Xbox co-creator Ed Fries’ imagination was captured by video games when he was a teenager. Forty years later, that fascination persists.
You could add Ed Fries’ Eastside garage to this list, except for one difference. Fries, who worked at Microsoft for 18 years and is best known as a co-creator of the Xbox, isn’t trying to build the next great computer company from humble and home-based beginnings. Instead, he’s trying to preserve an era of computing — the Bronze Age, as he describes it — that passed more than 40 years ago: namely, the early-1970s birth of the arcade video game.
You remember video game arcades. Those noisy, dim-lit rooms were the G-rated siblings of today’s ubiquitous casinos, filled with glowing screens housed in brightly painted cabinets and designed to separate teenagers from their quarters at a rate that seemed to outpace the production capabilities of the U.S. Mint. Fries was a teenager during the late-1970s and early-1980s, when video game mania tidally swept American culture. Kids sipped 7-Eleven Slurpees out of plastic cups covered in images of Q*bert, Frogger, and Centipede. Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. were their own brands of cereal. The hit song “Pac-Man Fever” made far-too-regular radio station rotations and became the craze’s anthem. According to many estimates, the video game arcade industry at its peak was worth approximately $8 billion ($21 billion in today’s dollars).
An Eastside native who worked part-time at Shakey’s Pizza off Bel-Red Road while attending Sammamish High School, Fries was drawn to video games for a little different reason than were his peers. He was less interested in recording his high scores on leader boards, and more interested in taking apart these machines to see how they worked.
“Although I liked the games from a game-player point of view, really, I was more interested in the technology behind them,” explained Fries. “I would see those games in the arcade — especially the early ones, before there were microprocessors — and I would wonder how you build a game with just logic chips. How does this stuff work?”
This childhood curiosity has followed Fries, 53, throughout his life. His garage is proof of that. The dark, shingle-sided building with white trim sits near the end of a brick, forest-lined driveway that stretches from a secluded cul de sac in Kirkland’s Juanita neighborhood toward the Lake Washington waterfront and the home he shares with his wife, Kathy, and sons Xander, 15, and Jasper, 12. A lush canopy of trees covers most of Fries’ property, which is occupied by a dense, Edenic garden filled with threaded cobblestone trails and footbridges, the distant squawks of domestic chickens and guinea fowl, and a 26-foot-tall Anubis that stands sentinel over the property.
Open the garage doors, and you’ll find a polestar for gaming geeks. This is where Fries collects and restores the most notable arcade video games ever made. A fine example is Computer Space, a tall, bulbous, bright-yellow fiberglass machine manufactured in 1971 and considered the first commercial arcade video game (it had cameos in the movies Soylent Green and Jaws). Other notable machines are lined up like nostalgic curiosities: Pong (1972), Gran Trak 10 (1974), Starship 1 (1977), and Space War (1977).
They might look like museum pieces, but these machines are fully operational, as demonstrated when Fries played the noisy and very low-tech Gran Trak 10 during a recent visit.
The garage is Fries’ tinker space, the place where he received and repaired Computer Space and found the first video game Easter egg in Starship 1 (its original programmer, Ron Milner, had buried code into the system; if a player executed a certain sequence of moves, the message “Hi Ron!” would appear on the screen, and the player would amass 10 free games). It’s also where he keeps memorabilia from his career at Microsoft, such as an Xbox console autographed by Bill Gates and a framed stock certificate from the company’s early years. And there are scores of old video game cartridges (shelves filled with Atari 2600 games, many still in their original packages) and old computers (Atari 800, Apple II, Atari Stacy 4).
Fries’ garage looks like a video game collector’s paradise, but it’s really the manifestation of its owner’s longtime love for video games, a facet of his personality that guided his leadership of the Xbox’s early development. Fries is a gamer at heart.
“Ed understands the technology and the code part of gaming, as well as appreciates the artistic and creative aspects of it,” said Robbie Bach, former president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division (and Fries’ boss during Xbox’s development). “That is actually quite a unique combination. There are very few people who have both of those attributes. In many respects, on Xbox, he was the conscience of the developer — and when I say developer, I also mean the game creator. The person who was the creative mind behind the product.”
The history of the Xbox is populated by a core of key players, from well-known executives (Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer) to boots-on-the-ground developers, managers, and executives (Bach, J Allard, Kevin Bachus, Otto Berkes, Seamus Blackley, Ted Hase, Todd Holmdahl, and Rick Thompson). Fries is in that mix of key figures in the development of the original Xbox.
“Ed played a really crucial role in bringing the Xbox to fruition,” observed Jon-Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG). Headquartered in Rochester, New York, the center also is home of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, and includes some of the games Fries helped bring to market. “(He was that) key advocate and supporter who really made it work, and he was a guy who built the internal games for the Xbox. All of that is important because of the important role that the Xbox has played in shaping gaming culture.”
“If you asked, ‘Who’s on the Mount Rushmore of the creation of Xbox?’ Ed’s on it,” Bach added. “No question.”
GAME OF CLONES
Fries was raised in a household that revered science and computers. Both parents worked at Boeing: his father, Jim, as an electrical engineer, and his mother, Marilyn, as a chemical engineer, though she later returned to college to earn a computer science degree and then found employment at Digital Equipment Corporation. The Fries family — which included Ed’s older brother, Bob, and Ed’s twin sister, Karen — was smart and well-educated.
By early 1981, 16-year-old Fries was using Basic and Assembly language software code to create DIY video games on an Atari 800. A year later, one of Fries’ games, Froggie, made its way to ROMOX, a Silicon Valley video game developer. The company liked the work and asked if he could make more games. He could, he said, but there was one problem. Froggie was an unlicensed knockoff of Frogger, the popular arcade game where players navigated a frog between vehicle traffic and forded a river filled with fast-moving logs and hungry crocodiles.
Fries and ROMOX made enough changes to the game to dodge lawsuits from Konami, Frogger’s creator. Froggie became Princess and Frog, and was reprogrammed with a medieval theme. Cars were replaced by jousting knights, and the frog needed to reach a castle-bound princess so he could kiss her and turn into a prince.
Fries signed a contract with ROMOX — no cash advance, and only 5 percent royalties — and developed two more games for the company: Anteater, which seemed to share the same 8-bit DNA as Dig Dug, and Sea Chase.
Between 1981 and 1984, this game development deal generated several thousand dollars for Fries, enough money to put gas in his car during high school and, when he was accepted to New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, help pay his tuition. In 1984, Fries was a sophomore in college and working on a shooting game called Nitro for ROMOX when the home video game industry crashed for a number of reasons: a flood of video game consoles, scores of poorly produced games, and the rise of the home computer. ROMOX went out of business, and Fries was out of a job. He did find work in the computer lab at New Mexico Tech while he completed a degree in computer science.
Meanwhile, back home in Washington state, a tech company on the Eastside was starting to make a name for itself in the software industry. The company was Microsoft, and it was barely a decade old in 1985, the summer of Fries’ junior year in college, when he was offered an internship there. He quickly caught the attention of his supervisors, earning the nickname “Fast Eddie” because he was such a deft programmer. Fries graduated college the following year and was offered a full-time job at Microsoft.
THE HALO EFFECT
Fries joined a small team of programmers tasked with writing software code. He spent five years as a programmer for Excel, and the next five years working on Word, first as a programmer and then eventually leading a team of developers. He enjoyed his work and his colleagues, and gained a reputation as someone who played as hard as he worked.
Bach first met Fries in 1988 because he shared an office with Fries’ sister, who was working at Microsoft as a program manager. “Ed used to come down at night when he was working late and mess around with Karen’s computer, screw it up,” recalled Bach, who retired from Microsoft in 2010 and lives in Medina. “He also had this thing that he did on Friday nights called ‘Swing Around The Wing,’ which was an indoor golf putting contest on the second floor of our building.”
Fries also armed his team of programmers with Silly String and covered the offices, hallways, and entire wings occupied by other divisions of the company.
Writing code for Excel and Word might sound like a slog, but this was more than 20 years ago, when only a few software companies were battling for space on consumers’ computer desktops. The industry was competitive, the environment exciting. Microsoft Excel was trying to unseat Lotus 1-2-3. Microsoft Word was trying to win over Corel WordPerfect customers.
These tech battles weren’t just about software for corporate America. A new battle was forming between video game developers. True, the industry had largely (and famously) collapsed in the mid-1980s, but there were signs of life for home consoles.
Nintendo saw success with the release of the NES in 1983, the Super NES in 1990, and the Nintendo 64 in 1996. Sony successfully released the first version of its PlayStation in 1994. And Sega was preparing to release Dreamcast, the sixth iteration of its home-gaming console, in 1998.
According to Dean Takahashi, author of Opening The Xbox: Inside Microsoft’s Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution, between 1995 and 2000, Sony had 47 percent of the worldwide video game market, Nintendo claimed 28 percent, Sega owned 23 percent, and smaller companies split the rest of the pie.
Microsoft saw a market opportunity and decided to invest in gaming. DirectX, a team of programmers tasked with developing an Application Programming Interface to run games on the Microsoft Windows operating system, began to seriously think about developing a video game console. Meanwhile, Fries was offered a job in 1995 to lead the company’s anemic PC game publishing division.
“We had Flight Simulator and not much else,” recalled Fries.
Fries’ move from the more-stable Word division to the uncharted gaming division was seen by many of his colleagues as foolish and risky.
“Multiple vice presidents told me that I was ‘committing career suicide,’” Fries said. “That was a direct quote. They were not happy. But the people who offered me the job wanted me to have the job.”
Still, the voices of those naysayers crept into Fries’ decision making. He spent a couple weeks pondering the move before he accepted the job, becoming show-runner of the Microsoft games division. Two weeks later, he was in Tokyo discussing video games with developers he admired, playing their games, and building Microsoft’s Game Studios division.
“At the end of one day, I was walking down this street in Tokyo, and I thought, ‘Man, I have the best job in the world!’ Right then, it was very night and day,” Fries said. “I no longer had any concerns. This was a really cool job that was going to be fun to do.”
By late 1998, DirectX team members approached Fries about creating a video game console that would compete with Nintendo 64 and Sony’s PlayStation and run on the Microsoft Windows operating system. Essentially, it was a PC in disguise. As it happened, another group within Microsoft wanted to build a video game console that would still use a version of Windows, but run largely on a custom-made operating system and hardware.
Gates and Ballmer opted for DirectX’s more Windows-centered proposal.
Over the next year, however, as the team created a plan to develop the new console, it became clear the new machine would not be centered on the Windows operating system. That news was broken to Gates and Ballmer during an hours-long meeting on February 14, 2000, that came to be known as the Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was a heated meeting, according to Fries, Bach, and other executives, with Gates yelling, pounding his fists on the table, and arguing fervently against a machine that wouldn’t be centered on the Windows operating system. At one point, it seemed like Microsoft might abandon the Xbox project altogether.
In the end, staff convinced Gates and Ballmer that building the games-centered Xbox was the way to go, and they couldn’t afford to lose any more ground to Nintendo and Sony in the consumers’ homes. From then on, Microsoft was all in when it came to gaming.
“Ed had a lot of long-term credibility at Microsoft,” said Dyson of the ICHEG. “When he became a supporter of the project when it was coming out of DirectX, he gave it a big boost. It needed to have an advocate, and he played that role.”
While the Xbox moved closer to commercial release, Fries built Microsoft’s roster of game titles — often by acquiring smaller video game development companies. Two companies proved to be prescient acquisitions that were key to Xbox’s survival. In 2000, Microsoft acquired Bungie, a game developer founded in 1991 in Chicago and best known for producing the first-person science-fiction shooter game Halo. A year later, Microsoft acquired Ensemble Studios, then a 6-year-old, Dallas-based video game developer that created the blockbuster franchise Age of Empires.
“I don’t know that Xbox survives without Halo,” Bach said. “Obviously, Ed was the person who selected and believed in it. Ed would say the Bungie guys themselves did the work. But Halo was Ed’s from beginning to end. It was clearly his vision that would be the lead launch title for that product. I think he looked at it and said, ‘This is an incredible title with a great storyline, a strong group of creative people, and development people who just don’t have the resources to bring to life what they envision.’”
Equally impressive to Bach is Fries’ belief the game would succeed at a time when first-person shooter games weren’t taken as seriously as other genres. “I think Ed was inspired, and that’s all I can say,” Bach added. “Halo was a game that started on the Mac, went to the PC, and it was in a category that people didn’t think worked on game consoles. Six months before the product shipped, people didn’t think it was very good. But Ed was right.”
On January 3, 2001, Fries was in Las Vegas to attend the annual Consumer Electronics show and watch Gates unveil the Xbox with the help of wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Later that year, on Nov. 15, Fries joined Gates and his other Microsoft colleagues at a Toys“R”Us in Times Square to mark the Xbox’s release in North America (the product went on sale at midnight, and lime green spotlights shone in the gelid night sky). Finally, one year later, Microsoft launched Xbox Live, which allowed gamers to play against each other online.
According to Microsoft, more than 1.5 million Xbox consoles were sold in North America during the first three months it was available. By May 2006, Microsoft reported more than 24 million Xbox consoles were sold worldwide.
All that success meant almost everyone at Microsoft had ideas about the Xbox’s future.
At a time when Xbox’s popularity was growing, Fries had reservations about staying at Microsoft.
Fries met individually with Gates and Ballmer to explain he planned to leave the company. Microsoft announced Fries would retire in January 2004. It was an amicable parting, Fries said, and he left the company on good terms.
Still, Fries is often asked why he left the company so early in Xbox’s history, and in his own career (he was 39 years old).
“When I worked on (Word and Excel), people were constantly trying to derail what we were trying to do,” Fries explained. “Our goal was to make the best spreadsheet and ship it on time. Make the best word processor and ship it on time. Beat our competition. But there would be all these sort of corporate requests: ‘Can you support our initiative over here in this part of the company? Can you take this piece of code rather than write your own for this thing?’ Our experience was that when we rely on other groups, especially when they don’t use our process, they let us down. When I was running Word, I used to say that my job was to say no, and I had to say no a lot — all the way up to Bill (Gates) and Steve (Ballmer). You’re not very popular when you have to say no all the time.”
Those same challenges were starting to creep into Fries’ division once Xbox was successful.
“When I went to go run the games group and they said you are going to work on something no one cares about, I thought, great, because I’m sick of having to work on something that people care about because I have to keep them away all the time so that we can actually get it done,” he continued. “By the time we launched Xbox and it all of a sudden became something that people cared about and it was successful, where I was used to running my own empire — you could kind of even say spoiled in that regard — all of a sudden there was a lot of pressure for outside parts of the company now to get involved. Now they want to change things. Now there’s going to be a lot more attention on how we make decisions and why we are deciding to support this game and not this other game. For me, it was too much.”
“For Ed, that was hard because he really liked running his own business,” said Bach. “Ed has never been a drama guy. That’s just not who he is. He’s really straightforward. We had a couple of really good constructive conversations, and Ed left with me on great terms. We are still good friends. It was hard having him leave at the time he did. But it was the right thing for what he wanted to accomplish, and we had a set of objectives that we had to live by, too. Sometimes, those things happen.”
Fries was married and with a young son at home, and another child due soon, when he left Microsoft. “Financially, I didn’t really need to be at the company anymore,” he added. “All of that stuff sort of came together in one place and made it the right time for me to leave.”
A RETIREMENT REBOOT
Fries didn’t know what life would be like after Microsoft. He was concerned he might lose his connections to the professional video game world. Instead, his involvement in gaming redoubled, and he discovered he could contribute to the industry in ways both enjoyable and creative.
He started to advise local gaming startups and tech entrepreneurs, such as David Ortiz, the founder and CEO of Emortal Sports, an AR/VR game-development company in Bellevue. Ortiz met Fries in 1999, when he was hired by Microsoft as a game developer and reported to Fries. Ortiz left the company in 2003 and went on to work for Electronic Arts, Sony, and Warner Brothers before he started Emortal Sports. Fries was one of the first people Ortiz reached out to for advice on starting his own company.
“Ed provides a good sense of perspective and priority,” said Ortiz. “I’m a seasoned vet myself and I’ve been around a long time, but Ed has seen so many games and so many companies. You take his advice to heart when he says, ‘Hey, you should consider this.’ I consider it. I don’t have to question the source.”
Fries also serves on several boards, including the Pacific Science Center and the International Game Developers Association (IDGA) Foundation. His work at the IGDA Foundation allows him to pursue an issue he deeply cares about: diversity in the gaming industry.
And, of course, Fries returned to his roots — namely, old-school video game programming.
In 2010, he was at a video game expo in Las Vegas when he surprised attendees by releasing 150 copies of Halo 2600 — his own version of the blockbuster game, but one that was played on the Atari 2600 and featured all the blocky, low-tech pixelated graphics that defined that late-1970s and early-1980s video game console. Halo 2600 was a hit among hard-core gamers. The popular gaming website Kotaku described it as “a cross between Adventure and Berzerk, and a clever little timewaster that riffs on the tropes of Atari 2600 game design, especially the snicker-inducing bleep-bloop Halo theme in the intro.” In 2013, Halo 2600 was included in The Art of Video Games, an exhibit presented by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Fries spends at least an hour each weekday in that backyard garage-turned-computer museum and workshop, fixing old machines, dreaming up new video game ideas, and even playing Halo with his kids.
“I’m just going to keep doing my stuff, helping people where I can, and having fun,” said Fries. “That’s life.”
One Xbox, Many Lives
In the years following the original Xbox’s release, Microsoft produced several limited-edition versions of the product. Some proved to be gimmicky marketing bombs, while others became rare collectors’ items. Here’s a look at some of our favorites.
DATE RELEASED: Nov. 15, 2001 (US);
Feb. 22, 2002 (JP); March 14, 2002 (EUR)
X-FACTOR: The first Xbox to hit store shelves; gaming pundits derided the console’s deluxe cheeseburger-sized “Duke” controller.
DATE RELEASED: 2002 (Japan)
X-FACTOR: This smoky black iteration included a keychain engraved with Bill Gates’ signature. Gates is worth billions. His replica signature? Not so much. Fifty-thousand consoles were produced, but only 10,000 sold.
Xbox Crystal Edition
DATE RELEASED: March 2004 (Europe); Summer 2004 (Canada)
X-FACTOR: Sold only in Europe, and at Zellers and Wal-Mart stores in Canada, it’s sort of like the Crystal Pepsi version of Xbox.
Xbox Mountain Dew
DATE RELEASED: April – August 2004
X-FACTOR: The “reward” for drinking 145 gallons of Mountain Dew and collecting 550 Dew Points? Entry into a national sweepstakes to buy one of only 5,000 neon green consoles.
Xbox Kasumi-Chan (Dead or Alive)
DATE RELEASED: March 25, 2004 (Japan only)
X-FACTOR: Gamers get a bad rap for spending too much time alone. Maybe that’s why this console came with a life-sized body pillow.
Xbox Pure White
DATE RELEASED: 2004 (Japan)
X-FACTOR: A true collector’s item (only 1,000 machines were manufactured) that can fetch up to $4,500 on eBay.
Xbox Special Edition Launch Team
DATE RELEASED: Nov. 7 & Nov. 8, 2001
X-FACTOR: Sold exclusively to select Microsoft employees, the topside gem on these machines came with a scrawled message from the company’s co-founder: “Great work! Bill Gates.”
Xbox Hello Kitty
DATE RELEASED: 2005 (Singapore)
X-FACTOR: Sold only in Singapore and only available at one retailer with the purchase of a $5,000 Samsung television.
DATE RELEASED: 2004 (Germany)
X-FACTOR: During a gaming convention in Leipzig, one lucky attendee collected five pins that spelled “A-T-A-R-I” and was awarded this one-of-a-kind Xbox.