During its E3 2009 press conference, Microsoft announced partnerships with a number of high-profile online services, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Last.fm. The former two sites dominate online microblogging and social networking, while the latter offers Internet radio services based on users' artist preferences (and is owned by GameSpot parent company CBS Interactive).
Microsoft is finally rolling out these services to the Xbox 360 today, and GameSpot UK attended the Xbox Collectives event in Central London last night to cover the launch. During the event, editors spoke with Last.fm chief financial officer and chief digital officer Ryan Regan and Xbox Live UK and Ireland marketing manager James Houlton to find out what the introduction of streaming means for Xbox users, and future plans for Last.fm and Xbox Live.
GameSpot UK: How did the partnership with Microsoft come about?
Ryan Regan: At the beginning of this year we were tying to figure out what were the high priorities in 2009 for us, and one thing that's always been very core to Last.fm is allowing our users to take the Last.fm experience when and where they want to, to interact with Last.fm, and we thought that this year was going to be a big year where the living room was going to be a big place for that.
So that's where we came from, and we started having discussions and came to find that Xbox had a lot of the same thoughts that we had. And they were absolutely the number one partner we wanted to work with. They have the biggest community, they've thought the deepest and most about what it means to have an interactive living room experience, and really got what we wanted to do. It was an easy-to-find agreement that this would be a great working relationship.
GSUK: What are the key features of the service?
RR: It really takes what's great about Last.fm, but modifies it and puts it in a way that's easy to interact with through the Xbox. There's obviously the community aspect: It scrobbles [uploads listening habits] back to Last.fm, it enhances your profile, you can interact with other users, et cetera, et cetera. Secondarily, it provides the music information that Last.fm is known for.
So it's easy for you--while you're experiencing an artist--to find out more about them, how many people are listening to them, where they come from, and what their similar artists are. But most importantly, it's a great entertainment experience and it takes a product that we have on the site called Visual Radio, with the slide shows, and [brings] it to the television. That's the thing we're most proud of.
GSUK: Do you think it's fair for users to have to pay for Xbox Live gold membership, and a Last.fm subscription, to get an ad-free experience?
RR: I think that the ad-support experience is core to what we do in the US and UK today, and we think that's something we can manage in a very positive way for our users and the brand, and I think that's going to be a great way for most users to experience it. For people that want a bit more, and potentially not to see ads, they can become a Last.fm subscriber and that's consistent with a lot of other Xbox Live services as well, like Netflix, for example. But the starting point, and the main level of interaction, we think, is going to be the ad-supported experience.
GSUK: How do you feel about competition from other music-streaming services like Spotify?
RR: Last.fm's funny in that we're really oriented around our users, and the experience is all centered around our users' listening habits and tastes, and what that means is that most other music-streaming services are actually a lot more complementary to Last.fm than they are competitive. An example that I like to talk about is Spotify, which is a great service in its own right. The first feature they developed based on user feedback was to allow Spotify to scrobble back to Last.fm, and that had nothing to do with discussions we had with them; that was their users saying we want what we listen to on Spotify to feed our Last.fm profiles, and I think that's just a great example of how music-streaming services are a lot more complementary than they're not.
GSUK: Are there any plans to bring Last.fm to the PlayStation 3 or Wii?
RR: What we've really been focused on is to make sure the experience on Xbox is great and something that users love and Xbox Live users love. From there, I think there would be a lot of opportunities to build on it within Xbox or potentially on another platform, but nothing to discuss at this time.
GSUK: Given that the Xbox 360 is such a high-def experience, would you look at including music videos into the Last.fm service in the future?
RR: Licensing music videos is different than licensing radio tracks, so it is a different environment. But I think, similar to a lot of things, what we've really been focused on is making sure this starting point experience is great, and then let's get feedback from our users like we always do and help us determine where we build on this, and I think that music videos would be a natural extension to that. But we want to see how this launch goes before we consider those next steps.
GSUK: Going forward, are there features that you're planning to roll out later on, perhaps like being able to play Last.fm songs while playing games?
RR: Yeah, potentially. That's something that we've discussed, and like the [previous] video answer, what we want to do is see how this launch goes, make sure this launch is a big success, then get feedback from the people that are interacting and using it, and if that's something that they find valuable and demanding then absolutely, that's something that's going to be a priority for us to address.
GSUK: Have you noticed different usage patterns on the Xbox 360, as opposed to Last.fm's Web and iPhone services?
RR: Nothing specific to disclose, except that we've been really happy with the engagement of the service overall. It's been beyond our wildest expectations, and it's really confirmed that there's a big opportunity with this.
GSUK: Why limit these new services to Xbox Live Gold members?
James Houlton: For us, Xbox Live Gold is the main focus from a Live perspective, and what we wanted to do is make sure that Gold members really felt the value of it. So, starting off from a multiplayer gaming point of view, but then we added avatar party, chat, and everything else, as well as 1 vs. 100, and then the launch of Sky Player. There is a free element [to Sky Player] in terms of trial for Silver [members], but for us, the reason why people want to be Gold is all of those great things we've done before [plus] early access to game demos, exclusive offers, as well as access to things like Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm. There is a trial for Last.fm as well, for Silver users, for a period of time.
GSUK: How does that work?
JH: You download the app, use your Last.fm details, and you get a three-hour trial on Silver. So, again, it's to give people an idea of what the service is, how exciting it is, and then from there it helps them understand the value of gold membership.
GSUK: Are there any plans to bring other music-streaming services to the Xbox 360, such as the MSN service that was announced previously for the UK, or Spotify?
JH: With reference to MSN, it's really just a kind of case of those guys...speaking about aspirational things. From our point of view, we're really focused on launching Last.fm and seeing how users interact with the service and take it from there.
GSUK: But you haven't ruled out the possibility of other services in the future?
JH: This time last year we could have been sitting here and people would have said, "Are you ever going to have a music-streaming service coming?" and we wouldn't have had anything to announce at the time, so everything is always evolving all of the time.
GSUK: Sky HD isn't available on the Xbox 360 at the moment. Is that something you might roll out in the future?
JH: In terms of the content and the resolution which it comes at, it's completely a Sky thing, if you like. Sky Player as a platform today...you can't get HD on any other platform that you can get Sky on, in terms of the PC, for example. In all of the interviews that we've done with Sky, they're constantly looking to how they can improve and evolve their service as well, and obviously as broadband penetration is increasing and getting better in the UK then I think it's only a natural progression to see a higher-resolution service coming to Sky Player. But we'll have to work with them and see what that looks like in terms of the time scale.
GSUK: The PlayStation 3 and Wii now have the BBC iPlayer. When can we expect to see it on the Xbox 360?
JH: Our focus was on finding a partner like Sky that we believe has the right kind of content for our audience, and at the moment we are 100 percent focused on working with Sky on that. We currently don't have any announcements to make around iPlayer or any other TV services.
GSUK: Will you be adding extra functionality to these services in the future?
JH: With all of the partners we picked, we really see it as a long-term partnership. We're focused on launching it now, but once we get feedback--in terms of how people are using it, improvements they'd like to see, changes they'd like to make--then we certainly wouldn't rule out, in the future, being able to look at it and adding things as people want. At the moment, we're focused on launching it and then we can see how well it's received--are people looking at photos mainly on Facebook because they're full screen on a big screen, and therefore should we look at photos and what else we can do with photos? All those kind of questions we really won't know until people start playing around with it.