives in at all.

“As far as looking on the Internet, you’re on the Internet too, how do you decide? You sort of look at the thoughtfulness of the post, you look at the thoughtful responses, and then you check it against what you know to be true… You can tell by things like grammar and complete sentences and rational opinions,” he explained. “Even on some of the sites that are less favorable to us, I find that there are people with real thoughtful opinions, and I like to read those even if they’re not favorable to us. You can pretty quickly tune out the rest of the stuff.”

Okay, so if you’re a player and you want to get a message to Microsoft, what’s the best way to do it? How do you make your voice heard?

“I would say there are two things. A lot of us are on Twitter, I read the feeds, but I don’t respond to everything. I would say if I was really going to go out to the readers and say what the best way to give feedback, no matter what their forum of choice is, be thoughtful. It will get read,” Penello continued. “If you really have something interesting to say, I like reading interesting things, thoughtful things about the industry, whether it’s in support of what we do or it’s against what we do. I think thoughtful things will get heard.”

What’s interesting is that Microsoft isn’t flying blind when it decided to make a push for more media functions on the Xbox One. They look at how people use the consoles, and they found that media functions didn’t take away time people spent playing video games, they actually increased the time people spent with their console in total.

“So we get a lot of… we get no personally identifiable information, but we do get a lot of console usage data. That ends up being one of the most interesting debates that ends up happening when you hear people at Microsoft say what consumers do, because there will always be some consumer who looks nothing like the thing you say,” Penello told me.

“One of the things we know is we know how much of the time people spend on video applications versus playing live or watching DVDs or things like that. We know the data… So yeah, we can see what people are doing.”

The last number they released was that 40 percent of the average player’s time on the Xbox 360 is spent on video. Again, the time people spent playing games didn’t go down, the overall time spent on the system has gone up. “The 40 percent of time is completely additive. I would say today it’s probably roughly 50 / 50, gaming and other things on the box,” he continued.

So the push into other media functions is following a trend more than it’s pushing one through. The more options players have, the more time they’re likely to spend on the system. It’s not about taking the focus away from gaming, it’s about increasing the time you spend in front of a Microsoft device.

Holdovers from the digital past

Games install onto the hard drive, and the goal is to keep the installed size of each game around 3GB, and to have it installed and ready to play within five minutes. It will obviously take more time if you’re downloading the game without a disc, as the full games will be much larger. The Battlefield 4 download will tip the scales at 33GB, for instance.

I asked if they were worried about getting angry e-mails from games as they hit their data caps while buying games online. “It’s an international problem, not just a US problem,” Penello replied. I brought up the fact that our online infrastructure is pretty shitty. “Our data caps are not. Our speeds are, but data caps are a lot more prevalent outside the US.” 

Still, they kept one feature from the original digital plan of the Xbox One. You can bring over your disc to a friends’ house, they can put it their system, install it, and purchase a full license online. Hell, you can rent the game if none of your friends own just to bypass the huge download. “We actually kept a lot of the cool features from the pre-whatever days,” Penello said.

I asked what was the hardest thing to give up when they moved from the digital model to a more tradition approach to game ownership.

“I think people liked the family sharing stuff a lot. So we’re going to figure out ways to bring versions of that in,” he said. “We now have a different model so some of that stuff can’t happen. We’ve tried to keep things we thought people liked, the conversion of licenses is one.”

“We still allow your stuff in the cloud, so anything you did buy digitally you can still redownload on other consoles and play without a disc. But the family sharing was the one people really liked, being able to check out and digitally share a title, we’re going to have to figure out how in the new world we do that.”

We discussed a few other things, including the team’s thoughts on opening up app development on the Xbox One. It’s something they’ve thought about, but there are security issues, and they want to make sure things would work well with voice commands, but it’s something they’ve talked about. I brought up the fact that my Wii U was connected to my Xbox One at home, so when I said “Xbox, Watch TV,” Mario would come onscreen.

“That is so funny. This is where the best parts of the Internet comes out. I can’t wait to see what the community does with HDMI in and snap and stuff, someone is going to figure out some kooky combination of things that will just be outstanding,” he said, smiling. “I can’t wait for that.”