Donating my Xbox
Today I donated my Xbox 360 Elite to Goodwill. It represented a time in my life as a developer that I'm not overly proud about living.
I worked for a couple years designing games at Microsoft. It is honestly difficult to say the exact group I was in since the organization was hit regularly by massive reorgs and general management failure.
This was the era right before Kinect and there was an effort underway to broaden the audience to extend beyond the 'big black boy box' brand that so defined the original Xbox. Ultimately, the anemic outcome of this great leap forward was a handful of resource starved trivia games and gameshows. But the dream of bringing socially positive games to more people really appealed to me.
I was an outsider. When I used a console, it was likely to be one built by Nintendo. My design direction tended towards non-violence and cuter, gender neutral designs. I really enjoyed (and to this day still do) original mechanics and will trade cutscenes for gameplay in a heartbeat. Strategy over button mashing! My earliest influences stem from the Amiga and early PC titles, not the regurgitation of a roller coaster known as Halo.
The capital of the console ecosystem
In many ways, a gig at Microsoft was a career peak for many developers I worked with. Since childhood, they had played console games, worked at console companies and then finally made it to the platform mothership from which all their life's work was originally born. The repeated mantra was "The things we do here will impact millions." The unsaid subtext was "millions ofGamers just like us."
It was also a cultural hub. You worked there because you were a gamer. People boasted about epic Gamer Scores and joked about staying up multiple days straight in order to beat the latest release. The men were hardcore. The management was hardcore. The women were doubly hardcore. To succeed politically in a viciously political organization, you lived the brand.
You got the sense the pre-Xbox, gamers as bros was a subculture within the nerdy hobby of games. Over two console generations, a highly cynical marketing team spent billions with no hope of immediate payback to shift the market. Nintendo was slandered as a kids platform, not a leading light. Xbox put machismo, ultra-violence and chimpboys with backwards caps in the spotlight. Wedge, wedge, wedge. Gamers were handed a pre-packaged group identity via the propaganda machine of a mega corporation. For those raised post-Xbox, this workplace was the unquestioned birthplace, the Mecca. Dude. They made Halo.
I'm okay with not fitting in. Over many years I've gotten comfortable being an alien floating in a sea of Others. There weren't a lot of computer loving digital makers in rural Maine in the 80s. I spend most of my days dreaming of an intricate systemic future where things are better. It is a state of constantly being half a second out of phase with the rest of the world.
Still it was a challenge being in an group that knew intellectually they had to reach out to new people while at the same time knowing in their heart of hearts that just adding more barrels to a shotgun was the fastest path to gamer glory. Talking with others in the larger organization would yield a sympathetic look. "Someone has to deal with those non-gamers. Sorry it has to be you. Bro."
I am not actually a bro. Don't tell anyone.
We made adorable hand drawn prototypes and watched them climb through the ranks only to be shot dead by Elder Management that found cuteness instinctually revolting.
There is a form to modern console games. If you've played the recent Bioshock Infinite, you can see the fully glory of the vision.
First there is a world rendered in lush 3D. This justifies the hardware.
Next are intermittent dollops of plot. These are voice acted because it is a quality signal. They feature intricately modeled characters on a virtual stage.This gives the arc narrative momentum and lets you know you've finished something meaningful.
Filling out the gaps in the 7-12 hours ride are moments of rote game play with all possible feedback knobs tuned to 11. Blood, brains, impact. Innovation is located at 11.2. This makes you feel something visceral.
Each element of this form is refined to a most perfect formula. There are crate-raised critics who make subtle distinctions between the 52 historical shades of grey. There are documents and research. If you are a creative working at or within a publisher, your higher purpose is to judge games based off their adherence to the form. The game is a product and consistency, much like that found in McDonalds fries, results in repeat purchases. You are someone with taste.
You police the act of creation. It is a job. It is a set of orders that come from above. It is your childhood dream.
I no longer work at Microsoft. Instead, I started up Spry Fox and spend my dreamy days making odd little games. They barely have plots. They focus on player agency and more often than not sport cute 2D graphics. Very few can be won. None come in boxes. We don't even need to spend billions to get people to play them.
I'm driven by ideals that fit poorly with an industrialized console monoculture: What if games can connect people? What if they can improve the world? What if they bring happiness and joy to our lives?
Hardcore gamers, women, men, children, families, people that play no other games...they play these personal, quirky games of ours. Yeah...we impact tens of millions. Deep down, I'm not sure if any of them are people like me.
So far, none of these games have been released on the Xbox. There's little economic or cultural fit with the artificially propped up tribe residing in that cloistered warren.
So goodbye, big black box. I never really liked what you stood for.