Call of Duty fans are well-familiar with the slick look and feel of the Xbox One, but the console and controller are getting a custom look for the debut of Advanced Warfare. But can the exo-suited experience of blowing stuff up in a near future war-zone really translate to a console?
Custom consoles for big releases are nothing new but there's a lot of thought that goes into trying to turn this:
To build the custom box, the industrial design group at Xbox, led by Microsoft's senior UX designer Monique Chatterjee and creative director Carl Ledbetter, teamed up with the creative crew at Sledgehmammer under art director Joe Salud — designers of the game itself. The goal? Not just to great an Xbox with "Call of Duty" emblazoned all over it, but to great a box that looked like it might come out of the futuristic-but-not-totally-far-out Advanced Warfare world itself.
This concept of a "plausible reality" — building a thing that could conceivably be real, and is reasonably recognisable — was a key factor for everyone involved. "[It's] most important thing was the way we design the vehicles and the characters," Salud said. "We try to make a percentage of the design familiar; like, I have to make a telephone look like a phone so that a player can recognise in a split second." For Chatterjee, it meant co-opting that sensibility and applying it to the big, boxy style of the existing Xbox One.
The work on the actual box began early; when the game itself was only halfway finished. That's when Chaterjee and Ledbetter got involved to turn digital inspiration into a physical box you can hook up to your TV. "We might start with hand sketches on paper, but we move really quickly to hand-sketches on the actual controller so we're actually get to scale on the product," Chatterjee said. "There are bunch of parts lying around the studio, and when you twist them around you see how the graphics change from different directions. When we get the basic idea of where we want things, then we can start looking at real finishes and the right manufacturing processes for the right effects."
In this case, it meant altering one of the console's standout features. "The core Xbox One is very high-polished. We felt using a neutral matte grey was important to get this well-used, industrial, military style that felt very grounded." Touches like these might seem basic, but merging a design wish-list with production logistics and capabilities (and limitations) can be tricky. Practicality take many of the best options out of the equation, like designing the custom console to be a bust of Kevin Spacey.
Take the gold touches. Even though Microsoft has a massive on-site material library, they actually turned to store-bought candy bars for research on just the right kind of reflective sheen and foil effect. "Inspiration can come from random places," she said.
All of these particulars come together in a kind of three-tiered system of visual cues. "We have this vernacular that we use: first read, second read, and third read," Chatterjee said. "The first read of the project is about this ten-foot view — the first things that you notice, like maybe the fifty-fifty split between matte grey and black, or the bright gold, and maybe the logo on the top. The second read is when you're three to five feet from the product — about arm's length — and you'll see one more level of detail: the military striping on the side, or the way the graphics are arranged in a kind of badge-like, rectangular formation. Then the third read comes after having spent a little bit of time with the product — the "wow" stuff: the "oiling," or the darker wear on the corners of the controller, or the light patterns. There's touches really bring it home and complete it."
And it wasn't all aesthetic, either; the on, off, and eject audio clips were all chosen from Advanced Warfare. "We really looked for sounds that are unique to the game," Chatterjee told me. "Like, someone's going to turn the console on, hear that firing up, and that's going to give them that first burst of emotion towards the game before it even starts being played."
It's like that opening scene in Don Jon where the titular stud says the sound of his Mac firing up "gets him hard as a fucking rock." Which is absolutely not to say that everyone's getting a boner from CoD, but there's definitely something to that idea that it's so easy to develop a kind of Pavlovian response to these digital triggers. Even if those same triggers get a little weird when the response you get for "time to kill some virtual dudes" kicks in as you're booting up to put on Netflix for the kiddies.
A new coat of paint isn't likely to sell any Xbox One's to anyone who wasn't already in the market, but some real effort went into the new design. It's just just a coat of grey spray-paint, and naturally the artists involved hopes that fans will dig this limited edition upgrade. "Hardcore players will pick up on things that the average consumer will not," Salud said. "When it was finished, they [Monique and Carl] came to our studio. The whole design process had been back and forth through pictures, and when I physically hold it in your hand it has such a strong presence." But we all know what really hardcore Call of Duty fans are most excited about: Totally bitchin' hair physics.