Carl Ledbetter may not be a household name but the products he’s designed are in millions of homes all over the world. You might have one yourself: he's the brains behind the industrial design of the Xbox One and the Xbox One S.
As lead designer of two of this generation’s biggest consoles and with two decades as a designer for Microsoft behind him, we think it’s safe to say Ledbetter knows a thing or two about what it takes to design a great games console.
As part of our week of celebrating games consoles, we’ve taken the opportunity to talk to Carl about the painstaking process of designing a product that has to stand out from the competition without standing out in our living rooms.
In some respects, it’s essential that the console fades into the background. When it comes to creating a console, the final form of the hardware is heavily impacted by the software it will run. Ledbetter explains that “the designer’s measure of success is to have the hardware dissolve into the flow of the experience.”
“Our goal with designing hardware” he says, “is to light up software experiences. The hardware and software teams work side by side to create seamless experiences. The hardware, the out of box experience, system setup and getting people to the games they want to play – these are things that should look and feel as if they are designed with the same hand.”
It’s incredible to think that so much effort goes into making sure that when you place a console in your home and pick it up to play you should barely consider it at all.
Not only is the overall appearance of the console affected by its software, Ledbetter tell us “current technology is always at the forefront when thinking about a new console.”
As a designer his goals is to “create a console that has as much power as possible to run games that look great, while also being an improvement on the previous console in every way.”
Because as well as a “need to ensure to take advantage of the latest technology and try to ‘future proof’ a console as much as possible” Ledbetter emphasises that “with every new product comes responsibility to ensure we bring customers along with us. Backward compatibility wherever possible without stifling innovation.”
This is something we've definitely seen with Microsoft's push for cross-compatibility between Xbox One and Xbox 360.
This need for backwards compatibility isn’t just in terms of technology, either.
It’s safe to say there’s an Xbox ‘look’ and it’s essential that each new console fits into the brand image Microsoft has crafted while maintaining its own identity as a console. “For example”, Ledbetter tell us, “the Xbox One S is an evolution of the Xbox One and has subtle improvements throughout.”
When it came to designing the Xbox One S specifically, Ledbetter says “the entire design team was focused on not only reducing the size of the console, but also on making every detail count.”
The design process started “from the inside out” and his team “focused on optimizing components and the internal layout to create a simple and clean form that signaled a console focused on gameplay and new performance capabilities.”
Often you see the Xbox One S simply described as the smaller and slimmer Xbox One but when Ledbetter describes the process of creating “cooling vents that could be minimized and organized into a grid pattern” and pushing “ new tooling technologies and methods to create a unibody top case housing” you realise this is an oversimplification of what the Xbox One S is.
The improvements don't stop at the console either; all of the peripherals are taken into consideration and Ledbetter's team "introduced Bluetooth connectivity to the controller and added small micro texture details to the grip areas to improve grip during gameplay. "
In fact, there are many subtle and highly deliberate features on our consoles that we definitely take for granted. Though Ledbetter says we of course notice the overall quality of the product, he adds that “it’s also the smaller things that add up.”
What kind of small things? “The tight feel of the buttons, the quality of the audio sounds, the reduced gaps between parts, the way the console can fit into more places with a removable stand, the proportions and relationships of the overall form, vent pattern and controls” to name but a few.
“Even the subtleness of choosing the right “white” resin color for the console housing. These subtleties add up to making the product what it is.”
It’s a lot to consider and it seems like a significant achievement to turn what could be seen as constraints on creativity into new opportunities for expression. The biggest challenges of designing a games console, however, aren’t these smaller elements.
They reside, according to Ledbetter, “in making the product reliable, robust and secure. Game and application developers spend a great deal of time investing in, and making quality product experiences to run securely on Xbox. Customers demand consistent, seamless and uninterrupted game play. It takes an incredibly talented team to bring these requirements together and design hardware, software and services that can magically deliver in a way that is as invisible as possible to customers.”
Looking at the Xbox One S you can see how it's a natural progression from the consoles that came before it and you can see the presence of the Xbox brand throughout.
That said, when you compare that original Xbox to the Xbox One it definitely looks dated. That may be in part because we're aware that the original Xbox is now more than 15 years old but Ledbetter does say "it is challenging to create timeless products that are built around advancing technologies. I think it’s possible to create high quality, well designed products that are a reflection of the state of the art."
Having a form that's so dictated by the technology that goes into it, it's impossible to design a truly timeless games console – it'll always have a small if accidental nod to the era it was created in.
As well as being a reflection of their time, Ledbetter says "products are a reflection of the people who make them." Arguably this is the best way to create a product that can aesthetically stand the test of time.
"When the craft, care, heart and soul that is poured into making a product is evident - the product should have resonance."
We were interested to know what console Ledbetter had played in his childhood that made him so interested in the world of gaming and design.
“Definitely NES. I still have this console hooked up at home for Super Mario, Excitebike and Zelda. A close second is Atari Pong. Pong changed my life. I will never forget the magic that this product brought into our home and into millions of homes. It transformed an ordinary television into a fun, competitive and interactive experience for families everywhere.”
By designing the Xbox One Ledbetter has now had the chance to bring the exact sense of magic the Atari Pong made him feel into the homes of millions more people. How does that feel? “There is nothing better,” he says “It’s incredibly rewarding to see gamers, fans, and my own family using a product that I have been fortunate to have been a part of making. We’re so incredibly grateful to the Xbox community for their support; it means the world to us.”