10 years of Xbox: Chris Lewis interview
Ten years ago today, Xbox launched in the US, kickstarting Microsoft's entry into the console race. Today, its path to a more or less equal footing with Sony's PlayStation seems assured, but at the time, it was anything but. But with hindsight, bold hardware specification that saw it being equipped with a network port, aggressive marketing and asute game publishing are all part of the reasons why Xbox has succeeded in ways many would never have believed in 2001.
Chris Lewis, now vice president of Microsoft's Europe, Middle East and Africa entertainment business, has worked at Microsoft for nearly 22 years, and has been involved in Xbox's rise since its start, when he ran Microsoft's consumer division in the UK. Then, Microsoft's experience with gaming was pretty much Flight Simulator and Sidewinder joysticks. We spoke to Lewis, pictured above at Xbox's UK launch, about his experience of its birth, maturation and future.
Xbox was a pretty big break with Microsoft's core business and culture – was there initially any resistance towards the project?
I don't remember huge resistance. There was a lack of understanding as to what was necessary to make a success in this business, such as the need for us to boundary the business sufficiently. For instance to boundary the brand to appeal to a new audience, which at the outset was the gaming community. The necessary brand work we had to do back then was to some extent challenging to our corporate brand work and therefore required a level of trust and empowerment for the division to do what was necessary. So I wouldn't call it resistance. I think it was just a lack of understanding and a need to quickly appreciate that some of the things we needed to do back then – and indeed ever since – to appeal to this audience have been somewhat different.
At what point did it become safe to associate Microsoft's name with Xbox?
We did very much want to appeal to the gaming community and as such the brand needed to stand very deliberately as the Xbox brand. That's not because we were ashamed of our heritage in any way, but we were coming from a standing start in an industry dominated by Sega, Nintendo and Sony, and people had a level of scepticism about our long term chances, our pedigree and our appetite for the fight. We had some experience on the PC, but Xbox was entering was a highly competitive space and we knew we had to quickly appeal to that core audience that would then talk positively about us and what was coming.
Chris Lewis today
What do you remember about the launch itself?
If I remember back to the launch [in March 2002], standing at midnight in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street, with Richard Branson and Jonathan Ross, and handing over that first console, the anticipation and excitement was enormous. I think back to that point there were a couple of things that defined us. Undoubtedly, one was what we saw as our killer app, if you'll excuse the pun, but it's what Halo represented for us back then. It became part of what is a $2 billion entertainment franchise. While we were positive about what it stood for, we had no idea it would evolve in the way it has. So that plus the work we were doing with thirdparty publishers back then was growing rapidly, particularly Ubisoft and Splinter Cell, another defining game for Xbox that really allowed us to establish the platform in a powerful way.
Would the Chris Lewis of ten years ago, in his heart of hearts, have been surprised to know how Xbox took off?
I think while we knew we wanted to stand for entertainment broadly, we were focused on the core gaming community. That said, there was an Ethernet port on the back of that box, and we had a vision for what that connected world of online gaming would mean in the future. There were a number of key individuals in the company who had that foresight to architect the Xbox with online gaming at its core. What was the Chris Lewis, who had more hair back then, thinking about? I was incredibly excited and confident in the company's appetite – we don't do things by halves.
But I also knew we had to establish ourselves quickly, because it would define how our partners would come to work with us, whether development or entertainment partners. But we were agile – we were first with many things we were proud of. So I was confident we had the appetite for it. Could I have seen us here in ten years time? No. Did I think we would have 57 million Xbox 360s out there and growing? No, I probably wouldn't have guessed we'd have that much momentum. But we were in for the long term and that it was a marathon, not a sprint.