Xbox architects share stories from the console’s early days and discuss the future of gaming
Microsoft’s celebration of the Xbox project’s 20th anniversary continued this week with the streaming debut of “Xbox Pioneers: Creativity & Innovation – Past, Present & Future,” a roundtable discussion between some of the early architects of the Xbox, recorded on Nov. 9.
The topics covered included anecdotes from the start of the project, insight into what motivated some of the earliest decisions in the Xbox’s history, and predictions about what’s coming next in the video game industry.
The discussion was hosted by retired Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aimé, who seemed just as surprised to be there as anyone. He presided over a panel of Bonnie Ross, current head of Microsoft subsidiary 343 Industries, and the only panelist who still works at Microsoft; ex-Microsoft vice president Ed Fries, who’d been one of the first Microsoft employees to sign onto the Xbox project; Robbie Bach, who retired from Microsoft in 2010 after leading its entertainment division for 10 years; and Peter Moore, who was a corporate vice president of Microsoft’s interactive entertainment division from 2003 to 2007, where he became famous among fans for his Halo 2 tattoo.
Since their time at Microsoft, Bach, Fries, and Moore have all pursued new projects. Bach recently wrote a novel, a political thriller called The Wilkes Resurrection; Moore spent three years as CEO of the Liverpool Football Club before taking up his current job at Unity Technologies; and Fries is the co-chair of 1Up Ventures, a gaming-focused venture capital firm.
Read on for highlights from their 45-minute session.
- On the first Xbox game: Ross’ first game for the Xbox was the launch title Fuzion Frenzy, which was also the first Xbox game to go through certification testing, and subsequently the first completed game for the Xbox library.
- On Xbox Live: Bach highlighted the original version of Xbox Live, which premiered in Nov. 2002, as one of the most creative decisions on the original platform. “When I think back on those early days,” Bach said, “Xbox Live was … super creative from a business perspective. The idea that people would pay $49 a year to have a subscription. Think about how many subscription services you had in 2002. Xbox was really trying to drive some innovation in the business model.”
- More on Xbox Live: The original details of Xbox Live were a hard pitch at first, such as voice integration. “My memory of that is how crazy people thought we were,” Bach said. He credited the original Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon as a title that made people realize the value of the Xbox Live service.
- On the Ethernet port: One of the crucial decisions for the Xbox was whether to put a modem in it or an Ethernet port, according to Fries, because Microsoft couldn’t afford to include both features in the final unit. That decision eventually came down to Bach, who’d forgotten he’d been the one to make it, but opted for the Ethernet port because “it made more sense to go with the future than with the past.”
- On a 56k modem: Bill Gates, reportedly, on the decision to not include a 56k modem in the Xbox: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
- On branding: Moore’s influence is why Xbox products don’t prominently feature the Microsoft logo, as he opted to build the brand separately.
- On Halo and Xbox Live: Ross credits Halo 2, and the synergy of its developer Bungie working with the Xbox team, for propelling Xbox Live into its prominent role on the Xbox platform.
- On Sega and Xbox: In Moore’s previous job at Sega of America, he was the executive who’d made the call to discontinue Sega’s last console, the Dreamcast, in 2001. Since the Dreamcast’s operating system ran on Windows CE, Sega and Microsoft already had a strong working relationship, and Sega had been the first console manufacturer to jump onto online gaming. When the time came, Moore was able to neatly connect the dots between the Dreamcast and the Xbox, particularly as the first version of Xbox Live hit the market.
- More on Sega and Xbox: That in turn explained something I’d always wondered about the original Xbox’s software lineup. Despite its lack of popularity in Japan (it reportedly only sold 450,000 units in the Japanese market), the Xbox still somehow ended up as a clearing house for quirky Japanese games, such as Breakdown, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, and Phantom Dust. Between Ed Fries’ attempts at outreach and Moore’s ties to Sega and Japan, the Xbox wound up hosting several niche titles of the sort that had previously found a home on the Dreamcast. “As the Dreamcast faded into the sunset,” Moore said, “the baton was passed to Xbox.”
- On diversity: “When you think about Halo and the other games in our portfolio,” Ross said, “it’s about making sure you have a diverse world and a diverse set of characters.” It’s not so much about the Xbox itself anymore, to paraphrase her, as it is “meeting players where they’re at,” and using Microsoft’s recent studio acquisitions as a way to have something for everyone.
- More on diversity: “The game business arguably is now or will soon be the biggest media business in the world,” Fries said. “That kind of means that this term ‘gamer’ goes away. We’re all gamers in a sense. Look at mobile games right now, more than half of mobile gamers are women. But who makes the content? Unfortunately, that’s just a small percentage of game makers, and that’s just got to change. To create authentic content, it needs to come from people who are like the audience, like Bonnie says.”
- On user-generated content: Development technology has moved forward to the point where, at least in theory, everyone in the gaming space could be creating their own content, if not their own games. Ross pointed to Halo‘s Forge mode, Forza‘s player-created liveries, and the entirety of Minecraft as spaces where users’ custom content is a big part of the overall experience.
- More on creators: Moore, in his current position as senior VP at Unity Technologies, happened to be speaking on the same day that Unity acquired Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s special effects company Weta Digital. “We believe that there are already 2 billion creators,” he said. “We also believe that the world is going to break into real-time 3D,” citing sports broadcasts as an example.
- On the future of content: Bach predicted that in the future, the division lines between separate entertainment industries — music, movies, games, television — will break down. “Music and video and TV real-time broadcasting, that’s all coming together. I just think there’s really cool opportunities for different types of content that we won’t even know how to categorize.”
- On AR vs. VR: “I think that AR will be more practical [than VR] because it’s a blending of worlds and a blending of entertainment,” Ross said, upon Fils-Aimé broaching the topic of the metaverse. “It brings everything together.”
- More on AR vs. VR: Bach sees the VR/AR space splitting, between attempts to transition away from clunky VR helmets and into “glass,” and productivity improvements (i.e. training in VR) that actually go further into bulky, specialized rigs where precision is important.
- On PC gaming: “I’ve been hearing for 30 years that PC gaming is dying,” Fries said. “No, it’s not dying. It’s growing.” There’s room in the market for both VR and AR.
- On future entertainment experiences: Moore and Unity are working on ways to disrupt the world of live entertainment (“the democratization of the entertainment experience”), using virtual and mixed reality to open events up to remote attendees. “It feels almost archaic that you’ve got to be fortunate to win a lottery, to buy a ticket, to travel somewhere … and then stand at the back and watch a big screen because you can’t get close enough to the stage.”
- On the metaverse: Bach asked Fils-Aimé about the social implications of the metaverse, where someone might have an entirely different life in virtual reality. “This is where an AR-type experience is better socially,” Fils-Aimé said, “because you’re not completely out the real-world experience. I am concerned about an experience that takes you away from your family, the environment, all of those things. My parental instincts kick in as well, in terms of what I would rather see my kids doing.”
- More on metaverse: Fries had just visited the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Washington D.C., and recalled one of Roosevelt’s quotes: “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.” He noted that if the metaverse gets created, that should be kept in mind. “They’re still about people, and when you get people, you need to have a balance between those two things.”
- On ethics: “We as technology holders have a responsibility,” Ross said, to think about ethics and social concerns as they build out the VR/AR space. “I think we’re seeing it play out in front of us — what happens when we don’t. And I think this is our second chance at that.”
- On Gates’ interrupted bridge game: When asked about his memories from his time with Xbox, Moore told a story about how at one point, he’d approved downtime for several NT servers that ran Microsoft’s casual games. Unfortunately for him, that included the app that Gates routinely used to play online bridge with Warren Buffett, resulting in an awkward phone call from Gates to Moore.