10 years in games. Sorry for all the ads.

It suddenly occurred to me that it has been more than 10 years since I have been working in the games industry, not counting the years I spent making mods in such games as Marathon and Myth where I met cool people like Max Hoberman and Chris Butcher and even dabbled in early esports as a semi-finalist in the Myth: The Fallen Lords platform wars tournament (http://trivia.bungie.org/assets/PlatformWars.html) (I got second place in the Mac semi-finals against Panamon - yeah, who the fuck cares.)

Leveraging my experience as an early software developer at Amazon.com and more importantly, leveraging my friend Patrick O’Kelley, I got a job at Microsoft in early 2004 on the Xbox team as a Program Manager. Patrick and I worked together at Amazon, then Xbox and went on to work together at Bungie and even PopCap for a while, which just goes to show how much friends and ‘social networking’ matter when looking for jobs.

So my first job in the games industry was working on platform software, not actual game content, but it was a great intro and I found that I could quickly make an impact, for better or worse. If you hate seeing advertisements when you boot up your Xbox, let me apologize in advance.

I am one of the people - if not THE person - responsible for ads on the Xbox.

But it’s a weird story how that came to be, and how I had to actually fight to make it happen. No, really!

You see, when I first started at Xbox I was working with a team responsible for the web services layer of Xbox Live which also interfaced directly with the dashboard UI of the Xbox 360. I landed this assignment because of my experience at Amazon, where I had been working on their websites since 1998. And my time at Amazon also made me keenly aware of the ways in which technology can be used to enhance retail experiences. So during my first few weeks I was doing the new employee thing and meeting all sorts of people and learning about all sorts of cool projects happening all around me.

And one of these things was Xbox Live Arcade. This young guy, John David (who I ended up working with again years later at PopCap), was responsible for getting all of these neat, smaller games on the Xbox platform through digital distribution - just purchase and download directly through the Xbox UI, which was crazy stuff in 2004. They were even going to launch with neat games like Hexic (developed by Jason Keimig, who I also worked with years later at PopCap on Solitaire Blitz) right out of the box! This was cool. And since Hexic was the only game that actually ran on the platform at the time, everyone in the office was hooked on it. But it occurred to me that even though these games and this platform were rad, no one would know about it because it was several clicks down in the UI, hidden from view. There needed to be a way to surface and display these games that I knew that players would want to know about.

Fortunately my office was right next door to Larry Hyrb, aka Major Nelson, one of the nicest people I have ever met and who at that time was recently given the mandate and a lot of freedom to promote all things Xbox. I went to Larry and showed him the problem: there was no way to promote content inside the Xbox 360 itself. He supported me and saw the value in how he could use it as a tool to promote not only the games that were available, but also events and special community messages. Emboldened by Larry’s support I went to my boss and I think the conversation went like this.

“So, as you can see we have all of these great games but no way for players to easily find them. So I’m proposing that we display banner ads on the dashboard that link directly to the download pages of the games so that…”

“Wait, banner ads? Like on websites?”

“Sort of, but these aren’t like ads for Mt. Dew or anything, these are just…”

“No way.”

“What?”

“Gamers are gonna hate ads. No way.”

“How will they know they can download Zuma on the day it launches?”

“…”

“Is that a yes?”

“No.”

This was not Amazon. It was very hard for me to convince people that this sort of advertising was *good*. In hindsight, I think it was my choice of language, using terms like ‘advertising’ and ‘banner ads’ that conveyed a tone of corporate soullessness. This was games! We were supposed to be cool and fuck the man and all that shit. This was also my second taste of proprietary groupthink at Microsoft (the first was me trying to convince an executive that the Xbox Live web services layer should provide standard RSS feeds of data for the community to use - well, it was not really convincing him, it was me actually doing a 15 slide presentation on what RSS actually is and no, it’s not something that Microsoft invented).

But Larry was a true champion and a much more savvy corporate navigator than I, the newbie at the time, and with the support of the Xbox Live Arcade team we moved forward designing the Banner Of The Day (BOTD) system that he would use to schedule the ads. It was all built in a proprietary tool very similar to Flash with a very basic, web-based scheduling system so you could schedule ads in advance and line up your ad programming weeks in advance to map to the event and release schedules on Xbox Live. It was 100% hackery at the time, but it worked.

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That Luxor 2 and Disturbia ad? Yep, I worked on that.


Nowadays the Xbox One UI is nearly all ‘ads’, i.e., links promoting content and apps in the Xbox ecosystem. So it’s nice to see that the idea caught on and if you hate the Mt. Dew ads, I am truly sorry. I just find it funny and interesting that 10 years ago it was an uphill battle to build a system that is pretty much the standard way to present content on the console. 

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Xbox One UI: mostly ads!


My second project was designing the Xbox 360’s parental controls. I’m sorry about that, too.