We had an opportunity to chat with Microsoft mascot-in-training Major Nelson, early yesterday morning as the internet began its incredible, violent reaction against the pricing of the Guitar Hero downloadable tracks on Xbox 360. Major Nelson listened to a few sample comments from Joystiq readers, and he had a lot to say. (He also gives imaginary "bonus points" to the "Horse Armor song" commenter.)
When you were putting up the story at 2AM, were you expecting such a negative response from fans?
Major Nelson: Well, I found out about it late last night, before I posted it. I looked at it and said "okay." But you have to remember, I used to work in the broadcasting industry and in music for a long time and I know that content is not linear. It's not like you go to iTunes, and you're buying the same thing. There's testing that's involved, and there's also licensing involved. There's a lot of elements involved. When there's music involved, that brings up a lot of licensing issues. [pointing at camera] Kids, if you want to make a lot of money, write music. Write the hits, I should say ... It's roughly about $2 a song that you can play over and over. You can't get interactivity with a song on iTunes, and I don't want to defend it: it is what it is.
MN: We worked with Red Octane to work on prices that make sense, and they clearly can't sell it at a loss. They have to pay the rights licensing.
But weren't the development costs already taken care of for the PS2 version?
MN: But you can't look at it that way, it's a different platform. You have to consider the Leaderboard. People like to say it's the same, but the licensing is not the same. You have to re-license it. It's a different platform. While on the surface it may look fairly simplistic, and people are saying "XYZ should be done," but we're not Red Octane. I work for Microsoft, and we're just the conduit at this point.
One commenter pointed out that if all the old songs of the original PlayStation 2 version were released on Xbox Live, it would cost significantly more than simply buying both Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II on the PS2. People feel flustered by that. Why are we paying more for old content?
MN: Once again, it's not old content. The contracts have to be renegotiated on a new platform, and it's also involving digital distribution, so there's a lot of things involved.
So what about Red Octane? Are they coming to you, saying the game's been out for a week--time to bring out new content?
MN: Well, Red Octane listens to what their customers want. I can't speak on behalf of them, unfortunately. I do know that they have some really aggressive plans to release more content. I don't know what their pricing schedule's going to be. I just don't know. I do know that they've made comments in the past, saying they want to release more content.
Microsoft has always said it's the gamer's choice, especially when it comes to things like the HD-DVD drive, and the hard drive. Why is it that we're forced to download three songs at once? To get a Bad Religion song, we have to get Red Hot Chili Peppers as well. Isn't this actually taking away the choice from gamers?
MN: We've talked about what it takes to get content onto Marketplace. You guys know: it has to be processed, it has to be developed. Is it easier to process one song and release it and would have it to be more expensive? Or can you take some of that development, bundle it together, and drop the price down. All those songs have to go through that process. If you have three songs entering the approval process, individually, that's three times more problems--and there's more probability for error. So, let's bundle them together, and test them as a unit and drive the price down.
So let's say we're in a fantasy world. How much would an individual song cost?
MN: Once again, I can't comment because I'm not making those individual deals.
Let's talk about the upcoming Spring Update. These updates are very different from Sony's approach, which come on a much more frequent basis.
MN: Well, let me ask you, which approach do you like better? [Discussion ensues.] At Microsoft, we deal very strongly with publishers. Because of the way we integrate with the games, we have to let our publishers know what updates are coming, 6 or 7 months before, so they can work them into the games. Our experience is so tied into what you're doing in the game. Your Friends List is always there, regardless of what game you play. So, it's a lot of work we have to do with our publishers, so that they can integrate what we're doing in a really holistic fashion.
The competition between PS3 and Xbox 360 has been great for gamers. One of the more significant upgrades coming up in the Spring Update is support for MPEG-4 and h.264, something Sony has been touting for a long time.
MN: Yeah, we want to take the best feedback and see what are the things that we can do. I don't want to say easy but will make the most impact. One of things people have been begging for is multi-party chat. We're working on a couple of things, and we know there are a certain things that people want and that's what we're going to do. Sony and Microsoft take very different approaches. Ours is a lot more predictable--you know there's going to be an update in the Spring, in the Fall. We have an ongoing conversation with our audience.
The other big topic on people's minds is Halo 3. The public beta is coming out May 16th.
MN: Once again, I hate doing this. But, Bungie's doing their own thing--they do not tell me anything. We're just a partner in crime. They tell us what they're doing, and we make sure we can provide from the Live service perspective. It's their product, they create the rules for their product. They're running the beta, they're running everything.
Some fans have been complaining that three weeks is just too short for a beta.
MN: Well, I guess I hate to be a cop-out, but I'd say "go ask Bungie." If I were them, I would that three weeks is plenty of time to run a beta. I don't even know when their release is. They have to have enough time to take all that feedback and get it into the final product.
Will Xbox Live be able to handle the beta? Can you promise us that it won't break on us?
MN: I've been told by our Operations Director that we've built out--that we're good to go.
Many have been saying that out of the big guys out there, it appears that Microsoft has the biggest involvement with the community.
MN: Xbox Live is a living, breathing environment with over 6 million people on it. It's like the dial tone. You pick it up and there's always something going on. That's one of the reasons why I exist. We really wanted a dialogue with the community and go out and meet people like yourselves. To talk to the people that are reading this--you guys have some really great ideas. We take that feedback, and we love the excitement around the product. The ladies and gentlemen that work on the product love the product. Everybody loves this product. We want to make it the very best. I'm thrilled that Sony's coming out with new ideas that's going to cause us to think in different ways.
We've talked Sony, we've talked Microsoft. You own a Wii yet?
MN: Yeah, I have a Wii. I got a Wii probably about two, three months ago. I happened to be at Target one day, and the gentleman I was talking to said "I can't help you right now, we're unloading the truck right now." I was asking him for something else for my wife but I asked him, "You don't have any Wiis there did you?" He said yeah, and I said "one please." So, my wife and I play it every week. We play bowling. My wife absolutely loves Wii Play. She absolutely loves it.
Do you have a Mii? Does it look like you?
MN: She made it for me, and it does sort of look like me, but it's not public yet. There's no mini-Major Nelsons floating around. I'm really excited to see what the first party titles are going to look like. Some of the third-party titles I've seen so far haven't really grabbed me.
At that point, the music started booming loudly as the Guitar Hero event was about to begin. Thanks to the Major for taking time to speak with us and don't forget to check out Major Nelson's official blog at www.majornelson.com. Additional reporting provided by Andrew Melnizek.
Also: Uncensored, unedited version of the interview can be viewed at GameTrailers.