In a heartfelt and highly personal talk at the DICE Summit today, Ed Fries, co-founder of the original Xbox and former vice president of games at Microsoft, described his passion for "making stuff" and it all began with his father.
Fries talked about how he grew up in a house filled with airplanes, because his father who worked during the day at Boeing, then came home and worked on model and radio control airplanes. In preparation for his talk, Fries actually interviewed his father (which he said was scary) and discovered that his father's obsession for planes originated from his youth during the WWII era, when he heard all about fighter planes. "It's amazing how much of the passions we have comes from stuff when we're young," Fries noted.
Likewise, Fries' passion for games and programming came from his early exposure to the first arcade titles, like Space Invaders, Space Wars, Centipede and more. "These defined my youth, and then I'd go home and try to imitate them," he said. At an early age, he was asked to have his games published, and so he found himself in the games business as a high school kid, and before he knew it, he landed at Microsoft.
Fries described his time at Microsoft like the recent movie, Ender's Game. "We were recruited as children to fight in their wars, Excel vs Lotus 1,2,3 and Word vs Word Perfect." He played a scene where Harrison Ford asks Ender: "You don't like taking orders do you? Perhaps you want to lead your own army?" And so, Fries was given the opportunity to lead an "army" at Microsoft, to lead them right into the games business. This, of course, led to the creation of Xbox, but Fries wondered aloud if he'd created a monster, one which he could no longer control.
"By end of 2003, the walls I built between my group and the rest of the company began to break down. I had a vision, I saw myself leaving Microsoft for the first time. Have I set into motion, like Ender, forces that would destory the thing I built, the thing I love? It was going to happen whether it was there or not, and so I left. I wish I could say that that vision was wrong," he remarked.
What Fries was referring to was the dissipation of all the talent he had worked with while leading games at Microsoft. He showed screen captures of news stories detailing all sorts of employees leaving and studios being closed (Stamper brothers leaving Rare, Molyneux leaving Lionhead, Ensemble shuttered and more). This, however, inspired Fries to make part of his everyday job helping people, sometimes as an advisor, sometimes as a board member. But he's of course still making stuff, like figures at Figure Prints, and games for really old consoles like Atari.
But the "biggest thing for me for the last 10 years has been being around my kids," he stressed. And similar to how he picked up a passion for making things from his dad, his kids, who are now 9 and 11, like to make stuff too. They make things in games, like Minecraft and Kerbal. Fries recalled a time when his dad allowed him to fly a model plane for the first time and he crashed it on the field. His dad never got angry. "You get over that soon. I think I destroyed 10 airplanes before I learned," Fries' dad said. Perhaps he knew better than to stifle his son's own quest to make stuff. "From grandfather to father to son, the world goes round and round, like an airplane on a string," Fries closed.