The Big Fries
Co-founder of the Xbox project Ed Fries talks cloud, software innovation and the potential for new hardware
Ed Fries is a man in the rare and enviable position of being able to pick his projects. His eighteen years at Microsoft, during which time he was the driving force behind Microsoft Game Studios and co-founder of the Xbox project, have left him with a unique perspective on the games industry and how it works. That experience has led to board positions with companies like Z2Live and the Pacific Science Centre, as well as advisory roles at Razer, Smoking Gun and Emotiv Systems.
In some senses, his career has come almost full circle - he recently took advantage of some of the goodwill he earned from working closely with Bungie to code Halo 2600, an Atari 2600 title set in the Halo universe - a fitting hobby for a man who once worked for Atari itself. Here, Fries talks about his forthcoming presentation at Nordic Game, his current projects and what the future may hold.
Q: What can you tell us about your Nordic Game presentation?
Ed Fries: The speech is going to be along the lines of what I've been talking about recently, it's mostly for fun. I talk about writing Halo 2600 and use that as an excuse to talk about bigger issues in the games business. I guess if I was going to summarise, it'd be that.
Q: Halo 2600 was an interesting project - you seem to have been involved in a lot of those since leaving Microsoft. How do you choose the projects you're going to work on? Is it purely a matter of personal preference?
Ed Fries: I think that's right. Maybe the project appeals to me or the people working on it. Mostly I'm just trying to stay involved in the games business, but do it in a way that fits with my life. My two boys are six and nine now, I like to be involved in helping them to grow up. Maybe some day they'll get involved in the business, that'd be fun.
So mostly what I do is try and avoid having a full time job. [laughs] But I do keep busy too. I'm on the boards of a bunch of companies, I run a little company called Figure Print. I've enjoyed getting back into programming, that's something I've always loved to do.
Q: What's been your favourite project of the last few years?
I like being on the boards of companies, being an advisor - but after a while, it's not hands on enough for me.
Ed Fries: That's a hard question. I'm not sure I have a favourite - I kind of move from one thing to another and generally just do things that I enjoy. I like being on the boards of companies, being an advisor - but after a while, it's not hands on enough for me. I think that's what leads me to do things like Figure Print or Halo 2600 or something where I can really be in there myself, making things happen, as opposed to giving advice to other people.
I like to have a mix of those things.
Q: One of the advisory positions you hold is with Razer, so some people have speculated that you're involved with the Switchblade project - is there anything you can tell us about that?
Ed Fries: That's some good fishing right there. [laughs] I'll say a couple of things. I've been involved with Razer for over a year, they just didn't announce it until recently. The announcement was relatively coincidental with the announcement of Switchblade - the releases were close to each other. Also they showed Switchblade running World of Warcraft so people kind of put those things together and decided I was working on Switchblade, which isn't necessarily true.
Like most of the companies I'm an advisor to, I help them out in a lot of different ways, usually with connections or maybe I'll hear about a person who's available that they'll want to hire or some new technology. For example, I just had some Razer people in town and I took them to the University of Washington to look at some new technology that was being developed in the labs there, which I thought might be useful for Razer for a future product.
That's the kind of thing that I do - the thing about Switchblade was speculation in the media.
Q: Your freedom to pick and choose projects and stay on the move seems like a big factor in choosing what it is you're going to be doing next. Would you ever consider another full-time position at a platform holder or a publisher?
Ed Fries: I don't think so! [laughs] Honestly, I kind of like my life the way it is. I've built the life I want to have. I enjoy working with a lot of different people on a lot of different projects and I have the freedom to dive in a little more deeply if I want to.
To me it would be a little bit like going backwards. I enjoyed my time doing that job, there's definitely some big pluses and minuses to doing it. Right now I like travelling less, having more time for my family and having more time to work on projects that interest me personally.
Q: Your time at Microsoft, and to a lesser extent Atari, was a hugely formative period for the company. Do you think that period, when things were perhaps a little fresher and less cynical in the console market, represents something of a golden age?
Ed Fries: I'm not sure I'd call it a golden age. It was really fun. It was fun building up the PC gaming business at Microsoft and working with people like Ensemble to release Age of Empires, it was fun to build up Microsoft's console business and work on Xbox - those were really fun times.
The console business is sort of reaching the point of huge budgets, huge projects. That makes it harder to do smaller things, more innovative things. To me what's exciting is what's happening on the fringes. Maybe not even the fringes any more. Social network gaming, mobile platforms, digital distribution and how it's opening up the world to indie development.
It's sort of like Back to the Future, you know? When we were starting those projects it wasn't uncommon for the budgets to be small, a few million dollars, it wasn't uncommon for the teams to be small. Now you look at these projects that are multi-hundred person, maybe $50-$100 million budgets. But then you go to the indie world, the iOS world, and you're back to the future, back to these smaller teams.
To me what's exciting is social network gaming, mobile platforms, digital distribution and how it's opening up the world to indie development.
I think that's exciting. Part of what I talk about in my presentation is the similarity of the evolution of game genres to the evolution of people. There's a book I mention which says that if you went back in time and played evolution forward again it might not be the same. We didn't necessarily get the survival of the fittest, we didn't necessarily get the best creatures. Once certain life forms become established they're very hard to displace.
You can see that happening with certain game genres. There was a lot more diversity in the content which was available in the past, now it's down to, sort of by force, a small number of genres in the console world because they're the ones that can support $100 million budgets. The question is, whether these newly evolving platforms will follow the same path because their customers are different or the hardware is different, or just through the luck of evolution.
Whether completely different forms of play will emerge. Why is Angry Birds the game for mobile platforms. Is it because it's the best game that anyone came up with on that platform or is it a combination of several really complicated factors that have made it own this position? So now we're in this position where Angry Bird type games are a genre - it's kind of weird to think about it that way, right?
That's sort of the way these markets evolve. I guess that's some of the philosophy of the things I'll talk about in my presentation.
Q: Do you think we'll ever see mobile and social games move into the multi-million budget bracket?
Ed Fries: I'm not sure we ever believed that console games would ever get as big as they did. The console market is a lot smaller, in terms of the reach and the number of people it touches. Maybe the dollars per user will never be as big as console, but so many more users are being reached. Take a look at a company like Zynga. It's hard to say what kind of market cap Zynga has reached because it's privately traded, but it's certainly larger than EA right now. Maybe not as big as Activision Blizzard, but not that far away. Think about that.
You've already got a company that's almost as big as one of the largest in the console business. I don't see why that can't happen in the mobile space. One of the companies I'm on the board of is a company called Z2live. I've been impressed and amazed with the performance of their game: Trade Nation on iOS. I didn't look this morning but it's been kicking around the top ten grossing apps. So there's a lot of money to be made there.
Free-to-play is a really interesting model because it has such a low barrier to entry. Anybody can get into the game for free and then decide for themselves how deep they want to get into it. Then how much money you make is tied to how into it people are. That's sort of the purest model, right?
If you've got to go to the store, spend $40 on a game you've only read about in a review and I don't know if I'm going to like it or not. It's a crapshoot, right?
There's things about free-to-play I don't like too, but I think it's one of the most interesting models that's evolving right now. I think that's going to be the key to the way these cellphone platforms go forward. In that sense it's different, is I guess what I'm saying, to the console market. You're probably not going to have TV ads for free-to-play games. I don't know, maybe you will.
Q: Well there was the ad for Angry Birds Rio during the Superbowl...
Ed Fries: There you go!
Q: We've sort of come around to an idea that we've been skirting around - which is the threat facing the console market at the moment. Those heavily invested in it are perhaps feeling a little nervous about it's future at the moment. How do you see that pressure affecting the platform holders? Will we see their technology diverging or growing more similar?
Ed Fries: You know, I was on the board of a company called Canesta, which Microsoft purchased last fall - they make, well, Kinect style technology is probably the easiest way to describe it. I think that's a rich vein of innovation that Microsoft's going to be pursuing - I'm not sure how the other companies are going to react to that.
Certainly those depth-sensing cameras are going to get better and better - so that they can really differentiate what's happening in a room, movements of fingers in a hand, highly detailed data I think that's going to open up a potentially interesting new interface. To technology as a whole, but primarily to game designers.
It's really easy to predict the future. The hard part is predicting when that future is going to happen.
You give game designers a whole new capability and they figure out what to do with it. You can kind of see that happening now with iOS and iPad. The touchscreen. So many limitations are related to a controller with buttons. If you try to put on-screen buttons and press them, it doesn't work so well.
Now people are actually designing for the interface they're creating games which are really relevant and interesting because they're doing things which are native to that. I think that's what you're going to see with both the current and future consoles that can sense the player and the environment and react to it. I think there's going to continue to be innovation there, on the console side, the hardware side.
I think the challenge is less about that... I worry more about innovation on the software side, honestly. I worry about too many sequels. The problem when budgets and teams get really big is that it just gets too risky for publishers to go out and do new things. I think the heart and soul of entertainment is surprising the audience. Doing something new and different.
How many times do we want to play Halo? I love Halo, but I want something different - I've been playing that game for a long time! [laughs]
Call of Duty is another great example right now. At least with Call of Duty there's this rich history of war you can tap into and present new things. These experiences can only go on so long. You see that in the movies, right? You can only go on making sequels for so long. Viewers decline. People want something new. They want something different and surprising.
How does that come into a market where budgets have gotten so big and expectations have gotten so big? How can we make room for that creativity to appear? I think that's the challenge for these big console publishers. They know that. It's a tough challenge.
Q: What about the possibility of a fourth horse entering that console race? Apple are looking like a reasonable prospect for that - is there room for a fourth player?
Ed Fries: It would be kind of a weird time to bring out another pure console. I think you're more likely to see capability being built into set-top boxes, into televisions. Or what's happening with OnLive, stuff that's happening out in the cloud. Something very light at home, dependent on a fast broadband connection. I think you're more likely to see competition come from those sorts of directions rather than yet another big expensive box sitting at home. I don't know, maybe I don't have enough vision in that area but three companies seems like enough to be fighting it out.
Q: Do you think that the cloud streaming tech is potentially a way into a platformless future?
Ed Fries: There's always been this tension between how much technology you want locally and how much you want remotely. On the one hand you can make the same argument about home PCs - that the home PC should just go away, we should just have a keyboard and a screen and all the computing hardware should be out, shared somewhere online. You could say we're slowly heading in that direction, but I first heard that idea more than twenty years ago. We're a little closer.
In some ways it's become a simpler problem. We're a lot less dependent on latency and stuff like that, but, if the price is cheap enough, people like to have their own stuff, you know? They like to buy stuff and have it there and deal with it locally. So I'm a little sceptical sometimes about these futuristic visions for where we're going to get to.
For me it's really easy to predict the future. The hard part is predicting when that future is going to happen. This is one of those things that falls into that category, for me. There are some real problems, and I'm sure you can interview lots of other people who know a lot more about it than I do, around latency and compression and things like that. I just know that for my kids, in my house now, they prefer to play on the local machine as opposed to using OnLive, which we also have.
But OnLive has definitely moved that ball a long way down the path from where it was before. They've solved a lot of problems and done a lot of great work. I'd like to see them funding more original content. You were talking about a fourth console maker coming into the market - they're a little bit like that.
It's like a fourth console that's come out but doesn't have any must-have exclusive content on their platform. It's like if you launched a competitor that only had the same stuff everybody else has. It'd be tough to sell, right?
Q: Do you think the market still holds as much potential as when you were developing Xbox? Is it as exciting?
Ed Fries: In a lot of ways I think it's the most exciting time. Honestly. I think about the speeches I used to give, 10-15 years ago, saying 'some day everybody is going to be a gamer, it's going to be an important form of media, bigger than movies or music'. Now I can't give that speech anymore because it's already happened. We have this huge audience now, and it's so diverse how we reach them, through cellphones, though web browsers.
I'm optimistic about our future. Digital distribution is in the process of opening up a direct connection between developers and their audience. That's really exciting. It's like when I was first starting out, you can have one guy who writes a game and puts it up and people can play it - and it can matter.
Ed Fries is currently pursuing personal projects, including 3D avatar printing service Figure Prints, and sits on the board and advisory panels of several games industry companies. Interview by Dan Pearson.