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Interview: Astro A-Go-Go: Designing The Look of the Xbox 360

Gamasutra catches a moment to speak to Astro Studios President Brett Lovejoy about the artistic and practical considerations behind designing the appearance of the Xbox 360.

The evolution of the look of the Xbox 360.

The Xbox 360 will be the first of the next-generation consoles to hit the market, and as such, it has to make a bold statement if it is to gain the interest of the cynical modern consumer. To this end, Microsoft hired the design firm Astro Studios, already successful in other areas of consumer electronic styling, to help handle the new console's physical design alongside a consulting firm, Hers Experimental Design Laboratory, based in Japan .

From the subtle X branding, to its attempts to incorporate design cues from end users, to the very naming of the console and how it impacted on design, Gamasutra had a chance to talk to the San Francisco-based Astro Studios as it took us through the process of helping design the Xbox 360's look - the goal was to make a machine that seemed powerful, vibrant, and aesthetically different from the first Xbox, and we sat down with studio president Brett Lovelady to find out just how they went about achieving it.

Gamasutra: Tell us a bit about your company.

Lovelady: Astro Studios is a company I started about 10 years ago to essentially blend technology, lifestyle, and design into product development. In the past, we designed mainly hardware - industrial design based, graphic design based, that sort of skill-set - but working on fairly high-impact consumer products.

Gamasutra: So you've designed consumer hardware before as well?

Lovelady: Yes - earlier on we were most well known for developing Nike's original sports watches and the iPAQ PDA for Compaq. And we've been moving more towards some game-related areas, working with Electronic Arts on cover art and logo development for SSX3 and NFL Street. At the same time we're doing all the Alienware hardware. So the Alienware thing is probably what set us off in that direction.

Gamasutra: What aspects of the 360 are you responsible for?

Lovelady: We are responsible for the whole look and feel, the outward aesthetic. This includes the features, how it looks as overall design language, how it works with the controller and peripherals - working on the camera, the charging systems for wireless remotes - and then the box itself, obviously.

Gamasutra: How were you asked to work on 360 - did you pitch, or were you asked?


Beyond designing Nike's Triax line of sport watches, Astro Studios is also responsible for the look of Nike's Slingshot golf clubs.

Lovelady: We were asked. There were 6 or 7 other design firms, and Microsoft had received concepts from all of them. While going through a huge internal editing process, Microsoft liked a few things, but the designs weren't connecting to the whole experience design. So they invited us in to pitch ourselves, and they chose us to take over and start over from scratch. All of the work that had been done was set aside. The Japanese firm that we worked with was one of the firms that Microsoft was working with in the beginning - Microsoft liked their ideas, but didn't think it was totally resonating, so they had another pass at it as well. Then from that point, there was a lot of cross-talk with Japan.

Gamasutra: How many iterations did you go through?

Lovelady: We went from early ideas into three major idea directions. Once the main idea was chosen, we went through four or five refinement iterations. These iterations were not as major, and covered aspects from materials to control functionality. We found the changes to be very important, but some would see them as not as crucial.

Gamasutra: Did you have input into the hardware features?

Lovelady: Yeah, we had quite a bit, especially the interpretation of those features - discussions of if [elements of hardware are] going to be wireless or not - going from the long connectors to a wireless scenario and strategy, also whether [the console will stand] vertically and horizontally, how do things switch and interplay; how do we deal with memory; how do we deal with add-on modules, via wireless or hard drive for example?

Gamasutra: What goes into designing consoles? How do you plan for it?

Lovelady: There is a lot of interaction between engineering and marketing - we're really living in both of those worlds a bit. Marketing has a lot of goals: who do you want to sell to? You need to make sure of the core gamer, for example, and what their needs are, but also branch out into other areas with marketing goals and big-picture ideas.

And then we talk with engineering to see what's feasible: we need to pack all of this into a small box. It can't burn down, it can't blow up, it can't melt, and it has to put out the right power. We lay out the electronics so there is access to everything, and blend that with what we think is a good design. It's kind of like getting all of the ingredients before you can make something, and then pulling it all together.

Gamasutra: So you had to work around the guts of the system. Could you move those components around within the console?

Lovelady : We get some say. It's a give and take - there are some realistic things, like you can't put a heat-sensitive item near a super hot chip, but things like ergonomics, physical access, and elements like that have to communicate in a common sort of way as well. But then you're looking for a sense of design as well.

Gamasutra: Do you go through an approval process as well?

Lovelady: It's a funneling process, that's probably a better way to think of it. We immerse ourselves in as much information as possible, and then start creating ideas, and through a series of review funnels until you get to the chosen [design], and work on that really hard to produce it.

Gamasutra: What statement does the name "360" make?

Lovelady: It's interesting that [Microsoft] chose "360" as a name, because it was well after a lot of what we'd already come up with. Part of it was that Microsoft sees it as an amazing digital portal, an access point. They wanted something that would be this gateway from the physical tangible real world to the voyeuristic world of gaming. So the idea is that we've got this box that's a containment device, that is containing some pretty amazing power. You can't just let anyone in or out of the portal, or the access point.

So the idea of containment and protection, and even a sense of there being something pretty [powerful] inside this - we've got to make sure it's safely contained. Also, the console has to stand vertically as well as horizontally, so when they chose the name 360, one of our main goals from the beginning was that we had to design it from every angle. There are a lot of products which have one side where you say: "Oh, that's where they had to put all the nasty stuff, all the connectors and everything else." And when this is out in the homes and kiosks of the world, there will be connectors and plugs in it, but you don't want there to be an ugly side [to the console].

Gamasutra: So is that some of where the idea for the name came from?


The Xbox 360 realized.

You know what - a lot of the real Xbox 360 came from the kind of circle/ring of light aspect of it, and the wireless. Even the idea that it starts with people, and no matter where you go, it comes back to you. So the completion of the circle became kind of a theme.

Gamasutra: Did you listen to a lot of feedback from users of the original Xbox console?

Lovelady: Yes - interestingly, we couldn't resolve everything. There are some aspects where we say: "Yes, we're propagating some issues that were there in the past, but you can't resolve them all." So which ones do you choose? And that's everything from what it costs, to manufacturing time, to the legacy of the color green, or the Nexus mark - how does that evolve, or does it change completely? That goes through an editing process, and prioritization process, and the final decision goes to the people in power who make the decision and have the resources to build the end unit.


Gamasutra: Did you design the controllers as well?

Lovelady: Yeah, we did. The controllers had a ton of history, and when we started designing them they had already gone through a lot of ergonomic testing. So a lot of the stuff was fixing the hardcore functionality. Part of our job was to look at new materials and processes, overall look and feel. We helped make a few adjustments, a few changes - you've got the button on the controller that activates Live wirelessly, so there's some stuff that's pretty new, but there's such an established process around controllers that after testing, you wind up staying with a lot of what works.

Gamasutra: The American version of the original Xbox controller was a bit of a monster, if you had smaller hands. Where there any particular concerns with the new design?

Lovelady: This one has its challenges because now that it's wireless, it needs batteries. You've got this big battery module, giving up cords for batteries. There is a way to still put cords in it, and drop the batteries out, but I don't think we've resolved all of the issues. Size was a concern from day one, so we looked to make the controller fit many hand sizes for the global market.

Gamasutra: When a system is vertical, the drive tends to wear down a lot faster. What did you do about this?

Lovelady: The quality of the drive is something that Microsoft worried about. So they used the best quality drives they could, in the sense of being able to upgrade those quickly as well as we improve. People like things that can be used in the vertical mode. There's not much you can do about drive durability, since it's a high commodity item, so we tried to just build the best product possible. Some of the things that [Microsoft] tried to do with not just the wear, but also the heat flow - you know, with the drive sitting directly on top of hot components-horizontally is not that good, so it actually improves vertically. So you lose a little bit, you gain a little bit.

Gamasutra: And what was the reason for the concavity? It seems to make the system less stackable.

Lovelady: There are two or three things that came into play. One, more than anything, is regarding the access point to entertainment - we wanted something that wasn't just a static box, but that reflected the harnessed power. This is something that most of the press has yet to pick up on, but having taken the X off of the top of the system, we also designed it so that no matter what face of the console you looked at, you would still see a subtle X shape, because of the ergonomics of it.

We talk about it in terms of the inhale - it's like the console is breathing in, pulling in all of this energy before you release it again. The idea is then that it's become a little denser, a little more compact, with implied motion, rather than just a static thing. Then when you go from horizontal to vertical it has a real functional effect, which is that it [creates] more airflow around the product.

Gamasutra: So how you dealing with the Japanese and European markets?


An example of the Hers' design aesthetic.

Lovelady: We talked a lot about what kind of environments the system will be going into. Our partner firm that's listed in a lot of the credits is called Hers Experimental Design Laboratory, which is a pretty strong design firm out of Osaka . The reason [we partnered with them] is that from the very beginning, we knew not everybody wants our big black box. We can make it more elegant, so people want to leave it out, but at the same time we didn't want to just design around Japanese environments. We wanted to listen to it, learn from it, and see what we could resolve. They did a lot of testing on what would appeal to the Japanese market, and it tested pretty well. We'll see when it comes out!

Gamasutra: What design points did you want on the system, but weren't able to implement?

Lovelady: Yeah, there were a few things. We had higher hopes for the end caps - which cap the top and bottom of the system - we had greater expectations for what those could be. That turned out to be an expansion area in the final design. Those could have offered some interesting options, both functional as well as aesthetic. The faceplate offered a lot of opportunities, so when we got that to work, at one point, there was talk of the whole case, not just the front bezel, offering more possibilities. Also some of the features such as the ports for the DVD - at one point we thought we could do more with that, make it a little more special. But manufacturing volumes limited some of the material choices.

Gamasutra: Make elements a little more special how?

Lovelady: Different materials, maybe. We had some revisions with a different finish, and a higher quality plastic, which might be nice if it weren't such a heavy-duty cost.

Gamasutra: Any ideas that were a bit too out-there?

Lovelady: Yeah, a couple of things. We wanted light to be part of the project. For example, you've got a wireless controller, and this product is in a cabinet, or around the corner, or something, how do you know what the relationship is with that product? You see what you see on the screen, but you kind of want to know that there's communication going on. We wanted a way to control light to do that.

So maybe if you switched to live mode, the box would turn orange, or it would light up if you got a message, or light and even sound could be integrated into gameplay. The box supports sound, but doesn't make sound. Without the wired control, if you send a signal, you kind of want a response. The user can really utilize this feedback to help communication between the system and the gamer. Things like that can happen, but they decided that this was complex enough, even though we would have liked it.

We didn't want to overdo it, especially because of portability. Will people really carry these around? It's obvious these systems are going to go into cars, or be put in backpacks, so we need to suit those needs. People lug their consoles around, and even in the Japanese market, you've got to set them up, put them back, wire, rewire.it takes a lot of expert engineering and mechanical engineering to make things connect and disconnect and reconnect.

These things should be pretty tough, but obviously not a brick. There are a couple of things we've got our fingers crossed about, hoping they'll make the final design. They're trying to make this thing so powerful, and still make money. Consumer electronics are running at 150 miles an hour - in 6 months it's going to be a whole other world.

Gamasutra: Is there anything you're disappointed with about the final design?

Lovelady: One of the things is that it's still an electronic product, so we had to deal with air, and heat, and physics, which sometimes compromise the overall design. But that's just the harsh reality. Extra venting had to be added to the product, and you've really got to push through production issues like that. And you're looking inside the system and there's like a blowhole where air can come out.


Astro Studios also worked on the design of other consumer electronics such as Virgin's Boomtube.

Gamasutra: So mostly aesthetically?

Lovelady: Well, again it's a volume issue, but I think there are some other technologies are smaller and lighter, but they're so much more expensive that they would have had an impact on the size and scale of the 360. So not everything fit in there that we wanted to put in, and some of the things that are in there forced our decisions as far as scale and the overall size. We knew Sony would be pretty tough to [compete] with, with the size issue. It's an interesting question, especially when you get to the Japanese market where miniaturization is very important in consumer electronics. One of the things that benefits Sony is that they have all of these years of expertise in manufacturing products, whereas Microsoft is using outside contracting, engineering and so-forth, so it's a difference.

Gamasutra: What do you think of the PS3, and Revolution designs?

Lovelady: I haven't seen them up close, but from what I've seen online, it's what you'd expect from Sony. They're trying to make a home living room device. They've matured in their marketing perspective, but I don't think the PS3 has as much character as past Sony products from a memorable, iconic, almost humorous standpoint of talking directly to the gaming community. A little stronger gesture would be nice.

Nintendo's always been so simplistic in a lot of what they do, so I applaud the restraint to not make it more than it is. At the same time, I expect more character and personality out of anything in the video game world. If you like it or hate it, you've made a bold design statement. But if you go for the middle of the road, where people don't care, that's not a good thing.

Gamasutra: Do you think console design affects sales?

Lovelady: Yes, but if the console is poorly designed, will no-one buy it? I'm not sure. You have to design something, and if you're about building a brand, and broadening your audience, then you should design around ergonomics, and the environment it's going into, and just your own brand confidence. People buy for a lot of reasons. Sometimes you can design something that people look at and say: "Well, I don't need it, but I sure want it." It's pretty important.

Gamasutra: Do you play games yourself?

Lovelady: Yes, but not very well. My son kicks my butt. I like racing games like Project Gotham Racing - I waste a lot of time there. I'm trying to get better at it. We play a lot of online games in the studio, but me personally, I don't have enough time to be totally absorbed by it.



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