Q&A: Microsoft's Ken Lobb

We talk to the manager of Microsoft's Studio RX about the state of the Xbox and what to expect for the console in 2005.

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LAS VEGAS--Once upon a time, Ken Lobb worked for Nintendo during the house of Mario's heyday and had his fingers in some of the most memorable games for Nintendo's consoles. Today, the industry vet is studio manager for Microsoft's Studio RX, which is responsible for roughly half the published games from Microsoft's Game Studios. With the Xbox coming off of an impressive holiday season and 2005 starting to unfold, we sat Lobb down at the D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas to find out what we can expect for the Xbox this year.

GameSpot: What are your feelings on the state of the Xbox?

Ken Lobb: I think we had a killer year in 2004. I've loved the Xbox since I came over from Nintendo. It was part of the reason why I came. I saw the potential that the Xbox was going to have moving forward, and I think this year is where it really delivered. Live came into its own with our 1.4-million-plus users. Basically any game I want to play on Live I just plug in and there's my friends, I can see who's playing what; it's easy to jump around between the games. Also I think it's become very clear that we have a nice stable of exclusives now. A lot of that is driven by first-party, but there's also some strong third-party titles. Clearly, the technology differences have started to show their head in the last year, year and a half. Games that come out cross-platform, as a general rule, will look better, will have better online integration. Some of them will let me use my soundtracks, and it's always easier to save. I don't have to worry about a memory card. I think a lot of things that we were talking about at the start of the Xbox have come to fruition this year, and people are seeing it. It helps to have something like Halo 2 or Fable to bring the masses. But it helps to have something there, but once they come to play they see there's a lot more there.

GS: What can you tell us about this year?

KL: At the moment, I'm focused on finishing off Conker [Live and Reloaded] and Forza [Motorsport]. We're going to have a lineup this year that's as good as any other year. There's a lot of stuff both from us and third parties. I see this as potentially the strongest year for Xbox, which is cool. I think that most industry types felt that we were peaking in '04. but as they start to see these games they'll realize 2005 is gonna rock.

GS: Let's talk about Conker. What's going on with that game? The last time we had a good look at it the big push for it was online features.

KL: So that's really been the driving force behind this team since they decided to bring Conker to the Xbox. We wanted to bring Bad Fur Day over, make it technologically beautiful and show more people the one-player brilliance of Conker. When it came out on the N64, Conker sold well. But I think that the market at the time, well, if you were that type of player, you were probably more interested in Dreamcast. But that's always been the minor secondary function that this team has been dreaming about. The team is pretty hardcore online, and, so, from the get-go the idea for the game has been "Conker Live and...?" So, the core of this team has been focused for a long time on how can they broaden the way you might play a multiplayer shooter on Live. So a class-based system with vehicles, a great way to play with teams--you'll find several different styles of game. It has an interesting mode that's called "online campaign." You'll play several different maps in order, and it will balance the game based on how people are doing. It rewards you based on the whole medal-based system in the game. I think a lot of this stuff will make sense to people. Not to mention it's I still think the most beautiful game running on Xbox. Rare has always been good at doing Rare-style games, which is the only way to put it. It looks like a Rare game. The lighting is beautiful, it's saturated colors, the fur tech is better than anything anybody's done. It's just a beautiful, beautiful game, and it helps that it's a blast to play with 16 players.

GS: How are you bracing for a transition year as the next generation of consoles looms?

KL: So at Microsoft Game Studios, probably one of our primary jobs--of course--is to drive platform and push technology. And as you go in to transition whatever--I'm not going to say transition year or decade--but early research has to get done. Typically, some of the internal teams are the best partners to start some of that work with. So although we're focused very heavily on the Xbox we're of course always looking to the future [and asking] what's the future going to mean for console gaming? What's it mean for online gaming, etc.?

GS: What do you think of the way the industry has changed and the part the Xbox has played in it?

KL: I think the primary way the industry has changed is that bigger and more aggressive games that require teams of 30 to 150 have gone from "OK that's one in 100 games" (let's say a game like Shenmue several years ago) to now most games. You basically can't compete in the market unless you're working with a team that's 50 plus. So what we do, and this is part of the drive behind XNA, Microsoft is a very process-driven company, and I don't mean "process" in a bad way. I mean that we've been doing software tools and technologies for a long, long time. It's one of the things that impressed me most when I came over to Microsoft, that we just have a whole lot of very smart people around. And it's not just smart about attacking problems as they stand today, but looking forward--"OK what's it going to mean if you have to have 100 people on every game?" How do you do this in a way that's fiscally possible? Some of that is through better tools. It's through, again, not just flat-out better hardware but a better thinking around hardware and technology and what that can mean for the efficiencies that you can gain when you have a whole bunch of games going on at once across multiple studios like we do.

GS: Have you been surprised by what developers have done with the Xbox?

KL: I'm always surprised by what developers do. I love this industry. Just when I'm playing the latest, newest game then there's another latest, newest game on the horizon that's doing something different whether it's technology or gameplay or online. I also think that one of the things that we've changed at Microsoft Game Studios over the last couple of years is our focus towards trying to really be a first party. [We're saying,] "Let's make the games that really prove to the industry, not just what our box is capable of, but of what the industry is capable of." How should we as an industry be addressing online? I think the way we’re pushing Live--take an early example in something like Gotham 2 and the tight integration between the one-player game and what was going on on Live. Then if you look at Forza Motorsport and how that game will allow you to play an entire career online, do trading online, build beautiful cars with custom liveries, and show them off online, trade them online--it's a pretty aggressive difference than the way that publishers were thinking three of four years ago. It's the stuff that we've been working on. Again, taking Forza as an example, it's been in development two and a half years, and from day one it was like, "OK, how are we going to take this genre and expand on it based on being able to play online?"

GS: Sum up the competition Microsoft is facing.

KL: OK, so Nintendo's strengths are, I think, and it's potentially their biggest weakness, is that they have this phenomenal stable of IP. One of the problems with that is they've been making the same games over and over again. I mean I'm looking forward to Zelda just like everybody else is, but at the same time I'm a little nervous that it's going to be the same story I've played in Ocarina of Time or Minish Cap. They do a great job of "Here's a new play mechanic, let's build a game around it." But I'm a little more interested in some of the backstory, and it would be cool to find out what's going on behind Zelda. So I think that, in general, their strength/weakness is around their IP. I also feel that maybe they're being "stick in the mud"-ish over online. Again, as a gamer, why shouldn't I play Mario Kart online? It's a natural. I don't understand. It feels like rejecting what's obvious. I mean, we have 1.4 million people willing to pay us to play online, and the number is increasing. We could easily project a day when, if your game isn't online, and I'm almost getting there now, then people will be less interested in it. If the genre makes sense online, then you should be able to play it online.

As far as Sony is concerned, I think that their online model fails where Xbox Live succeeds at building a community. I also think that Sony, from a third-party perspective, has always been very strong at having good third-party relationships and having good support from third parties. But from a first-party perspective, their stable is kind of small. When I look at that compared to what we're doing, where we're working on like 20 or 30 games at a time now, with all of them shooting pretty high, Sony tends to work on a smaller handful of games. If I project into a world where all third parties were to make all games on all platforms, so much of the driving reasoning behind buying one platform or the other is gonna be stuff like Live and the exclusives that have to come from first party. In that area, Nintendo has the strength of the first party, but they're not going towards online. Sony has a small stable of very powerful first party, but maybe not enough.

I think our strength is that that's what we're doing. Based on what I was just talking about, I'm just going to talk about this as a gamer, Live is what's making me play games virtually every night. I'm excited about paying something like Resident Evil 4. I'm superhappy the game has taken a turn. I've always loved the franchise, and it sounds like they've made the best one ever. Part of the reason I haven't opened it yet is that it's not online. I go home and there's my massively large stack of games, and I tend to pick the ones that I know my friends are playing that night. Sooner or later I'll get to RE4 because it's brilliant, but it's not drawing me the way it should. So in some ways, that's our biggest strength. The other thing we're doing really well at MGS is that we're giving single players a nice amount of content. So we'll make a Gotham 2 or a Halo 2, but we'll also make Jade Empire and Fable. We're trying to be very cautious about the amount of sequelization that we do and the amount of new content that we do. I think that's something we’re focused on as a company to not stop. If we get to the point where we have 20 of the world's most potent IPs, we as a company are still going to make sure we're focusing a lot of our effort on new stuff. It's so easy to fall into the habit of [playing it safe], but at the same time you could also just make a new franchise. In my group we look to our partners and ask what their passion is and support them in pursuing it.

GS: What lessons have you all learned from the Xbox that are going to be key as the next system comes?

KL: From my studio's perspective, I think a lot of it is around the relationships that we've built. Relationships in the industry, especially when you’re in the publishing side, are superimportant. You have to be able to build a relationship with a developer that's not just financial. We need them to be financially successful, but at the same time we want them to enjoy working with us. They should be our friends and look to us for guidance and trust us when we talk about play balance. We can do focus-testing. We can bring incredible technological might, which is something that I know Nintendo was never superstrong at it, and it is my understanding that Sony is OK [at it]. I have a stable of developers in my studio that are some of the smartest programmers I know on the planet. If one of my games is either having trouble with a technical area, or I'm trying to finish up and knock some bugs out, or whatever, I can send some of these people to help them. That's turned out to be an incredible asset. When I came to Microsoft, I realized I had so many people in my studio and recognized their various strengths and what they added to the publisher relationship. That's where we're incredibly strong and will continue to be strong.

GS: If there was one word you could use to sum up the way you're approaching this year, what would it be and why?

KL: The one word that's always driven me is "fun." We work very hard, and I push pretty hard on my people to get the right job done and to build the right game, etc. More importantly, I push them as a studio that we should be having fun in what we're doing. We're building fun stuff. If you think about our industry as a whole, we're a very small, tight group. You come to D.I.C.E. and there's a few hundred people here, and we all know each other. Yet there's millions of people that dream about what we do. They think we play all day. But the thing is we work hard and we play hard. We play all the time. We play our games. We play other people's games. I think that as long as, as an industry, that we can continue to have fun, we can continue in the direction that we're going and people will want to join in.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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