Below is the transcript of an interview I did with Ed Fries. If you prefer to watch the videos, click the link below, which is a playlist that will take you through all of them. Otherwise, scroll down for the transcription!
If you want someone to transcribe your videos, shoot Max Shelton an email at writingmax at gmail dot com.
Matt: All right folks. I’m here with the legendary Ed Fries. The former Vice President of game publishing at Microsoft. He’s basically the guy who gave the thumbs up or down to the Xbox titles, and played a huge role in creating the Xbox. Does that sound about right? (laughs).
Ed: (Laughs) The older I get the more legendary I get. I noticed that. (laughs)
Matt: Yeah. I noticed you’re a pretty eclectic guy. I was looking on your Linkedin profile and you’re on all sorts of boards of directors.
Matt: Specific Science Center, Z2 Live, Exponential Entertainment. I even saw something about ancient Egyptian research. What’s that one about? I haven’t heard you talk about that.
Ed: Yeah. I can talk about it. You want me to talk about it now? (chuckles)
Matt: Sure. I love ancient Egypt so it might be not be quite game related, but we just have to go there, so what’s going on with that?
Ed: It’s just an area interest of mine. I started going to Egypt; I probably made my first trip almost 20 years ago, and when I was working on Xbox a guy in my group noticed that I was part of a local Egyptian society. He met with me, and said that he knew this guy named Mark Lehner who’s excavating this city of the builders of the pyramids, and would I be interested in meeting him. I said sure I would love to meet the guy. Anyway, through that relationship, I got to know Mark and visit his site in Giza at the base of the pyramids. I joined his board and have been a part of supporting his work for the last decade or so. In fact, I’m supposed to talk to him later today on the phone.
Matt: Wow, cool. Will there be any exciting discoveries made in the Egyptian research lately?
Ed: Incredibly exciting actually. Yeah, they just discovered a port in the Red Sea, and it has a set of storage bins. These are huge like and rock cut kind of tomb-like things. They haven’t been disturbed for like 4,000 years and jammed into the rocks that blocked these rooms they found papyrus of the log book of a guy who was around. He was a captain of a ship during the time of the pyramids, and he talks about bringing blocks into the harbor at Giza and all this stuff. Anyway, a bunch of it is not even published yet, but it’s very relevant to Mark’s work because he’s basically figuring out that the place he discovered at the base of the pyramids was a harbor town. Anyway, this is his theory. Anyway, very interesting stuff.
Matt: I’m guessing there’s no mention of extraterrestrials or time gates?
Ed: (laughs) No. We just stick to the facts.
Matt: All right, so I was looking into your early history, Ed, and how your dad I guess worked at Boeing. Was he an engineer there?
Ed: He was. He was an electrical engineer. Yeah.
Matt: You guys were flying remote control airplanes?
Ed: (Chuckles) Did you watch my Dice-talk? Did you watch my talk at Dice?
Matt: Oh yeah, I saw all kinds of stuff. (laughs)
Matt: It wasn’t hard to find lots of information about you.
Ed: (chuckles) I did a fun talk about my dad at Dice this year, and encouraged people to go watch it on YouTube. It’s easy to find. At the end, I talk about crashing one of his airplanes. It was sort of a dramatic moment for me.
Matt: (chuckles) I noticed you played lots of games like Space Invaders, Space Wars, Centipede at the arcades. Is that your first brush with video games or was it playing the adventure on Zork with this terminal that your mom brought home?
Ed: Yeah, I talked about my dad some now I need to talk about my mom to balance it out.
Matt: Yeah, the mom too. We could do that here, so (laughs). What was your mom’s influence?
Ed: (Laughs) She met my dad in college. They went to Bucknell University together and met in college no doubt to work here for Boeing. She was a mechanical engineer, so she worked there for a while then quit to have kids. She went back to the university. She went to the University of Washington here to get a Master’s in computer science. So, she was one of the early women to get a degree in computer science, and I definitely tagged along with her as a kid down to the University of Washington and watched her submit her batch jobs on punch cards. Between the two of them, they were always bringing me technology home. Dad would always bring home programmable calculators.
Matt: Yeah, I noticed that you have a collection of those, right?
Ed: Yeah, I do. There’s something called an HP-65 that was an early programmable calculator that was ridiculously expensive, and you had to be like someone at Boeing to afford it, but he could bring it home some nights. It had a little mag tape you could put in and store a couple hundred bytes of instructions on it. That was one of the first things I programmed. I made a little black jack program for that machine. Mom would bring home a printing terminal and we would…
Matt: This is for those people who don’t know what that means… I feel like I know what it means, but…
Matt: Can you describe what it was like playing these games on a printing terminal?
Ed: So a printing terminal has no screen. Screens were big, expensive, and heavy. It’s just a printer and a keyboard. Anything you would type on a keyboard it would print character by character just like you were typing on a typewriter. (Laughs) Do I have to explain what a typewriter is?
Matt: Nah, we’ll give them the benefit of a doubt.
Ed: So this thing basically looked like a printer with a keyboard attached and there was a big phone cradle. So you would dial up the computer and you would here the tone and you would stick the phone in the cradle, and it would connect through a modem. Then, you’re basically talking to a main frame computer, and yeah you would just type. Games like Zork, the original text adventures, were great in that sort of situation. You would type what you wanted and it would print out the next few lines. What was great at the end is that you had this great huge pile of paper on the floor. You could go back and relive your experience, you know? Because it was all documented there for you.
Matt: Oh wow. Just imagine it printing out that line about not understanding your input about 10 billion times.
Ed: (laughs) Yeah, lots of times. Exactly, lost in a maze of twisty little passages all alike over and over again.
Matt: I noticed that I was really happy. I was looking at your earlier interviews and I saw one that said that one of your favorite games of all times was M.U.L.E. It’s also one of my favorites.
Ed: Yeah, I did.
Matt: I played that. It seems like a lot of our personal stories are the same. With that one I played that all the time with my mom and dad too. It sounds like you played it the same way with your family, and now you’re passing it on to your kids, right?
Ed: Yeah, you know back then I couldn’t get my brother or sister to play. I had to play with a couple of friends.
Ed: We liked to play with three people and one mechtron or one AI player. That was because the mechtrons were dumb and would mine all of the smith ore that we needed and we could battle for the crystites. We had many many long late night fun games. It’s, you know, created by the famous designer Dan Bunten, and definitely one of the best game designers of all time, in my opinion and one of the best games of all time. It’s a game that doesn’t really exist today. There isn’t a modern equivalent of M.U.L.E. People have tried to make modern copies and it never works out, so I don’t know. Great game as you know.
Matt: Yes, it’s one of those games where it’s kind of hard to pin point what it is that makes it so good. I mean it’s got a really fun multi-player but to me there’s also an aesthetic, a humor to it, that I just haven’t seen in anything else.
Ed: I think there’s also a really nice balance of skill and randomness that really adds to the game play. Skill matters but still random things can happen and screw you up. It’s nice to remember that when you’re making games but you want some amount of randomness. It’s true in card games, for example. Skill matters but it’s also the way the cards fall too. That combination of those two things, I think, adds to the fun.
Matt: So is this correct? Was your first game a Frogger clone called Froggy?
Ed: (Laughs) That was the first game I did that got published.
Matt: Is that still around?
Ed: Yeah, yeah. You can go to Atarimania.com. It’s got all my old stuff up there. So the deal was when I was going into high school the first personal computers were starting to come out the TRS-80, Apple II, the Commodore Pet. We had Apple II’s at our school. They bought Apple II’s right as I was going into high school, which was great because they were the best machines you could get at that time. I started to program those in BASIC, and then one Christmas…It must have been the Christmas of 81 or so…under the Christmas tree there was an Atari 8800. At first I was disappointed because I wanted an Apple II, right? That’s what I had been working on at school, but the more I found out about the machine the more I fell in love with it. It was a much better machine for video games. I probably pissed off some of your Apple II fans with that. I mean it had built in sprites and…
Ed: and it had actual colors not just a purple and a blue that you could just get by lighting every other pixel on the Apple II. Anyway that’s when I realized that I was going to be a programmer, and I fell in love with programming. But I really didn’t know what to write. I really didn’t know what kind of games I wanted to make, so I started imitating games I saw in the arcade. One of the first things I did was a clone of Space Wars, so I did a version of Space Wars. I needed a square root routine to do the gravity around the sun. I needed an assemble language square root routine, and there was no internet back then. How did you find something like that? I went to the library and looked up in the card catalog and somehow found a magazine with an article about a 6502 square root routine in which was written by this guy named Woz. (chuckles) That Woz.
Ed: Anyway, that was one of the first assembly language games I did. I did Froggy after that. With Froggy I did like I had done with everything I had done up until that point I had did for fun. Again, there was no internet there was no way for it to get around. I was just doing it for myself and for friends, but somebody put it on a bulletin board. You know how there were these bulletin boards all around the country, and you had to dial into them. Only one person could be connected at a time typically. People could upload…
Matt: High speed 300 baud modem?
Ed: (chuckles) Maybe 1200 by then, but yeah. 1200 was annoying because it was faster than you could read, you know? 300 you could keep up with. But anyway, so it just made its way around the country, and I was in high school doing this stuff for fun and working at a pizza place at night to make some money. One day these guys showed up from a California company called Ramoks. They had tracked me down just based on my name on that game.
Ed: Somehow they got the right Eddy Fries in the country. I don’t know how because I wasn’t old enough to be in the phone book. Somehow they found me.
Matt: So we need you to come and sit inside this limo, huh? (chuckles) So it must have be a little bit scary, huh?
Ed: It was exciting. Yeah, I mean somebody was willing to pay me for something that I was doing for fun. It’s a good thing. So, I agreed to modify that game. They were afraid we were going to get sued.
Matt: Yeah, Frogger, Froggy, eh, it’s just coincidence, right?
Ed: (chuckles) It was an exact clone of Frogger. So we made this game…I got it right here. I don’t know if you can see that.
Matt: Princess and Frog
Ed: Princess to Frog. So their idea was to change the…um…that’s really small for you…change the cars into joisting knights and make it kind of a medieval theme.
Matt: Oh clever.
Ed: They were still a frog and you still crossed a road and you still had a river with crocodiles everything else was basically the same instead the cars became joisting knights. And then on the other side instead of jumping on a fly there was a princess like you were a frog kissing a princess and then you became a prince. But I couldn’t draw a princess, so I just drew a big pair of lips.
Ed: And you just jump on the pair of lips. Anyway, that was Princess and Frog, so I did that game.
Matt: So that’s how you made your first million?
Ed: Yeah, right. Not a million, but I made enough to help pay for going to college. I was going to college by then. In 1982, I graduated high school and went to college. I did that game and I did two more games for them: a game called Anteater and a game called SeaChase and I was working on a fourth game. It was 1984 and then all of the sudden the calls stopped coming, and they were just gone. I was going to a little college in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, so I really didn’t know what was going on. But what was going on as you know the meltdown of the entire video game industry in 1984, so that was the end of my first career in the video game business.
Matt: I was reading about how you learned how to program. You mentioned the magazine that you found. But I seem to also remember you saying that you used to type in lots of games from…you know the computer magazines back then had the source code you could just type in.
Matt: I remember you could have the same memory….you could type in all this stuff and if you had one character off…(chuckles).
Ed: You can talk to just about anybody from my era and we all did that. You know these magazines like Antic, Creative Computing would come out, and they would have games in them. And you would type them in and hopefully some of it would rub off on you. You know you would hope to learn how a game was structured, you know, how to build a decent game. But it was super tedious and easy to make mistakes. I actually wrote a program to help me write in the programs, so I could hit a single letter to type out a whole BASIC keyword, and that made it a little fast for me to type then….(chuckles), but I’m not sure that it helped that much. But it did give me another program to write. I wrote lots of little games in BASIC before I started programming in Assembly language. I wrote the card game Gin. I wrote a robot combat game that me and my friends had a lot of fun with where you would program little robots and they would go around and battle. The robots would have their own Assembly language that you could program them in. Anyway, just whatever I could think of to program.
Matt: This was all for the Atari 800?
Ed: All on the Atari, yeah.
Matt: Wow. So you got your money’s worth out of that.
Ed: (chuckles) Yeah. That was pretty much high school for me. I was in the basement having fun.
Matt: Why did you end up at Microsoft? Was it 1986?
Ed: Yeah, I was a first there in 1985. So, after the video game business melted down, so the summer of ’84 I came home to look for a summer job. I got a job at a little company called StarCom working on this database program called Files and Folders. But when I went around that summer to interview for jobs everybody I talked to asked if I was also interviewing at Microsoft. I hadn’t really thought about Microsoft. I knew they made a mouse and BASIC, but that pretty much all I knew about the company at the time. It was a pretty small company. But there in my hometown…I grew up in Bellview Washington, which is right next to Redmond Washington. Anyway, so the next summer I sent a resume to Microsoft, and apparently they liked my resume because they flew me up for Spring break, which is exciting for a kid. I got to fly up for Spring break and interview, long interview, and anyway they offered me a job. And so the summer of ’85 I worked as an intern. That was the year before the company went public. There were about 800 people in the company at that time, and I worked in a group called the User’s Assistance Group. The CBT group, the computer based training group, working on tutorials teaching people how to use Microsoft products.
Matt: Even then you were trying to find subtle ways to work in some gaming and humor and stuff.
Ed: (laughs) You did your homework, man. Yeah, well by then I had a history in games. I didn’t program games; I loved playing games. I played games all the time. But yeah, I was working one day and the artist in the group that worked in would build…we built tutorials for things like Microsoft Multi-Plan, which was Microsoft’s first spreadsheet. The tutorials were character based because the applications were character based. They would make things out of slashes and asterisks and stuff like that. They would make whole scenes. One day one of the artists walked into my office and said she was making a dentist’s office. Every dentist office has a fish tank, and she wanted to have a fish tank in the office and I could make it where the little fish swam in a tank on the screen, which was not a capability of the system at that time. I said sure I can do that, so I added this little animation system. The artist were really fun to work with because they were not technical, so everything I did was like magic to them. I was like this wizard, you know? (chuckles) Down the hall from them who could make things happen. They thought I did things pretty fast, so they started calling me Fast Eddy.
Matt: Fast Eddy.
Ed: Fortunately, it was a nickname that didn’t stick. Anyway, so this artist Janet Volgenzang said can you make a way to animate this fish, so I said sure and I said also if you give me more fish, bigger fish, I have this other idea I want to do. And so she made some bigger fish, and I wrote a separate program that made fish swim back and forth on the screen. I didn’t really think anything of it. I just did it one day for fun. I started to go home at night and I started to see it running more and more on people’s screens at night, and people started using it as a screen saver. I mean it must have been one of the first screen savers, which was not my intention at all. I was just making some fish swim on the screen. That ended up creating this whole other branch in my life where I ended up making a Windows version of fish and a Macintosh version of fish. I and this other guy started up a little shareware company where we sold these little fish screen savers. We did the fish screen saver that was in the Berkley systems’ After Dark the thing with the flying toasters and all that.
Matt: My grandmother is going to be so happy that I talked to you because we got her a new computer and the first thing she wanted the fish screensaver. Somehow you can still buy this separate in the box from the…
Ed: Right, right.
Matt: She loves it.
Ed: One other way I influenced the world. (laughs) In a positive way, I guess. So anyway, I finished my internship in 1985. I had a pretty good reputation in the company, so they offered me a full time job when I graduated the next year. They called me up and couldn’t decide what project to put me on. Either, they were going to put me on an old project or a new project, and that’s all they said: an old one or a new one. I said, well, the new one sounds good.
Matt: (chuckles) New is good, right?
Ed: They called me back a few weeks later and said it doesn’t look like we’re going to have room for you on the new one, so we’re going to put you on the old one instead.
Matt: It wasn’t Microsoft Bob was it?
Ed: No, that was actually done with my twin sister, but that’s a whole other story.
Matt: Oh. You had a twin sister working at Microsoft at the same time?
Ed: I’ll tell that story in a sec. Let me tell this one…
Ed: And I’ll tell you how my sister, brother, and mother all ended up working at the company. So anyway, they call me back a few weeks later and they say we couldn’t put you on the new one so we’re putting you on the old one. Well, the new one turned out to be Microsoft Works which turned out to be sort of a cut down productivity thing, and the old one was Microsoft Excel, which actually was a much more exciting project to work on. It was old because a Macintosh version had been released and we were working on the first version for Windows, so I became the seventh programmer working on the first version of Excel for Windows. That was the start of my career working at Microsoft: a really great project to be working on. So should we take a detour about my family at Microsoft?
Matt: Sure. I didn’t even know you had a twin sister.
Ed: Yeah, I try to keep it quiet. (chuckles) So, growing up I have a brother who is just 14 months older than me and then I have a twin sister. We were all really close in age, and I grew up in a really technical family like I talked about. My mother was a mechanical engineer/computer engineer, and my dad was an electrical engineer. My brother got a degree in electrical engineering like my dad, and I got a degree in computer science like my mom. My sister was always the black sheep. She was never the technical one; she never wanted to be a technical person and she was a cheerleader in high school that kind of thing. So I went out to get my computer science degree and my brother went out to get his electrical engineering degree. She went off to the University of Washington to get a degree in Business Psychology, okay? Nothing to do with technology. I’m the only programmer in the family. I get a job at Microsoft and it’s just so nice because when you have family that’s so close to you in age all through high school it’s like, “Oh so you’re Karen’s brother.” Or, “Oh you’re Bob’s brother.” Whatever, no I’m me. (chuckle) You know? It gets annoying after a while especially when you’re a twin. Anyway, it was so nice to be off at my own company creating my own sort of future. My sister graduated a year after I did because she got two degrees: one in business and one in psychology. She wanted to be a recruiter, and she was immediately hired by Microsoft as a campus recruiter. So my sister’s at my company even though she has nothing to do with programming.
Matt: Oh no.
Ed: It was so bad. I come in one day and name plate….one of the great things about working at Microsoft was that everyone got their own private office with a door that shut, with your name on the door, and I come to work one day my name plate changes from Ed Fries to Karen’s brother.
Matt: (Laughs) No way.
Ed: Totally got me.
Matt: (Laughs) Man, who did that? Must have been a lot pranksters there at Microsoft.
Ed: Oh many pranks. I could talk about pranks an hour, but, anyway, they loved to do pranks on me for whatever reason, but…
Matt: I think I’ll redo the intro and introduce you as Karen’s brother. (Laughs)
Ed: (Laughs) Please don’t. Please don’t. So anyway, Karen had an interesting career. She started in recruiting and from there went into marketing and then she moved from marketing to program management. She worked on a product called Publisher with Melinda who became Melinda Gates, so she’s close with the Gates. And when she was on Publisher she invented the Wizard interface. So the funny thing about her not being a technical person, she was always saying we need to make this stuff easier to use inventing stuff for real people to use instead of programming geeks like me. After that project she went on to work on a project called Bob, which was supposed to be the operating system for everyone, you know? The thing that was supposed to be created not by programmers but by real people. Well, that didn’t really work out. (laughs)
Matt: Dot, dot, dot. (laughs)
Ed: That’s sort of a dark chapter in our family’s history, but anyway then she went from there to work on research. She developed a bunch of search technology for Microsoft. She’s actually the person responsible for Clippy, the little paper clip which was also…
Matt: And you never let her forget it. (chuckles)
Ed: (laughs) Yeah.
Matt: I was wondering if you had anything to do with Clippy?
Ed: We get along pretty well. Meanwhile, my brother went to work for the same company as my mom: Digital Equipment Corporation. They’re DEC, and he was working as an electrical engineer for DEC. So, there’s a guy over there named Dave Cutler. Dave is a famous famous operating designer for Digital for many many years, and he’s running this research group out here in Seattle. For whatever reason he gets fed up with DEC and decides to defect and comes over to Microsoft, so he ends up coming over to Microsoft and developing Windows NT, which is the basis for the modern version of Windows. When he came over he brought about 30 people with him and my brother was one of them. So, by the end of 1988 my twin sister and brother are all working at the same company as me. I worked there until 2004. My sister quit in about 2008, and my brother still works there today. So that’s the Frieses at Microsoft. Later on my mom retired from DEC and went to work for a technical writing company and they farmed her out to Microsoft too, so for a short period of time 4 of the 5 Frieses were at Microsoft. It was good times.
Matt: I’m kind of curious about all these Easter eggs. They always get brought up. You know with Excel and the fireworks, the pinball, I guess, and flight sim. But there was one in this interview and they didn’t ask you about this but you said that you created the Easter egg that was based on a dream.
Matt: Okay, I kind of want to follow that up, so what was this dream and what was the Easter egg in question?
Ed: The short version of my time on Excel was that I was the youngest programmer on the team, the first person on Windows Excel 2.0. There were about seven of us. The group grew to about 16 and we did the next version of Excel, and then the group grew to about 50. By then I was the lead programmer technically. Anyway we were battling Lotus 123. Lotus as a company was bigger than all of Microsoft. Lotus 123 was the most popular piece of microcomputer software in the world, and there was a small team of us trying to beat them. Microsoft was smaller than Lotus, so it was a big battle, an important battle. They were just our enemy. We were totally focused on Lotus and beating Lotus. So one day I had a dream there was a box of 123 and it started shaking and it broke apart and bugs crawled all out of it. It was crawling all over with bugs, so that became one of the Easter eggs in one of the versions of Excel was recreating that dream as a little animated sequence in Excel.
Matt: Wow. The story has been told.
Ed: (laughs) Yeah, the story has been told.
Matt: I saw you describe this time as like an Ender’s Game experience. I’m thinking you did have the three siblings, but you were the…
Ed: It’s not totally fair. I did that kind of for fun because I wanted to frame the entire thing…
Matt: Thought you were creating a spreadsheet but actually you were creating a weapon of mass destruction?
Ed: It was actually a really great time in my life. I worked with some incredibly smart people, learned so much about programming, and we had a lot of fun too. You know every time I went on vacation they would have trashed my office in some way. And the first one, which you can find on the internet if you look really hard, because I was pretty known for the fish stuff back then they covered my entire floor with Dixie cups filled with water and they made a giant fish with food coloring. They used the paper cups and not the plastic cups, and so it leaked and it stained my whole carpet in my office. But it made this kind of a cool fish pattern, so it was kind of okay. (chuckles)
Ed: But also back then… This is getting to be all old days stories, sorry about that, but I started to…When you’re a programmer you have a lot of spare time especially back then because you would make some changes and you would compile and it would take like ten minutes before you could test. That’s why programmers in general know how to juggle. We used to pick locks. I could pick a lock pretty well. It was just anything to keep yourself busy waiting for those ten minutes. I was always a struggling golfer, so one of the things I did was bring in a little plastic hole, golf balls, and a putter in and I would practice putting, and we would work late. Late one night I was out practicing putting, and one of the guys said, “Why don’t you try to go all the way around the hall?” I said, “What do you mean?” We were in these big “X” shaped buildings, so they were like this and like this. And the “X” was really long. You would see these offices disappearing into the distance. So he was like, “Instead of putting this way what if you putt that way and go all the way around and back to the beginning?” I was like, “Uh, I don’t know. Is that even possible?” So I took the putter back and swung as hard as I could and then hit it way down the hall. And we wondered what was the shortest amount of strokes you could do that in, and it turns out to be five if you hit it very well. Anyway, it started really informally then people started to show up and wanted to play, and rules developed around it and it became this event called Swing Around the Wing. Within about a year it became this thing where every Friday night I had to organize tee times. I’d get about 50 or 60 people showing up, and I would send them out in groups of 6-10. Once one group was down around the corner I would send out the next group, and we would play golf for a couple of hours in the hallway. You know, you had to play the ball where it lied. It would roll under people’s desks or under people’s chairs or down the stairs and then you had to hit it into the elevator and come back up. Anyway, it was a big event. We started with a tiny little trophy that was a Gumby. It was this big. Whoever won that week got the Gumby, but then they had to add something to it for the next week, so pretty soon it grew into this massive trophy called the Gumbopolus.
Matt: (laughs) The Gumbopolus?
Ed: Yeah, it had blinking lights and stuff stuck all over it. People from all over the company played. Anyway, we had some many great stories from that time, but that’s a whole other chapter: Playing Golf in the Hallways.
Matt: Yeah, that sounds fascinating to me. When you talk about Microsoft, I guess most people probably think about this really boring Office Space type world, but I guess in reality everybody is joking, having a good time, and playing golf. Do you know Becky “Burger” Heineman?
Ed: I do, yes?
Matt: I had her on and she was talking about this M&M tradition they have there.
Ed: Oh, I don’t know what that is.
Matt: Something about on your birthday you bring in so many pounds of M&M’s for every how many years you’ve worked at Microsoft.
Ed: Oh that’s going to be a different group.
Matt: So I guess each group had their own different traditions.
Ed: The thing about Microsoft back then was…I don’t know. Maybe it was kind of like Google today…I mean…it was very much a rebellious culture. For us the big boring company was IBM. You know? Those were the ones we made fun of and didn’t want to be. We were the young punk hacker kids making cool stuff, so kind of different that today’s image of the company. But, lots of good times.
Matt: Alright, so I guess you were doing pretty well with Excel working on that project, but then you decided to move into games, and at the time it seems like you were… You wanted to do it but at the same time you were a little worried…
Ed: So I worked on Excel for five years. I had a great boss by the name of Chris Peters, and then he went over to run Word. We had pretty much won the battle with Lotus 123. We were now leading them, but we were still getting really beat on Word Processors by a company called Word Perfect, and so since Chris had success in winning this battle with Excel they promoted him over Word. He immediately had a fight with the development manager on Word and then the development manager quit, and he asked me if I would come over and be development manager for Word, which was the next step up for me from technical lead. It meant I was managing a team of 60 people working for a boss I really liked, so I agreed and went over to Word. I worked on Word for another five years battling Word Perfect, and we battled with Perfect and beat them. By then Office was a pretty established thing. Then they came to me and said the next thing you need to do is run a business.
Matt: (Annoyingly smug IPhone ringtone. You know the one EVERYONE has) Geez, I thought…
Ed: (laughs) I’ll let you get that. I’m glad that was you and not me.
Matt: Yeah, I never get calls; of course, I try to do an interview and suddenly I’m Mr. Popularity.
Ed: (chuckles) Anyway, so they said you should run a business, but wasn’t sure what business I should run. They suggested some, but there were only two things I liked to do: I liked programming and I liked video games. I mean I would go home at night and play all the latest games, right? So it turned out at that same time that the head of Microsoft’s kind of start fledgling game business, which was pretty small it had Flight Simulator and not much else, had just left the company, and so there was an opening. I said, “Hey, I want to go run this business.” If I’m going to run a business why not do it in an area I have history and a passion for, you know? I immediately got hauled into a number of vice president offices, and they told me I was committing career suicide, and why would you leave Office: one of the most important parts of the company to go work on something nobody cares about. They told me stuff like that.
Ed: But I ignored them and put my foot down and said that this was what I really wanted to do, and they sighed and rolled their eyes and said, “Fine. Go ahead and do your game thing. Destroy your career. We don’t care.” And so I went off to build Microsoft’s game business, and it was really nice because nobody did care. It was like my island in this big company which was getting more and more bureaucratic at that time, bigger and more bureaucratic, and I was off with a small team doing something without a lot of interference. Flight Simulator was making money, and as long as my group was making money nobody cared what my group was doing, and so we just started signing more games. We teamed up with a little company called Ensemble Studios out of Dallas Texas to publish their first game called Age of Empires. I was a big Dune 2 and a Command and Conquer fan and so to work on a real time strategy game I was excited about Age of Empires came out and it was a big big hit for us. That brought more money into the group. Using that money started to grow the group more, started to do acquisitions, to buy a company called Fasa Interactive, Jordan Weisman, an old friend of mine, brought him out.
Matt: Mech Warrior.
Ed: Mech Warrior, Crimson Skies, and many other things, and just kept growing the group. Grew it up to 300 people, 400 people. Started doing pretty well in the PC gaming space, and then one day these Direct X guys walked into my office, and that was the start of a whole new chapter so.
Matt: Yeah, I know where you’re going with that. I want to just hold that thought for a second though.
Ed: You bet.
Matt: A couple of other things about this period I thought was interesting. One thing was that you almost published Everquest. (laughs)
Ed: Yeah, that’s true. Come very close to publishing Everquest. Came close to buying Blizzard twice. I was a huge Blizzard fan. Yeah, John Smedly, an old friend…
Matt: Yeah, I’ve interviewed him before.
Ed: Yes, I was a big Everquest player. Brad McQuaid, again another old friend, the producer of Everquest, played it from very early on. Because they were a part of Sony they didn’t have a way to put out a PC version of this game. They didn’t have their own PC distribution, and so they basically needed a PC publisher, and I was happy to do it. I was a big fan of the game, and a fan of these guys. This was before the console wars started, so it wasn’t as controversial as it sounds. But in the end, Sony Corporate stopped it if I remember right. That’s why we didn’t end up going forward with it, but we were very willing to put out that game.
Matt: Another little tidbit from this era that I thought was funny, and it’s kind of revealing, I think. You were talking about how you had these 3 games and that’s where all the hype and excitement was, but in actuality all the best seller was from a game called Zoo Tycoon. (laughs)
Matt: It seems to be the case a lot of the time. What did you think was going on there?
Ed: There was a time when 3D accelerators were coming out, and the idea of doing stuff in 3D graphics, which today we take for granted, back then it was the revolution. Yeah, and when this team came to me and said they wanted to make this zoo game, the Zoo Tycoon game, it was going to be 2D. I just didn’t get it, but it was some really good people, people who had worked for me a really long time. I told them all my concerns, but it was like, “I don’t believe it’s going to work, but I like you guys and I trust you guys, you know, mostly.” (chuckles) “I’m going to give you some room. Go off and build this game and see what happens, but know going in that I’m skeptical.” That was basically my attitude, and they just totally blew me away. I mean, it wasn’t our best selling game, but it was very good selling game, very profitable game for us. Yeah, and I think taught me a lesson too, you know, about chasing trends in the video game business. Right now people are super excited about VR. I don’t know.
Matt: Oh yeah, I see that you’re kind of skeptical.
Matt: Occulus Rift and all.
Ed: I mean, you know. Played a lot of games in my time as have you, and I mean game play is what ultimately matters not graphics. If people could learn anything from Minecraft, you know, here’s a game that’s written in Java, which no self-respecting game would be at that time, and it has 16 pixel textures and blah, blah, blah. Anyway, it just shows that it’s all about gameplay.
Matt: It blends really nicely with the story you tell about the Xbox and the Direct X guys, but the hardware to get the hype going, you know, they talk about how innovative it is, and graphics and high speed this, you know and polygon counts this, but really it’s not going to sell the system, right?
Ed: Yeah, that’s right, I mean… I don’t know. Anytime in business, it takes some luck and some skill. You’ve got to build a good product and you’ve got to be in the right place and the right time and then it takes some luck to really be successful, especially if you’re the underdog and you’re trying to unseat some people who have been there a long time, and I’ve been in a bunch of battles like that: Excel vs. Lotus 123, Word vs WordPerfect, and now Microsoft vs Sony and Nintendo and video games. An intimidating challenge probably. Yeah, but for me the luck was when my phone rang and it was a guy named Peter Tamte, who I knew from the game business, calling me to say that Bungi was going out of business, and they were a struggling mostly Macintosh game developer, and they just couldn’t make it on their own anymore. That was a time when a lot of companies were like that. We had acquired access software out of Salt Lake the makers of the Linx golf series and a bunch of other games. A similar situation where they had been self-publishing and it had just become an era where developers couldn’t self-publish anymore. Anyway, yeah, so great Xbox had just been approved and now here’s a developer that I have a lot of respect for who’s developing this new first person shooter called Halo, and I desperately need something like that in my portfolio. It was a tricky deal to put together because Take 2 already owned a third of the company, so I had to get on the phone with Ryan Brant, who was the head of Take 2 at that time, and negotiate to kind of split up the company. Basically, all I said was that all I want is Halo and the development team, and you can have everything else, which at the time there was a lot of everything else. There was a whole back catalog of products they had made in the past. There was game called Oni that they were developing with a separate team down in California, and so we…
Matt: So you guys can have Oni. We just want Halo. (laughs). So you must have known that right away that this was going to be this huge thing.
Ed: Which in retrospect it sounds smart, but at the time it’s not at all clear what’s going to happen.
Ed: So we agreed to finish Oni for them, which we did, and then move part of the Bungi team in Chicago out to Seattle, and the other part from California up to Seattle to focus on making Halo. They had to build that game basically in two years, and they did a phenomenal job.
Matt: I’m pretty sure there are some viewers who have heard of Halo and played it. (chuckles).
Ed: Yeah, and I think without that game I’m pretty sure it would be different story about what would have happened to the Xbox.
Matt: Do you think it would be fair to say that without Halo there would be no Xbox today?
Ed: Yeah, I think that there would probably not be an Xbox 360, which would mean there would not be Halo or an Xbox today. I think that’s right.
Matt: Let’s back up a little bit here because I wanted to get the story about these guys coming to your office with this Direct Xbox. So could you talk a little bit about that? And also I’m curious because I’ve read that there was a lot of opposition at Microsoft the whole idea of the game console. You know, Apple had tried coming out…what was it: the Pippen?
Matt: A couple of other companies had tried it, and it hadn’t worked out too well. Sony, Microsoft, big competition. What was…could you walk us through that story?
Ed: I was just in Scotland and I had just spent two hours telling these old stories.
Matt: Oh just some highlights.
Matt: Just the juicy parts that you left out.
Ed: Yeah, the idea originated from the Direct X team. There’s a handful of people that get credit for it. They came up with the idea of this Direct Xbox or Xbox for short. They came to me because I ran Microsoft’s game division. If they needed games for this device they needed me but there was also this big political battle brewing within the company. There was this whole separate team that also wanted to build a game console at this time, and they were a bunch of ex 3DO people that the company had acquired through Hotmail when Microsoft bought Hotmail. They had come in that way, and they had been involved with Windows CE on the Dreamcast, which probably your viewers understand.
Ed: The Dreamcast there was a way to reboot it in Windows Mode, which I don’t know why anyone ever would but those guys after that project wanted to go on and build a game console. So there were two parts within the company; two teams that wanted to build this, and both teams rallied their vice presidents and had a big battle in typical Microsoft style. I teamed up with the Direct X people, the Xbox people, and some other vice presidents teamed up with the other group and we had a battle all the way up to Bill. And Bill had to choose and he chose our project, so their project was canceled. And the main reason he chose our project was because what we were proposing was a PC running windows, and it was literally going to be a PC running Windows at that time. The other guys were basically building another Playstation 1. So it was custom hardware custom OS all that stuff. So we won the battle, and then, you know, their project got blown up and some of them came to work for us, but we spent the next year trying to understand what it really meant to be in the console business, and we learned that they actually knew a lot more about it that we did. Slowly, our project shifted to look more like what they were building less like what we had originally planned, so we dropped Windows most notably, but it was still a PC-like architecture, but it had some differences, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, so all of that culminated in a meeting called the Valentine’s Day Massacre, which I’ve talked about many times in the past and you can go see a video or whatever, but the short version is that it was the final meeting and it was held on Valentine’s Day. It was the final meeting to approve the Xbox. It was held in February of 2000, so less than two years before the launch of the console. We all met in the big board room, Bill, Steve, and everybody, and Bill walked in and he was really mad about our plan because he found out that it didn’t run Windows, which was the whole reason a year ago he had sided with us and blown up this other team. So he yelled at us and Ballmer yelled at us about how much money we were going to lose. It went back and forth. They yelled at us for hours and hours and hours until late at night on Valentine’s Day, which was bad because we were married or had girlfriends so we had big trouble back at home and we had big trouble at work because we were being yelled at for hours. In the end, they were really worried about Sony ultimately. And so, they basically changed their minds. They yelled at us for four hours and then changed their minds and in five minutes they were saying, “We love this plan. We’re going to support it 100%, and give you everything that you need. Go off and make this project. You have our blessing. Go and spend all this money. Go and do this. We think this is a great idea.” And we walked out of there with just our heads spinning, and I turned to Robby Bach, who was my boss at the time, and just said that was the weirdest meeting I’ve been in 14 years of the company. But anyway, we got approval to build the Xbox, and we went for it and did it.
Matt: It seems that you said Sony seemed to be the biggest obstacle for the Xbox success, so you weren’t worried at all about Nintendo? Or that Sega, I guess, at that point was pretty much done, right?
Ed: We had actually met with Nintendo, and offered to partner with them early on. But they didn’t want to do that. Nintendo was definitely an option. At that time, Sega was shutting down Dreamcast if I remember right. I may be getting my timing a little wrong. So Sega wasn’t really a threat to us. Sony was pretty much our focus. Sony had won the previous generation, and was the company that Microsoft was most paranoid about, maybe I would say, most concerned about because they were into lots of other things beyond just gaming. I think if Sony was only doing video game consoles our project never would have gotten approved because it wasn’t a big enough threat to the company. But Sony represented a threat, at least in Bill’s and Steve’s mind, that they wanted to counter, and part of Xbox was to counter that threat. I mean that sort of the corporate strategic reason for doing it, but that wasn’t my reason for doing it, you know? I wanted to make great games. I was trying to find resources: money, basically, at Microsoft to give to great developers, so we could make more cool games.
Matt: Okay, Windows…Controller. Just trying to crosscheck here. Is it true that there were meetings where people took apart Dell laptops, or they were taking apart Dell laptops to try and figure out how to make the console?
Ed: I don’t know that story. I wasn’t involved with the hardware. I believe what that comes from is those first Xbox’s that were shown were these big silver X’s. Do you remember seeing those?
Ed: And I think those had Dell laptops jammed into the wings of those X’s to make the box. I think that was a disassembled Dell laptop, but I don’t know of that for sure.
Matt: So you mentioned that Bill Gates was not happy that it didn’t have the full version of Windows on it but I still think that it was still close enough to the PC architecture that it wasn’t so difficult for these PC game developers, right? They could easily make ports of their games’ bioware and all this stuff for the Xbox whereas to try and port it to the Playstation would have been a huge undertaking, right? And that was a part of the design from the get-go, a part of the philosophy, right?
Ed: It was and it was part of the reason I agreed originally to support this because I had a huge PC development group at that time. We didn’t know anything about working on consoles, so this idea that we could work on this machine that looked a lot like a PC was very appealing to us.
Matt: How do you take it when people said that the Xbox was just a PC in disguise? Did you care or were you like, “Well, so what?” How in your mind do you define the difference between a computer and a console?
Ed: I don’t think it matters, honestly. I don’t think customers care. I mean, what they care about is does it work. If you turn it on, does it run? Can you put in a disc and have a great experience? That’s what they care about. Ultimately, that’s what we needed to deliver to be successful, so we faced a ton of skepticism all the way through. Ever since I had taken over the games group, we faced skepticism. Microsoft in the games business? What does Microsoft know about video games? And so one by one I had to convince the press that I actually had a long history in games. I know a lot about games. I care about games. I want to make great games. We have good partners. We’re doing good stuff. Went through those battles for a long time in the PC space, and so it just felt like an extension of that going into the Xbox. There was all this skepticism again. What does Microsoft know about the console game space? Why does Microsoft want to be in this business? And you know, I had to convince people that I’m a gamer at heart. I care about games. My group is built of gamers. We want to make great game experiences, and that’s what we’re going to deliver to people, and then to actually show product that backs that up. The other thing that was hard at that time was Xbox represented a paradigm shift in where console gaming was going. Console gaming up to that point had really been driven by Japan, and it had a Japanese aesthetic to it. PC gaming, which was more of where I was from, was very different, you know? PC RPG’s are very different from Japanese RPG’s, right? PC gaming what was hot was games like Doom and Quake: networked first person shooters where you were playing multiplayer. Nothing like that existed on the console. They had Golden Eye, which was not networked. At least, it showed that you could do a first person shooter, but then we’re coming out saying, “Hey, we have this first person shooter that’s really great for this console, and…” A lot of the press took that as a lot of the reason why we didn’t know what we were doing. Like you clearly don’t understand the console space. This is a space of colorful Mario type games and you’re coming out with this kind of gritty, Sci-fi, first person shooter. You guys are like on your own planet, and if you hear that enough times from enough press you start thinking, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe we don’t know what we’re doing.” We’re new to the console space. But we were building what we were building and it was either going to be successful or it wasn’t. Fortunately, you know, we had the right product at the right time for people.
Ed: And I really think it’s changed what console gaming is all about. I mean, it made it more American, more like PC gaming, kind of closed that gap. It’s been good.
Matt: It’s interesting to me this cultural rift that exists between Japan and the West in terms of games. It’s my understanding that it still has a deep seeded prejudice against games made in America I guess….Do you think it’s getting better or worse or nothing’s changed? Why does it even exist?
Ed: I spent a lot of time in Japan. I love the culture in Japan. It’s very playful culture, very fun to go visit. Huge respect for the designers over there and the products they built. What’s happened is that video games have gotten higher and higher budget, more and more realistic, more and more sophisticated, and as that has happened they look more and more like movies, and in effect they become more culturally relevant. I mean when it’s just some pixels the culture doesn’t come into as much, but when it’s character and story it starts to feel like you’re watching a Japanese movie as opposed to watching a Hollywood movie. I think that affects people. I mean there are lots of people who like Japanese Anime. I like anime. It’s cool, but it has a foreign feel to it, right? It’s like watching a French film. You know immediately that it’s made in France, you know?
Matt: Yeah, you tend to know immediately. (Chuckles)
Ed: (Chuckles) Right, and so it’s weird. It’s almost like as if the only movies that people had grown up on were anime, and then all of the sudden someone came out with “Back to the Future” or, I don’t know, some American movie whatever you choose, Star Wars, you know? I would be like “Whoa!” It becomes cultural; it becomes culturally relevant. I think that’s the core thing. I think that’s part of why Japan has struggled actually as game developers because the product is inherently more culturally relevant. In a way, we can ride of the back of, sort of, the global movie business, you know? I mean it’s not just that movies are American; it’s just that American taste has sort of been exported around the world, and so when we make a game that has that sort of Hollywoodish feel it’s more universal than the Japanese one even though it’s just as much a product of one culture. It’s just that product has been exported more broadly. Does that make sense?
Matt: Yeah, perfect sense.
Matt: So why don’t we talk about or focus in a little bit on Xbox Live. ‘Cause I don’t know if you’ve seen our…we’ve got a book Vintage Game Consoles. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. Maybe I’ll send you a copy.
Ed: Yeah, send me a copy. I do a lot of 2600 work.
Matt: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve got that. It’s on here. We argued in that book that it was Xbox Live was really key, and the gambling on the broad band, you know, it had the ether net port instead of the dial ups like the Dreamcast had. I mean, first of all, would you agree with that? You know in our view it kind of replicates that sort of cultural environment of the arcades in the 80’s. Sort of bring that competitive experience.
Ed: Yeah, first of all, credit to Robbie Bach, my boss at that time. He was the one. I remember the meeting where we fighting about whether we should have a modem or not or just go broadband. He was the one that really put his foot down and said, “No, we’re going to bet on the future and go broadband only.” That was a big gamble at that time. In retrospect it was clearly the right decision. So, give him credit for that. Xbox Live itself was built in J. Allard’s team, and they did a great job and it’s still I still think it’s still a leader for what console multi-player gaming can be. The thing is that all of that was influenced by what was happening on the PC side. Networked PC play, at that time, was very common. Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, we had been doing that for years, Doom, Quake, all of those things. So, it was the world we were used to, so the fact that it didn’t exist in the console seemed strange and a missed opportunity. And so, I don’t think it took great insight to say that something like this should exist. To be fair, people had tried to do it before it in many consoles including the Dreamcast. But, I don’t know, the Xbox Live the hardware was right for the time. The software was done right, and so it was the first time it worked well, I think.
Matt: I was reading that you were had some struggles with Electronic Arts. I guess they had their own sort of online service they were trying to push, and they didn’t want to come on board with Xbox Live.
Ed: It’s now so much that they had their own service; it’s that they were their own publisher.
Matt: They doomed the Dreamcast, right? By refusing to put their sports games on there.
Ed: Their point of view, which I really completely understand, is:
“Let me get this straight, okay? You’re going to support this new service that you’re going to provide. It’s a subscription service, so you want us to put all of our multi-player games on your service. You’re going to charge people a certain amount per month, and you’re not going to give any of that money to us? And, we’re going to be the ones that make it be successful.”
Matt: Well when you put it that way it’s a pretty fair point.
Ed: That was their core point, and I was sympathetic to their point. Before we launched Xbox I was solely focused on 1st party, but after we launched 3rd party moved from J. Allard to me. 3rd party means for those who don’t know relationships with other publishers, so when you’re working with others like Electronic Arts, Capcom, Ubisoft, all those guys. So it’s kind of weird to have 1st and 3rd under the same person because in a sense, I was competing with them with my products, and more or less encourage them to work on a platform that more or less worked it out. Anyways, I was sort of sympathetic to EA’s point of view, and we made changes to the terms of the Xbox Live agreement, so there was opportunity for them to share in the success of Xbox Live. I think that that was fair deal. I think they were right to ask for it, and I think we were right to give it to them.
Matt: Another point about Xbox Live that I’m curious about. I guess initially the plan was to have the Windows gamers and the Xbox gamers all playing these games online. You know no problem if you want to play on your PC or on your Xbox that’s fine. Everybody will be on the same space but somehow that got nixed. What happened?
Ed: Yeah. It’s a better question for J. Allard than me. It had something to do with security inside Xbox Live servers system. I was in your camp. In fact, in my job as head of 3rd party representing people like Square who wanted to do Final Fantasy 11, and they wanted to do exactly that. So, I was on their side campaigning for cross platform play between people on the PC and Xbox Live, and no. Sometimes you hear, “No, can’t do it. It’s technically not possible.” Sometimes that’s just an excuse; somebody just doesn’t want to do it or deal with the issues or whatever. I don’t know. I still to this day don’t know the answer of why that was such a hard problem.
Ed: What kind of relationships did you have with these various studios that were acquired? How did it work out? I know you said many times in other interviews how you’ve had to really get a lot of push back about trying to rush these guys, and how you’re always on the side of, “Well, let’s just give however long it takes to get the game we want.” I’m just wondering how the dynamic worked between the publisher and developer.
Ed: You can ask them. It would probably work better sometimes than others. I think I tried to be sympathetic. Game development is one of the hardest things you can do. Combining art and technology to make a product is really really hard. So, the challenge when you’re running a portfolio like that is bringing certain products every quarter and trying to meet deadlines, and you have things like advertising that needs to be done, and letting it go when the product ships. Anyway, it gets logistically complicated, and so trying to manage that and the creative process is the hard part.
Matt: It sounds incredibly stressful to me. Particularly your role. You must have been constantly stressed out about these Christmas seasons and all that.
Ed: Well, I try not to be a super stressed out kind of guy, first of all, but in a way it was an awesome job. I got to fly all over the world, meet with all the best game developers, see their products and development, encourage them to continue to make them better, tried to find more money to make them cooler. I can be very supportive, so it was fun. There were times when it was stressful. For me the worst time was right before I quit, so I guess that makes sense. That was when we had a lot of success, and it was almost the opposite of when I came to the games group. Going into the games group people were like, “No one cares about what you’re going to do. Why would leave the company to go work on something nobody cares about?” And then after Xbox had been so successful and so important to the company, all of the sudden everybody cared about what I was doing. It was like all these people had opinions about, “How come you’re doing this, or why are you doing that?” It just got very old for me. It was like I run this business now for 10 years without interference why do I have to put up with all this crap basically. Ultimately, it was too much for me and ultimately why I left. There’s a famous story I’ve told about Halo 2 where Halo 2 got really screwed up in its development. I dug into the product with Jason Jones who is the real creator Halo and we decided that we needed to spend an extra year on the product to get right, and I went to my boss and explained the situation to him. And, he said…well here is a consensus for any type of manager, “Well, let’s have a vote. We’ll get together, you know, J. Allard and Mitch Koch and all of my direct reports and vote to see if Halo should have an extra year or not.” And I’m like, “No you don’t understand it needs and extra year, or it’s going to suck, and Halo is our most important brand at this point.” He said, “Well, I’d like to have this vote.” I’m like, “All right that’s fine.” We get together: all of the senior managers under him, and he goes around and asks each group: marketing, sales, you know, Xbox Live, blah, blah, blah. Every single one votes that we should ship it on the original schedule.
Ed: I walked out of the meeting and I threatened to quit right then. I said that there was no way I’m going to do that. You know, it was an “over my dead body” kind of thing. That was a dumb idea to have that anyway and it just shows why we shouldn’t run product development this way. But anyway, that was sort of the world at that time, and I won the battle for Halo 2. I won them the extra year, and even then you saw the final product. It was somewhat rushed. The ending is like “What?”
Matt: It sounds like we were spared a huge disaster, though.
Ed: Oh, imagine what it would have been like a year earlier. But Halo was the easiest battle for me to win. Imagine the smaller projects where there is not as much at stake and not as much clout. Within six months of that meeting I was gone; I left because it was that same thing over and over again.
Matt: You’re thinking about projects like Halo Wars, Age of Empires, or Ensemble? Were you there when that was shuttered?
Ed: That was long after I had left.
Matt: Long after?
Ed: Yeah. Yeah, a lot of good groups got shut down after I left. It’s too bad.
Matt: I was wondering since you have quite a bit of experience with these sorts of questions. How do you know when it’s the right time to let a project go versus giving them that extra time and giving them those extra resources? Do you have a check list or criteria that you use or is it kind of a gut feeling?
Ed: We would have product review meetings quite regularly. A lot of what I did was go around and look at different projects. I’d probably have 60 projects going on at any one time, and so have periodic review meetings. Typically though when things were screwed up everyone knew they were screwed up, so either there was a small core of people lying about it or, which happens sometimes. But, most people knew they were screwed up, and there were some cases where they got it together. Like, I think about Mech Commander 2. Mech Commander 2 got off the rails, and I basically gave them one last chance to fix it, and they came back with a much improved version the next meeting. We ended up going forward with the product and it was reasonably successful. The worst ones are the ones that drag on and on, and by the time we get around to cancelling them you realize that we should have cancelled them years before, you know? You’ve wasted a lot of time and a lot of money. I don’t know. The real question is where does success come from, and that’s a hard question. I see some similarities between groups that have done really good work but differences too. There’s no one answer to that question.
Matt: I have a question here from a viewer, Jack Day. Not sure where this fits on our time line, so I’ll just go ahead and ask it now. He says, “How do you feel about the Rare acquisition and the fact that they aren’t making the kind of hits they were when they were with Nintendo?”
Ed: Yeah. What if I go without the headset and mic, and see if that gives you a better experience. I’m afraid that it’ll echo, but let’s try it.
Matt: Oh sure. Yeah, that’s good. It sounds at a little bit lower volume. Did you lower the volume somehow?
Ed: No I didn’t. I just kind of have it up here on the side.
Ed: Can you deal with that?
Matt: That’s fine.
Ed: I can talk about Rare, so I’m a big fan of Rare. I love their games. I loved playing their games on the Nintendo 64: Diddy Kong Racing, in particular a big fan of, Conker’s Bad Fur Bay, certainly Golden Eye. Didn’t think I would be able to work with them because they were half owned by Nintendo, but I did meet with them a couple of years before the acquisition. We had kind of a stealth meeting. It was just a chance to get to know them. I had been in the game business at that point enough to know that you never know how things are going to go in the future and it’s nice to build relationships. Someday they can be helpful, so I met with the Stanford brothers just to get to know each other, and then a few years later they called, and basically what was going on was they had a deal with Nintendo that was…Nintendo owned half of Rare but the deal was at a certain point Nintendo had to buy all of Rare or they had to sell their half. They had to choose between those two things, and they had already extended it by a couple of years, basically extended their option to buy half of Rare. That option was expiring and it didn’t look like they were going to buy Rare. So, there was going to be a chance for someone new to buy Rare. You know from my point of view here’s a console game developer, and we don’t have a whole lot of console experience. I mean even Bungie is a PC game developer. Like a true console game developer and one that I have a ton of respect for, and it’s sort of a double win: 1) I can take them away from a competitor, and I can bring them onto my team. So it kind of counts double when you’re fighting somebody, so I was very interested in getting them on board. There was another bidder, which turned out to be Activision. Rare actually preferred Activision because they had worked as a 1st party for a long time under Nintendo, and they knew what it was like to be a 1st party, so they knew what it meant. You can only sell on one console, and if things aren’t going well on that console then you’re stuck. You’re kind of screwed because it’s like if you’re only console was the Wii U right now, you know?
Matt: (Chuckles) Oh.
Ed: You know your business wouldn’t be that great, right? They preferred to go with Activision, so my boss, Robbie, he kind of panicked a little when he thought we were going to lose the deal, and he raised our bid up higher than I wanted to go with it, but anyway it’s fine. Meanwhile, I don’t think that it mattered they had already decided that they were going with Activision, but then the Activision deal fell through, and then we were there still with the higher bid, and so they accepted our higher bid, and they became a part of the team. I still think it as a good thing to do. We probably paid too much, but they were an amazingly talented group. Unfortunately, I left not long after that, maybe a year after that when the first products came out. So it’s hard for me to know what happened after I left. I know that the Stanford brothers left the company. In my mind they were the core of the success at Rare. They went on to put out what I think was some pretty good product, but the irony is that in a way we had changed the world of the console, you know? The kinds of things that Rare was really good at were that sort of Japanese style, Japanese-oriented stuff, and it isn’t what Xbox became known for. Xbox was Gears of War, Halo, you know Call of Duty, and so it’s like the irony is that we had tuned the console world in this new direction and away from Rare and Rare’s core confidence, and I think that had more to do with their struggles than anything.
Matt: All right so just a few last questions here.
Ed: All right.
Matt: Let’s see, I don’t know if you want to talk about Fire Ant.
Ed: Yeah, I mean, so after I left Microsoft I was approached by a couple of groups of people, so we had been working on an internal MMO called Mythica, which was based on Norse mythology. I was pretty into it because I’m into MMO’s in general: Everquest, World of Warcraft etc. But after I left that was one of the first projects that got canceled. Microsoft initially said that if they could find a buyer they would sell us the IP for Mythica, and we could take the team and find a new home for it. So, I started working with them to find a new home. Every time we went back to Microsoft to talk about the IP the price went up, and ultimately they raised the price so much that it made no sense to keep the old IP. The team was interesting to Sony Online Entertainment. We basically ended up selling the company, Fire Ant, to Sony Online Entertainment. They worked for about five years on a cool spy based MMO called The Agency, which ultimately never came together and didn’t make it to market, and that was Fire Ant. So, typical game industry story.
Matt: Five years and it’s just sitting on a hard drive somewhere in a basement, right?
Ed: Yeah, it’s too bad. It’s too bad.
Matt: What is this physics accelerator show? Ageia?
Matt: What is the status of that?
Ed: So Ageia was a company that approached me after I left Microsoft. They wanted me to be on the board. It’s kind of the start of the board work I still do. I’m on seven different boards right now. They are a technology company in Silicon Valley that had the idea while graphics accelerators were really big for the past decade maybe in the next decade because physics is starting to become really important in games that physics acceleration will become really important. So, they built their own physics engine. Something called PhysX, and they built a hardware accelerated version of it with this chip, and it can handle a hundred times more objects in motion than what you can do in software, things like that. They built a card, and they found out that it’s really hard to sell something like that. It’s like a real chicken and egg problem whenever you try to make some hardware product in the gaming business because game developers don’t want to support it until it has an installed base. Customers don’t want to buy it until there are games to support it. And how do you….
Matt: The old catch 22.
Ed: Exactly. And so they got caught sort of in the middle of that. Ultimately, we sold the company to Nvidia, and a lot of those guys who are still working in Nvidia are continuing to do that kind of work inside Nvidia. What’s interesting is the core software physics engine, PhysX, is the default physics engine in Unity, so out of Ageia came something actually used by thousands of games probably hunderds of thousands of games today on IOS.
Matt: That’s cool.
Ed: You never know how things are going to work out.
Matt: What about this emotive thing? I mean this is really far out, so this is a game controller that’s based on electro-enceph…enceph…aw man, I thought I had this pronunciation down.
Ed: Encephalogram. Actually here’s a prototype.
Matt: Encepalopagr….er anyway.
Ed: There ya go.
Ed: This is an early prototype.
Matt: Oh that is just straight out of science fiction right there.
Ed: It is.
Matt: So how does that thing work?
Ed: So this was a group in Australia, and they were based on the work of a scientist down there by the name of Allan Snyder. The idea, basically, is that each of these things is a very sensitive sensor that picks up your brain waves. You train it. Basically, you think about something like think about spinning an object, and however you think about it spinning that object, and this thing watches your brain waves and tries to make a pattern that it can recognize and every time it sees that pattern again it tells the game, “Hey, he’s thinking about spinning, or he’s thinking about lifting.” That’s basically the idea. Actually, after I get off this I’m jumping in the car to drive over to Redmond to have lunch with the woman who still runs this company: Tan Le. The company got really big for a while then it got small, and she kick started a new version of this recently. If you look up Emotive on Kickstarter, you can see the new product, and it’s still alive and out there. Hasn’t really found its customer base yet but it’s one of those fun sort of future of gaming things that maybe someday I’ll be there, but isn’t there today.
Matt: So we’ve talked about the future of games, and we’ve talked about the past too with Halo 2600. It seems like to me, I don’t know, I was trying to read between the lines of some of the stuff you’ve said about this, but it sounds like the success and popularity of this thing caught you by surprise. Is that true?
Ed: Yeah, very much so. I mean, I did Halo 2600 almost as a joke. I mean, I was speaking at a conference and somebody told me about this book called Racing the Beam. I had mentioned that I had worked on the 800 back in the day, and they said, “Oh you should read this book about the 2600.” So I picked up this book Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort’s book Racing the Beam, and I was just blown away because having working on the 800, I thought that the 800 was, you know, challenging to work on but doable, but this machine is so much more primitive. I mean 128 bytes of memory and no frame buffer, so you have to know where the electron beam is at all times, and you have to change registers on the fly to change things on the screen. If you don’t get the timing exactly right, everything is screwed up. The processor is so slow that even by the time one instruction goes by in the processor the electron beams move partway across the screen, and so you have this really complicated balance of trying to juggle a tiny amount of memory, a really slow processor, and the fact that you have all this amount of work to do within a certain amount of time, or you don’t draw the screen. So, I just started programming it, and I couldn’t think of what to program, so I just drew a little Master Chief in paint and then try to get it up on the screen. Once I had him up on the screen, then I was like, “Well, maybe I can make him move; maybe I can make him shoot; maybe I can give him an enemy to shoot at, you know? Maybe I can make the enemy move around, make an enemy shoot, and that’s basically what I had. I had like the Master Chief and some enemies moving around and shooting, and I went to GDC, and this would be like 2010, and I ran into a guy named Mike Mica, Other Ocean, and he was there with a guy named Tod Frye who had made the original 2600 Pac Man just a total coincidence. Chris Charla who runs Microsoft’s indie game division. They were just all standing around talking, so I wondered over. I knew some of them but didn’t know the others, and I said I’ve been playing around with this Halo on the 2600 thing, and they were like, “Halo 2600? Oh you have to do that! You have to make that game.” And I was like, “I was just playing this for fun.” “No, you have to do it. You have to finish it.” It was like a moral imperative to finish this game, and so I was like, “Okay fine.” I went back and finished it. There’s 64 rooms to battle through and a big boss encounter at the end. You can play the Flash emulated version on Halo2600.com. Just go up there your viewers can check it out for free. That’s actually running the real Atari 2600 code. Real cartridges have been made. There’s more in the back. I don’t know if you can see this.
Matt: That’s so cool.
Ed: We released it at through the help of Atari Age, which is the website where people who are into this hang out. Released this cartridge at Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas Summer of 2010. These now sell for like hundreds of dollars because there were only 200 of these made.
Matt: So now you’re known as that Halo 2600 guy?
Ed: Yeah, exactly, now I’m that Halo 2600 guy. I mean, but it gets weirder and weirder. There was like a lot of press when it came out may be some of which who made it. But for me it was like really fun to go back to my retro roots. You know working on these old consoles, but then a friend, Chris Melissinos is putting together this show called The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This is going to be the first time video games are going to be in one of the most prestigious art museums in the country, the American Art Museum. He asked if he could put in Halo 2600 to represent kind of represent the class of games as homebrew. I’m like, “Sure, I would love to have it there, so it’s in there. It’s got a little exhibit. Explains what homebrew is, and here’s an example of homebrew. Well then the curator of the art collection at the American Art museum decides that they need to add some video games to their permanent collection of art, okay? And they picked two from all of the collection of video games, and I don’t know why they picked these two, but they picked Flower, which is a fine example, and they picked my game.
Ed: I don’t know, you read their description of why, you know, that this is some sort of ironic look of a modern game back in retro, I don’t know, some art-speak, but whatever, I’m happy to have it there. So it’s like one of the two video games in the permanent collection of the American Art Museum. They’re going to do a mixed media show next year, and it’s going to be a part of that. I get to show up and be one of the artists in this art show.
Matt: I’m loving the ironies of all of this. Even in some interviews that you did about the piece, you know they kept trying to get you talk about whether it was art or video games art and this kind of thing, and you said that you think that video games get more artistic as they get more graphically realistic, more detailed. It shows more emotions and that sort of thing, but yet here’s this piece that’s held up as art and it’s a deliberate throw back to 1977 technology. I mean what…(chuckles) I don’t even know what to make of that.
Ed: I was just watching Video Games: The Movie just came out the last couple of days. There’s some part in it…maybe it’s Lewis Castle…somebody is saying that their definition of what art is from their art teacher in college is, “That art is something that is created with the specific intent of causing a reaction in the audience.”
Ed: If that’s the definition of art then maybe…(chuckles) is art.
Matt: Wow, that’s pretty specific.
Ed: For me the question that I was trying to answer with Halo 2600, which I don’t know if I answered, is sort of like, “Have we learned anything?” You know? We’ve been making games now for 35 years. Have we learned anything that we can go back in time to these old machines and apply? Okay? Because we’ve learned so much about game design or whatever, right? Could we go back in time and build products that would just blow away what was done at that time? Because we know so much more about game design, and I think that the answer is probably not. I mean Halo 2600 has modern ideas in it, but it fits comfortably within the products of that era, but it’s not like head and shoulders above what was done back then. A lot of the reason is that a lot of what was done it’s this delicate dance of what was possible on the machine and what you want to build. You can’t just say, “I’m going to make this” because the hardware pushes back and says, “No, you’re not.” You know? There’s this dialog between what’s possible and what you want to make, so that influences what can even be done on that machine.
Matt: I like that idea of Back to the Future.
Ed: So yeah, maybe somebody better than me could go back…
Matt: Teleport you back to ’77, and we’ll get that first person shooter version on the 2600, right?
Ed: Yeah, right.
Matt: Just a couple of little last questions here. I did want to mention to get your thoughts here on the Ouya. I know you’re the advisor for that, and I know you’ve talked a lot about it. I just wondered if you had any thoughts on how it’s doing now.
Ed: Ouya is pursuing a strategy now to kind of move beyond their box into being imbedded into televisions and things like that, which is nice. The reason I got behind Ouya in the beginning was that I thought the consoles weren’t doing a good job of supporting indie scene, supporting independent game developers. Things like Xbox Live Arcade were very difficult to get on in the 360 era. There were only a few slots and those slots belonged to publishers, and so if you wanted to get your game on it then you had to go deal with Ubisoft or Microsoft or somebody or usually both. And so…
Matt: So it was out of the realm of possibility for a solo guy.
Ed: Exactly. So Ouya is going to be an open platform OS, but for television. You know anyone can make a game and put it on TV. I love what was being done by a small group of people that was kickstarted and all that, so it was a fun project to be a part of. The thing that’s been challenging for Ouya is and the thing that we all probably didn’t realize is indie development would be so embraced by the consoles in this generation. It’s sort of become a battleground where both have come to embrace as a way to compete with each other. And so, I think Sony did it first with Adam Boyes and Microsoft following close behind with Chris Charla. Those are both great guys and they’re putting great product on that platform, but when you can get it on Playstation and Xbox lots of cool indie stuff it diminishes Ouya’s position in the market, so.
Matt: Okay, let’s see, I could ask you about Windows 8, but I think I’ll just stop with this question.
Ed: All right.
Matt: It seems like you’re kind of headed that way with that last answer, but I noticed that you’ve questioned the future of this big publisher model that has existed for so long. It seems that you’re thinking that we’re going to be seeing some real steep changes in the gaming landscape. I’m wondering if you could elaborate. Where do you think gaming will be five years from now or ten years from now? What’s going to be there and what’s going to be completely different?
Ed: Okay. I love that there are still big budget games being made, and there are some great big budget games being made. I’ve got the Destiny beta here at home and me and the boys have been having fun, and I’m looking forward to you know that sort of World of Warcraft feel but in a first person shooter, so I hope that games like that continue to be made. But if you look at the math, less and less are made every year, and they are bigger and bigger budget. And because of their bigger and bigger budget and less and less, it becomes more and more critical that they succeed, and when it’s critical that they succeed otherwise the publisher will go out of business. The publisher has to take a big risk, or they have to be conservative. Generally, they want to protect their jobs and be conservative, which means sequels to sequels and small steps not big steps. Although some of the best people are working in that space, it’s just getting harder and harder to be innovative. I don’t mean to take away. There’s a lot of good product coming out now in that space, and a lot of it is innovative. But still it’s innovative in the sense that it’s 5th sequel to Assassin’s Creed, you know? It’s that 5th version of Halo. It’s that, I don’t know, however many versions of Call of Duty that have come out. Quite a few. So I worry about that space to some degree, and then you have this huge gap. We just shut down air type games after releasing a game for Square Enix called Murdered Soul Suspect because we could no longer step up to be a part of the big group, and we were too big to be indie. So you have this sea of indie developers, and I love that sea, and it’s massive, and developer tools have become accessible that it’s really great and really easy for anyone to make a game. But that’s sort of the problem too. It’s pretty easy for anyone to make a game, and it’s pretty easy for anyone to publish a game. Steam is going to be open soon. IOS is already open, Android, and in a sense we’ve succeeded, right? It’s like, “We have truly succeeded in making games an art form.” What that means is if you tell your parents, “Hey, I’m going to pursue a future in games.” It’s sort of like saying, “I’m going to pursue a future in music, or I’m going to pursue a future in painting.”
Matt: Yeah, that’s going to go over well.
Ed: (Laughes) It’s like there are millions of garage bands, and a couple will make it big, and there’s millions of artist and a couple will make it big. I think that’s the future of games in a big way, and I think we’re just starting to wrap our heads around that. I think that’s okay. I actually think that’s good. I think it’s progress, but I think it means it’s hard as a career. It’s going to be harder as a career for a lot of people.
Matt: All right sounds good. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about or mention that I didn’t get to here?
Ed: No not really. You know I continue to do the stuff with 3D printing with Fingerprint.
Matt: Oh yeah, Fingerprint. How much does it cost to get one of those little….
Ed: 129 dollars.
Matt 129 dollars.
Matt: I think you’ve got one back there that you were showing earlier.
Ed: Yep. This is a nice little toy here.
Matt: I thought you had a Gnome rogue.
Ed: Yeah, this is just a random one someone had prepped a copy of. I play a Gnome rogue in World of Warcraft. That’s correct.
Matt: Are you excited about the expansion?
Ed: Yeah, because they have gone back and redone the models for their earlier races, which will be better for our prints.
Matt: (chuckles) Are you selling lots of those? What’s the business like?
Ed: It’s okay. It’s an okay business. It’s just something I do for fun. So that’s going on, and I’m just now finishing up a Rally X Atari 2600. It’s never been done before, and so that was a new challenge for me.
Matt: You’re really enjoying this homebrew. Are you sort of the father figure for this now?
Ed: I taught a summer camp this summer.
Matt: Oh cool!
Ed: I took five 12 year olds, and in a week I taught them to program 6502 assembly language, and Atari 2600, and each made little games on there 2600. They did a lot in week. You would be surprised how much they did.
Matt: That’s got to be one of the coolest summer camps ever.
Ed: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. Yeah, that’s something I’m doing for fun. I’m doing a little project related to Hearthstone that I can’t really talk about yet. I’m not ready to talk about that yet because I should probably mention it to the Hearthstone people, but that’s fun thing I’m doing. Yeah, just the usual stuff so.
Matt: Sounds good. I’ll leave you to your lunch. Encephalgrof…encephala…Encephalography!
Matt: Got to come up with a better name for that…phew! Anyway, I really appreciate it, Ed, taking the time out to do this. It means a lot to me. Hope you have a great day.
Ed: You too. Yeah, it’s been fun.
Matt: Me too.