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Donating my Xbox
by Daniel Cook on 04/08/13 01:45:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 

Today I donated my Xbox 360 Elite to Goodwill. It represented a time in my life as a developer that I'm not overly proud about living.

I worked for a couple years designing games at Microsoft. It is honestly difficult to say the exact group I was in since the organization was hit regularly by massive reorgs and general management failure.

This was the era right before Kinect and there was yet another effort underway to broaden the audience to extend beyond the 'big black boy box' brand that so defined the original Xbox. Ultimately, the anemic outcome of this great leap forward was a handful of resource starved trivia games and gameshows. But the dream of bringing socially positive games to more people really appealed to me.

I was an outsider. Intentionally so. On the rare occasions I used a console, it was likely to be one built by Nintendo. Instead, my earliest influences stem from the Amiga and early PC titles, not the regurgitation of a roller coaster known as Halo. As such, my design direction tended towards non-violence and cuter, gender neutral designs. I still design original mechanics and will trade cutscenes for gameplay in a heartbeat. 

The capital of the console ecosystem
In many ways, a gig at Microsoft was a career peak for many developers I worked with. Since childhood, they had played console games, worked at console companies and then finally _made it_ to the platform mothership from which all their life's work was originally born. The repeated mantra was "The things we do here will impact millions." The unsaid subtext was "gamers just like us."

It was also a cultural hub. You worked there because you were a gamer. People boasted about epic Gamer Scores and joked about staying up multiple days straight in order to beat the latest release. The men were hardcore. The management was hardcore. The women were doubly hardcore. To succeed politically in a viciously political organization, you lived the brand.

You got the sense the pre-Xbox, 'gamers as bros' was a smaller subculture within the nerdy, whimsical hobby of games. Over two console generations, a highly cynical marketing team spent billions with no hope of immediate payback to shift the market. In an act of brilliant jujitsu, Nintendo was slandered as a kids platform, their historical strength turned against them. Xbox put machismo, ultra-violence and chimpboys with backwards caps in the paid spotlight. Wedge, wedge, wedge. Gamers were handed a pre-packaged group identity via the propaganda machine of a mega corporation. For those raised post-Xbox, Microsoft was an unquestioned Mecca of modern gaming culture. Dude. They made Halo.

Cognitive dissonance
I'm okay with not fitting in. Over the 17 years I've been part of the game industry, I've gotten comfortable being an alien floating in a sea of Others. There weren't a lot of computer-loving digital makers in rural Maine in the 80s. I spend most of my days dreaming of an intricate systemic future where things are better. It is a state of constantly being half a second out of phase with the rest of the world.

Still it was a challenge being in an group that knew intellectually they had to reach out to new people while at the same time knowing in their heart-of-hearts that just adding more barrels to a shotgun was the fastest path to gamer glory. Talking with others in the larger organization would yield a sympathetic look. "Someone has to deal with those non-gamers. Sorry it has to be you. Bro."

I am not actually a bro. Don't tell anyone.

We made adorable hand-drawn prototypes and watched them climb through the ranks only to be shot dead by Elder Management that found cuteness instinctually revolting.

Correct games
There is a form to modern console games. If you've played the recent Bioshock Infinite, you can see the full glory of the vision. These are great games, especially if you know and appreciate the immense skill that goes into their creation.  Each element serves a business purpose.

First there is a world rendered in lush 3D. This justifies the hardware.

Next are intermittent dollops of plot. These are voice acted because it is a quality signal. They feature intricately modeled characters on a virtual stage. This gives the arc narrative momentum and lets you know you've finished something meaningful.

Filling out the gaps in the 7-12 hours ride are moments of rote game play with all possible feedback knobs tuned to 11. Blood, brains, impact. Innovation is located at 11.2. This makes you feel something visceral.

Each element of this form is refined to a most perfect formula. There are crate-raised critics who make subtle distinctions between the 52 historical shades of grey. There are documents and research. If you are a creative working at or within a publisher, your higher purpose is to judge games based off their adherence to the form. The game is a product and consistency, much like that found in McDonalds fries, results in repeat purchases. As a publisher designer, you are someone with taste.

You police the act of creation. It is a job. It is a set of orders that come from above. It is your childhood dream.

Away, away
I no longer work at Microsoft. Instead, I started up the independent studio Spry Fox and spend my dreamy days making odd little games. Easily the best career choice I have ever made. My current games barely have plots. They focus on player agency and more often than not sport cute 2D graphics. Very few can be won. None come in boxes. We don't need to spend billions, because people love playing them without the crutch of traditional marketing or press. 

As part of my personal journey, I've found that I'm driven by ideals that fit poorly with a highly gated console monoculture: What if games can connect people? What if they can improve the world? What if they bring happiness and joy to our lives?

Hardcore gamers, women, men, children, families, bros, feminists, and wonderful people that play no other games...they play these intimate, quirky games of ours. Yeah...if you count up the numbers, we impact tens of millions. Deep down, I'm not sure if any of them are people like me.  My job as a game designer is to make beloved games, not fit some limited corporate definition of a gamer. 

So far, none of our games have been released on the Xbox. There's been little economic or cultural fit with the artificially propped up tribe residing in that cloistered warren.

So goodbye, big black box. I never really liked what you stood for.

take care,
Danc.


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Comments


Rick Gush
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coolness

Steven Christian
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Ahh the Amiga. Fond memories.
Many classic games were born there.
I don't know if it's worth remaking any of them for mobile.

I did play Triple Town a few times; it was fun for a while.
But I generally enjoy deeper or more cerebral pursuits.

2D is fine for me; I find that 3D often doesn't work well on mobile.
But then, I'm not the target demographic on this platform, and most of it's games don't appeal to me.

And so the cycle begins anew..

Kenneth Blaney
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Since this is probably the closest I'll ever come to meeting you and telling you in person, your experience with Microsoft which lead you to form Spry Fox probably saved me from working long hours at a terrible job within the games industry. The company in question works mostly on free-to-play titles and bold faced clones of popular franchises. At my interview, I was asked what free-to-play titles I had spent the most time with. I had (and still do) played Triple Town off and on and so mentioned it as something that consistently brings me back in. They asked, "Given that, why don't you think it has been successful?" That was the point where I realized they were bad designers and this was NOT the company I wanted to work for. I cited a talk I saw from Spry Fox (I believe in the GDC vault) where you all were talking about the 10 year plan for Triple Town and commented that "Failed games don't get 10 year plans".

It would then take another 6 months for them to finally offer me the job which I turned down. So thanks for saving me from a perpetual crunch hell working on the latest iOS "village" game.

Also, if they release a free-to-play Pokemon game sometime in the near future... that was probably my fault for mentioning "Outernauts" which has just launched at the time.

Rob Graeber
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Well it depends on how you define success, as a designer you're always designing towards certain criteria or goals in mind. The company you're talking about probably just wants games that generate a very high ARPU, so they can profitably spam ads and acquire users non-organically. It doesn't mean they are bad designers necessarily, it's just that they have different design objectives.

If you define success in terms of ARPU, I doubt Triple Town makes as much as those spammy F2P games per user. Meaning it's probably unprofitable to pay for installs in Triple Town, instead Triple Town needs to rely on quality/originality and organic word of mouth to acquire users. It's different design strategies really.

Kenneth Blaney
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The company recently downsized quite a bit... probably should have included that. I stand by my thanking of Daniel Cook here and the concept that there was bad design going on at some level (or, I suppose, bad management). That is, either they weren't hitting the goals they wanted to hit, or their goals were wrong minded.

Jay Anne
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I love your games (especially Triple Town) but I also love the console games you are calling out in the article. Why the insults? Chimp boys with backward caps? Is that seriously how you view a large part of society? Also, what's with the passive aggressive insults? Console action games may not unequivocally make the world a better place, but I can assure you that they are just as beloved as any game you make, and they bring just as much happiness and joy and connect millions of people as well. Also, just because they're marketed does not mean they are inherently unenjoyable products.

It's not clear why you wrote this article, when your other articles are focused around a keen insightful observation about the industry. It's this kind of polarization that makes plurality hard to uphold in the game industry.

Daniel Cook
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Even professionals are human. This story is a piece of the journey I've gone through in order to get where I am today. It isn't always pretty or objective, and I'm not always proud of how things have turned out. Part of the complex messiness of life :-)

If other developers can take some small lesson from all this, great. If not, no worries.

[User Banned]
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Jay Anne
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@Danc
Well, you also get the benefit of the doubt for being generally awesome. But still, it sounds like the kind of venting you do when you type up a harsh post, and then delete it once you get it out of your system.

I've said it before...there may be creative value in harboring isolated islands of developer cultures. Like how the solitary Galapagos Islands produced interesting lifeforms that could not happen without isolation. But it can still be hard to stomach.

Arthur Souza
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Is it really needed for a professional to be throwing passive aggressiveness towards people that like things you don't like?

Ben Hopper
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Yes, it is. People need to know what's going on in the industry. It's not all fun and games. Once in a while, someone comes out and is honest about their experience working in games, and it's refreshing to know you're not alone.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Ben Hopper
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@ Dave Smith: Congrats on your experience being totally different. You must be a major presence in the game industry. That doesn't mean Dan's account is any less true or legitimate.

Arthur Souza
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I never said anything about the industry being always fun and games, but about the fact that the author kind of looks down on other people's preferences on the industry, as if the only true game designers were those that agreed with his terms.

Arthur Souza
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The author criticises Microsofts marketing scheme in order to switch the "gaming crowd" to become the "bros", and to make Nintendo look like a company that makes games for kids, but the author himself acts as a superior being for liking Nintendo games instead of "dude, its halo bro". That doesn't make you any better than anyone else, it's just taste, no need to portrait Xbox players as retards that can't say anything but "bro".

Merc Hoffner
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There absolutely is/was a distinction between the value of dude/bro culture and 'kiddy' culture. Very simply Nintendo attempts to make games that are acceptable to all audiences - age 5 to 95 as they say, and when you looked at the demographics on the DS and Wii, they largely succeeded. Microsoft did not. As the writer points out, they eventually realised they needed to, but despite the obvious business case and massive hardware and marketing investment around Kinect, couldn't summon the functional effort to really cater to the demographics they now want to reach.

Following in the same vein as Sony before them (and Sega before them) they fostered the male teen gamer, into the male adult gamer, trading on most teen boys' 'mature' fascinations with blood/gore etc. (there's nothing really wrong or unnatural with this - it's a facet of our evolution) - but at the same time that Sony expanded the industry by tapping this audience like never before, they left behind a generation of what we sometimes refer to as lapsed gamers - sisters, very little kids, parents from a previous generation (literal generation, not console one) - all potential business left at the table - building ever more self serving 'mature' titles.

It's fair to look down on DudeBro culture, because they look down on everyone else. The players of games like Loaded and Postal in the 90's have become the developers of today, and they absolutely did not give audiences outside of their own a fair shake. Instead they made FPS the focus (the fact the S is even in the genre description should ring alarm bells - cinema just calls it POV), amplified the visceral, realistic and violent aspects to the enjoyment and nichification of their 'most reliable' audiences and celebrated the creation of an exclusive rather than inclusive competitive online culture they left festering under a weight of casual racism and sexism. NB Most of it is not meant seriously of course - the DudeBro can largely make the distinction between gamer life and real life, but has no problem with the aversion they put in place for everyone else. Mario Galaxy games just as Pixar movies can largely be enjoyed by everyone. Gears of War games just as Saw movies largely cannot. When we praise Nintendo for championing decent 'kiddie' games, it's because nobody else did for 15 years. The development community should have been ashamed. As we now know from a flux of developers leaving the big houses for indie, many actually were.

And when the wealthiest company in the world embarks on a negative publicity campaign about their embattled secondary competitor's universality (and they're clever enough to do it indirectly) rather than putting that effort into positive campaigning for their own merits, you can't help but feel cynical about their sentiments.

Steve Fulton
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Great story! I like reading stories that give perspective to the "machine". Good luck with your current games. They sound like the exact types of games I enjoy making.

Mike Jenkins
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I agree Daniel, it's unfortunate that Microsoft brought such ugly, slanderous competition to the console space. It was juvenile attack marketing like "Microsoft does what Nintendon't" that ended decades of mature cooperation between Nintendo, Sega, and Sony.

Paul van Eekelen
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That phrase was "Genesis does what Nintendon't". It was an early 90s SEGA ad...

Vin St John
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@Paul - I think (hope) that was the point.

James Coote
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This isn't exclusive to xbox or even to gaming but happens in literature and music and other arts

When fans become the creators of the content, they tend to get caught in a "genre trap", where they increasingly get limited by what is considered part of the genre and what isn't. Stray from that to the general audience's ire, as they no longer consider it authentic. Over time, the definition of that genre gets narrower and narrower until you end up with a single, super-refined creation and a bunch of copycat imitators.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Michael Herring
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Fascinating article, but to your point about Nintendo being slandered as the kids' system, I'd add that the atrocious state of games journalism contributes to that. When a majority of respected news sites have conflicting relationships to these companies, often simply reprinting press releases...that affects the discourse more than the marketing itself does.

Nathan McKenzie
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Just an observation for anyone who wants to complain about Dan's critique and naming/shaming with a kind of "why can't we live in peace / why you gotta judge people who don't like what you like":

What Dan's doing is not fundamentally different from what Microsoft (and Sony, and Sega, back in the day) do, too. He's using his voice to argue for a certain kind of game maker and game player identity (or identities). They do that too through their advertising and lifestyle promotion and bro-gamer advocacy and by what they greenlight and by what images they put in movie trailers and on the sides of Burger King cups. That's the whole point of marketing and brands, after all. It works. Go look at Activision's stock price from 1997 to now. That's no accident.

BUT! What is different is that he's attaching a name, and a face, and an explicit moral advocacy to his position, unlike the essentially faceless and invisible bundle of folks that make up whatever it is, exactly, that the multinational that Microsoft is, philosophically. By offering his critique explicitly, and drawing attention to it, and attaching his name and face to it, he's making his argument and himself accountable to every one of you here, to agree or disagree with.

This is a strong contrast to how these giant organizations operate to change the world, with giant piles of money and advertising departments and agencies and accountability only to shareholders, who are broadly speaking deeply disinterested in the future of games as games and game players as game players. And I don't mean to say that like there's any conspiracy or malice - I've been in the guts on the machine. I know lots of us here have or still are. It has its own kind of internal logic that takes on a life of its own. Just because no one is actively driving doesn't mean it doesn't end up shaping much of our community's culture.

So disagree, even strongly, with Dan if you like. But if you feel like responding negatively to his style of rhetoric, at least acknowledge the larger, much louder, conversation that his tiny voice is a part of, and why he might turn to a moral call to arms. He doesn't have access to Burger King cups.

Daniel Cook
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If I had access to Burger King cups, the world would tremble. ;-) Appreciate the note.

Jay Anne
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@Nathan McKenzie
I'd be more inclined to agree if Microsoft and Sony's marketing often made fun of casual gamers, calling them names and building strawmen to knock down. And even then, "but they did it first" is never a good justification. Developers who make artsy family-friendly games should probably take the high road.

Arthur Souza
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He want to change the world with his gender neutral family friendly cuteness, and does so by calling everyone else a retarded bro. Thats fun.

Arthur Souza
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It's easy to talk about how AAA is turning from bad to worse, but there is no need for all of the passive aggressiveness on the article that is directed TO PEOPLE. He's not talking about Microsoft. I feel like I am the one being made fun of on several parts of the article, and obviously I'm not the only one. But hey, whatever, a cool indie developer that worked 20 years in the AAA industry can shit all over actual people. Newsflash, people can play all sorts of different games. Not agreeing with you does not mean that other people are dumb and you are the only one that understands what making games is all about.

Bob Johnson
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This was a good one.

Tony Giovannini
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I think Daniel Cook comes off as humble and "on the money" as it were, when it comes to modern console gaming culture. I sold my 360 Elite about a year ago, never looked back. Sure, there are some console games I still love, but reading this article today provides further vindication in regard to my decision to sell off the thing. As for now, I am console free, mostly enjoy indie pc titles and the occasional tablet game.

Was Daniel Cook being negative? Hell no.

He was being straight up honest.

Arthur Souza
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It doesn't offend you, so there's nothing wrong with it. Basically.

Dave Long
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This is a good overall article, but I find it disturbing that the 'Xbox' culture referred to here is extrapolated out to suggest that all console games are like that (many of the comments talk about console culture, as does the main article, even though the story is only experience within the corporate Xbox culture).

As a PC and Playstation gamer that spends a little time on Xbox and the occasional Nintendo platform, I find this view incredibly parochial.

For a start, the mainstream PC culture is _just_ as 'bro' as Xbox, but with an added level of tech elitism thrown on top. It's also even more ADHD - most of my PC gamer mates are less likely to actually finish games than my friends on PSN.

Then there's the issue of the actual games on non-Xbox consoles. Is Pikmin a sign of console culture? It's not available anywhere else (beyond handhelds, which are handheld consoles and very much part of the console culture). How about Tokyo Jungle or Journey? Is Limbo or Braid, which started life on XBL, part of console culture? (I do know MS has moved away from indies since, but this is a historical piece, and we have no idea what they're planning for this year, although signs point to it being depressingly mainstream-focussed).

How about Sony's focus on indie developers? I'm looking forward to playing Thomas was Alone on a Vita - is that a sign of 'console culture'.

I know this is a US-focussed site, and it seems that clearly many commentators have been blinded to broader console developments by the pervasive Microsoft advertising in that market, but there's much more to console gaming on Playstation and Wii/Wii U (and even a bit more on Xbox360) than the 'dude bro' form. Similarly, there's plenty of dude bro going down on PC, with a side helping of ugly elitism thrown in!

I think the article is a great insight into the corporate culture at Microsoft, but remember it's _just_ about Microsoft - there are two (soon to be three with Ouya) competing consoles that are very different. The responses here suggest that while many dislike Microsoft's approach to gaming, they remain blinded by its advertising!

Christian Nutt
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I think people are taking this further than Dan intended it -- and not to mention he was speaking from the experience of WORKING WITHIN MICROSOFT.

There's definitely a lot more on the 360 than dudebro games. In fact, when Dan tweeted that he got rid of his 360, my reply was "But how are you going to play Spelunky, then?" Spelunky was easily my favorite exclusive Xbox 360 game last year, and it's far from dudebro.

Still, the point stands. Microsoft engendered the transformation of console gamer culture into dudebro culture by their product selection and, apparently by their internal culture. I don't think pointing this out is ridiculous because it is true. Neither does pointing it out mean that one is saying "and they did it 100% and all there are playing console games now are DUDEBRO POD PEOPLE." It just feels that way sometimes. =P

Dave Long
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The thing is, though, over on PSN while there are undoubtedly plenty of dudebros (as there are on PC and indeed even on mobile - I haven't looked, but I'm sure there are some on facebook too, lol), it's by no means the dominant culture, but rather one of a number of strongly represented groups of gamers. I'm not even sure it would be the dominant culture on the 360 amongst the actual gamers there (remembering that 30-odd per cent of 360 gamers don't play online, and there is plenty of interest in other games, not to mention a sizeable Kinect-focussed casual base), although I'd wager it's strongest there of any console (I don't pay for Gold, so can't really say what the culture online is like there). I'd also argue that it is strongly not the dominant culture over on the Wii U - and in both the article and the comments, it's kind of taken as a given that this perception of Xbox 360 culture is the culture for all consoles, when that's far from the case.

Randall Stevens
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I am very offended by the use of the term "bro" on this site. It is a very hateful word. When we say it it's different. It is okay when we use the word, to refer to one another. It is not okay when you use it to refer to us. The prejudice needs to stop. We are people too, and we don't need to suffer your discrimination and hate speech.


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