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Father of first Xbox Ed Fries optimistic about Xbox One

Fries, who was instrumental in creating Microsoft's first console, tells CNET about the "DirectX box", wooing developers, and uncertainty around "Halo".

Fries was instrumental in the launch of the first Xbox. Ed Fries

When Bill Gates announced Microsoft's plans to build a games console back in 2000, there were plenty who believed it could never be done -- that the powers of Sony, Nintendo and Sega were too powerful to compete with. Tens of millions of console sales later, however, the Xbox franchise has become a dominant force in gaming.

One man on the front lines of the console war in the Xbox's early days was former Microsoft VP of game publishing Ed Fries. A major figure in the games industry, Fries took some time to answer CNET's questions on "Halo", wooing developers and the Xbox One console today.

With the Xbox, Microsoft took a unique approach to console construction, building it using many off-the-shelf PC components, and own-brand software. This wasn't how games machines were traditionally built but, Fries explains, it was a hit with those who knew their way around Windows.

"All the PC developers we knew were excited about it," Fries says. "Nintendo and Sony had a reputation for being difficult to deal with at the time, so I think the developers appreciated having another choice."

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Fries was present at the genesis of the Xbox project. Four members of Microsoft's DirectX team built a prototype console -- dubbed the "DirectX box", later shortened to "Xbox" -- and pitched it to Fries, who recalls that the timing was opportune.

"I was thinking about how to get my PC games group into the console business when they approached me, so it was natural for me to support their effort," Fries said. "It would be the easiest way for us to get in the business. The next step was for us to convince our bosses to give us a billion dollars or two to give it a try."

Combat evolved

Hardware is one thing, but games consoles need games to survive. Space-shooter "Halo" would prove key to the success of Microsoft's first console, shifting 1 million units in just four months, and going on to become an iconic, much-loved franchise. Despite this, Fries says, the media's early response to the game was somewhat tepid.

"Halo" was crucial to the success of the first Xbox. Bungie

"We were all excited about 'Halo', but we were PC gaming guys," Fries remembers. "The press was very hard on it when we showed it to them before launch. They said it looked like a PC game, not a console game, so we really weren't sure what to expect going into launch."

Xbox One future

Fast-forward to the present day, and the Xbox One is locked in a bitter battle with Sony's PlayStation 4. Stats suggest that Microsoft's machine is trailing in terms of sales -- despite the launch of mech-mangling shooter "Titanfall" -- but when asked about the status of Microsoft today, Fries is optimistic.

"I think the Xbox One hardware is just fine," Fries commented. "I like the fact that both Sony and Microsoft have gone back to a more PC like architecture like we did with the original Xbox. I also like that every Xbox One is the same, which is important for developers. On 360, for example, you couldn't count on there being a hard disk."

"So far there aren't enough games for the system though," Fries says. "If Microsoft can bring the best first- and third-party games to the platform then they will be tough to beat. I got to play the 'Titanfall' beta the other day [our interview was conducted before the game's general release] and I think the release of that will be a huge boost to Microsoft's platform.

"Microsoft has always been ahead in system software as well," Fries noted. "Xbox Live is still the best and the new system is even better than before."

Even if Microsoft has a fight on its hands, it's remarkable to note how far the company's console has come since its debut. The original Xbox accomplished what nobody thought possible -- establishing a foothold on the mighty mountain of gaming, from which Microsoft could go on to battle Nintendo and Sony at the summit.

"I feel really lucky to have had a chance to work on games and Xbox at Microsoft," Fries said. "I'm very proud of what we accomplished and hope it continues to be successful."

For more on the original Xbox, check out our special video feature on the console's exciting origins, and let us know your Xbox memories in the comments below.