Microsoft’s decision to dive into the game console market with the original Xbox shocked the industry. Why would a company that made its billions by selling software on an open platform decide to make a proprietary box? The original Xbox was put together in record time, leveraging existing PC technology (an Intel Celeron 733 CPU, an NVIDIA graphics card, and a hard drive) to create a new gaming platform, one that leveraged the Windows XP kernel and DirectX technology. Was Microsoft’s goal simply to battle Sony and Nintendo for the gaming console market?
If so, it was an uphill battle. Microsoft spent billions of dollars building and marketing the Xbox, and although the console has sold over 24 million units, it still struggled to equal the GameCube (also over 24 million) and could come nowhere near the PlayStation 2 (over 100 million). The new Entertainment division at Microsoft lost money in every quarter except for one: the quarter when the massively popular Halo 2 was introduced.
Still, Microsoft is legendary for their ability to stick at things. Most people laughed (and rightly so) in 1985 when Windows 1.0 was introduced, but the program went on to become the best selling operating system of all time. Fortunately for Microsoft, the original Xbox was not nearly as dysfunctional as Windows 1.0—it was a solid (if somewhat bulky) performer, and features such as Xbox Live put it technically ahead of the competition.
Now with the massively redesigned and more powerful Xbox 360 released, many people are wondering what the future has in store for Microsoft’s gaming efforts. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Matt Lee, a software developer who works at Microsoft in the Xbox division. He had some fascinating things to say about the console, the games market in general, and the future of the Xbox 360.
Ars Technica: Hi Matt, thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. Let’s start with a little background information about yourself. How long have you been interested in programming?
Matt Lee: Well, my dad worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and later Compaq. He got me started with my first programming in BASIC. I was seven years old at the time.
How long have you worked at Microsoft, and how did you get started in the Xbox division?
I have worked at Microsoft full-time for almost five years now. Before that, I was an intern at Microsoft for two summers, while I was at MIT. After I finished my master’s degree in June 2001, I started in Microsoft Game Studios, working on a MMORPG called Mythica. Mythica was a fast-paced MMORPG based on Norse Mythology. We had a great showing at the 2003 E3. It was one of the first PC games to use Pixel Shader 2.0 technology. Of course the MMORPG format doesn’t really allow for fast action, but we tried to make it look like fast action with lots of special effects and animation.
However, after three great years on that team, Mythica was canceled in February 2004, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join the Xbox division right as Xbox 360 was ramping up. I joined the Xbox Advanced Technology Group, which is the developer support and education group within the Xbox division at Microsoft. The group is now called the Game Technology Group, and we encompass developer support and education across Windows, Xbox 360, and soon, XNA.
I hear that you are the author of "Dope Wars." My friends and co-workers have wasted countless hours and the total lost productivity from that game is probably too high to measure. What’s the story of how that came about?
Yes, I wrote DopeWars for the Palm handheld. I bought a PalmPilot in my junior year at college, and I wanted to learn how to program for it. DopeWars was my "Hello World" program, and it was styled as closely as possible after the old DOS game of the same name. About a year after I released it, it became really popular. For two years straight it was the number one PalmOS download on download.com. It was also the top download on Palm’s corporate website, until Palm’s CEO noticed it and insisted it be taken down. I received a very apologetic e-mail from the webmaster about that.
Then the mainstream media got wind of it, which quickly spiraled out of control, as you would expect. My picture was in the New York Times, and I hear my software and I were talked about in a not-so-positive light on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The Windows version was written by another guy, and both of us wound up being interviewed by press people. At one point we got in touch with each other just so we could get our stories straight. I was going to write a PocketPC version, but someone else beat me to the punch. It’s a good thing Microsoft hired me despite my shady background!
What sort of games do you play in your spare time?
Right now on the Xbox 360 I’m playing a lot of Oblivion, Battlefield 2, Call of Duty 2, and the games on Xbox Live Arcade. On the PC side I’m playing a lot of Battlefield 2 and CounterStrike, and believe it or not I still play a lot of Starcraft!
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