The Making Of: Xbox

Seamus Blackley was the man who wrote a memo to Microsoft’s top executives suggesting that the company should get into the console business using proven PC components. The Xbox simply would not exist without him, and here, he tells the story of that pivotal first proposal, and what happened next.

What was in that original Xbox proposal memo you wrote?

It grew out of a report that I was writing [at Microsoft] on the performance of the much-hyped PlayStation 2, which if you remember was being called ‘the death of the PC’ and such by certain publications. I found it funny because they were comparing the performance of PS2, which at that time was still more than a year away, to the performance of the shipping PCs of the day, and of course it blew them away on a number of fronts.

But if you compared it to the chips that the ATIs and Nvidias of the world would be shipping in the PS2 launch frame, PS2 got smoked not only on a performance level but also from a useability standpoint – the tools and basic principles that PC graphics were following were much better suited to doing film-quality content.

The problem was, of course, that it doesn’t matter what the newest, highest-performance hardware is in the PC world – games have to scale to support a wide range of machines. This effectively gives the win to the dedicated console, which sucked. So it didn’t take a genius to realise that the only way to show what the technology really could do would be to make a dedicated device that would all have the highest-performance PC silicon: a Microsoft game console.

When you then realised that Microsoft was probably the only company on the planet with the resources to actually pull it off, and combined that with the talk around the Redmond campus about executives wanting to make a ‘consumer device’, your brain would snap and you’d realise that your mission in life would be to get them to do it.

What were your feelings when you originally wrote and sent the memo? Did you think it was a pie-in-the-sky scheme or were you confident?

Honestly, once we started showing people at Microsoft that a console was not only possible, but was a very exciting opportunity for the company, we began to realise that the job was not so much to push it through to completion, but rather that we had a major responsibility to ensure that it got done right. So I guess I never allowed myself to believe that it wouldn’t happen, and because of this I felt a huge to ensure that it didn’t suck – both for gamers and for the industry.

Seamus Blackley: “The biggest obstacle was not what you’d expect; it was educating Microsoft guys that games are an entertainment business, not a technology business, and doing so without making everyone hate us.”

What was the first big obstacle you encountered?

The biggest obstacle was not what you’d expect; it was educating Microsoft guys that games are an entertainment business, not a technology business, and doing so without making everyone hate us. You can’t just adapt what you do for, say, Excel, to a console, but at the same time you have to bring all the stuff that Microsoft is good at to bear on the problem. Anyone familiar with corporate politics will recognise this as a pretty damn hard challenge.

Down the line, what other hurdles did you face?

Convincing people in the industry that it was real. It seems obvious now, but think about it – ‘hi, we’re from Microsoft, me and Kevin [Bachus] here, and we’re doing a game console, honest. No, really. And it will be more powerful than PS2. Stop laughing. And it will have a hard drive. And it won’t blue screen. And it won’t get fragmented. And, oh yeah, it will have an awesome online service, with no viruses.’

Did you ever come close to quitting?

Quitting or getting fired? There was that time J [Allard] and I threw the party for the games division with the stripper nurses and the green Jell-O shots…

To be totally honest, the times I think we all felt most discouraged were also the times that we knew it was most important that we stuck it out – for example when the vision for the project looked to be straying away from ‘kick-ass console’ to scary things like ‘home media server’. It was very, very tough at times. But it was also amazing, and entertainingly bizarre.

What was the mood like among the Xbox team when you were trying to get it off the ground?

I remember going GDC in 2000, when Xbox was still literally five people, and having it really register for the first time that if we pulled it off it would affect a whole lot of people. So we were obviously very excited at the idea of making this fabulous console, but again I think it was also becoming apparent that we had a big responsibility to all these people, all our friends and peers and potential partners. But you did sort of feel like a secret agent, walking around with a giant secret.

How do you think the team was perceived by the rest of the Microsoft establishment?

It evolved on a weekly or semi-weekly basis: lunatic skateboard criminals, crazy game people, ‘old-school’ Microsoft entrepreneurs, the future of Microsoft, ‘who are these guys – call security’…

When Blackley outlined his Xbox plans to Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates at Microsoft HQ, Ballmer screamed back: “You’re going to lose a lot of money”

At what point did you realise that your idea was going to involve possibly billions of dollars of outlay, and how did that affect you?

I remember a meeting with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, in a tiny conference room in Redmond. We outlined our pathetic, early, naive business model, and Ballmer started yelling, ’You’re going to lose a lot of money!’ about an inch from my head. We got smart fast, and busted our asses to be sure of all our numbers, and sure enough after that he always supported the project.

The reason it was possible to deal with it was because there were people there who we could get help from who knew how to do business and take risk on that scale. So our problem became one that we could mostly handle – designing and shipping the best console possible.

Of the team, you were the one who dealt most with developers; what was their initial reaction to what you were planning? And how did their attitudes change over time?

It was all about keeping your promises. That simple. At first, it seemed ludicrous, even to us at times, that Microsoft was serious about the console business. But every day you’d bust your ass to accomplish what you said you would, to deliver the tools and hardware and support and contracts and eventually people would start taking you seriously. It was a monumental effort on behalf of a lot of people on the Xbox team.

How was your working relationship with Bill Gates?

Bill was one of our biggest supporters early on. A lot of people talk a lot of shit about Bill, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more straightforward, honest, powerful guy. He’s a geek’s geek, with huge business acumen, and a really genuine love of technology. And he’s got a really good, sarcastic sense of humour that astonishes people; sometimes people don’t laugh even at a pretty funny joke because they’re so blown away that it came from Bill.

A word of advice: don’t ever, ever, ever try to bullshit Bill Gates. But definitely make sure you’re around to watch when someone does!

Did you work and play together? It’s easy to imagine that you simply toiled in an office for 18 hours straight each day, slept, then started the cycle again.

Eighteen hours? That’s crazy. That’s for pussies. We had cots installed, and a contest to see who could go the longest without leaving the building. We eventually had to give it up when the board of health showed up in biohazard suits, kicked us out, and threatened to burn down the buildings.

Someday, buy me a beer and ask me about Kevin, Chanel, J, Okamoto-san (ex of Capcom) and a piece of very moist birthday cake.

J Allard’s skateboarding prowess wasn’t just for show – “he’s the real deal,” says Blackley.

Working on such a high-pressure project, presumably there must’ve been some disagreements.

You know, I’m sure it sounds cute but when you have such a hard job, and you have such a sub-culture within a giant organisation, and you’re working on something so exciting, you really don’t get a lot of serious interpersonal bullshit. However, I think that Allard is probably still pissed off about the $100 I won off of him by beating him at Robotron in front of a rolling BBC camera.

Did J Allard really skateboard around Microsoft, or was that just for the cameras?

Absolutely, he’s the real deal; he was in Transworld magazine when he was a kid. Several of us were genuine skateboarders, but the press kept on trying to call us on it by asking us to do tricks, assuming that the decks in our offices were for show. I think it’s safe to say that if there were a competition for ollie-ing in dress shoes J and I would rank pretty well.

How concerned were you about Microsoft’s corporate behemoth image when you were trying to make Xbox work, and how did that manifest itself in what you felt you needed to do?

We were hugely concerned with it, which is one of the reasons that Kevin and I spent so much time early on visiting developers and publishers all over the world. I still think it’s funny when people talk about Xbox as if it’s some extension of Microsoft’s evil plan to dominate the universe – because it was basically an idea that a small group of very non-corporate people shared that caught on and took hold in a giant company. It was genuinely built out of a love of games, and was a genuinely organic phenomenon.

When did you first take the concept to Japan, and what happened in terms of drumming up support?

Looking back, and remembering the looks on some of the faces of people who are now good friends of mine, I’d say that at first blush most Japanese industry people thought it was genuinely hilarious that Microsoft would attempt such a thing. But at the same time, it was so crazy that it was also kind of scary. And I think that phenomenon was unintentionally the thing that got our foot in the door with Japanese developers.

Incidentally, it’s pretty interesting to note that although Xbox is seriously hurting with consumers in Japan, it continues to have good support from developers there, and I think that’s the result of a very honest, if slightly puppy-like, attempt on our part to make sure that Japanese developers felt welcome on the platform. Having been on the other side of the equation when working on the Japanese consoles – getting badly translated, incorrect console documentation months after the guys in Japan – we were adamant that Xbox would not return the favour.

Which of your experiences in Japan stood out?

Kevin and I found ourselves at the Tokyo Game Show, in spring 2001, standing in ‘the Xbox booth, when Itagaki-san was starting his presentation of a very early DOA3. There we were in Japan, with Xbox banners all over the place, looking at a Japanese fighting game playing on Xbox hardware. It was too much; I thought, ‘Don’t they realise it’s all just a dumb idea we had?’ I think we both cried a bit; it all became terrifyingly real ‘at that moment.

Blackley feels the biggest mistake Microsoft made with Xbox was not appealing to Japanese players, despite concerted efforts to do so.

J Allard once said that Microsoft demonstrated the big chrome ‘X’ prototype to investors and they wanted the final machine to look just the same. What was your reaction to that?

Everyone wanted the chrome ‘X’ to be the final design at some point; everyone except me and the other guys who built them and had to keep them running! They were very impressive, sexy looking, shiny – but they had crazy prototype hardware that would overheat if you so much as looked at them wrong or thought the wrong thought, they weighed about 3,000 pounds, they were fragile as hell, and you had to polish them until your fingers bled to get them to look right. In short, it was a miracle that they worked at all.

But they did the trick. We built a lot of demo units for internal meetings largely with no budget, but the silver ‘X’ was the first one we got real approved money for, and the first one we would take outside Microsoft. We needed something to show the public that was clearly not the final design but was also super sexy – like a show car, as Kevin put it.

So we were sitting around the design department thinking of things to do when Horace drew an ‘X’ on the whiteboard and said, “I can make that from billet aluminum,” or something like that. And I said, ‘I could fit the hardware into that’ and a whole year of hell was born!

What was your standard line when someone would make the ‘It’s a bit big, isn’t it’ observation?

When Edge asked me, I think I made an obscene reference to the weight problems of the British royal family.

What mistakes do you think Microsoft made with Xbox?

Quite frankly, when I look at where Xbox is today, given that the project really only got started (funded for real) literally in early 2000, how can I say anything? There are countless things in hindsight that you could change, but look at some of the articles from 2000 and 2001, in which people talk about how Xbox was going to suck and fail, and you have to admit that many more things went right than went seriously wrong.

For me, the number one thing I’d like to have seen done differently would be a genuinely serious focus on making sure Japanese consumers would love the box, even if it meant radical changes. That, I think, is the one big ball that was dropped.

Strictly in terms of Xbox, what do you think your legacy will be?

I’d like to think that it’s something like ‘The guy who made sure that Xbox was good for the game industry’, but it’s more likely ‘That guy who promised a lot of things, some of which actually came true!’

This interview was originally published as part of an Edge special edition in October 2003.

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