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.