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August 17, 2009

Ex Microsoft publishing exec Ed Fries talks to Gamasutra


Ed Fries has recently been involved in a “looking back” interview with Gamasutra. The ex Microsoft Game Studios executive was responsible for starting the Microsoft Games division and controlled it right up until the launch of the Xbox 360. Ed Fries is significant as he lead the acquisition of Ensemble Studios after the Age of Empires series proved to be a big profitable hit for the new division.

By then, we were up to maybe 5 or 600 people… and some weeks we would be the leading PC publisher in the country. We weren’t as big as Electronic Arts in general at the time, but we were getting there.”

It has become clear that it was only after the acquisition of Ensemble Studios that Microsoft was able to reap the rewards of the games division. The success of Ensemble games lead to Microsoft increasing investment in the games division enabling them to start looking at home consoles and acquiring more studios such as Bungie, Lionhead and Rare.

That, says Fries, is when “these crazy guys walked into my office and told me they had this idea to get Microsoft into the console business. They were from the DirectX team, and they wanted to make this thing called the ‘Direct X-Box.”

Direct X-Box, of course, was truncated to ‘Xbox,’ — and “marketing hated the name,” says Fries. “They went off and created this whole, long list of better names for the machine.”

In focus testing, the marketing team left the name ‘Xbox’ on that long list simply as a control, to demonstrate to everyone why it was a horrible name for a console. “Of course, ‘Xbox’ outscored, in focus testing, everything they came up with. They had to admit it was going to be the Xbox.”

The Xbox was greenlit by Microsoft upper brass, giving Fries and his team less than two years to pull together the first-party launch lineup. “We were lucky to team up with people like Bizarre Creations to create Project Gotham Racing… and Bungie, we did the acquisition at that time.”

In 2004 Ed Fries left Microsoft Game Studios at the 360’s launch having developed the division from scratch for some 18 years. With the departure of Ed Fries the division was shaked up with alot of new management being brought in for the division. Bruce Shelley of Ensemble Studios frequently suggested that relationships with these new execs was not as good as those under the old leadership.

The Gamasutra interview provides good insight to what Microsoft and Ed Fries wanted Microsoft Game Studios to be, before and after Ensemble Studios and other studios were acquired.


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