Carl Ledbetter is a games industry master of disguise.
He leads a team of 35 that spent three years building the Xbox One into a machine that blends into the background and gets forgotten.
The console’s 16:9 aspect ratio is meant to reflect that of a widescreen TV. The front illuminated Xbox logo will dim in poor light, so as not to distract fans. The team even mocked up 200 controller prototypes and spent 500 hours testing the pad with 1,100 different people.
The reason for all this painstaking, seemingly unnecessary, work is so that Xbox One sits under the TV and is ignored. Nobody complains about aching hands, nobody struggles to turn the machine on or off, nobody is distracted by a ridiculous design or a blinding light.
“Nobody says anything about the little things on the hardware,” Ledbetter tells MCV. “If somebody is using the controller and after 30 minutes is saying ‘my hands are starting to hurt’, then that’s a fail. But if after 30 minutes all they’re thinking about is the game, then we’re doing okay.
“At the end of the day the machine delivers this experience that you are trying to get to – whether that is a game, movie or talking on Skype.”
He continues: “We know people put it in bedrooms and other places, but we have designed this for a living room environment. We know these people are going to have a good-sized TV that is probably a flat screen, it is probably high-resolution, so it is optimised for all those conditions. It is also optimised for gamers, but because you can do so much more on Xbox, we made it simple enough for anyone to use. It is not off-putting and it’s not this evasive thing in the living room.”
But it’s not all about making the Xbox One disappear into the background. The console is also designed to reflect the Xbox brand; the patchwork squares are meant to match the Xbox One dashboard, for instance.
We had to ask: was this really worth the effort? Nobody on the MCV team has noticed how the machine happens to look a bit like the dashboard.
“It really does matter,” Ledbetter insists. “For us it is about creating a very consistent and seamless experience that is reliable, so that when you see it, it is already starting to communicate aspects of the brand, and when you go into the user experience, it fulfils your expectations.
“For us it is about creating a very consistent and
seamless experience that is reliable, so that when
you see it, it is already starting to communicate
aspects of the brand, and when you go into the
user experience, it fulfils your expectations. It
would be like if you saw a beautiful car, and then
you opened the door and the handle felt a little
strange, and when you got inside it had been
designed by someone different, and even the
controls were not what you expected."
Carl Ledbetter, Microsoft
“It would be like if you saw a beautiful car, and then you opened the door and the handle felt a little strange, and when you got inside it had been designed by someone different, and even the controls were not what you expected.
“Then there is the delight factor of how it behaves in motion, and the way it works with the Xbox experience on your phone or your Surface tablet, it retains the same qualities. So it absolutely matters.”
Not that the Xbox One designers have it all their own way. Ledbetter and his team have to work with very real constraints. One criticism about the machine’s physical appearance is that it is a large and hefty product.
“Everybody gets frustrated, because what we want is for everything to be wafer thin, not get hot and just be a snap to put together,” he explains. “But the reality is that there are very real issues around cooling when you’re pushing some number of watts in the processor, therefore the thing has to have some size to it. There’s always an interesting dynamic between engineering and design, and constraints around performance.”
He adds: “It’s called designing with constraints, and constraints create very real things for people to go after and solve. Blue sky can get a little tough because it is limitless and it’s boundless. The engineering doesn’t really become a barrier – engineering is necessary, just like the design and technology. It’s a combination of everything that creates the product.”
The Xbox team hasn't always got it right with hardware. Back in 2002, with its very first console, the firm made a significant design mis-step.
“An example of something we got wrong was the first Xbox controller,” admits Ledbetter. “It worked, but it wasn’t the right size for people. For the Xbox One, there has been a bunch of things that, I don’t know if they were wrong, but they weren’t appropriate or they weren’t the ideal solution. Usually, we do enough testing that it wouldn’t go out the door if it wasn’t right.”
Not that everything makes it in. Ledbetter says the team has created some design elements that worked, but still didn't make the grade.
“We have lots of interesting ideas that for one reason or another we can’t necessarily use,” Ledbetter explains. “Maybe the technology isn’t ready or affordable yet, so that we can make it for mass consumption. We have definitely have a few of those ideas. But we are constantly exploring and tuning and evolving to see if we can productise them at some point.”
A lot of it comes down to price. “We have a lot of ideas where we ask: ‘Can we productise them?’ Maybe we could, but to do so would cost us an extra $200. And that $200 of cost may not deliver an extra $200 of value,” says Ledbetter.
“We always weigh new features or capabilities in a very real-world setting. Is this, as a holistic product, going to deliver something that is equal in value to the cost of components? It is a balance.”
Once the machine is out there in the world, that isn’t it. From media remotes to components, there’s always new hardware to design. Of course, there’s bound to be future revisions to the Xbox One, too – and that’s not to mention the various special editions linked to specific titles. Ledbetter was part of the team that created the R2-D2 Xbox 360.
“We do all the limited and special editions,” he says. “Like the Titanfall controller; we worked with the developers and our own games people with that. We take a lot of pride in those because we want them to be unique, special and cool. We are working on all kinds of stuff.”
Yet surely it’s frustrating being the unsung hero (or villain, depending on your opinion) of games design? Ledbetter’s 35 colleagues are destined for a life where their work is supposed to go unnoticed.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think it is cool working on something that people get excited about. That’s it, pure and simple. If we are making products that are delivering experiences that really get people excited, that is special.”