When it launched in 2005, the Xbox 360 was, certain issues aside, a successful product. But it was also drab. Lifeless. Until, in 2008, along came the avatars.
First officially unveiled at E3 2008, Microsoft's avatars were seen by many as an attempt to cash in on Nintendo's success with their "Mii" characters, caricatures that had become wildly popular as the individualised mascots of Nintendo's new Wii system.
Included as part of a wider upgrade to the Xbox 360's user interface, dubbed the "New Xbox Experience" (or "NXE"), the avatars were designed by the team at Rare to be part-dress-up doll, part-online identity, and, rather than being simple Mii clones, were the product of years of hard work at both Rare and Microsoft.
This is their story.
IN THE BEGINNING
"We (Rare) had been mulling an idea like this for several years", says Lee Musgrave, Rare's lead artist and one of the people primarily responsible for the design of the avatars. "The idea that you could play multiple games, bought separately, with the same (self-styled) character is something that we thought was pretty compelling, and something that would really be a benefit to the console in general".
Rare's initial idea for their avatar system was simple: create a single identity, tied to a user or a user account, that would be represented by an on-screen character of the user's design, and which would be able to be carried over between games.
"We kicked the idea about internally, did some very scant groundwork on the kind of technical work that would be required to get something like this to work, flung a few emails about our thoughts across the Atlantic [to Microsoft's head offices in Redmond, Washington] ... and then Nintendo announced Miis".
Unsurprisingly, Musgrave says, momentum on Rare's project began to pick up pace after Nintendo first unveiled their own avatar system in May 2006. Rare's thunder was stolen by the Kyoto company's bold, console-wide initiative for their new Wii console.
But with stolen thunder came renewed focus for the team at Rare. "When we heard through internal grapevines that the Xbox platform team were putting together a completely new dashboard interface", Musgrave says of Microsoft's initial plans for the NXE, "we made it our business to get the work we'd already done on ‘shared characters' in-front of them".
Rare's fledgling avatar system (indeed, it can be said Rare itself was fledgling at this stage, with the company having failed to deliver a certified AAA hit since being purchased by Microsoft in 2002) was shown to Microsoft. Microsoft loved it, green-lit the project with a new, greater scope (the avatars would now be bound to the console itself) and things took off from there.
WHO WAS DRIVING?
By this stage, the project was being driven by a select number of Rare personnel: head of production Lee Schuneman, writer Dale Murchie, art head Lee Musgrave and animator Nick Makin.
"The project team working through early ideation," Musgrave says. "And [the]concept [team]worked closely with the Xbox LIVE team to ensure the avatar's became active, living, breathing personas across the consumers' entire Xbox 360 experience."
"Once we moved from pre-development into actual implementation, about a dozen core team members from Rare worked hand in hand with Xbox to bring our shared vision for the avatars to life". These extra hands included Chris Sutherland, Bjorn Madsen, Rod Boyd, Gareth Lough, Ryo Agarie, John Doyle, Will Overton and Rare's internal animation and rigging teams.
NAILING "THE LOOK"
"We labored long and hard on the look of the avatars from the outset", says Musgrave. "Our main goal was to create a style that did not alienate ANYBODY . . . this was about bringing people TO Xbox, not turning them off, and we deliberately went about creating something that was intrinsically human, but customizable to a point where people could express their personality within the system".
"At the same time, we were careful not to make it SO customizable that it became a playground only for highly creative people who wanted to turn their Xbox avatar into a monster. We danced around the exact level of creativity to open-up with avatars several times, and I think we eventually hit a spot with the faces, hairstyles, clothing and accessories that allow people to portray themselves pretty nicely, and with a certain ‘edge' if they are so inclined."
Throughout this piece, you can see examples of early concept work for the avatars, Rare's art and design team toying with several varying styles of character before slowly approaching the short, stocky figures that would comprise the finished article (final image at bottom of article).
As for what the avatars wear, Musgrave says that, rather than attempt to dress the avatars themselves, Rare enlisted the services of a number of fashion consultants. These fashionistas helped Rare "put together hundreds of pieces of visual reference from all kinds of fashion styles and genres", which Rare then modeled and modified to fit the avatar's art style.
Of course, the avatars didn't launch with "hundreds" of pieces of clothing. And six months on from release, additions to those options have been few and far between. But Musgrave says that the initial range of clothing options available – whose limited nature and range has drawn a little criticism from users – is "actually something that is not fully appreciated yet", with many articles of clothing designed in the avatar's gestation period yet to see the light of day.
Musgrave is also at pains to point out that the clothing options "can be added to infinitely over time, to give us angles into pretty much any kind of trend or genre that you could imagine." So if happy pants come back in, people, don't worry: your avatars should be covered.
PUTTING THEM TO WORK
So the look and idea of the avatars was coming along. Yet for them to actually mean something, they had to be more than just dress-up dolls. They had to be characters. Avatars that didn't just represent a gamer physically, but could be controlled by them as well.
"We ensured throughout the entire technical development of the avatar system that we kept one eye on the big prize, which was getting these things into as many places, products and games as possible", says Musgrave. "To this end, we actually wrote TWO avatar systems that are available for other developers to use, and a whole boatload of documentation and guidelines as to how developers should go about using avatars in their own games".
The first of these allows developers to take a console's avatars and, using the 3D model as a base, rip still images from them in a variety of poses. This is the simpler of the systems, to be used mainly for games or programs that use 2D images, and users can even try it out themselves: it's the same tech employed by the "photo session" tool used to snap a pic of your avatar for a user's gamerpic.
The second system is more complex, and allows developers to lift an avatar model's geometry and textures and use it in a 3D game. While we haven't seen much use of this to date, Musgrave says that this tool can be "slotted into the code of any ‘in-development' Xbox application", so it shouldn't be too long until Microsoft – like Nintendo already has to great success - starts using avatars more extensively as game characters.
With the art and technology now sorted, there was one more thing to take care of. The music — which, for an avatar system, sounds meaningless! They're a visual thing, after all, so music… eh, whatever.
Yet anyone who has created an avatar will know that perhaps the most endearing aspect of the whole thing is the music featured, and in particular, the catchy chimes that play when a user saves changes to their avatar.
This crucial, yet under-appreciated side of avatar development was handled by Rare music man Steve Burke, with help from Dale Murchie along the way.
GO FOR LAUNCH
The avatars made their public debut with the release of the New Xbox Experience on November 19, 2008. And while the NXE brought welcome changes to the 360's dour user interface, it quickly became clear that the main attraction of the update were the avatars, their widespread use and acceptance allaying any concerns that they would be ignored by the 360's less "cuddly" user base.
"The main thing that I think we achieved here, and the main part that really lines up with our initial hopes for the project, is the level of integration and permeation that the avatars enjoy on Xbox 360" says Musgrave. "The success of the Avatars is down to the fact that they have been allowed/forced into all corners of the system. There are avatars on the very front page of every dash of every Xbox, and when you buy a new box, one of the first things you are prompted to do is make an Avatar".
Indeed, avatars have become a standard character across Microsoft for the Xbox 360, with executive avatars taking the stage at major presentations, and the characters also taking pride of place on Xbox 360 packaging and promotional material.
With the avatars having successfully made the journey from abstract game novelty to console mascots, creators Rare are looking towards the little guys' future.
"We have a list of about twelve million things we'd love to do with the avatars, their clothing and accessories, and how this all might cross over into the real-world . . . and there are several of these ideas that are being worked on behind the scenes right now", Musgrave says.
"Step one is complete: we have the look, the system and the tech. Step two is . . . due."