The moment MTV News revealed Microsoft was working on a Mii-like system called Avatars, accusations of copying Nintendo started flying.
That reaction only intensified when the rumors became fact at this year's E3. Microsoft expected this reaction. At least, that's what they told me while showing the "New Xbox Experience," a complete dashboard revamp coming later this year.
"I remember the CES right after the Wii launched and all the [gaming] editors were asking, 'When are you guys going to do your version of the Miis?," Xbox director of marketing Albert Penello told MTV Multiplayer in a hotel suite interview two weeks ago. "I remember going, 'You guys are going to slaughter us in the press if we ever do it.' [laughs]"
Penello believes there's enough distance from the announcement that people are looking at Avatars differently now. He even brought up Miis.
"For obvious reasons, it's certainly hard to avoid the comparison with the Mii," he admitted. "You know, it's a tough one, because it's sort of like giving them maybe a little bit more credit for [it]…it's not like Nintendo created the concept for having a virtual character."
"Really, if you think about your gamerscore, your gamertag, your achievements and your identity online, that's been a principal for us in the beginning," continued Penello. "Nowadays, this is the kind of stuff people do, and a lot of people want to compare it to the Miis but the team, if you talk to Mark [Whitten, XBL general manager], he'll say his inspiration came more from ['World of] WarCraft' and seeing how dedicated people get to their characters."
"It's not like Nintendo created the concept for having a virtual character."
The main difference between Miis and Avatars is the range of customization. Nintendo has not released new options for Miis since they launched alongside Wii in November 2006. Avatars are the opposite approach. Microsoft wants players to create a very specific version of themselves, and plans to work with publishers on delivering a constant supply of new content.
"When you have a connected community of 12 million people," explained Xbox senior strategist Rob Gruhl, "it's not enough to create an avatar that just kind of looks like you but otherwise looks very generic. You can have an avatar that really communicates your identity in a rich way. When we did our avatar system, we built it as a platform that can handle hundreds of items of clothing and is customizable and is expandable, so that every individual is going to look very different."
They have a point. The Avatar version of me -- they wouldn't let me take a picture of it -- looks much more like me than the Mii version. And one of the areas Nintendo has capitalized on Miis is by incorporating them into most of their first-party releases. What we haven't seen too much of, however, is Miis present in third-party games. It's happened occassionally, but third-party Mii support is typically an exception, not the rule.
"What we do is we try and build things," said Penello. "That's one of the fundamentals of what Live is -- building something at the system level that the developers can incorporate. There's a bunch of things we're doing around avatars to make it easy for developers to actually use the avatar that we've got right here or to get the data around this avatar and incorporate it into their own game."
"My hope is that it's fairly balanced. I certainly do not want to see this become it's a hundred points for blond hair."
Gruhl went on to explain the two ways a developer could incorporate an Avatar. One, they could literally drag the Avatar into their game and make it an in-game representation of a character. The other way is to simply pull the Avatar's specific data and allow that to be represented on the screen. You don't have control over the Avatar; it's just there.
But I wondered if that meant a violent, mature-rated game like "Gears of War" would never see Avatar integration. Gruhl said it's possible with a little creativity.
"One area you might see it in a game like that is before the game starts," suggested Gurhl. "Who are the top five people? I think for a game like 'Gears of War,' where it's not as much of a match of the avatar to an in-game character, you might see developers using the avatar to represent the player behind the character. So if you're in a scenario where you're trying to pick which game mode you want, maybe the important thing is to see [who] the other players are and talk to them."
But with all this talk of customization, gamers might assume and even worry that publishers will jump on this customization feature as an opportunity to introduce more items that they will charge people for. Ultimately, Penello said, what happens with the additional items for the Avatars is up to each publisher. He does think there will be free items, but said it's not something Microsoft can dictate.
"My hope is that it's fairly balanced," he said. "I certainly do not want to see this become: It's a hundred points for blond hair. [laughs] A lot of that is going to be up to the publishers and sort of how they do it. I think the potential is certainly there. I'm sure it's going to feel a lot like how the themes and gamer pics feel."
Are you looking forward to making an Avatar, readers?