Interview: Former Microsoft Exec Fries Talks Xbox's Genesis
Technically, former Microsoft VP of game publishing Ed Fries entered the game industry when he was in high school -- a small company published the Atari 800 games he had designed from home.
And when Fries took a summer internship with Microsoft during his programming education in college, he never imagined it would turn into an 18 year career, or that he would play a pivotal role in the company's entrance into the console market.
But that's exactly what happened, and Fries, now a consultant to numerous game companies and founder of custom World of Warcraft statue house Figureprints, spent some time yesterday at the Ayzenberg Group's A-List Summit in Napa recounting the story of his career.
Gamasutra got to chat with Fries during the Summit, which focuses on advertising and marketing in the game industry, and learned that upon joining Microsoft, he didn't initially anticipate joining the game group, which at the time comprised little else but PC flight simulators.
Since the small company that published his game had gone out of business, says Fries, "I thought I was done with the game biz. I thought was gonna be a serious programmer."
The Early Days
His summer internship at Microsoft led to a post-graduation job as one of just seven programmers working on the Excel spreadsheet software. But after ten years of climbing to key roles on that team as well as the Microsoft Word team, Fries found himself at a point where further promotion would mean almost a complete transition from hands-on programming into strictly managerial work.
"I thought, if I'm gonna take that step, I want to do it in an area that I have a lot of passion for," Fries recalled. A number of very high-profile roles were open to him within the company -- but instead of choosing to head the PowerPoint team, the search group, or any other burgeoning arena, he asked to head up Microsoft's small games group, which at the time had only 50 staffers still primarily doing flight sims.
"All these VPs in the company met with me and tried to talk me out of it," Fries recalls. "They had all these arguments about why I was committing career suicide."
Fortunately, Fries didn't listen. "I took the job, and two weeks later, I was in Tokyo, and I had just spent the day meeting all of my heroes from the game biz and seeing all this amazing stuff in production."
"And I just remember, vividly, walking down the street at night in Tokyo thinking. 'this job rocks -- this is so much better.'"
Introducing The 'DirectX-Box'
At the same time, Fries says he lacked business development and marketing experience, and felt a little bit "in over my head." But fortunately, the game group was so small and such a low priority for Microsoft that he largely had free reign over its development.
"It was a real benefit that nobody cared about what I was doing," he laughs, "because I could just, in a stealthy, way grow this group without people noticing."
He led the acquisition of Ensemble Studios, and Age of Empires was a big hit, driving further growth for the game group. "By then, we were up to maybe 5 or 600 people... and some weeks we would be the leading PC publisher in the country. We weren't as big as Electronic Arts in general at the time, but we were getting there."
That, says Fries, is when "these crazy guys walked into my office and told me they had this idea to get Microsoft into the console business. They were from the DirectX team, and they wanted to make this thing called the 'Direct X-Box."
Direct X-Box, of course, was truncated to 'Xbox,' -- and "marketing hated the name," says Fries. "They went off and created this whole, long list of better names for the machine."
In focus testing, the marketing team left the name 'Xbox' on that long list simply as a control, to demonstrate to everyone why it was a horrible name for a console. "Of course, 'Xbox' outscored, in focus testing, everything they came up with. They had to admit it was going to be the Xbox."
The Xbox was greenlit by Microsoft upper brass, giving Fries and his team less than two years to pull together the first-party launch lineup. "We were lucky to team up with people like Bizarre Creations to create Project Gotham Racing... and Bungie, we did the acquisition at that time."
Building A Brand
Fries says he and his team had no intention of making Halo the flagship for the console in the way that it ended up being. Launch marketing for the Xbox featured Halo branding and imagery prominently, and in a world of bright, primary colors on rival consoles, the game's green-glow palette resonated distinctively with the logo and visual style of the console itself.
But while this correlation might have looked intentional, Fries says it wasn't at all. "We didn't know what was going be our biggest title," he says. "There was a lot of negativity around Halo, actually, mostly coming from the games press. We showed it several times publicly, and we got pretty negative feedback." He recalls a Penny Arcade cartoon effectively calling the title "complete shit."
Not only was Halo, as a PC-style shooter, somewhat foreign to the console market at the time, but its look was controversial even within Microsoft. "Somebody did what they called a 'color palette analysis,' and they brought me this report where they showed me that [Halo's colors], compared to typical console game colors... their assertion was that we were using all the wrong colors in the game."
Instead of comparing Halo to franchises like Mario and Sonic, says Fries, "I told them to take a hike; I never showed that to Bungie."
Whether console players would want to play a hardcore, PC-style shooter was "a real question," Fries says. "Obviously, once we launched Xbox, the game started selling like crazy and became iconic for the platform. But all that happened after the fact, after a lot of naysayers said it wouldn't, or couldn't."
In fact, one peril of working at a large organization is that there are always naysayers, says Fries. He'd been accustomed to growing his small game group in his own way, and suddenly he faced the stress of sudden attention on the game group from all facets of Microsoft, and everyone had their own ideas on how the business should progress.
"It was a very stressful time for me," Fries says candidly. "I got really used to being able in charge of my world... and all of a sudden there were a lot of opinions about where we should go and what we should do," he recalls. "There were people trying to dictate based on corporate goals, and not based on what's best for a game. It got very political and frustrating for me."
At the time, not only did he miss the freedom of the game group's lower-stakes days, but his job was taking him away from home frequently at a time when he was starting a family. "I got to the end of the Xbox 1 project, and I just couldn't see myself doing it for another five years."
At that time, the design of the Xbox 360 was well underway -- Fries recalls that the decision to include a hard disk was "very controversial."
"It was hard to be that outlier in a bunch of these meetings," says Fries, who pressed for the hard drive's inclusion while many opposed the move. "Obviously they shipped versions without a hard drive, which I think is a mistake."
At the beginning of 2004, Fries realized he'd stopped having fun, and decided to retire after 18 years with Microsoft. "It was a good 18 years, and I had a really good time," he says.
Following his stint at Microsoft, Fries became involved on several startups, either as consultant or board advisor. He helped start FireAnt, which ended up being acquired by Sony Online Entertainment -- and evolved into the group currently developing The Agency. Fries is also still part-owner of Airtight Games, the studio staffed by former Crimson Skies employees that he helped start up.
Finally, as an avid World of Warcraft player, Fries got the idea to combine 3D printing with the game, and started Figureprints in December 2007. Since then, the company has sold 15,000 color-printed objects.
Figureprints remains a small organization, and as most of its team members, like Fries, have other projects, none want thecompany to grow too large. "There are other things we could do, but we only have so much bandwidth." As Figureprints only addresses about half its potential market, doing business in North America and Europe only, the company is next looking to bring Taiwan and Korea on board and perhaps add different tiers to its product offering, but is doing so at a moderate pace.
"It's been a lot of fun; I have a much more balanced life now," he says. "I don't work fulltime, but I'm still very involved in the game biz with the different startups that I'm part of." Fries' two children, aged 4 and 7, are also a major part of the picture, and he says Pokemon and LittleBigPlanet are major mainstays in his family home.
"I'm generally optimistic about the game biz in general," he says. "I'm proud of how much we've grown over the last 20, 30 years and how much we've accomplished. I'm not a naysayer; I don't look at what's going on now and say 'this is really bad.'"
He says he has no regrets about his personal career arc, either, and is content with his current position in the industry. "A lot of it is personal -- it was really fun to be part of a big organization like that, and be able to get onstage in front of thousands of people and be in the press every day."
"But once you've done it, it's like, 'um, ok that's fine -- I'm glad i did it, and there's other things that are important in my life right now.'"
"I feel like I left at the right time," he adds. "I had 18 great years, and I look at it that way. I really enjoyed what I've done since I left."