Mon, Aug 08, 2011 | 06:11 BST
The Xbox Story, Part 4: Launching and Beyond
The name was decided and the hardware shown: but what of the games? Patrick Garratt looks at the original Xbox’s launch line-up and the console’s release in the final part of our four-feature special.
The US Xbox launch titles – November 15, 2001
Halo: Combat Evolved
Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee
Dead or Alive 3
Project Gotham Racing
NFL Fever 2002
Air Force Delta Storm
Mad Dash Racing
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2X
4×4 Evo 2
Xbox was now locked into a launch time-frame. Slated to ship in late 2001, the machine had been pushed back a year at Bill Gates’ command to ensure there was a discernible difference between Microsoft’s effort and PlayStation 2, and the race was well and truly joined to form a suitable launch line-up in a cripplingly short window.
“For me, the challenge was that I only had a couple of years to pull together a set of console games,” said Ed Fries, the Microsoft executive in charge of creating Xbox’s first-party launch output.
“My group had never made a console game. We’d never produced a console game. We were developing for a machine that didn’t exist, and we had to convince developers that Microsoft was actually going to do this thing, that the machine was going to ship and that it was actually going to sell in sufficient quantities.”
Ever the understated, Fries noted that these were “hard” discussions. It was Fries’s job to gather and create exclusive content for Xbox’s launch. Triple-A developers don’t make money unless their game sells in large quantities: Fries was asking for exclusive videogames for a platform that wasn’t available, had no track record and would only be running at half speed six months before launch. How could it be trusted to sell tens of millions of units?
Fries did have one trump: he worked for Microsoft.
“I had a good bizdev team, and they were out talking to a lot of people, and I was out talking to a lot of people, and we found opportunities here and there,” he said.
“Bizarre Creations was a good example. They’d completed Metropolis Street Racer for Dreamcast, which was, in our opinion, a great game. We thought that it could easily be moved onto the new platform and modified in time to be a launch title for us. That’s where Project Gotham Racing came from. That’s an example of something that was relatively easy to do.”
Oddworld’s Lorne Lanning was also quick to get on board: Munch’s Oddysee was a launch title, and was the first ever game shown running on Xbox, played by Seamus Blackley at CES in January, 2001.
“That was a big one for us,” said Fries. “To take what was, at that time, a very high profile Sony developer, a Sony product, and to have it as a launch title on our new console; that was a really important one.”
Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo: Combat Evolved emerged as Xbox’s
defining game, but Microsoft saw it as part
of a portfolio, not a leading title. Said Fries:
“It’s easy to try to modify history, to look
back and say, ‘It was all about Halo.’ But
that really didn’t develop until a little bit
“You are a cybernetic warrior. In the future.”
In May, 2001, at E3 in LA, Microsoft officially announced Xbox’s launch details: it would release in the US on November 8 for $299. Between 600,000-800,000 units would be available day one, with the number rising to 1.5 million before the end of the calendar year.
While the news was good, the E3 presentation was not. After a failed attempt to show an updated version of the GDC 2000 ping pong ball demo, Robbie Bach introduced a wooden showing from a clearly terrified Joe Staten from Bungie. Halo itself looked fantastic to those of us sitting in the audience, but Staten began the viewing with the immortal words: “You are a cybernetic warrior. In the future.”
It creased us up: we should have been looking at the game, and instead we were laughing about the delivery.
Halo itself became a focal point of the criticism aimed at Microsoft at E3 that year. It was running at a practically unplayable speed on pre-launch hardware on Microsoft’s booth at the show. Many believed that neither the game or console would be ready for November based on the shooter’s showing that year.
Microsoft had bought Bungie in June, 2000, confirming Halo – which was previously being developed for PC and Mac – as an Xbox exclusive. While hindsight is a wonderful thing, Microsoft had no idea at the time just how important Halo would be for Xbox.
“Even at the end, it was ‘a’ title for us: it wasn’t ‘the’ title for us,” said Fries. “We had Munch’s Oddysee from Oddworld, and we thought that was a really important title. That was something we had TV behind, along with Halo. We had TV behind our football game, and some behind Project Gotham Racing as well. So, there were a whole set of games that were treated as our big titles for launch.
“It’s easy to try to modify history, to look back and say, ‘It was all about Halo.’ But that really didn’t develop until a little bit later. Halo was the one that everybody was playing at night. It was the one that we really loved to demo. When I was out on the road in the months leading up to launch, I was showing a lot of Halo, just because it looked awesome. It really showed off the machine.
“To go to a floor in a games shop that I’d been to a dozen times and see Xbox displays and banners there, and big giant billboards around Akihabara, for me, I think, was the most breathtaking moment.”
“But when I talked to the press, it was really the one that had a lot of controversy associated with it. Coming out of E3, there was a lot of skepticism about the game. It surprised me how much there was. Next Generation, which was the really influential magazine here in the US, had some pretty mediocre things to say about it coming out of E3.
“And some of it was right: at E3 we were running on half-speed hardware. The game wasn’t done. But, those of us that were familiar with it could see what it was going to be, I guess.”
Bach also announced at E3 that year that 200 third-parties were making Xbox games. There were some 80 Xbox exclusives in the works, Bach said, 40 of which would be made by third-parties. Bach added that 27 online titles were in development for the machine.
EA said it was making 10 Xbox games, and showed Westwood’s Pirates of Skull Cove – it wasn’t great. Sega also committed to Xbox, now Dreamcast had officially failed – the console had been brutally discontinued in March, 2001, thanks to funding issues.
A Dead or Alive 3 demo was technically great. The Munch’s Oddysee showing was just old.
It was at this point that Kevin Bachus left Microsoft. The reasons cited in Opening the Xbox are that his wasn’t finding his job enjoyable any more and wanted to get back into making games: he took a job at Wild Tangent, and would later move onto the ill-fated Phantom project. He’s currently chief product officer at Bebo.
The AI’s terrible
And while Microsoft fumbled Xbox’s public perception that year, things weren’t always going to plan behind the scenes. Microsoft had a large investment in Steven Spielberg’s AI. It was announced in August 2001 that two AI games would release as launch titles that November, with a third game to follow.
“Let’s just say it didn’t work out,” laughed Fries. “The movie didn’t work out very well, and the games didn’t work out very well.”
None of the games released.
Fries, though, was undeterred by all these set-backs. He’s an idealist. His logic in constructing the console’s initial line-up was borne from one basic premise.
“It starts from me being a gamer,” he said. “What would I like? What do I want to play? Who are the people I want to work with? For me, it was working with the very best game development teams I could find, the best talent I could find, and just giving them the resources that they needed to do their best work. That was my strategy.
“What would you do, right? If you had the resources, the money to go out and work with anybody in the world, what would you do? You’d go and talk to all the people you were really excited about, the people who you have respect for. And what you find is that they’re almost all busy doing something else: they’re great guys, and they’d love to work with you, but they’re all busy.
“That’s when you have to get opportunistic.”
Fries wasn’t only active in the west before launch. He was already spending a lot of time in Japan, and some of the feedback he was getting wasn’t always as helpful as it could have been.
“It was hard to know what to listen to,” he said.
“They told us that we couldn’t call it Xbox, because ‘X’ means ‘death’ in Japan. They said we can’t make it black, because black is the colour of death. Deathbox, you know?
“And I’m like, ‘Isn’t the PlayStation black?’ I remember a meeting where a developer told me the controller needed to have the same weight as water in the hands. Which could be good feedback. I don’t know. You’d get all this feedback translated to you, and it wasn’t always easy to know who to believe, or what was important.”
While Fries crunched on the first-party line-up, Allard and the rest of the team were pushing for third-party software.
“We had to go out and convince publishers that we were serious about getting into the games business, and that we could compete effectively with Sony,” said Bachus.
The UK launch
The British Xbox launch took place at the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street, London. Richard Branson was in attendance, as was game-loving celebrity Jonathan Ross and a fresh-faced Chris Lewis. Lewis now heads up the European Xbox business.
Dreamcast’s demise formed an opportunity. As developers turned away from Dreamcast, some diverted their projects towards Xbox: had Microsoft not been in the market, they would have had no choice but to turn to PlayStation.
It wasn’t only western development that was immediately interested. Despite the common perception that Xbox was initially laughed out of Japan, several of the large Japanese games firms were involved from the start. Tecmo, for instance, released a launch title in Dead or Alive 3. Sega Japan was also there from day one with Jet Set Radio Future.
“I think a lot of the Japanese companies got on board because they thought that we’d be successful with Xbox 2 even if we weren’t successful with Xbox,” said Bachus. “They wanted to say, ‘Listen, we were there with you during the difficult phase with Xbox, so you can show us some consideration with the next console.’
“Remember that Microsoft has this reputation that it takes three times to get it right, and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to get it right there first time, but they were like, ‘You know, you’ll probably get it right eventually.’”
Fries, Xbox’s first-party games boss, was removed from the third-party side of the project to an almost complete extent.
“I was so busy with the first-party portfolio at that time that I almost didn’t even see the third-party stuff. I was at TGS that spring, and I was mostly cooped up in a hotel room doing interviews across from the hall, and people were talking about Dead or Alive. I hadn’t seen it. I had to go over to the show to see it, because so many people were bringing it up to me and saying, ‘Wow, that really looked great.’ And I’m, like, ‘Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it? I’d better go look at it.’”
While this sounds absurd, Fries and Allard were actually in competition over their respective Xbox software programs. Fries assumed control of both third- and first-party content after Xbox launched, but pre-release Allard worked separately.
“In a way, the first-party team is a competitor of the third-party teams, in that we all come out with games,” Fries said.
“For example, I was producing a football game, and so was EA. When I later took over managing the third-parties, I had to do it really carefully because of that issue. It’s kind of sensitive. I’m out meeting with third-parties and they’re showing me what they’re doing, but to some extent they know I’m making competing products.”
Fries not only had to cope with ludicrous time constraints and in-team competition: the spectre of mistrust dogged the project even now.
“It was sort of like stepping back to those early days again when we entered the console world. We had to prove ourselves all over again. I think it was doubly hard, because we came from a PC world; in a lot of ways we saw the PC world as being more advanced than the console world, and when I say that, I mean the PC world had become about multiplayer and online. In the console world that still really wasn’t very true. There were attempts to do that on things like Dreamcast, and some even before that, but it wasn’t an important part of the console world.
“So not only were we trying to enter the console world and have credibility, but we were also trying to say to the console world people, ‘Hey, your world is going to change.’ When we showed something like the first Halo, a lot of the reaction from the console people was, ‘Wow: you really don’t get console games.’”
A brown shooter like Halo was baffling to the console section of the games industry, and it wasn’t just an external struggle.
“Someone in the group, I can’t remember where, had done what they called a colour palette analysis, and they’d showed that console games used these bright, cartoony colours, and Halo was using these dark, PC-like colours. They were trying to tell me that we were doing it all wrong, that we weren’t consolely enough. I just remember kicking him out of my office and not ever presenting my analysis to the Bungie people,” Fries said.
“Someone had done what they called a colour palette analysis, and they’d showed that console games used these bright, cartoony colours, and Halo was using these dark, PC-like colours. They were trying to tell me that we were doing it all wrong, that we weren’t consolely enough. I just remember kicking him out of my office and not ever presenting my analysis to the Bungie people.”
“It was the kind of thing that was happening then. It’s funny, because we were learning a lot, and we clearly didn’t know what we were doing going into it, but at the same time we knew a lot about the PC world and we had opinions about where we thought gaming was going. The challenge was choosing which instincts to believe, and which ones to modify as we got new data.”
We are go for launch
Eventually, though, all the wrangling came off. Xbox launched in the US with Halo: Combat Evolved, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, PGR, NFL Fever 2002 and Blitz Studio’s Fuzion Frenzy as its first-party line-up. Europeans got Rallisport Challenge and Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding instead of the football title.
The American launch was delayed a week to November 15 because of production issues, but the New York release party was spectacular nonetheless. Gates himself turned up, as did The Rock, and “the kids” were as enthusiastic as kids could ever be. Halo and Munch’s Oddysee starred as software, and while Japan and Europe would have to wait until the following year for their launches, fact was fact: Xbox was now a real games console with real, exclusive games.
The British launch took place on March 14, 2002, in the Virgin Megastore on London’s Oxford Street. From what I drunkenly recall, it was rammed, with a packed bar downstairs distracting from photocalls and demos on the shop’s main floor near the tills. Richard Branson and Jonathan Ross were the star turns, and the UK launch team – made of the likes of Chris Lewis, Paul Fox, Nick Grange and Tina Hicks (now Moore) – was clearly thrilled with the result.
There was certainly no lack of interest. Xbox’s Japanese launch took place a few weeks before, on February 22.
It was only two-and-a-half years since Ted Hase had first sent out a PowerPoint presentation suggesting Microsoft make a videogames machine, but it had been a long road for those involved. While he’d already left Microsoft at this point, seeing the affect Xbox had on global entertainment wasn’t lost on Bachus.
He said: “It was really bizarre when Xbox first launched. For such a long time, it was this thing we were doing in secret. First there were four of us, and then there were maybe 20, 30. I remember going into a room with people from Microsoft licensing, which handles OEM licenses and stuff like that, and these guys had been responsible for thinking about how they were going to authenticate Xbox software, make sure that it wasn’t pirated. There were 100 people in the room I’d never met before, and these guys had been thinking about our little project. It was really weird to see how all these people came together and contributed to what we were trying to do.
“It was weird when I’d be out and I’d see people wearing hats with the Xbox logo on them. Even weirder, was that I’d been going to Japan since I joined Microsoft, and I just went and hung out in Akihabra and went to these different software shops; to go to a floor in a games shop that I’d been to a dozen times and see Xbox displays and banners there, and big giant billboards around Akihabara, for me, I think, was the most breathtaking moment.
“I still had this idea in my head that it was this little concept that we were working away on in secret, and the fact that it became a big part of popular culture is obvious intellectually, but emotionally it was overwhelming. It was really cool.”
One step beyond
While Xbox’s launch draws this story to a close, it was the public birth of a console that had already changed videogaming’s landscape forever. There were still major hurdles to overcome, one of the first of which being the original “fat” controller. There was a problem: a lot of people didn’t like it.
It was unthinkable that Sony or Nintendo would simply drop a console controller in favour of something “better,” but Microsoft did just that. This was more than a move based on usability: the biggest gripe Japanese gamers consistently came back with about Xbox was the size of the controller. It was too big.
“We came from the PC world,” said Fries. “That original controller was designed by the hardware group, and they had a very similar PC controller that was reasonably successful called the Sidewinder.
“It wasn’t a big stretch. Also, if you look at the Dreamcast controller at the time, it was also relatively large. Even an N64 controller; it’s got a bunch of gaps in it, but, again, it’s a pretty large thing. I didn’t think it was as controversial as it ended up being. I wasn’t one of the people saying this was a big problem.
“We got strong feedback out of Japan that this controller wasn’t going to work. As soon as that happened, they started designing a new controller: that’s the controller that ended up replacing the big controller in the US.
“It was designed originally for Japan, and everyone loved it and said, ‘We should just make the the universal controller for the rest of the world.’”
The EU Xbox launch titles – March 14, 2002
Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding
Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2
Dead or Alive 3
Halo: Combat Evolved
Jet Set Radio Future
Mad Dash Racing
NBA Live 2002
NHL Hitz 2002
Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee
Project Gotham Racing
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
Wreckless: The Yakuza Missions
While tweaks were being made to the hardware formula, the software deals were still being cut. Fries himself will probably be best remembered in the Xbox project for his involvement in the Rare deal. Microsoft bought Rare in 2002 for $375 million, an eyebrow-raising figure which resulted from a bidding war with Activision.
“As we moved on from launch, I was working with the Epic guys to put together Gears of War, and I was working with the Rare guys,” he said.
“I met the Stamper brothers initially when we were starting up Xbox. The games business is actually a pretty small community. If I met people and got to know them, who knows what’ll happen in the future?
“Bungie was like that. I met a guy called Peter Tamte, got to know him and we stayed in touch. He’s the guy that called me originally and said, ‘Hey, things aren’t really working out here at Bungie as an indepedent company. We’re thinking about selling, and as long as we’re talking about that, we thought that maybe we should be talking to you too. That was the start of the conversation that ultimately turned into us buying Halo.
“Likewise, I met the Stamper brothers. At the time, I thought they were 100 percent committed to being part of Nintendo, and didn’t really know if it would go anywhere, but I was honestly a fan of their games. Being a gamer myself, it’s always fun to meet your heroes from the games business. We had a nice meeting, and agreed that if there was ever an opportunity to work together we should talk.”
A few years later, that opportunity arose. Rare’s contract with Nintendo was expiring. Nintendo, owning just under half of Rare, had an option to buy the remaining shares. It had already declined to do so once, and it seemed clear it would again.
“We were very interested,” said Fries. “It had the double benefits of adding a new, very experienced developer to our portfolio, of who’s games I was a big fan, and simultaneously taking them away from a competitor. That was very valuable to us.”
Unfortunately for Microsoft, Activision was also heavily involved in the bidding process, causing the price to inflate.
“Activision actually outbid us, and then they couldn’t close the deal,” Fries said. “We’d put a bid in over Activision, but we thought it was too late: they’d already agreed to go with Activision. When the Activision bid collapsed, our bid got to go through. It was a pretty close thing that it didn’t go to Activision, actually.”
Rare’s output surprised many in the wake of the deal. Fries was guarded on his feelings on the matter.
“It’s hard to comment on,” he said. “I’ve always been a big fan of Rare. I’m still a fan of Rare. I certainly had higher hopes in the beginning than where we ended up. But who’s to blame for that? I don’t know. Whenever you create a new relationship there’s new people on both sides, and new requests. They had to learn a new system, and the world of gaming was changing at the same time. I talked about the way Halo differed from console games at the time: Rare represented more that older world than the newer world.
“Although, to their credit, they were the creators of GoldenEye, the game that proved you could do a first-person shooter on a console, and that was something we pointed to a lot when we were pushing Halo.”
Microsoft bought Rare for $375 million, buying both the Stamper brothers’ stake and the Nintendo shares to take complete control of the company. Fries insisted, though, that taking developers over, as it had with Rare and Bungie, was never the original intention.
“We didn’t set out to buy people. It wasn’t our opening position. We were happy to work with people as third-parties. It was only in cases that we needed to do an acquisition that we did it. The only opportunity to work with Rare was to buy the company. The only opportunity to work with Bungie was to buy the company.”
Fries left Microsoft in 2004, a year before the launch of Xbox 360. The original Xbox sold over 24 million units globally and acted as a springboard for Microsoft to build a successful console ecosystem in opposition to Sony. It’s unquestionable that Xbox’s story is an extraordinary one.
In his forward to Dean Takahashi’s Opening the Xbox, released in 2002, Seamus Blackley wrote:
“It is a rare and remarkable experience indeed to be able to take part from the very beginning in something that touches so many people, that inspires and excites the imaginations of so many people, and that in the end changes the lives of so many people as Xbox has.”
Xbox was decommissioned in 2005 in Japan, and in 2006 in the US and Europe. Its Live support ended on April 15, 2010.