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Rusel DeMaria is interested in the history of games, and he doesn’t want it to slip away from us.
DeMaria wrote High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, published in 2002. And now he’s back with 800 pages of additional reading. Demaria interviewed scores of former Xbox and PC gaming veterans, and he created a history of Microsoft’s game business, dubbed Game of X.
Volume 1 is about the creation of the Xbox, which debuted in 2001, and the Xbox Live gaming service. Volume 2 is a prequel, subtitled “The long road to Xbox.” Both volumes are about the pirates at Microsoft who first created the DirectX protocol for PC games, and then the renegades who convinced Bill Gates to go into the console business with the original Xbox.
These subjects are near and dear to my own heart, as I covered them in my own book, Opening the Xbox, published in 2002. But I don’t see this as competition, and DeMaria told me in an interview that he deliberately decided not to read my book because he wanted to capture the history through his own interviews.
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And I’m sure the result is going to be very illuminating, regardless of how much the two books overlap. That’s because I interviewed 100 or so people for my book as the events were happening and shortly after the launch of the machine.
By contrast, DeMaria interviewed many of the same participants years afterward, after they had either left Microsoft or could more honestly reconstruct many of the events that happened as many as 18 years earlier. It took DeMaria four years to write the books, on a part time basis. He interviewed 94 people, some of them multiple times. When he found disputes about the facts, Demaria reported, as a journalist, the different points of view.
“I didn’t have a publisher and I couldn’t find a publisher for this,” DeMaria said. “I had 800 pages, and Amazon couldn’t accept a book that long. So I split it into two books.”
When I interviewed people in the 1999 to 2002 time frame, I felt sometimes like I wasn’t getting the full story, or that I was getting a distorted part of the truth in the making of the Xbox.
“You were writing under the auspices of Microsoft at the time, and you were hampered by that,” DeMaria said. “I was able to get things because people were free to talk about it now.”
DeMaria interviewed many of the original creators of the Xbox, including Otto Berkes, Ted Hase, Seamus Blackley, Kevin Bachus, Nat Brown, and many others. DeMaria said his purpose was to tell the story from as many perspectives as he could. He also wanted to give credit to the creators whose contributions had been overlooked. As I did in my reporting, DeMaria found the early history of the Xbox to be murky, with Berkes and Hase starting it, and then others joining in.
“So it’s kind of a Rashomon-style thing to try to piece this sort of thing together,” Bachus told DeMaria. But DeMaria did unearth a document that Berkes and Blackley wrote about “Evolution of Consumer 3D: The new home of visual computing,” which documented Microsoft’s concerns about the threat from the Sony PlayStation 2 game console to Microsoft’s core PC business. That was a key motivational document for getting Bill Gates to think about the Xbox.
Ed Fries, former head of Microsoft Game Studios, offered quotes at the top of the both volumes about how the story is the definitive history of the events.
DeMaria’s project started on a fluke. He was expanding his old book, High Score, and began writing a chapter on the Xbox for the expanded version. He spoke with Fries, who suggested he speak with Berkes and Hase. Demaria wrote a chapter and it turned out to be 40 pages. So he decided to turn it into a book.
And J Allard, former leader of the Xbox group, wrote the forward for the book. Allard left Microsoft in 2010, after leading the company through two generations of consoles, and he said he declined all requests to be interviewed by journalists. But he knew DeMaria’s passion for history and agreed to talk to him, but only after DeMaria promised he would interview a lot of people on the team, and not just Allard or a handful of people. Allard read through the draft and offered feedback.
“Thank you Rusel, not just for hunting patiently for these details and grit, but for having the courage, decency, and respect for leaving these messy details in,” Allard wrote.
Microsoft chose not to participate in the book on an official basis, but it did not hinder DeMaria from doing his interviews with current or former employees. Still, DeMaria dug out some impressive information.
I’ve browsed through the appendix as well, and noticed that Microsoft did a survey via Penn,Schoen & Berland Associates on February 22, 2000, where it was evaluating the name “X-Box” or “11-X.” It concluded that “11-X seems to make a particularly good first impression.” DeMaria also got his hands on the original spreadsheets for the projections on how much the Xbox would cost to produce and how much money it would generate. (One of the scenarios from executive Rick Thompson projected Microsoft would lost $900 million over eight years; the figure was more like $4 billion over four years).
J Allard also sent an email to a group of executives, dated February 14, 2000, weeks before the formal announcement of the Xbox. Allard wrote, “What are we after on this plan? A seat at the table. Which table? The table of players who have a shot at defining the digital entertainment platform for the home as it is shaped over the next decade.” He said he hoped Sony would go “the way of the Macintosh (proprietary, closed, too greedy) and Microsoft could go the way of Windows (open, OEM model, etc.). The goal was to reach 50 million players in five years (Microsoft actually sold 24 million in four years).
“If we believe that we cannot achieve this last goal, we should kill the Xbox project,” Allard wrote.
By year three, Allard projected that the Xbox would sell more units than the PlayStation 2. This never happened. Allard projected that the Xbox 2.0 would launch with 10 key hardware partners in year six. In fact, the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, just four years after the original, with only Microsoft as the manufacturer.
And so DeMaria tried to capture all of the screaming and yelling that happened, and the dirty tricks as well as the great moments. DeMaria starts the book at a meeting, dubbed the St. Valentines Massacre, on a Valentines Day. Bill Gates reportedly walked in to the meeting and said, “This is a fucking insult to everything I’ve done at this company.”
DeMaria’s book ends with the launch of Xbox Live in 2002.
“I stopped there because that was the story I wanted to tell,” DeMaria said.
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