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Xbox founder's shipit

Xbox founder’s award

While working on DirectX, I became friends with Ted H who was responsible for DirectX developer evangelism. His team was on the front lines with the game developer community and provided information, education, and hands-on support. Because of the team’s close relationships with game developers, they had a good sense of what the community wanted, and helped guide the evolution and prioritization of DirectX functionality.

Ted’s office was in Building 4, and at the time, the cafeteria there had a rare resource – an external food vendor called Pasta Ya Gotcha. They were a welcome change from the generic on-site institutional food fare, and Ted and I started having regular lunch meetings to discuss the state of the technology world and where things were headed. For me, it was always a toss-up between the Texas Tijuana, Tennessee Jack, and Thai Peanut entrees.

Although we were just starting work on DirectX 8, Ted and I both could squint and see the day of diminishing returns with Windows PC computer graphics. We were starting to ask “What’s next?” We had made significant strides legitimizing the PC as an entertainment-capable platform, but entertainment was not a natural destination for the PC. The PCs on the market were big and bulky, and engineered for productivity.

We were also keenly aware of the ongoing battle for supremacy in the living room between Sony, Sega, and Nintendo, with Sony in rapid ascendency. Where was Microsoft? Was it going to get into this fight, and if so, how?

At the time, Microsoft had a partnership with Sega to ship Windows CE on Sega’s platform. Sega already had their own development tools, infrastructure, and content development pipeline, though, so CE brought nothing fundamentally new or compelling for game developers. Windows CE had a very limited implementation of DirectX, so there was little incentive for a Sega developer to use anything other than Sega’s own tools. Windows CE checked the box in terms of having a Microsoft living room platform strategy, but it offered neither better economics nor higher quality of content.

DirectX was part of Microsoft’s Windows division, and Ted and I felt that Microsoft was missing an opportunity to lead with its strengths. We had a vibrant developer ecosystem, operating systems leadership, great relationships with silicon vendors, and a name-brand game API. Why not bring DirectX in the form or a platform to the living room?

With a kernel of an idea, we needed recruits. Ted brought in Kevin B from his team to help think through business models, and I drafted Seamus B, a recent PM hire for DirectX, to help plan and coordinate.

A handful of intrepid and talented developers on my team signed up to build the proof-of-concept of a Windows/DirectX-based living room device. Colin M led the effort to construct a prototype that would prove the idea: that a PC-based architecture could boot up in a few seconds and play games without input from a mouse or keyboard.

This was an all-volunteer effort, and our managers were not yet aware of what we were up to. We all had our regular jobs to do, and we didn’t want to jeopardize progress by asking for official support. We chose to stay in stealth mode knowing we could be punished with the dreaded 3.0 annual review score – or worse. But we believed we were onto something important.

Word was getting around. As we made progress, people came on board to help, advocate, and advance the cause of what Ted had named “Project Midway”. I no longer recall when my manager became aware of the effort.

At a critical point, Nat B offered to help build support in the right executive circles and to make the pitch. He was the technical assistant to the guy running Microsoft’s consumer version of Windows. I remember talking to Nat on my chunky, red Nokia on a typically horrific commute from Redmond to Seattle across the 520 floating bridge. Among other things, he was eager to have a more marketable name for our effort. At its essence, what we were proposing was a DirectX device – a box – in the living room. A DirectX box. I think it was Nat who suggested “X-box” for short.

At this point, X-box wasn’t about Microsoft building its own hardware; hardware is capital-intensive and Microsoft’s expertise was software. We thought partners could build the hardware and Microsoft would build the software ecosystem. Getting into the console hardware business was not yet a consideration.

Somehow, we got a billg meeting. We were expecting an intimate gathering in the usual windowless conference room with twelve or so chairs.  Colin wheeled in a small but sturdy cart with the prototype hardware. We passed out our printed Powerpoint slides and readied ourselves for the pitch and a lot of other people started showing up. By the time we were underway we found ourselves seated with two rows of people behind us, sitting, standing, leaning, and filling the space. Nat spoke. I went over the technical details. There was some other discussion. Colin pressed the power button. A few, anxious seconds later, he was playing a game on a TV with a game controller in his hand. Bill was convinced. There was also a very nice Powerpoint presentation about a future version of Windows CE for consoles, but it didn’t stand a chance next to a real game running on our own technology stack.

An expensive agency was later hired to come up with a real product name to replace “X-box”. They removed the hyphen, and came back with “Xbox”.

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