Bonnaroo, Halo and soccer: Microsoft aims high with Xbox Originals

Microsoft (s MSFT) has set up an epic quest for the Xbox — to turn the box commonly accepted as a video game platform into the centerpiece of a consumer’s living room. And in a private press event last week, Microsoft entertainment and digital media president Nancy Tellem and Xbox Entertainment executive VP Jordan Levin unveiled one key stepping stone in that quest: Original content.

Upcoming Xbox Originals include the following committed projects:

  • Bonnaroo: Xbox Live will exclusively broadcast the legendary music festival June 12th-15th, with interactive features including the opportunity to choose which stage you’re watching and what angle you’re watching from. “What better way to highlight what we can do on Xbox?” Tellem said. “We’re opening the world up to something that’s always been limited.”
  • Every Street United: Timed to coincide with the 2014 World Cup, the unscripted series will track an international pack of street soccer players, brought to Rio de Janeiro to compete four-on-four. The eight episodes will be 30 minutes long, airing twice a week over the course of June 2014. Soccer might not be seen as hugely interesting to American audiences, but Xbox is thinking beyond that: “This is a global platform,” Tellem said. “It allows you to think a little more expansively.”
  • Signal to Noise: A six-part documentary series created by Simon and Jonathan Chinn, Signal to Noise focuses on the rise of modern technology, with each film directed by a different high-profile talent. For the first installment, Atari: Game Over, director Zak Penn and Microsoft investigated the myth that Atari buried millions of unsold games in the New Mexico desert.
  • Humans: An adaptation of a Swedish show, co-produced by the UK’s Channel 4, Humans is a sci-fi series about humans dealing with the consequences of artificial life. The series is scheduled to premiere in 2015 (with casting beginning in May 2014), but a trailer screened during the press event, using footage from the original Swedish series, was effectively creepy.[youtube=]
  • Halo: Halo is one of Microsoft’s most high-profile properties, and there are two concrete projects based on the blockbuster franchise — an original series executive produced by Steven Spielberg (which was announced last year), and a digital feature executive produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (Battlestar Galactica).While no details were available regarding the Spielberg series (according to Tellem, it’s in “active development”), production has begun on the digital feature, which is due out in October, and will be released on an episodic basis (similar in style to the last Halo digital series, the Machinima-distributed Forward Unto Dawn.

    The Halo series and movie will be connected, Tellem promised, with both based on a character who is referenced in the game (she declined to reveal who that character might be). It was a testament, Tellem said, to how Halo has expanded beyond the video games to build an overarching world through books, comics, and other media. “It’s so big and expansive,” she said, “with such a wealth of material underneath.”

These are just the set projects — Microsoft also has a wealth of other properties in development, including a variety series from the comedy collective JASH, a stop-motion series by the creators of Robot Chicken, and shows based on books by Warren Ellis and Chuck Dixon.

While Xbox is relatively new to the process of developing scripted and unscripted content, according to Levin they weren’t starting from scratch. “The process of putting together a game is really similar to traditional studios and writing rooms,” he said. “It’s a collaborative group of people trying to create characters and build a world.”

“Microsoft is seeing the rewards of being in the content business. They understand the risks and have made that investment,” Levin added. “It’s all experimental at this stage — we’ll see what works and what doesn’t work.”

Nancy Tellem and Jordan Levin, during last week's presentation of Xbox's upcoming original content.
Nancy Tellem and Jordan Levin, during last week’s presentation of Xbox’s upcoming original content.

But the Xbox team is moving cautiously — of the properties presented, only a few had firm premiere dates. The rest were listed as under development, for release in 2015 or maybe even later.

“We’re throwing a net out in terms of testing different genres — figuring out what is going to work and what isn’t going to work,” Tellem said. “It’s not a race but a marathon. Jordan and I are well-aware of the time it takes for it to coalesce.”

While so much of the Xbox Originals slate is at this point undefined, one promise Tellem made was that unlike the pilot system of traditional networks, audiences will get a chance to see any completed pilots Xbox makes. “We’re not going to go into a voting thing,” she said (referring to Amazon’s audience-driven pilot selection process), “but we will make them available.”

And several shows — including Humans, Halo and Every Street United — went straight to series. “For some, they need the pilot, but some we’re developing a different way,” she said.

One thing Tellem emphasized was the integration of interactive elements into every project, a process which begins at the very beginning of the development process. “We have 200 people in Vancouver working with us to develop tools and interactive features that enable social community and deeper interaction with the content itself,” Tellem said.

What shape might that take? Tellem mentioned a few examples: During Bonnaroo, those watching can queue up for a chance to Skype with bands that have just gotten off stage.

And for the unscripted reality series Fearless, the use of multiple GoPro cameras during the shoot offers a variety of angles on the action — angles which viewers will be able to choose themselves.

Microsoft touts big numbers, crowing about 85 million consoles sold and 48 million subscribers to its Xbox Live service (on both gold and silver levels). And for much of the Xbox Originals content, an Xbox Live subscription ($59.99 for a Gold membership) may be key. “We’re looking at what belongs behind the paywall and what belongs in front of the paywall,” Tellem said. “Our journey is to figure out what resonates with our audience.”

What will make a successful Xbox Original? For Tellem, it’s too early to tell. “Life used to be easier, when we were just looking at ratings. In this world it’s very different — it could be subscribers, it could be selling consoles, it could be expanding the service.”

Currently, new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella hasn’t applied any success metrics to what the Xbox team is developing. “He’s very much committed to what we’re doing, and has a really interesting focus on the consumer and usage. We’re a challenger — we’re starting something, we’re not the incumbents, and he respects innovation and risk-taking. I’ve gotten nothing but a very positive response and commitment to what we’re building here,” Tellem said.

“We’re in the early stages — the model will be changing, and we’ll be experimenting with how we monetize and expose the content,” Tellem added. “Part of the fun is figuring out what the business model will be.”