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Ed Fries on Xbox: To Christmas and Beyond

For a man who spent half of the previous night partying and the other half looking after a one year old child not quite accustomed to dealing with jetlag, Ed Fries is in remarkably good form on the second morning of X03 - grins and jokes all round, a contrast to the rather more worse for wear journalists he's speaking to.

Then again, Ed Fries has good reason to be happy. The man in charge of Microsoft's game publishing efforts - and hence one of the most important figures behind the Xbox - is seeing several of Microsoft Game Studios' biggest projects coming to fruition, and watching many of the gaming press swallow their words as the Xbox rolls out a software line-up that comfortably challenges the range of any rival platform.

What a difference a year makes; in fact, it's less than a year since a number of key industry analysts and insiders privately but confidently predicted to us that Fries' head would roll as the required sacrificial offering for the poor performance of Xbox, while others opined that only the isolated success of the multi-million selling Halo was saving his bacon. It's a far cry from the smiling, confident Fries who speaks to us at X03, a man whose game plan has paid off and who now sits at the head of a first- and second-party console development outfit that rivals even Nintendo's.

I'm trying to cut down

The obvious place to start, then, is by finding out just how big that empire is. Microsoft is internally (counting wholly owned studios like Bungie, Rare, FASA and Ensemble) developing between 35 and 40 Xbox titles, we learn - and somewhat surprisingly, this is a number that's significantly down on the figure even a few months ago. "We're actually in the process of trying to do less things," Fries comments. "Less things, and even higher quality."

In fact, quite a number of projects at the studio have been scrapped in recent months - even some titles that were very good, but simply not revolutionary, innovative or unique. Microsoft Game Studios' role in Xbox development is changing, explains Fries. Originally, the group aimed to provide games within every genre possible on Xbox, because it wasnât clear how much would be provided by third party support. Now, with third party support firmly established behind the platform, Fries sees it as the task of Microsoft Game Studios to provide the groundbreaking, stunningly high quality experiences that will define the console.

One such product is, of course, Halo 2 - the sequel to Bungie's three million selling launch title, a game which is still often cited as the main reason to own an Xbox. Producing a sequel like that isn't easy - Fries claims that the costs of developing a game have gone up even in the two years that have intervened between Halo and its successor, commenting that on a game like that, the first thing you have to do is outdo the original title. When the original title in question is the best-selling game on a platform, that's a tricky proposition, and the budgetary requirements go up - not helped, Fries adds, by the extra complexity of adding Live support.

He seems confident, however, that the team at Bungie has achieved great things with Halo 2 - and he dismisses Internet rumours that the game has been deliberately slipped back to 2004 in order to encourage people to continue their Xbox Live subscriptions, claiming that the game has been a 2004 title from the outset. "There was some confusion about it being a Christmas title," he explains, "but it's still on its original date."

Santa Claus in Green

On the topic of Christmas titles, Fries admits that the Xbox range is not perhaps as strong as it could have been, but maintains that it's still a superb line-up. "The perfect line up would have been to have Fable and Halo 2 for Christmas," he says, "but if you look at it, it's still a great line-up." He lists some of the major first- and second-party games - highlighting the likes of Counter-Strike, Project Gotham Racing 2 and Crimson Skies - and points out that the platform is also set to enjoy massive third party support in the coming months.

So, the market for standalone titles on Xbox is doing well - and the company expects to grow its installed base by around 5 million units this fiscal year, bringing it to around 14.5 million units - but what of the Xbox Live online service, which Microsoft constantly touts as the jewel in the crown of the entire Xbox project? Despite the song and dance made about the service, it's still managed to attract only 50,000 punters across Europe - just over two per cent of the installed base of the console, a poor show for a service so heavily promoted.

"We've set a credible start," Fries opines of the situation in Europe, pointing out that the broadband infrastructure here represents a significant challenge for a system like Xbox Live. He assures us that the company is continuing to talk to the telecommunication companies to try and make the service work as well as possible, in as many places as possible - an assertion backed up later in the day when we spoke to representatives of BT's broadband division about Live.

Although he acknowledges that broadband availability is only part of the problem in Europe, Fries doesn't believe that the content available for the service is an issue. Key new titles such as Counter-Strike and Project Gotham Racing 2 will drive uptake of Xbox Live, he assures us, explaining that he believes that anything revolutionary takes time for people to get used to and adopt. "We talk about Live so much because we think Live is the future," he says.

Gaming, changing

Although Fries is keen to highlight some of the more innovative titles which Microsoft Game Studios is working on - he gives special mention to Tim Schafer's game, Psychonauts, a "really out there" new title which he says that Microsoft will be talking about a lot more in the near future - it's interesting to observe how the attitudes of the Xbox team have changed in the past few years.

"In the beginning, you had people like Seamus [Blackley] and me talking about artistry in game design and so on," he reflects, "but some of that collides with the realities of the games industry." He still seems to believe that Xbox offers a compelling platform for developers to be creative on, but he comments that this generation of hardware has been defined by the cross-platform phenomenon, with almost every key third party title available on all three consoles.

That leaves it up to Microsoft's first party publishing and development efforts to provide the innovation and take some of the creative risks which change a good console into a great one. The parallels with Nintendo's model are startling, if not entirely accurate - the Xbox continues to enjoy far more third-party support than the GameCube or the N64 ever have, but regardless, most of the console's successful titles and major prospects on the horizon come from either Microsoft itself, or a small group of publishers who work closely with the Redmond based giant, such as French publisher Ubi Soft.

That's no bad thing. Microsoft can rely on third party publishers to flesh out the various genres and provide the dull but nonetheless important cross platform support - and it can rely on Ed Fries and his team to provide the console with its equivalent to Nintendo's incredibly strong character franchises. Given the success at this effort which is on show under the hot sun on the Cote d'Azur this week, it's no wonder that Ed Fries is still smiling.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.