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10 years in games. Sorry for all the ads.
by Allen Murray on 08/11/14 10:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

It suddenly occurred to me that it has been more than 10 years since I have been working in the games industry, not counting the years I spent making mods in such games as Marathon and Myth where I met wonderful people like Max Hoberman and Chris Butcher, who I was able to work with Bungie and even dabbled in early esports as a semi-finalist in the Myth: The Fallen Lords platform wars tournament (http://trivia.bungie.org/assets/PlatformWars.html) (I got second place in the Mac semi-finals against Panamon - yeah, who the fuck cares.)

Leveraging my experience as an early software developer at Amazon.com and more importantly, leveraging my friend Patrick O’Kelley, I got a job at Microsoft in early 2004 on the Xbox team as a Program Manager. Patrick and I worked together at Amazon, then Xbox and went on to work together at Bungie and even PopCap for a while, which just goes to show how much friends and ‘social networking’ matter when looking for jobs.

So my first job in the games industry was working on platform software, not actual game content, but it was a great intro and I found that I could quickly make an impact, for better or worse. If you hate seeing advertisements when you boot up your Xbox, let me apologize in advance.

I am one of the people - if not THE person - responsible for ads on the Xbox.

But it’s a weird story how that came to be, and how I had to actually fight to make it happen. No, really!

You see, when I first started at Xbox I was working with a team responsible for the web services layer of Xbox Live which also interfaced directly with the dashboard UI of the Xbox 360. I landed this assignment because of my experience at Amazon, where I had been working on their websites since 1998. And my time at Amazon also made me keenly aware of the ways in which technology can be used to enhance retail experiences. So during my first few weeks I was doing the new employee thing and meeting all sorts of people and learning about all sorts of cool projects happening all around me.

And one of these things was Xbox Live Arcade. This young guy, John David (who I ended up working with again years later at PopCap), was responsible for getting all of these neat, smaller games on the Xbox platform through digital distribution - just purchase and download directly through the Xbox UI, which was crazy stuff in 2004. They were even going to launch with neat games like Hexic (developed by Jason Keimig, who I also worked with years later at PopCap on Solitaire Blitz) right out of the box! This was cool. And since Hexic was the only game that actually ran on the platform at the time, everyone in the office was hooked on it. But it occurred to me that even though these games and this platform were rad, no one would know about it because it was several clicks down in the UI, hidden from view. There needed to be a way to surface and display these games that I knew that players would want to know about.

Fortunately my office was right next door to Larry Hyrb, aka Major Nelson, one of the nicest people I have ever met and who at that time was recently given the mandate and a lot of freedom to promote all things Xbox. I went to Larry and showed him the problem: there was no way to promote content inside the Xbox 360 itself. He supported me and saw the value in how he could use it as a tool to promote not only the games that were available, but also events and special community messages. Emboldened by Larry’s support I went to my boss and I think the conversation went like this.

“So, as you can see we have all of these great games but no way for players to easily find them. So I’m proposing that we display banner ads on the dashboard that link directly to the download pages of the games so that…”

“Wait, banner ads? Like on websites?”

“Sort of, but these aren’t like ads for Mt. Dew or anything, these are just…”

“No way.”

“What?”

“Gamers are gonna hate ads. No way.”

“How will they know they can download Zuma on the day it launches?”

“…”

“Is that a yes?”

“No.”

This was not Amazon. It was very hard for me to convince people that this sort of advertising was *good*. In hindsight, I think it was my choice of language, using terms like ‘advertising’ and 'banner ads’ that conveyed a tone of corporate soullessness. This was games! We were supposed to be cool and fuck the man and all that shit. This was also my second taste of proprietary groupthink at Microsoft (the first was me trying to convince an executive that the Xbox Live web services layer should provide standard RSS feeds of data for the community to use - well, it was not really convincing him, it was me actually doing a 15 slide presentation on what RSS actually is and no, it’s not something that Microsoft invented).

But Larry was a true champion and a much more savvy corporate navigator than I, the newbie at the time, and with the support of the Xbox Live Arcade team we moved forward designing the Banner Of The Day (BOTD) system that he would use to schedule the ads. It was all built in a proprietary tool very similar to Flash with a very basic, web-based scheduling system so you could schedule ads in advance and line up your ad programming weeks in advance to map to the event and release schedules on Xbox Live. It was 100% hackery at the time, but it worked.

image

That Luxor 2 and Disturbia ad? Yep, I worked on that.


Nowadays the Xbox One UI is nearly all ‘ads’, i.e., links promoting content and apps in the Xbox ecosystem. So it’s nice to see that the idea caught on and if you hate the Mt. Dew ads, I am truly sorry. I just find it funny and interesting that 10 years ago it was an uphill battle to build a system that is pretty much the standard way to present content on the console. 

image

Xbox One UI: mostly ads!


My second project was designing the Xbox 360’s parental controls. I’m sorry about that, too. 

Reposted from my personal blog.


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Comments


Ian Richard
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I don't know whether to laugh and thank you for writing this story or swear at you harshly.

Either way, it's an interesting read. It's awesome to see the source of unique features... even ones I hate.

Wes Jurica
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I see nothing at all wrong with Xbox dashboard ads, or ads in general, as they relevant. Those gamer pic packs though... gross! Did people actually care about those things? Did anyone actually want Shia's mug as their own?

And, as much as it was lamented, I miss the "blades".

Phillip Harben
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I think the ads are fine as long as they're relevant. It's a good way of raising awareness for products which might be interesting to the user. I'm not even against in-game ads as long as they fit the game being played. Diet coke advertising boards in FIFA? Not a problem. Diet coke advertising in Skyrim - not ok.

Zach Grant
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“Gamers are gonna hate ads. No way.”

Fast forward to 2013 when Don Mattrick and their product team did zero research into what gamers wanted for the XB One and came up with a plan that pissed off the entire user base of 360 and skyrocketed PS4 into 1st place. Corporate blunders at their finest.

Mark Verrey
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I wouldn't be so offended by the ads if they actually served the purpose the author intended: enabling discovery of things that I would never find myself. Looking at the actual final product, however, I can only see it as shameless revenue generation. None of the things that show up on the home screen are what I would describe as obscure. Ad space is entirely taken up by AAA content with massive marketing budgets, which is what you would expect out of paid ads.

I don't mind it too much on the Xbox One, though, because most of the screen real estate is still devoted to stuff I actually want to do -- the main window displays the most recent thing I did, which is usually the game in the drive. The 360, however, is just obscene. The Home tab is 95% ads, and the main window is *always* an ad. It's also a very expensive ad to buy, pretty much guaranteeing that I won't be finding anything interesting there. The only item on that entire screen dedicated to something I already own is the tiny box in the upper left-hand corner for the game that's in the drive.

Lance McKee
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This was just a cool article to read. I personally dislike that the UI's for consoles are mostly ads now, but what you were trying to implement does seem useful. I did have a rather unpleasant situation once due to one of the big ad buttons on the front menu of the Xbox 360 being the default focus. My 2-year old son was able to push the big Xbox button, and then the A button over and over, and spend $15 worth of my Microsoft points on an expansion pack for a game I didn't own and had never even played. All with the TV off. I spent about 2 hours on the phone with Microsoft and was told repeatedly by different people that "Obviously you didn't intend to purchase that, and we're sorry. But we don't do refunds."

So yeah, I'll just go ahead and blame you for that one. You owe me $15.

Dave Hoskins
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http://support.xbox.com/en-GB/xbox-360/security/xbox-live-parenta
l-control

Lance McKee
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@Dave Hoskins - Thanks for the info. As far as I can tell, parental controls don't give you the option require a password before purchasing something (at least they didn't back when they did Microsoft Points). They allow you to block access to Xbox Live, which isn't something I want to do since my kids do use features of that like Netflix and certain games that require Live to be active to play them.

Robert Carter
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Interesting article. I feel that the original intent was to have a storefron similar to Steams store front. "See whats new, see whats popular". Steam does a pretty good job helping Indies in this way.

What it turned into was, I go to my home page and have ads that dont interest me (movies I can buy on their store, for instance) and they take up my home page, not the store front. I wouldnt mind one or two ads that were relevant to me, but the barrage of things I care little about makes me uninterested as my eyes usually glance over the ads in general now.

Barrie Tingle
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I don't mind the adverts for new games I might be interested in but I detest the adverts for real world items like MtDew, Beer, Cars etc. I pay for Gold so why should I get advertised at. Even the worst websites out there that offer pay walls disable ads when you are a paying member :)

Alexander Kaltsas
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I loved the Blades so much. Intuitive and fast. And I don't think anyone has a problem with the sane ads that were in the Xbox Live blade. I adored my 360 at launch, and slowly but surely Microsoft whittled away at my affections post NXE. It's quite impressive how you turned your biggest advocate into someone who couldn't bear to turn his 360 on. Eventually I sold it, bought a PS3 and a Cronus and never looked back.

matt worrall
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The adverts are fine. The main problem is the terrible UI which I guess is based on (the terrible UI) windows 8. I find it baffling to find something. Quiting a game, nightmare. Try stating a party chat with the snap thing that scrolls across, then use a combination of buttons to get back, its almost like a QTE on a game.

Go to the store, list all games? How do you do that? Who knows? I can see featured or top games.

What if i want the search racing games? How do you do that? Who knows?

Maybe they wanted to turn the UI into one of those hidden object games.

I played on my old ps3 the other day and was relieved how easy it was to navigate the store


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