Last Tuesday, IGDA Scotland hosted our 2nd ever special event at Abertay University, Dundee. Ed Fries, the “father of the Xbox” privileged our 200 or so audience with a candid talk describing his amazing industry experience from programmer beginnings at Microsoft to what he is best known for, co-founding the Xbox project. After one or two glasses of wine in the reception party we all settled in to the university’s Main Lecture Theatre ready to absorb the wisdom and inner stories that this industry giant would tell us.
Fries started his industry story like many others of his generation, by self-taught coding at a young age. After describing how his family contributed to his curiosity for programming (both Fries’ parents were engineers) Fries was also keen to point out that this coincided with a love of gaming, and he had spent many hours playing on the arcade machines of the day and early consoles like the Atari 800, all of which contributed to his first steps into the industry.
Fries’ went on to describe his early coding dabbles which started with a program that worked on a calculator to cloning popular games such as Frogger. It was these cloned games that lead to him being tracked down by a company who ended up publishing Fries’ games – all this as a teenager.
These humble beginnings from someone so regarded as Fries is a satisfying reminder to all of us in the industry that despite the difference in generations of game developers, we all seem to we have come from the same place – a place of loving games and wanting to create them.
The Microsoft Years
Fries went on to describe how after completing a Computer Science Degree he got his first in Microsoft due to a fairly casual “why not” resume which was sent to the then tiny company in their very early, unheard of years – a somehow unimaginable thing considering its dominance in the world today.
Here Fries was eventually made technical lead of Excel and gained that ever valuable experience of how to be a good manager. An indication of such in the form of his beautiful quote “If your job isn’t fun you are not doing it right”. Ok, so there may well be people in the world who disagree but we are game developers, we know how much weight this one phrase holds. Despite this very straight programmer route Fries maintained the fact that he was still playing games on the side and never strayed from his gamer roots. This was why, after 10 years at Microsoft, the opportunity came up for Fries to be promoted, and what he asked to be involved in was the games section. Now we all know the ending to this story but Fries explained that at the time no-one cared about games, so much so that he was told he would be committing “career suicide” (yes, those guys are surely eating their words right now!). But as we all know this move not only worked, but paved the way for the Xbox project. We’ve all heard of this right?
Enter the Xbox Era
As the console era started to take on a new form with the introduction of Sony’s Playstation, Fries’ explained how the Microsoft Games team started to think about their own console version, with their true ambition of having a PC in the living room. The potential for this was big both in the market and within Microsoft due to Bill Gates being – as Fries puts it – a closet gamer, so the Xbox Project (or the DirectX Box as it was known then) was launched with a pitch to be prepared for the VPs.
At this point you could have been forgiven for assuming it was all plain sailing from there but Fries next described the final Xbox greenlight pitch which is referred to as the “Valentine’s Day Massacre”. Needless to say this meeting did not go as planned, the Xbox was too far removed from the original concept of a Windows-based console that used Windows the VPS Gates et al were decidedly against the idea. Luckily for them (and us) the meeting was turned around by the end in response to the question “What about Sony?”, and the Xbox team were given the greenlight with just two years to build the console and develop 8 launch titles. Come launch day one of those 8 games was Bungie’s Halo, which obviously left a legacy and elevated the Xbox’s success at this crucial time.
So with the Xbox story complete Fries finished his talk by telling us what he is doing now and taking some Q&A from an eager audience. Currently, after nearly ten years after leaving Microsoft, Fries has started a new company FigurePrints, which focuses on 3D printing game models, particularly World of Warcraft – one of Fries’ favourite games. As well as this Fries is currently on the board for 24 companies and often acts as an advisor for game startups and the like, but it seems that Fries is also taking some well deserved recreational time to spend with his 9 and 12 year old boys (who Fries assured were also gamers) and go back to his programmer roots by dabbling in fun code projects like making Halo on the Atari 2600.
When asked about what he thought the future of games would be Fries said that “it is an incredible time to be in games… small teams can make games that are hugely successful much like in the old days”. Fries also spoke about how playing and making games is so much more accesible nowadays which is is obviously great but does make the industry so much more competitive and harder to have a success. A sentiment a room full of gamer developers could widely appreciate.
Many thanks go to Ed Fries for taking time out of his holiday to speak to us with Luke Dicken. We’d also like to thank IGDA Scotland board member Andrew Macdonald for organising the event, and his team of volunteers: Alice Rendell, Brian Beacom, Eden Morrison, Jamie Wood, Jiri Klic and Steven Taarland; in addition to Louis Natanson, Chris Wilson and their teams at Abertay University for their overwhelming support throughout. Also thanks to all of you who attended!