Founding Xbox engineer: last 5 years "painful to watch"

Nat Brown says machine "Coasting on past momentum. Failing to innovate"

Nat Brown, an engineer who joined the Xbox engineering team in its infancy in 1999 and claims to have given it its name, has penned an explosive declamation on the path which the brand is taking, calling the last five years, and "the last year in particular," "painful to watch."

Brown's post, on his personal blog, reveals that, whilst a multimedia experience was always a vital part of the long term plans for Xbox, it has taken centre-stage at the cost of gaming. Specifically, Brown feels that support for smaller developers and digital distribution has been dangerously lacking.

"My gripe, my head-smack, is not that the broader content/entertainment business isn't where you want to go with a living-room-connected device. It absolutely is," writes Brown. "Indeed, this was the point of Xbox, that was why it was the Trojan horse for the living room, where we could land and be welcomed by millions of console customers with more hardware and better software and network connectivity than the non-console devices (webtv, cable set-top-boxes) we had been pursuing.

"The past 5 years, and the last year in particular, have been simply painful to watch. Coasting on past momentum. Failing to innovate and failing to capitalize on innovations like Kinect."

Nat Brown

"No, more and better content was always the point and the plan. My gripe is that, as usual, Microsoft has jumped its own shark and is out stomping through the weeds planning and talking about far-flung future strategies in interactive television and original programming partnerships with big dying media companies when their core product, their home town is on fire, their soldiers, their developers, are tired and deserting, and their supply-lines are broken.

"Xbox's primary critical problem is the lack of a functional and growing platform ecosystem for small developers to sell digitally-/network-distributed (non-disc) content through to the installed base of xBox customers, period. Why can't I write a game for Xbox tomorrow using $100 worth of tools and my existing Windows laptop and test it on my home Xbox or at my friends' houses?"

Going on to rail against the $10,000 cost for registering as an Xbox developer, Brown decries the lack of ecosystem features seen on explosive platforms like iOS, where low-barriers to entry have seen a wealth of content driving both system popularity and breadth of choice.

"Xbox's primary critical problem is the lack of a functional and growing platform ecosystem for small developers to sell digitally-/network-distributed content through to the installed base of xBox customers."

Nat Brown

"Why can't I then distribute it digitally in a decent online store, give up a 30 per cent cut and strike it rich if it's a great game, like I can for Android, for iPhone, or for iPad," he asks. "This is where indie developers have found they can go in order to not make money on xBox, despite an installed base of 76 million devices. Microsoft, you are idiotic to have ceded not just indie game developers but also a generation of loyal kids and teens to making games for other people's mobile devices."

Brown's disappointment isn't limited to the machine's poor support for smaller developers, however, he's also angry with the Dashboard UI, which he calls "creaky, slow, and full-of-s***."

"These are the 2 fronts Microsoft is going to lose on in the living room battle with Android 38, iOS," continues Brown. "It's not going to be based on whether they have (a more expensive) Netflix, whether they have original TV/video content or interactive kids television shows which integrate with Kinect. They will lose unless these two things are sorted out well and quickly.

"Microsoft is living in a naive dream-world. I have heard people still there arguing that the transition of the brand from hardcore gamers to casual users and tv-uses was an intentional and crafted success. It was not. It was an accident of circumstance that Microsoft is neither leveraging nor in control of."

Nat Brown left Microsoft in early 2000.

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Latest comments (30)

James Prendergast Process Specialist 9 years ago
Can't really argue with the meat of this argument. Seems one legitimate way of interpreting the reality we see before us... not sure it's the only way though. :)
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
I just think Microsoft and Xbox is losing its focus on games. It wants to do so much that, its becoming less and less a gaming machine.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up9 years ago
I dont think Microsoft are alone or indeed in the worst position when it comes to the lack of innovation from games console manufacturers. They were all caught napping, whilst others built better eco-systems that could do games and more. Its a hard sell if you are trying to interest people in devices that cant connect all their personal data in different places these days. Microsoft have the funds to get that right and they stand a better chance than most I would say. Still tough though.
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Andy Samson QA Supervisor, Digital Media Exchange9 years ago
Leave it to Microsoft to lay waste on good opportunities. They failed to acquire Bizarre Creations and now sit idly and watch the stagnation of a once highly acclaimed games developer, Rare. They didn't even see the potential in developers like Platinum games let alone show concern for indies. Microsoft has indeed lost their focus on why people are buying these consoles, it's not TV, it's not Movies or Music, it's primarily about Games.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises9 years ago
Except you can't compare the games on Xbox with the games on iOS and Android, or even Wii. Xbox's only real competition is from Playstation (which has an even more horrible UI), and PCs running Windows.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop9 years ago
Yes Rick, if you read the article that's what he says the entire end goal of Xbox has always been - the Trojan Horse to get MS in the living room through gaming.
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Bravo, very well said.
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Abraham Tatester Producer 9 years ago
I totally agree with him about MSFT losing their focus on games. I can't tell you how many times I've wished I could customize the UI and remove all of the sections other than "Games."
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Graeme Quantrill Mobile App Developer 9 years ago
The UI has never bothered me to be honest. It's fully of stuff I don't use but I can understand from a business point of view why it's actually there.

Nat hits the nail on the head with the 10k developer license. It puts software houses off. I contract for a company that solely produces Connected TV apps and there is zero reason, other than the cost, why we wouldn't release software on the Xbox. For Google, its free and Apple its 100 a year.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 9 years ago
As someone who ONLY uses consoles for GAMING (period), I find all these deals and partnerships across the board to be money-losing junk added for the masses that should be OPTIONAL choices paid into if wanted at some point instead of shipping as part of the console's content.

Allow people who just want to game to do that out of the box in five minutes or less, free up the memory space for more games, charge less money for the system (or be totally evil and load up ads on the HDD that can't be bypassed upon a first boot - you KNOW you want to) and see what happens.
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Anthony Chan9 years ago
I do agree with what is being said. However, the arguments here are strangely counter to opinions of some developers who also post in these discussions. It has been said many times before, that console is at its "end of days" for gaming. Gaming has taken hold in mobile format, and apparently because of Newell's Steam, it has a permanent foothold in the PC market. Some venture that PC is where the future of gaming is - and as such also the death of console - because of many of the above comments and Mr. Brown's thoughts.

However, if Newell's Steam box and Steam platform are truly the future of gaming, then it would only make sense for Sony, MS, and Nintendo to slowly diversify the console products they have been marketing for decades. It may not make sense to the engineer who crafted the gaming heart of the XBOX. But it does make sense in the grand scheme of things. Maybe the big 3 know what is coming - and seeing there already are two major platforms for indie developers to flourish on (PC & Mobile), they might as well carve up the rest of the market for themselves.

This comes back to my point I always preach. Console is not dead. It is evolving into a Home Theatre essential item, something that is for the general consumer as opposed to the hardcore gamer. If the big 3 want to stay in this game, they will have to convince the non-gamer that their expensive box is truly a must-have for every living room. Unfortunately, with disposable income being so tight around the world, a pure gaming machine does not really hold that title.
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Taylan Kay Game Designer / Programmer / Marketer 9 years ago
@Anthony: I don't think Nat Brown disagrees with diversification of consoles. The point he is making (as I understand and fully agree with) is that there is no excuse for squandering the gaming potential of Xbox. It does not have to be an either/or proposition for a corporation the size of Microsoft; they could have a strong multimedia presence as well as a vibrant gaming ecosystem. Having better policies in place for publishing game content would not weaken the hand of MS under any strategic scenario, it would strengthen it. But the hoops you have to jump through to publish even an indie game for Xbox are ridiculous and idiotic as Brown put it, especially at an age where tools like Unity have lowered technical barriers to entry.
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Ian Brown IT Developer / IT Infrastructure 9 years ago
Im enjoying the media and gaming mix that MS & Sony currently offer with my PS3 being the primary media player for love film & Netflix (due to being so dam quiet over my classic premium 360) but my main games console is still my Xbox. But it's not all peaches and cream though, I'm afraid to say. The recent dashboard not being to my liking for instance and I find it very very irritating and sometimes actually makes me annoyed before I actually start a game.

My main gripe is firstly the adverts....hello im on a paid subscription here (Gold and have been for 10 years) and I get adverts on my xbox dashboard (90% of the time from lovefilm & netflix which Ironically I have subs with too). By all means plaster them on silver accounts (free) but get rid of them pronto off my paid for subscription model. Never had them before metro (or what ever they call it now).

Secondly they have added so much crap to the dashboard now it takes an age to start up my console, so much so it feels like its a PC with windows 8 and a pad (the dash is the same practically). It was never like it before the extra junk was on it, it used to be a quick xbox intro and then boom dashboard. Now its xbox intro and a loading sign for about 30-60seconds before it loads my dash then if i click on my games tab it starts loading again. Its a console and you have managed to make it feel like an aging PC.

Now don't get me wrong I like the look of it and its leaps and bounds over the crappy slides thing they used on release, but personally I wish they kept the original green xbox dash, that just look epic all the time and was fast.
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Anthony Chan9 years ago
@Taylan: I completely agree! I have been waiting for this solution for years. However, it appears the cost to develop this console will go beyond the price point deemed affordable by most consumers. I would be willing to dish out 900 USD for a machine that does it all in a spectacular way. However some may not be so loose with their finances.

As for the barriers to Indie companies, I totally agree with Mr. Brown. I never understood why it cost so much to get the development kits and registration with either Sony or MS, but at the same time, my analysis is mostly based on the each company's ability to saturate its target market and generate bottomline for its shareholders lol.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 9 years ago
"The past 5 years, and the last year in particular, have been simply painful to watch
I find that interesting, particularly since the last 3 years have been the most successful in the history of the Xbox business. The world that the original Xbox was born into is a much different place than where the 360 lives today. And Microsoft has constantly evolved and adapted to the times, which is why their console is still alive and well. While I will agree that watching the last few Microsoft E3 conferences(not counting last year) they seemed to have lost their gaming focus a bit, they really don't have a choice due to the changing climate of the industry. As one of the big three console makers their job is to provide content that will keep people coming back to their system and with the recent numbers over the last year or so that shows people are using their consoles for non-gaming applications more than just pure gaming I'd say that they are doing a good job in that regard.

I think we all know that the days of consoles just being a stand-alone game-playing-only device are long over. And because the marketplace is still changing they need to continue to change and evolve with the times. Is the 360 or Microsoft's gaming/entertainmnent business perfect? Far from it but they will continue to learn from their mistakes and constantly reshape the business to properly align it in the direction they need it to be in order to keep it successful.

And to briefly touch on the Indie topic, I agree that theres more they can do to help those guys out. For instance, stuff like their patch fee is a double edged sword. From my understanding it's there so that the people developing their games make sure to properly bug test it to get all the kinks out before release. So giving them one free patch is a hope to hold them to that standard. But as we all know many times certain bugs can only be replicated in real world settings, once the game is out in the general public. So for that reason I feel that Microsoft should either lower the cost per patch or offer an additional two(three total) free patches. But thats just my opinion.
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Mats Holm Battlefront Producer, Electronic Arts9 years ago
yea, MS is clearly focusing on the home theater media box route. I think the plan was to end the xbox a bit earlier, but they seem to just build future plans into this system. Win8 thing was so clearly meant for complete cross platform, would make a lot of sense for MS to get a new Xbox to do that transition, but I think the economy made some parts go ahead and others slow down.

This is why an old system has all these features that does not feel right.

Come next round, games will be prioritized in the same way that streaming movies will, or playing music, skyping, reading facebook, or whatever else that box does. Gaming will not be the focus, it will be something it can do. Just like an tablet can do games, but it can also do all that other stuff.
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Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore9 years ago
If you ask MS, they will tell you otherwise. Sure, MS has been focusing on the media side, but I don't think they have lost the gaming side neither. It is just that they didn't get "better" over time compared to the media side.
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Paul Brown9 years ago
He might be right that the Registered Developer program is $10k - but to submit indie games is $99 per year for up to 10 titles.

So, to answer "Why can't I write a game for Xbox tomorrow using $100 worth of tools and my existing Windows laptop and test it on my home Xbox or at my friends' houses?"

...with the exception of friends' houses (which I'm not sure about) you can. In fact, the tools are free too.
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Rafe Gaskell Lead Programmer at the Design Institute, Coventry University9 years ago
@ Paul I think you missed the point there. Ios game = $100 licence then off you go. Microsoft = $10,000 + $100 for 10 submissions. Not quite the same is it?
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Steven Wemyss Senior QA Engineer, Avalanche Studios9 years ago
Erm nope to produce games for the Indie Games Channel using XNA all you need is a Creators Club licence which costs $100 a year and gives you something like 5-10 releases for Xbox and a unlimited Win8/WinPhone8 app releases. With the XNA licence you can also use your own home console etc however recent reports have shown that they are phasing the XNA program out so no word on what they are replacing it with.

However the main issue people have is that the XNA program is fairly limited -
1) You can only have your games added to the Indie Games Channel and miss out on the much more lucrative Arcade Games channel (which does require the $10k licence)
2) You're restricted to using C# rather than C++ which many still prefer
3) The support for the Indie Games channel has been slammed as pretty terrible for a while now so its a bit of a missed opportunity by far

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Steven Wemyss on 14th February 2013 10:46am

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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago
I always go on about openness when it comes to the future of consoles, and hopefully consoles (asides from Android powered ones) become more open and offer easier entry to the market for developers. Also, they need superior ecosystems and software to what they have now.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 14th February 2013 12:29pm

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I really don't want apps on my games console though. I just want to play high quality videogames without all the rubbish you find on mobile platforms.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago
Why can't you do that anyway Jason?

A personal computer doesn't have to be swamped by rubbish, you can buy whatever you want. So why should a console? To add to that, only the really high budget games (relatively speaking) or ones backed by established publishers make it to retail and there is still a distinction between really 'premium' titles and low cost ones.

Its obviously my opinion, but I don't think having easier access to a console or a marketplae is a bad thing.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games9 years ago
microsoft should go full on digital and crossplatform with windows8. if their next xbox is not on some sort of media optimized version of windows8 they won't know what hit them. the next generation of any platform should make it as easy as android and iOS to publish. if at any given point apple decides to go full on with apps on apple tv (and thus games) offering compatibility with any wireless controllers... consoles can kiss their market bye bye!
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Apple and Google boast of bajillions of apps available, but that's part of the problem with those platforms. There are so many, it's impossible to browse. And it's full of junk. At least the $10k entrance fee ensures some level of dedication to producing something good enough to recoup the fee. Look at the Xbox Indie service - full of junk with the odd gem, and some so dire that they can only be part of an elaborate money laundering scheme.
So in summary, I reckon that the things that Nat Brown believes are detrimental are actually great things.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games8 years ago
As i had assumed, Microsoft indeed made the new Xbox based on windows 8 core.

If all goes well, what Nat had said:
"Xbox's primary critical problem is the lack of a functional and growing platform ecosystem for small developers to sell digitally-/network-distributed (non-disc) content through to the installed base of xBox customers, period. Why can't I write a game for Xbox tomorrow using $100 worth of tools and my existing Windows laptop and test it on my home Xbox or at my friends' houses?"

Will be a problem now easier to be solved. Apparently all you will most probably need is a Windows 8 Tablet/laptop and Visual Studio Express in order to make and indie game for Xbox One. Especially with Unity making Windows RT and Windows Phone versions of their engine exporter free it sounds to me like this is a very realistic possibility!
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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
So MS wants the Xbox to be a set top box instead of a game console... the AAA development community only wants to develop interactive movies and e-sports... and smaller studios who want to make games and who are wiling to take risks aren't being given opportunities to do so? What could possibly go wrong with the Xbox One lol?
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Leo Wakelin Community & Support Manager, Fatshark8 years ago
I'm not sure I fully disagree with the direction the X-Bone is taking.. Now, I'm a gamer through and through, yet in recent years both my Xbox and PS3 have taken the back seat and simply provide my TV with Netflix.

The X-Bone for me is quite attractive (note, I will not be buying one anyway). Less focus on Games, and more on TV entertainment, which is seemingly how my console usage evolved in recent years anyway. My PC can jump on the TV, I've game pads for it and sofa friendly peripherals should I wish to play a Sofa bound game (Meat boy, for example!)

As an avid gamer, I reverted to firing my money at PC parts once more, and keep my Gaming Rig up to date and able to compete with all the current releases. When the new lines of consoles release, I will probably invest the cost of those units in to more PC improvements or living room hardware.

This comment is nothing of interest I guess! Just me being happy with the future console generation with all we currently know. I wont be supporting them, but as for M$, I think they could be on to something. I'm certainly not alone in having put the consoles on the back burner and use them just for TV/Music/Whateverelse.
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Rachel Griffiths Studying Graduate Entry Medicine, University of Nottingham8 years ago
Seems absolutely spot on. It should be about the games. Microsoft should listen to him...
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to be honest, every so many days/weeks/months someone makes a post on why "X" is dead, reality is if these people had the power to make such predictions accuracy they'd be seeing their booky not posting on sites, people post such things either to grandstand, or because they want it to be true, or fear it might be so, the answer is none of the above, the PC isnt dead, consoles aren't dead, the truth of the "future" is not any single device being the pathway to the future.

If you look at recent history the answer is there will be multiple avenues for gaming, pc, console , mobile, tablet all of these will play a part, the only thing of note is that lines between what defines a pc/laptop, a console and a mobile, may blur some tv boxes (apple tv and integrated ones) may gain console like capabilities and eventually mini-consoles have arisen (shield/ouya), and its clear defining any single device is become harder to do,

Yet none of these devices are dead, nor are they likely to be so, its just the market is expanded and there are now multiple different paths to consumers, as ultimately people like choice, some kinds of games ideally suit one platform but not another, and some can with clever ui and controls code, be ported across many platforms.

Its highly unlikely doomsayers will disappear, there will be people professing doom and gloom for nearly anything for a variety of reasons, just remember the next time you see a doomsday article, spare a thought for the homeless man holding the "the end is near" sign on a cut away cardboard box necklace held around his head with rope graced with poorly written black marker text, such an article is entirely in the same vain, and should be taken exactly as seriously no matter who's quote or opinion instigated it, as no one, no matter how well involved has the power to force the issue one way or other, the future is change, and variety, not end.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Alexander McConnell on 3rd October 2013 7:59pm

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