Xbox marks his spot

Once a Microsoft hater, Xbox Technology Officer Seamus Blackley now has Bill Gates' ear when it comes to game development.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
7 min read
Seamus Blackley knows all about the "evil empire."

As a game developer a few years ago at Looking Glass Studios and Dreamworks Interactive, the former nuclear physicist could sling the Microsoft rhetoric as well as anyone.

"I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft hater," Blackley recalls. "I couldn't imagine ever coming to work for Microsoft."

But his work at Dreamworks led to several meetings with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who impressed Blackley with the sincerity of his interest in innovation and growth. Before long, Blackley had accepted a job working on Microsoft's DirectX video software for PC games.

Once inside the software giant, he helped hatched the idea that would turn into the Xbox, Microsoft's high-stakes bid to create the most powerful video game console ever. When we went to Bill with it, Bill understood the premise very
clearly: You make the box for the game developers, and then they use the box
for the gamers.

"I was really blown away at the difference between the way people perceive Microsoft and what the reality is," he says. "Think about it--I was a one-month Microsoft employee, I had an idea for a game console and now, just a little over two years later, it's a multibillion-dollar product. It's unbelievable. What other company does that?"

As Xbox technology officer at Microsoft, Blackley now spends much of his time working with game developers to help ensure they get everything they need out of the powerful new console, set to hit the market this fall. He spoke with CNET News.com's David Becker at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., the same venue where Gates announced the Xbox a year ago.

How much of the final version of the Xbox is your idea?
I don't know how to answer that. I'd say the final Xbox is the result of thousands of conversations with game developers. So I'd say zero. It's entirely the industry's idea.

What we did when we started the project was recognize that now is the time you could do it, and recognize what kind of program you needed to let developers make a console for themselves. And that's what we did. It was kind of our intention not to have any input.

Does "we" include Bill Gates?
When we went to Bill with it, Bill understood the premise very clearly: You make the box for the game developers, and then they use the box for the gamers. A lot of people get confused, and they think that you're making the box for the gamer. But you don't care about the box as a gamer; you care about what it draws on your TV. What Bill understood and really supported us on was making the optimal hardware, software, business program and marketing program possible for game developers, and empowering them to sell the box for us.

So Xbox is the result of thousands of meetings with game developers and thousands of pieces of feedback they gave us. They're the ones who told us what to do. Keeping them happy means they're going to make the best games for our platform.

Was there some institutional challenge in convincing developers that Microsoft was interested in listening to their input?
Yeah, there was a tremendous cultural issue, both internally within Microsoft and then between Microsoft and the game developing community. Inside Microsoft, you have a lot of incredibly smart people who have been focusing for a long time on the problem of making a platform business based on diverse hardware using an operating system.

It's just alien to them to say: "We have fixed hardware; the value of the operating system is now zero. Do everything you can to eliminate an operating system. Your life depends entirely on how well you can get your partners to do." Now that last part we understood. Windows has done really well because we have so many people writing apps for Windows. So in a very strange way, (Xbox) was an ideal thing for Microsoft to do. Microsoft understands the platform business. It was just educating them that this is a fixed entertainment platform; it delivers entertainment, not features.

You've been very consistent in saying all along that Xbox is only about gaming. But haven't there been discussions at Microsoft about other things you could do with all this computing power?
There was a tremendous cultural issue, both internally within Microsoft
then between Microsoft and the game developing community. Sure. There are infinite things we could do with it. The reason those discussions never go very far is that another thing Microsoft is good at is understanding the customer. I know a lot of people are cynical about that, but that's a huge focus. And right now, the customers are saying, "I want a game console that plays the best games ever."

It's a really powerful computer. It can do a lot of different things. But we're not going to go out to try to convince people they want some technology. We're going to satisfy their desires. And what they want right now is an awesome game console. Once they have that console, if people start saying, "Hey, I really do want to start doing some e-mail on my game console," then we can do that better than anyone else in the world. But right now, nobody is saying that. People in our industry, guys who drive Ferraris and spend all day in expensive offices, think, "Oh, Xbox could do this and that; it could run (digital video recording technology) like TiVo. But gamers want a game console.

Yet Microsoft has dedicated a lot of resources (through its WebTV subsidiary) to trying to convince people they want to get e-mail and look at Web pages on their TV.
That's a totally different customer. With Xbox, we're making this promise to have amazing games. That's why people are going to buy it. And people get suspicious if you say, "Plus it'll do TiVo." They think maybe that's going to compromise the game experience.

The components of the Xbox are so PC-derivative. Has it been tough to convince people the software won't be a bunch of rejiggered PC games?
We went out to game developers last year and said, "Here are the hardware choices we made based on your feedback." We chose an Intel processor because it has the best tools of any processor in history, and it's extremely fast...We put in a hard drive because developers wanted that to build huge worlds and do really interesting online stuff.

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Developing games for Xbox
Seamus Blackley, Xbox technology officer, Microsoft
And then the media, without the context of those conversations, sees it has an Intel processor and a hard drive--it's a PC! It's just kind of funny. Dude, game consoles are computers. Every game console in history has been a computer. They can all run spreadsheets. It's just you'd never write one because that's not your audience.

I understand where that rumor comes from, and it's never going away until people can actually use the product and see that it's a game console and it behaves like a game console.

But a lot of developers here have been saying, "We mainly do PC games, but we're going to give Xbox a try because it's such an easy jump." How do you make sure Xbox titles aren't the same as PC games?
We just don't approve them. The deal is that console games are really different from PC games. Publishers who are going to put up $5 million or $10 million to develop a really good game are not going to try to bring a PC title to consoles. Nobody in the game industry has any illusions about a PC title moving over to a console and selling millions of units. It has to be thoroughly adapted.
"Parappa the Rapper" is a tremendous title for the console, but it would never work on the PC. With a PC, you're sitting upright at a desk with a monitor and keyboard in front of you.

And feeling like an idiot if you're trying to rap.
Right. And with a console, you're lying back on the couch with a beer and your friends are around. That's a totally different thing.

The beautiful thing about being Microsoft is that there's just
nobody on earth who can make this work but Microsoft. There have been reports of Japanese game studios not being sold on the Xbox. Will there be a strong lineup of Japanese titles when you launch there?
It's a big challenge in Japan. We're the first Western console that's really gone in there seriously and looked at the experience of 3DO and Atari. I'm not going to tell you it's not a challenge. But I will tell you we are being extremely successful in Japan. One of the reasons it doesn't appear we're being so successful is that in the West, game companies and their approach to business is way more open than it is in Japan. Microsoft has taken an extremely open approach to Xbox, which is part of the reason we have so many rumors.

So you see all this information coming out of the U.S. and Europe about Xbox and none coming out of Japan. It's not because nothing's happening. It's because if our partners don't want to talk about it, we won't talk about it. But there are some awesome titles being done there.

Is it disappointing there's not going to be any online content for the Xbox when it launches?
I am not disappointed by our online plans at all, but you're going to have to wait until the announcements (at the Tokyo Game Show later this week and the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May) to see why.

So you're confident in the decision to only support broadband connections?
Absolutely--go big or go home. Why do you do a game console? You do a game console so that every game runs on every box and everybody's happy because nothing ever breaks. It's like a toaster or a VCR--it always works. Why would you have broadband and narrowband on a console, then? You'd have all kinds of compatibility and configuration issues. It'd be craziness, absolute craziness.
The beautiful thing about being Microsoft is that there's just nobody on earth who can make this work but Microsoft. We've been there, we know all the partners; we're pushing broadband really hard in all different aspects of our business. It's going to happen, and it's going to be really exciting.