When you ask gamers what they think about the Xbox 360, they'll talk about the high-definition graphics capabilities and the improvements in online game play. Computer geeks might opine on the networking functions that let users bring pictures and music from their PCs to their TVs. And more than a few will talk about the near impossibility of getting their hands on an actual console because of supply shortages at its Nov. 22 launch date.
But if you ask Jonathan Hayes what comes to mind when talking about the video-game industry's newest console, he'll say "Bruce Lee." Hayes, the design director for the Xbox 360, wanted the machine to convey both power and grace, hallmarks of the martial arts star. The Xbox 360 is easily the most powerful game machine available, but its off-white color with hints of green (a color Microsoft calls "chill") and its hour-glass curves have already come to define the élan of console. "We talk about that as the 'inhale' of the martial arts before the burst of power," Hayes says.
ADDING SOME GRACE. Indeed, Microsoft (MSFT) has worked to redefine the Xbox experience with the new console. Hayes uses the image of the Hulk to describe the first Xbox. Like the cartoon character, the first Xbox -- a black, industrial box that bulged at the top -- seemed to be bursting with power. When it launched in 2001, Microsoft tried to position the device as technically superior to Sony's popular PlayStation 2, which had an 18-month headstart and millions of loyal gamers.
The brute force of the Xbox played well in the U.S. but left consumers in the important gaming mecca of Japan looking elsewhere. The Xbox was deemed too big, too garish, too American. And it foundered in Japan.
So Hayes sought to refine the next version. He started by hiring Astro Studios, the San Francisco firm that had designed the high-powered, high-testosterone gaming PCs from Alienware. But he also wanted to merge the Western concept of power with an Asian influence of grace, so he also brought on Hers Experimental Design Laboratory in Osaka, Japan, which had designed PCs and cell phones for the Asian market.
"Microsoft wanted to make sure it would be a hit in Japan, where there are many gamers and software makers," says Hers chief designer Chiaki Murata.
EAST MEETS WEST. The unusual process of two firms collaborating on the design was made all the more difficult by the physical and cultural distance. What's more, the Hers designers spoke no English, and the folks at Astro spoke no Japanese. Hayes wound up as the go-between, using translators in Japan to convey the Astro designs while absorbing Hers's concepts so he could explain them when he made his next trip to San Francisco. All told, he traveled to Japan 10 times in two years.
Microsoft gave both companies license to create something brand new. It didn't want to be bound by the first Xbox, which appealed largely to hardcore gamers. Microsoft sees the new console as more than just a gaming machine and hopes the device will become a digital hub in the living room where consumers will play games, but also watch slide shows of their digital pictures and play DVDs. "We wanted people to leave it out, even if they weren't gaming," says Astro President Brett Lovelady. "We wanted it to have value as an object."
Having worked with Alienware and Electronic Arts, Astro was already familiar with gaming culture, which allowed it to accelerate the research phase. Astro talked to gamers old and young, watched people set up consoles, and played a bunch themselves. That knowledge proved critical when it came to designing the box. "Usability was a big challenge," says Lovelady.
UP AND DOWN. Another challenge was engineering the console to work in two orientations. The designers worked closely with the Xbox engineers and the manufacturer, Flextronics, to ensure that the weight would be distributed such that it didn't tip over in the upright position, for instance, and that the air flow cooling the machine worked upright or flat.
What they came up with is a game console unlike any other. With its white color and subtle lines, it has something of an iPod feel. The device can either lie flat, like a traditional console, or stand upright. "We wanted to create something with sculptural value, equally deployable vertically and horizontally," Lovelady says.
In the end, the process of both firms working together was so fluid that both Murata and Lovelady have a hard time pointing to specific pieces of the creation that are theirs. Rather, they talk about which qualities of Xbox 360 they contributed. To Murata, it's the "simple, modern aesthetic that also incorporates a Zen-like quality." For Lovelady, it's the "density of power, the portal to the forth dimension of what's going on onscreen."
EXPRESSING PERSONALITY. All of this seems pretty ethereal. After all, gamers are just going to plug the sucker in and start blasting virtual aliens or dunking virtual basketballs. And even Hayes, a Rhode Island School of Design-trained industrial designer, recognizes that having the top games is the best way to sell the console. But the design gives the Xbox 360 its personality, something that does matter to consumers. "People need an object to which all these experiences accrue," he says. "It's important in symbolizing the experience."
The two design teams never met during the process. But Microsoft brought them together when it unveiled the console at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, the big gaming trade show in Los Angeles, last May. "We shook hands and drank until late at night," says Murata. "It was a great time."
Now, Microsoft hopes the design will draw in all sorts of new customers for the Xbox and give it plenty more reasons to party on.