HOLLYWOOD — He’s the richest man in the world. He runs Microsoft. And he could probably get the division of his company that oversees the Xbox to do anything he wants.
So how involved is Bill Gates in all things Xbox?
“Not a week goes by that there’s not five to 10 e-mails where we’re talking about what we’re seeing, what we’re doing,” Gates said in an interview with MTV News on the roof of the Roosevelt Hotel a couple of weeks ago.
(Click here to watch highlights of our discussion with Bill Gates on Overdrive.) Gates said the topic of some recent e-mails involves how to use the forthcoming Xbox 360 camera for nongaming purposes.
He leaves the nitty-gritty to Jay Allard, Robbie Bach, Peter Moore and the rest of the executives who have led his gaming team for most of the last half-decade.
Gates concentrated on the big picture during a rooftop interview held immediately after his surprise appearance at Microsoft’s pre-E3 press briefing. He dismissed some of the key strategies of the Xbox’s competitors and championed Microsoft’s own expansion of online gaming — the spread of Xbox Live to cell phones and PCs, called Live Anywhere (see ” ‘Halo 3,’ ‘GTA IV,’ Xbox Live Anywhere: Microsoft Busts Out Big Guns For E3″ ).
As Gates put it, that tethering of more and more devices through Xbox Live will make those who prefer solitary gaming a minority. “Some games you are going to be playing by yourself,” he said. “But most of gaming, particularly as we draw in both men and women and people of all ages, most of it is going to be social.”
Gates gave his interview a day after Sony had publicly joined Nintendo in announcing that its console would have a motion-sensitive controller. Don’t expect the 360 to follow the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 into that field. Gates wasn’t too impressed with the whole concept.
“There’s room for innovation here, but moving that controller around — it’s something that’s not mainstream for most games,” he said. He recalled a Microsoft-made controller from several years ago that allowed 3-D movement. “It’s tough because sometimes you move the controller, and you don’t [mean] to fly into the ground. You just want to put the controller down,” he said. “People aren’t that good at totally standing still. Even pilots actually sit in a chair when they do their flying. So there’s a lot to be learned about these controllers.”
He was at E3 to promote an Xbox ethos, one that involves communal play, customizable gaming content and even the expansion of gaming beyond its hard-core norms.
“Gaming is changing,” he said. “We’ll never leave behind the old genres. There will always be first-person shooters and football and those things, but we’ve got to complement that with lots of new ideas so that everybody feels like it’s new and engaging for them.”
He pointed to Xbox Live Arcade, the corner of Live that produces downloadable games, as a laboratory for such innovation (see “No Ruler Required For Xbox 360′s Cost-Effective ‘Geometry’ “ ). Live Arcade also happens to house the Gates family’s favorite game, “Zuma,” which his wife, Melinda, and daughter are “pretty good at.” Gates said he’s a tad worse and is at level eight. His 6-year-old son plays the Xbox Live Arcade game “Marble Blast Ultra,” which is training for the boy before he can graduate to “Project Gotham Racing 3.” “I think in a few months he’ll probably be ready for that,” Gates said.
The Microsoft chief’s focus on simple games as well as a networked gaming service that connects home and mobile devices naturally leads to the question of when there will be an Xbox Portable or Xboy. Dean Takahashi — the well-sourced San Jose Mercury News reporter and author of the recent behind-the-scenes book “The Xbox 360 Uncloaked” — reported in March that Microsoft is at work on a handheld version of the Xbox.
Gates wasn’t coughing up details — just a long-range tease about the inevitability of Microsoft getting involved in the portable market.
“Over time you have to say, will you carry in your pocket a media device and a phone and a gaming device and, say, a tablet device for reading?” It’s natural for them to be combined into one device, he said. “People have different blends of that now. The world isn’t ready yet for a device that meets all of those needs. But go a few years out, the hardware gets a lot better, we’ll be there with the software platform, and I think everybody will just take it for granted that there will be a better device.”
For now, he’s focused on the home console, which is finally seeing its supply problems corrected. Atop the Roosevelt, he was expectedly bullish on the Xbox 360, even if he undercounts the system’s 19 games released in 2005. “This will be an amazing Christmas,” he said. “Last year, people were tantalized because they saw the high-definition sets, but not everybody could get their hands on an Xbox 360 and we only had about 10 titles out there. Here, we’re going to have about 160.”
That 160 doesn’t include the 360 title most system owners are most eager for: next year’s “Halo 3.” Now if the blood of a gamer were really coursing through Gates’ veins, he might have included a request in one of those five to 10 e-mails to get an early test of the game. Asked if he’d played it, Gates said, “All we’re saying is ‘Halo 3.’ 2007. It’ll be great.”
For more E3 coverage from MTV News and MTV Games, check out e3.mtv.com.