Life After Xbox


Over the weekend, I donated my Xbox 360 Elite to Goodwill. It represented a time in my life as a developer that I'm not overly proud about living.

I worked for a couple years designing games at Microsoft. It is honestly difficult to say the exact group I was in since the organization was hit regularly by massive reorgs and general management failure.

This was the era right before Kinect and there was yet another effort underway to broaden the audience to extend beyond the 'big black boy box' brand that so defined the original Xbox. Ultimately, the anemic outcome of this great leap forward was a handful of resource starved trivia games and gameshows. But the dream of bringing socially positive games to more people really appealed to me.

I was an outsider. Intentionally so. On the rare occasions I used a console, it was likely to be one built by Nintendo. Instead, my earliest influences stem from the Amiga and early PC titles, not the regurgitation of a roller coaster known as Halo. As such, my design direction tended towards non-violence and cuter, gender neutral designs. I still design original mechanics and will trade cutscenes for gameplay in a heartbeat.

The capital of the console ecosystem

In many ways, a gig at Microsoft was a career peak for many developers I worked with. Since childhood, they had played console games, worked at console companies and then finally _made it_ to the platform mothership from which all their life's work was originally born. The repeated mantra was "The things we do here will impact millions." The unsaid subtext was "gamers just like us."

It was also a cultural hub. You worked there because you were a gamer. People boasted about epic Gamer Scores and joked about staying up multiple days straight in order to beat the latest release. The men were hardcore. The management was hardcore. The women were doubly hardcore. To succeed politically in a viciously political organization, you lived the brand.

You got the sense the pre-Xbox, 'gamers as bros' was a smaller subculture within the nerdy, whimsical hobby of games. Over two console generations, a highly cynical marketing team spent billions with no hope of immediate payback to shift the market. In an act of brilliant jujitsu, Nintendo was slandered as a kids platform, their historical strength turned against them. Xbox put machismo, ultra-violence and boys with backwards caps in the paid spotlight. Wedge, wedge, wedge. Gamers were handed a pre-packaged group identity via the propaganda machine of a mega corporation. For those raised post-Xbox, Microsoft was an unquestioned Mecca of modern gaming culture. Dude. They made Halo.

Cognitive dissonance

I'm okay with not fitting in. Over the 17 years I've been part of the game industry, I've gotten comfortable being an alien floating in a sea of Others. There weren't a lot of computer-loving digital makers in rural Maine in the 80s. I spend most of my days dreaming of an intricate systemic future where things are better. It is a state of constantly being half a second out of phase with the rest of the world.

Still it was a challenge being in an group that knew intellectually they had to reach out to new people while at the same time knowing in their heart-of-hearts that just adding more barrels to a shotgun was the fastest path to gamer glory. Talking with others in the larger organization would yield a sympathetic look. "Someone has to deal with those non-gamers. Sorry it has to be you. Bro."

I am not actually a bro. Don't tell anyone.

We made adorable hand-drawn prototypes and watched them climb through the ranks only to be shot dead by Elder Management that found cuteness instinctually revolting.

Correct games

There is a form to modern console games. If you've played the recent Bioshock Infinite, you can see the full glory of the vision. These are great games, especially if you know and appreciate the immense skill that goes into their creation. Each element serves a business purpose.

First there is a world rendered in lush 3D. This justifies the hardware.

Next are intermittent dollops of plot. These are voice acted because it is a quality signal. They feature intricately modeled characters on a virtual stage. This gives the arc narrative momentum and lets you know you've finished something meaningful.

Filling out the gaps in the 7-12 hours ride are moments of rote game play with all possible feedback knobs tuned to 11. Blood, brains, impact. Innovation is located at 11.2. This makes you feel something visceral.

Each element of this form is refined to a most perfect formula. There are crate-raised critics who make subtle distinctions between the 52 historical shades of grey. There are documents and research. If you are a creative working at or within a publisher, your higher purpose is to judge games based off their adherence to the form. The game is a product and consistency, much like that found in McDonalds fries, results in repeat purchases. As a publisher designer, you are someone with taste.

You police the act of creation. It is a job. It is a set of orders that come from above. It is your childhood dream.

Away, away

I no longer work at Microsoft. Instead, I started up the independent studio Spry Fox and spend my dreamy days making odd little games. Easily the best career choice I have ever made. My current games barely have plots. They focus on player agency and more often than not sport cute 2D graphics. Very few can be won. None come in boxes. We don't need to spend billions, because people love playing them without the crutch of traditional marketing or press. (For those who wonder, articles like this drive almost zero traffic to our games)

As part of my personal journey, I've found that I'm driven by ideals that fit poorly with a highly gated console monoculture: What if games can connect people? What if they can improve the world? What if they bring happiness and joy to our lives?

Hardcore gamers, women, men, children, families, bros, feminists, and wonderful people that play no other games...they play these intimate, quirky games of ours. Yeah...if you count up the numbers, we impact tens of millions. Deep down, I'm not sure if any of them are people like me. My job as a game designer is to make beloved games, not fit some limited corporate definition of a gamer.

So far, none of our games have been released on the Xbox. There's been little economic or cultural fit with the artificially propped up tribe residing in that cloistered warren.

So goodbye, big black box. I never really liked what you stood for.

Daniel Cook is the Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox, makers of Triple Town, Highgrounds and Leap Day. He started making games professionally in the mid '90s and his most recent games are avidly played by millions of gamers.

This post was republished with permission.