Interview with Xbox’s Elite Products Chief
When the Xbox Elite controller launched ten months ago no one, not even Microsoft, realised how popular it would prove to be. At the end of June this year Phil Spencer took to Twitter to display the 1,000,000th controller, showing that demand has gone well past the initial release frenzy. So how do you go about creating a peripheral as popular as that? We asked Xbox Principal Development Manager David Prien this and much more!
Xbox One UK: Congratulations on shipping 1 million controllers! Demand was so high when it first released it could be tricky to get hold of one. Had you any predictions it would prove so popular?
David Prien: Thank you, 1 million is a huge number for us. As a team we knew there was a desire for this product and we knew it would sell well to certain demographics, specifically our core eSport players.
The reason for the shortage was my inability to understand the size of all types of potential buyers. We always stated this was a device not only for eSport professionals but gaming enthusiasts as well, and the problem was that we underestimated the level of enthusiast demand.
As an enthusiast myself, I thought the category would be smaller (as I’m always being made fun of for number of hours I play), so I was amazed by the sheer size of the enthusiast demographic. Overall, I am still blown away by the number we have sold. I simply wish I could have gotten one to everybody on day one instead of them having to wait.
XOUK: It’s certainly not hard to see why the controller has been sought after by so many based on its design and features. How did the notion to make an Elite controller first come about?
DP: To be fair, the idea had come up before: in the Xbox 360 days there was an elite version, the one that had the transforming D-pad. It was on a smaller scale, and we just took it to the next level.
For the current Elite there were a core few of us that really understood the opportunity. We’d personally modified our own controllers and knew there was a market for the product, but I think what really pushed us over the edge was how many of our friends would see our controllers and ask us why a first-party company couldn’t design competitive controllers.
We heard horror stories of people modifying their own controllers and inadvertently breaking them, or other third-parties that had tried but couldn’t find a design for the mass market. It was then we realized, “Why are we not making products for out most core and competitive customers?”. If they are willing to take a chance with their money on personal mods and/or third-party products, why would we not show we want to support them in a more comprehensive manner. We really wanted to delight our most loyal fans.
XOUK: For the one successful design there must have been many that didn’t make the cut. What was the process for deciding what the final product would be capable of, and if you can reveal any of them, what were some of the features lost along the way?
DP: Ha, yes, there were many, many ideas, prototypes and features that we asked about, tried or had flat out rejected before we had the final design and feature set.
We took what we thought was a very progressive but simple approach: start with scouring Twitter, Reddit, Xbox Support pages, etc., then understand the technical capabilities, and also merge countless hours of in-home visits with some very vocal gamers (we preferred in-house to phone or Redmond interviews as we got to see their environment and how hardware played a role in their lives). After that we would build Proof of Concept prototypes to try the features, again specifically going to customers’ homes with these PoC’s and asking for opinions.
All of this was a great experience. There were a few things that came as a surprise, features I thought people would want and didn’t or the other way around, but in general this process was a ton of fun and educational to talk to real customers openly.
I’m not going to talk about features that didn’t make it in as we are always working on new products and so some features may find their way in, but just know that I am still amazed at how varied the answer to “What’s your favorite feature?” is. I always seem to get a unique answer. It just goes to show that if you give people options and let them decide how they want to set it up, they will be happier for it.
XOUK: There are many controllers and manufacturers out there – how do you make sure you have the competitive edge?
DP: One of the things our team set out the to do was break some rules of design, and this was one. In the past we’d do a ton of competitive intelligence, look what’s on the market today, go to CES and see the future, and of course look at complaints of our current products.
Now, of course we still used the info of what was wrong with our current products, but for the most part I told the team, “I don’t care how anyone else does it, we are going to do it how our customers want it”. I wasn’t trying to one up any competitor. I wanted to do it the right way, not just by building on what’s already out there.
One of our key program tenants was “do it right or don’t do it”. If we agreed to do a feature but couldn’t find a way to make it the best experience possible then we didn’t do it, even if someone else was.
XOUK: E3 saw the unveiling of the Xbox Design Lab, allowing players to design their own Xbox One controller. Will the Elite be introduced to the Lab at some point? It would look great in purple, for instance.
DP: The Xbox Design Lab is great, it goes with our principle of letting the customers say what they want versus us just making a new color version.
For the Elite this is a bit harder: we have much more complicated parts and smaller volumes making it difficult to stock all of the possibilities. In addition to that, we feel for Elite there should be more customization as opposed to what the standard controller has today, so as stated above, we aren’t going to do it if we can’t offer the best possible service. Therefore, instead of using Xbox Lab for Elite we have partnered with Scuf, a company known for design and personalization of controllers. As of today they are our partner for Elite customization.[XOUK: And you can read more about that partnership here.]
XOUK: Similarly, will we see new components released for the Elite controller available in the future, such as alternate sticks and paddles?
DP: Much like Xbox Lab, this is hard for us to do in a way that provides a great experience, as Microsoft has not been known for bit business (hang space in stores). We would rather partner with companies that have great processes and scale for this.
Elite has partnered with companies like PowerA, who have online presence, and some of the largest game stores to
sell Xbox approved designs like the Halo Pack and others soon to follow. Also, as with personalization, we have partnered with Scuf to make them the future exclusive partner for all Elite accessories other than the PowerA ones.
XOUK: And no doubt what many fans of the controller are wondering: will we be seeing other Elite products?
DP: We are always working on new products, but cannot comment on future ones at this time.
XOUK: Working in such a high position, you must be aware of products and
ideas Microsoft wishes to keep wraps on until it decides the time is right to reveal them. Is it ever frustrating to not be able to talk about what you’re currently working on?
DP: Always the hardest part of my job, I hate having these ideas or knowledge of my other projects and not being able to talk about them. I love Xbox and the products I work on, so I want to be able to tell everybody about every exciting idea we have.
XOUK: You’ve an impressive history of managerial roles. What’s been a highlight for you during your career so far?
DP: Not going to lie, it was the Elite. I have worked on some really great things, including building a factory in the U.S. to bring jobs back to U.S. (which would have been my most rewarding), where people thanked me for opening a factory when other companies were leaving. But Elite was unique. Not only is gaming my passion, so that it was fun to work on, and of having the pleasure to work with the strongest development team I have ever known, but the real thing that pushed it over the edge was something I never expected.
After the E3 announcement I was approached by a group of people from I.G.D.A. [International Game Developers Association], specifically Gaming for Everyone, and they brought to my attention how we had now created a device that would let people play who hadn’t been able to in the past. I wasn’t sure about this till after launch, and I would get tweets and direct messages from people all over the world that had issues using current controllers due to disability or injury and could now play again.
As a person that plays an inordinate amount of time per day I had not realized the extent of this issue, but it was eye opening and I could not believe how effected I was by these stories. I wish I could do more for these gamers, but I will admit that every letter I get knowing that I helped someone play makes up for the hundreds of hate mails I get.
XOUK: Finally, what’s your favourite game to play with the Elite controller?
DP: That’s a great question, not sure anybody has ever asked me what I play. At heart I am an RPG player, I love my FPS but nothing beats an open world with a great story. So ultimately I love my controller for Fallout 4, I have it set to where I can do everything so easily that I don’t even notice I have a controller in my hand. Though I will admit, nothing beats a sliding drop shot in Destiny where I can take a flag from 3 Guardians using paddles and quick trigger J.
XOUK: Many thanks, David!
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