Microsoft postsWednesday May 22, 2013
Stories from the Birth of Xbox
In another life I was an STE (Software Test Engineer) at MGS (Microsoft Games Studio) during the early years of Xbox, testing, specifically, sports games. With the launch, yesterday, of the third generation of Xbox, Xbox One, I thought I'd share a story or two about those times.
Microsoft always seems to run its various groups like little Mom-n-Pop operations, as if they had no connection to this monstrous entity called Microsoft with its $49 billion in cash reserves. At meetings for Microsoft Games Studio (MGS), which occurred monthly in the cafeteria, I was always perplexed by the rah-rah high school atmosphere that pervaded; the sense that this organization was somehow the underdog, and, in the next big game, we were finally, finally gonna kick some ass and show the big boys what-for. I always wanted to say, “But you’re Microsoft!” Probably half the people in the room wanted to say that. Three-quarters. Everybody.
But in 2000 and 2001, in the gaming world, Microsoft was the underdog. They’d arrived late to the game, when industry leaders had already been established in hardware (Sony’s Playstation platform) and software (EA Games), and mere bluster didn’t count for much, and imitation wasn’t the sincerest form of flattery. It was a cause for litigation.
When “NFL Fever” was launched in November 2001, for example, it was immediately compared to the industry leader in football console games: EA’s “Madden NFL.” “Fever”’s graphics were better, and the gameplay, at times, was better, but in the end it was simply too similar for gamers to abandon what they’d always known. Early PC buyers were willing to abandon the Macintosh OS for the similar-looking Windows because, with IBM-compatible hardware, Windows was cheaper. “Fever” wasn’t cheaper, it was just similar. This was the Microsoft mindset. Maybe it's the mindset of most corporations. I remember testing “NFL Fever” in the summer before it launched, and for a month butting heads with the UI developer over a particular issue. The Project Manager and Game Designer always came down on his side. Then another tester told me, “Check to see how ‘Madden’ does it.” I did. They did it my way. I added this to the bug. It was fixed the next day.
In 2001, Bill Gates was just giving away Xboxes. Kidding. People waited all night to buy one for $299.
Shitty But Not Illegal: Two Tales of Microsoft
This is a story about a missing $500.
It’s also a story filled with bureaucratic inefficiencies and general corporate horribleness. Meaning it’s a story for our time.
In the mid-2000s I wrote regularly for MSNBC-Movies—nearly 100 articles between 2004 and 2008—but that work was drying up by the summer of 2008 when the editor of MSN-Movies, Dave M., with whom I’d made tangential contact, invited me to the Microsoft campus for a big meeting with writers from around the country. MSN was revamping its movies site and he wanted me to be part of it.
A few days later, I pitched an idea to him called “The Smart Knight”: How the movie “The Dark Knight,” which I’d seen at an advanced screening, was avoiding the traditional traps of the Batman character (lawman; bat signal) and thus staving off the character’s inevitable decline into camp. Dave liked the pitch and gave the go-ahead; I wrote the piece and sent it to him the day before the film opened. It was posted to MSN.com the following Monday.
Now they had to pay me, $500, and since I was not yet in their system Dave began the work to make it so. He contacted Julie D., a human resources contractor, to help with a Statement of Work, or SOW, which all vendors need to sign. Julie then asked for my vendor number from MSNBC. I gave it to her. It didn’t work.
“It seems that you are set up as a vendor for MSNBC only under company code 8000,” she wrote. “I have contacted legal to see if I can just have that transferred to Microsoft’s company code of 1010. If we can do that, then it should be an easy process—possibly a signature needed from you. If not, then I have to go through the whole vendor set up process which can take awhile.”
It took a while. Two months later, in mid-September, I contacted Julie to see where we were in this process.
“Julie is gone,” Dave wrote back. “Adding Shirley.”
“Have you invoiced?” he asked Shirley H., the new HR contractor.
“Invoiced who and how and where?” Shirley answered.
It turned out, of course, that I would have to be set up as a vendor, but Dave promised it would be painless. Then he passed me on to a group called ProHelp, which, true to groups with the word “help” in their name, wasn’t much help.
Dave to ProHelp: I entered Erik into the Vendor tool three days ago. What is the hold up?
ProHelp to Dave: Please provide the NVJ number assigned when you entered them into the vendor tool. We will then research further to determine the status of the request.
Days became weeks. I contacted Dave again about the delay.
“What’s your phone number?” he wrote back. “Need it and the SOW will be done and ready to process.”
Finally I was welcomed into the MSN family with this email:
- New Vendor Request Number NVJ1010109302 has been approved and has been sent to the candidate vendor.
- Sponsor/Requester, please follow up with the vendor for completing the application.
- Welcome: Erik Lundegaard
Attempting to input the NVJ number into the online form, however, led to this message: “The request number is invalid.”
“You need to fill out the application,” Dave told me. Meaning the two contracts they’d sent along: the SOW, which was shortish, and the general contract, which was more than 10 pages.
It was now October 3. I had already put more time into getting paid for the “Dark Knight” piece than I had in writing the “Dark Knight” piece. But at least we were nearly done.
Until I read the general contract. It included the following section. Feel free to skip. The basic gist is that in the future I couldn’t write anything about Microsoft that wasn’t already public knowledge:
Confidential Information. Confidential Information includes without limitation the following in any form: (a) the terms and conditions of the Agreement and each SOW, (b) Microsoft products, services, and their marketing or promotion, (c) Microsoft business policies and practices, (d) Microsoft customer and supplier lists, (e) information received from third parties that Microsoft is obligated to treat as confidential, (f) personal identification information, (g) transactional or sales information, and (h) intellectual property created by or on behalf of Contractor in connection with performing Work. Confidential Information does not include information or items, however designated, that: (i) are or become publicly available without Contractor's breach of an obligation owed to Microsoft; or (ii) are known or become known to Contractor from a source other than Microsoft, other than by a breach of a confidentiality obligation owed to Microsoft.
“I can’t sign this,” I wrote to Dave. “I'm writing a piece for The Believer magazine about testing Xbox at Microsoft, and signing the contract, as written, would prevent me from doing so. Any way to make the contract specific to MSN rather than Microsoft?”
Dave turned the question over to Shirley, who turned it back to me: “Erik … do you have a vendor number with your work for Xbox? If not, how are you doing work for them?”
I told her I’d done the work as a contractor from 1999 to 2003.
She seemed to understand: “Ahhh ok.”
Then she didn’t. “So Can you follow the steps on the previous e-mail I sent you? You said you had filled it out once but doesn’t appear it was received by the vendor set up folks. Do you know if someone else is trying to set you up as a vendor?”
She thought it was another procedural problem. But we were past procedural and into contractual.
After that, silence. Microsoft does not write specific contracts for someone like me. Microsoft does not negotiate with someone like me.
In November Dave M. moved on, replaced by Dave S., and by January we were no further in the process. I assumed I would never write for MSN again. But could I at least get paid for the “Dark Knight” piece?
I contacted Dave S. It took a while to get him up-to-speed, at which point he wrote: “I’m not sure if it’s better to just start over or not.”
He added this mea culpa: “Sorry for the delay in getting you paid,” he wrote. “This is truly unacceptable.”
And that was the last I heard from anyone at Microsoft.
* * *
Since then, as things have only gotten worse for freelance writers and the economy, and as I’ve seen acquaintances from that MSN meeting in the summer of 2008 gain national attention, I’ve often wondered if I made the right decision in not signing that general contract. The choice was certainly stark: write for Microsoft but never about Microsoft; or occasionally write about Microsoft but never for Microsoft. I chose the latter, which was more freeing but less lucrative. And lucre comes in handy.
I’m writing all this now because my domestic partner, Patricia, after more than 10 years at Microsoft, was fired last month. She worked hard for that company. She left early in the morning and came home late at night. She lost weekends. In July, I visited family in Minnesota but she couldn’t come; she had too much work. In August, we went camping on San Juan Island and every day I had to drive her into Friday Harbor so she could plug in and move projects forward. The Sunday before she was fired, while I went hiking in the Cascades, she worked all day on yet another project.
The reason she was fired? “Not meeting minimum performance standards.”
We saw a lawyer, of course, but he told us there wasn’t a case. The whole thing boiled down to a she said/she said, a two-year conflict with her boss. For two years, this boss had been awful to her but there was nothing discriminatory about her awfulness. She’d been awful to other employees, too, over the years, employees who were fired or who quit, but none of it was specific to gender, or race, or age. She was just awful generally.
“It’s shitty,” the lawyer told us, “but it’s not illegal.”
The firing occurred during Patricia’s annual meeting, after which Patricia was escorted to the HR office and from the building. She was not allowed to go back to her office to collect her belongings. There was no severance package and she was warned against showing prospective employers the work she’d done at Microsoft for 10 years. The work was theirs, not hers, and couldn’t be shown as something she’d created even though she created it. She was warned not to contact anyone at Microsoft but the HR rep.
Colleagues and co-workers flooded her with emails. “I’m flabbergasted...” one said. “You are very, very special, with enormous talent and such a completely cool-to-be-around personality that it will be MSL’s loss and somebody else’s gain,” another said.
The day after seeing the lawyer, Patricia’s belongings arrived from the Microsoft campus in four boxes, and, with a heavy heart, she sat on the living room floor and went through them. One of the first things she removed was her 10-year anniversary gift from Microsoft. She’d received it la few months before but had yet to open it. She did so now, and held up a heavy, green, crystal obelisk. A thick card, green and white, with an embossed “10” on the front, went with it, and inside were these words:
On your tenth anniversary, we would like to thank you for your incredible commitment to Microsoft. As a company, we are only as great as the individuals who work here. Fortunately, we have some of the very best employees anywhere. People like you. Thanks for all of your efforts over the past ten years.
To your continued success,
I’m glad I didn’t sign that general contract with Microsoft back in 2008. I didn’t get my $500. But now I can write whatever the fuck I want to about them.
Microsoft: “Why Can't We Just Hire a High School Kid and Pay Him Peanuts?”
This is a story that's both personal and political. It's personal because it's about Patricia, my Patricia. It's political because... Well, keep reading.
It's a post from illustrator Robert Neubecker on the creation of Slate, and how the look of Slate came about.
In 1995, Patricia moved from New York, where she'd lived for 20 years, and where she'd been, among other things, art director at Newsweek magazine, to Seattle, where she grew up, and where she'd just gotten a gig with MSN. Bill Gates also wanted to start an online-only magazine as well, to show that it could be done, and he'd hired Michael Kinsley to get it rolling. Kinsley moved in across the hall from Patricia, Patricia introduced herself and suggested she help on the art side. She pitched a couple of primary illustrators: Mark Stamaty, Philip Burke and Robert Neubecker. Here's Neubecker:
Patricia bought a few of these drawings and, when they were developing a look for Slate, showed them to Mike and the Slate editors. The idea was to use simple black and white drawings that could download quickly on the old, slow, dial up modems. I had newspaper experience, and had worked extensively with Patricia when she was design director at Newsweek, so she knew that I could produce on short deadlines. So far so good. But, then the Microsoft people suggested, why couldn’t we just hire a high school kid who could draw, pay him peanuts, and come up with our own cartoons?
They hired the high school kids. Of course they didn't work out and Patricia kept pushing toward the professionals. Eventually they decided on Neubecker and Stamaty, but the contracts, as Microsoft contracts are, sucked. Patricia kept pushing in this area, too. Neubecker again:
I worked all summer without a contract or a paycheck while Patricia patiently, persistently moved the contract from WFH to the normal one time usage, artist copyright, that is the ethical norm.
Eventually it worked out. Because there was a Patricia. If there wasn't a Paticia, Slate's design would've been as screwed-up as any Microsoft design. Patricia's sister-in-law, Jayne, has a phrase for when she buys something cheap and it doesn't work: “I hate getting what I paid for.” That's Microsoft. It often gets what it pays for.
(Sidenote: I'm in the midst of something similar with Microsoft. Well, “midst.” Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece for MSN on “The Dark Knight” and I haven't been paid for it yet. The contract with MSN was different than the contract for MSNBC, for which I wrote for many years. At MSN, they'd broadened the NDA, the Non-Disclosure Agreement, to such an extent that the signer couldn't write about Microsoft. Ever. So I didn't sign it, and I told them I wouldn't sign it, and there was a flurry of activity for a few days afterwards and then silence. Apparently if you don't sign their contract they have no mechanism in place for a one-time fee. So I haven't been paid. I'm sure there are others in the same boat. I'm sure there's a good class-action lawsuit waiting to happen. Maybe it's already happening. Here's hoping.)
Neubecker, a talented man, is more optimistic than I am about the way things are going for people like him: people whose value lies in the quality of the work they do; whose work can't be quantified:
There was an explosion of illustration being used online in ’99 and ’00 before the tech bubble burst. This is gradually coming back and with the advent of the I-Pad and similar devices I expect this to open up more. Long columns of grey type is always boring—even in the New Yorker, bless them. Photos all look alike after a while. I have two web illustration jobs on now, series of drawings. One of the nicest jobs I did last year was a web animation I did for a pharma company. I teamed up with Rob Donnally from Slate who made the drawings move. I expect to see much more of that as time goes on. And print, like radio, I don’t think will ever go away. They say video killed the radio star. Tell that to Howard Stern.
Except the radio star in mind was a musician, a singer, someone who raised the spirit. It wasn't what Howard Stern is. Or what Rush Limbaugh is. You can't look at what radio has become and not be saddened.
Neubecker's story is a nice story with a happy ending, but it reminds me of Michael Mann's “The Insider”: it's about a battle being won in a war that everywhere else is being lost. And there are fewer insiders like Patricia fighting for us.
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