During the last decade at Microsoft things changed dramatically at the company. Like any big change some good and some bad. One of the interesting success stories was and remains to this day the development of the xBox.
When you read what is on the internet a lot of credit was given to the developer Seamus Blackley, but having been at Microsoft at the time I think the biggest credit yet again goes to J Allard. I think most importantly what he identified was a problem in the gaming industry. At the time the big thing in the gaming industry was Sony with the Playstation. Nintendo seemed to be fading and after that there was no alternative. The problem was the gaming developer. Sony was basically dictating to game developers the terms of development for the Playstation. Microsoft (J Allard) figured that the opportunity was to make a cheaper entry point into game development and allow developers to have a platform that made it easy to take games developed for the console and port to the PC – thus creating a bigger market.
The challenge internally was going to be to sell the executives that this was a good opportunity and more importantly to make it really work Microsoft would have to build and own the gaming console, in short get into the hardware business. The one thing I will say about Billg is as much as he loves software he is not a “gamer”. However J Allard is an old school guy who has great opinions and has the ear of the senior execs. He was the guy who sold Billg on the internet, he is a guy with a lot of clout at Microsoft (check out this expose in Wired) . In the end he got everyone on board to take the plunge.
Early on at Microsoft it was clear that the xBox was something different. I do not mean this from a technical level but as a whole organization within Microsoft. They seemed to be marching to the same beat over in xBox land. They had a start-up allure that at the time was dormant at Microsoft and was being reinvigorated. Out of the gate I thought they had the name right and I thought owning the game console was the right thing to do. In hind site we were owning the experience. THere were several things xBox did and they did right:
- Brand marketing
- Understand the “gamer” and the “gamer” experience
- Look to te future and the role the internet would play in gaming
To the first point at Microsoft then and today the number one brand is Windows and the Windows Logo. Had corporate marketing been allowed to participate in having influence in the game experience I can only imagine what they would have come up with, but I am sure it would have included the Windows “Start” button. But to the good of the company and the community, xBox built its own brand. I think that was very important as it essentially separated the xBox team from the rest of the company. They were not beholden to what was already at Microsoft they were their own business. It allowed the team to start with a clean slate. That being said they would never admit to this. I was attending an internal Microsoft tech conference and one of the agenda items was “xBox keys to organizational success”. they had a GM talk and what amazed me was how he evaded questions and gave us insulting answers. THings like, “we come to work passionate and ready to work hard”. the whole time I kept thinking the answer was obvious, ” you are not the WIndows team, you have no history, no historical politics, legacy code, OEM agreements, etc..” I guess he did not want to hurt anyones feelings. Gutless.
Second it was apparent they had spent the time to understand what the “gamer” was doing when they were playing. In many instances they had music going via a iPod or other MP3 player. so they made sure to incorporate that into the experience of playing a xBox game. For the console they allowed 3rd parties to create “cool” or “funky” panels to put on the face of the console. The xBox team took time to focus on the experience. Microsoft in my view sometimes falls into the trap that they believe technology is the experience, but in reality technology enables the experience but IS NOT the experience. It’s a subtle difference in thinking but it’s very important. I think the xBox team understood this and it is a large reason for their success
Finally they did what I viewed as a very simple thing which was support online gaming. Sony was slow to pick this up, but then again that seems to be a trend with them. Remember whan talking about music players with hard drives, they felt “hard drives were interesting technology”…hello Apple. As I often say “seeing the future is easy, timing it is hard and missing it is unforgivable”. Driving traffic over a network utilizing the internet seems very obvious as it takes an “individual” experience and makes it a “community” experience. As a parent video games are best when played as a group activity and not having one kid play while 3 watch.
There would be some misses along the way as Nintendo came back from the dead by altering the playing field with the Wii. Microsoft is working hard on something that will alter the playing field once again, which is code-named “Project Natal”. Sony, well they are being Sony and falling further behind. They just do not realize it yet. My thinking all along with these new controllers is that it will extend the gaming console into new markets, namely health and fitness. It seems apparent that the game console will become the media hub for all your content. As we see technologies like IPTV (now that we have moved to Digital Cable) the carriers; telecommunications, satellite, and Cable will want partnerships with the major game console vendors (Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony)
Today xBox is a ort of nearly every ones vocabulary. It has really been one of the brightest if not the brightest success story Microsoft has had this past decade. It stated very simply as a problem was identified, but it was a problem that played to a Microsoft core strength the developer. To many of the other big initiatives at Microsoft like Bing or Zune did not start because a problem was identified and needed to be addressed, they were born more out of panic and a realization we had fallen behind. It does go to show that even in a company as big as Microsoft we could still teach a hungry start-up a thing or two. We just needed to return to our roots.
Good Night and Good Luck,
Hans Henrik Hoffmann April 15th , 2010