Working at Microsoft on the Xbox sounds like it must have been a stressful time, especially in the early days, when the product was successful, but Microsoft didn’t understand why it worked, nor did they understand its position in the big picture of their plans- just that it was important.
The problem with Microsoft, right after the Xbox had taken off, was that Microsoft, seeing that it was successful, wanted more of a say in how the product was managed- which was the exact opposite of the kind of skunkworks environment that the Xbox team had had when they were first building the product. And unfortunately, the people who wanted more of a say in how things were done on Xbox didn’t much understand the gaming business.
It got so bad, Xbox co-creator Ed Fries revealed in an interview with IGN, (main site link here) that at one point in time, he had to threaten to quit his job to get Microsoft to do the right thing.
“You know, it has to do with a lot of different things,” Fries said, looking back on why he quit Xbox right on the cusp of the launch of the Xbox 360, and Xbox’s breaking out into the mainstream. “I’m turning 40 at that time, I’ve got one kid at home, a second one on the way. I’ve been there for almost 20 years, I’ve made a lot of money, frankly. So these are the things on one side- balance.”
He went on to explain how Microsoft’s supervision on Xbox increased once the product was out and successful- and how it was not always for the best, either.
“When I left Office, and went to work on games, I found myself in a situation where I had a huge amount of freedom to do what I wanted, because no one cared! No one cared what I was doing. By the time we got Xbox out, and it was proven to be a success, everyone cared. It was like working on Office again. Everyone wanted to have a say about what we’re doing and how we’re going to do it, and they didn’t know the game business, like I did. And it was very frustrating for me.”
Things came to a head during the development of Halo 2, when Bungie realized that they would need an additional year to work on the game, but Microsoft wanted it out on the original schedule, owing to its importance to the continued success of Xbox.
“And an example is the Bungie story- we needed an extra year to do the next version of Halo. I meet with my boss, Robbie Bach, and I say, we need to spend an extra year. And by the way, I enjoyed working for Robbie, we worked together for almost a year, and he’s a great boss… but I’m a product and technology game guy, he’s a marketing and sales guy. I learned how to run [the Microsoft Game Studios] business from him in a lot of ways.
“Anyway, instead of saying, yes, let’s take this extra year, he said, let’s have a vote. So he brought all his senior staff members, J Allard and other people you don’t know, and went around the room: should we force Bungie to ship on the original schedule, because Halo is so important? Or should we give them the extra year? Every person in the room voted we should force them, except for me. And I walked out of the room and said, if we don’t give them this extra year, I will quit right now.
“And these are not dumb guys, they’re very smart guys, but they didn’t see the whole picture. And it was sad, it was a sad day, and it was the first time I could see the future for where things were going, and it was much more committee run, and not a committee that I necessarily much agreed with.”
Even though Fries got his way then, he says that the incident alerted him that the direction the Xbox division was going in was not necessarily one he agreed with- and that, coupled with the allure of being at home with his family, was what made him quit.
“And Bungie got the extra year because I said right then that I was going to quit. That worked. It worked that time. But that was just one of a million things that are less important, you can only threaten to quit so many times. It’s like, what about this next thing? Am I going to get to do what I think is right, or is it going to a vote again?
“So like I said, it’s like a scale, right? I could be at home with my kids, having fun. Or I could go to work every day, fighting these battles. And even though we were in this great spot, even though I had a great job, it was getting more and more frustrating, and the draw of the other side was nice.”
That said, Fries also admitted that the Xbox 360 was a very good product, and not much different from how he would have done it- and I agree with him. For the first five years of its life, the Xbox 360 was basically the perfect console, evidenced in how the system is basically the forebear of all other modern game consoles. I just wish that Microsoft hadn’t lost the way after that with the second half of the Xbox 360’s life, and with the first few years of the Xbox One’s life.