How Bill Gates, a Sony faux pas, and one very determined developer helped birth the Xbox.
A lot of history’s greatest ideas come at inopportune moments, and Seamus Blackley’s proposal for the Xbox is no exception. A meeting with Bill Gates, an unintended callout from Sony, and Blackley’s own girlfriend all led to a seemingly (at the time) ludicrous idea for Microsoft to jump into the console arena.
Blackley met Gates during a tech demo for Trespasser, the Jurassic Park tie-in game that would go on to become an industry and early internet pariah due to Dreamworks forcing it to be shipped before much of its gameplay tech had even been finalized. Impressed by Blackley and his work, Gates helped Blackley earn a job at Microsoft as “Program Manager for Entertainment Graphics.”
Fast forward to the announcement of the PlayStation 2, where Blackley watched Sony claim the console was going to beat Windows, have Linux and email functionality on it, and generally be the all-in-one living room machine.
“I think the Sony PR guys didn’t really understand how serious an attack this seemed like in [Microsoft headquarters] Redmond,” Blackley says on the latest episode of our monthly interview show, IGN Unfiltered (see above for the full episode). “I think it was like, ‘Look, it can do this too,’ and in Redmond it’s like, ‘We’ve declared war!’”
As a program manager at Microsoft, Blackley now had a far deeper insight on graphics technology that was powering upcoming PCs. To Blackley, the thing that held PCs back from dominating over consoles was that PCs ran dramatically better or worse depending on which parts someone used, muddying the waters of PC development and forcing PC developers to plan for the lowest-powered customer.
“You end up dumbing down your content in your game so that you’re sure all your customers can have a reasonable experience, and I had just delivered a totally unreasonable experience, so I understood this,” Blackley says.
Sometime later, Blackley flew out to his girlfriend’s home in Boston to spend some time with her. Since working at Microsoft came with the perk of getting new laptops, Blackley had his sent to her address, where she quickly told him he would have to wait until he flew back to use it. While on the plane, Blackley was struck with numerous ideas for how Microsoft could beat Sony at its own game.
“If we want to really screw Sony, we just need to define a standard,” Blackley began thinking. “No, it needs to be a hardware standard. Well, no, it could be an actual device. We can make it an actual console, and we’ll be better because we can use all the tools on the PC that are much better than the tools being used for PlayStation, and you can use all the methodologies, the architecture for PC, the GPUs are so much more advanced, based on real research and use case scenarios, and oh my god, we can kill them. So by the time I landed, I’m like, ‘We need to make a console.’”
Blackley and a coworker began “inviting” themselves to meetings to pitch the Xbox until they came face to face with Bill Gates once again. Gates was still impressed by Blackley’s work in the graphics department, so the pitch was greenlit.
“There are a small number of people who have this weird experience where a thing that occurs to you one day becomes a global brand,” Blackley says. “Everybody else that you talk to assumes Xbox was discovered in a mine somewhere, like ‘We’ll [just] release this!’ These decisions had to be made by [actual] people.”
Joseph Knoop is a contributor to IGN. Follow him on Twitter at @JosephKnoop.