Xbox guru Blackley: Why I left Microsoft

Q&A: Seamus Blackley, known as the father of the Xbox, talks to Gamespot.com about why he quit Microsoft, what he would have done differently in developing the Xbox--and what he's turning his hand to next.

By GameSpot UK staff

As reported earlier, Seamus Blackley, the co-creator and technical director of the Xbox platform, has left Microsoft to start a new venture.

Blackley, who helped design the hardware and many of the development tools for the Xbox, was a visible figure in the early days of the Xbox life cycle as he was on hand to present some of the earliest games to the press. His resignation comes just before the games industry trade show E3 and after a series of Microsoft Xbox price-cut announcements, leaving many to speculate about the reasons for his resignation.

We had a chance to speak with Seamus Blackley to get the reasons for his sudden resignation, his thoughts on the current state of the Xbox, and even a few details on his upcoming project.

Q: What were the reasons for your resignation?
A: I'm completely blown away by the amount of attention it's received. I thought I'd slip out the door and go make some games, but I guess that was pretty naïve.

I'm just a gamer--the reason I was doing all the press and talking to all the developers, and the reason we made the Xbox is because I'm a gamer and a game developer. It's been really frustrating for me to be talking about other people's games and to work with these great game developers worldwide, see what they're doing, and not be making games--it's hard. (The resignation) is something I've wanted to do for a while.

Do you think that announcing your resignation so close to E3 leaves the wrong message to current and prospective Xbox owners?
It's never really a good time to leave from that standpoint. My decision was a long process. The perspective that I've had visiting every developer and publisher and seeing all the stuff they're doing is that it's really cool.

It's frustrating that more innovative titles don't get done because publishers won't take more creative risks and developers sometimes fail to execute on really cool (ideas). I was talking about that with some industry veterans a few months ago in the context of trying to get exclusive titles for console launches.

Everybody had the same trouble (Microsoft) did--(Sony) had a lot of trouble getting exclusive content for the PS2, and (Nintendo) had some trouble. With the current publishing model, it's hard for publishers to take big risks and to support new technology or new types of ideas. It's safer to do sequels.

So I was thinking that I could make a new property that would change some of that and come out with some really cool products. I went back to Microsoft and started talking to publishers, developers, and potential partners for this (project) and the enthusiasm was totally incredible and shocking. Especially after the GDC (Game Developers Conference), it got to a point where they said, "Listen Seamus, we have to make a decision. Are you going to come do this with us?"

To some extent our hand was forced because we have to announce a company before E3. That's why the timing is the way it is and I guess I'm an idiot for thinking people wouldn't try to come up with conspiracy theories about it. Our PR people will tell you that I really didn't think it was that big of a deal, but I was wrong--I owe people dinners.

Along those lines, did you find that it was difficult to encourage publishers and developers to create more original content for the Xbox?
Everyone wants original games--(fans) want them and developers want to make them. It's just a question of taking a risk on it.

We're going to announce everything about the new company in two and a half weeks, so we can't reveal that much about it right now because of the process involved. But I think we've really found an exciting way for people to make riskier--and I don't mean innovation for innovation's sake, but really cool new stuff.

(As far as the Xbox is concerned), I have put everything in my life into the Xbox. I broke up with my girlfriend, and my yard looks like the Amazon--I've poured my soul into it since I was selling (the idea of a console) at Microsoft. There was no way I was going to leave it if I thought something was wrong; there was no way that I would take off if there was something that I really needed to do. There are speed bumps for every console.

In reality, the momentum that carries you through is the developer momentum, and just a few weeks ago I was getting yelled at by the head of a giant Japanese publisher because the only proposals his (staff) bring are for Xbox games. That enthusiasm is the thing I really wanted to create with the Xbox, and to make it a palette for those guys to create new products.

Everybody's saying, "Well, what about these short-term difficulties...," and my answer is that it's a long-term business. You have to build up a portfolio of titles and developers, build an audience, and that's happening.

Did you feel you were able to accomplish the things you wanted to do at Microsoft, or did you feel restricted?
I felt totally empowered by Microsoft. It was a really hard decision to leave because working on the Xbox team was like being a Green Beret. There was so much skepticism, but the U.S. launch was the most successful launch in the history of the game industry. We sold 25 percent more units than the PS2 did in the first four months. We had a higher attach rate than anyone thought we would have and the products won all sorts of awards. "Halo" sold one million units faster than any other title has--it's great, and I'm really proud of all that creative work.

Obviously, I'm not a business guy, but from a developer standpoint, I feel totally empowered, and in a lot of ways, it's inspired me to go make games now.

Was there anything you would've done differently in your time at Microsoft?
The first thing I did was design the program and the hardware, then we made the development kits, then I ran all the developer support and technology stuff worldwide to Japan and Europe--I was really proud of all that. Then after E3 last year, I told Robbie Bach that I knew we made all of these bad mistakes and I was really pissed off about all of it. He said, "Fine, the design and technology group is in great shape, why don't you go to PR," so basically he told me to shut up and go fix that particular problem. That was probably even more frustrating because all I was doing was talking about games, but it needed to be done.

The one regret I'd say I have is that we should've talked to gamers sooner. I had a philosophy where we would talk to all the developers only because it's a hard concept to get. It's taking PC stuff and making a console--everyone was going to think that it was a cheap PC. I think we should've told (gamers) earlier what our ideas were because we could've used the fans in some of our earlier efforts and not just gone with developers.

What's your reaction to the current state of the Xbox in Japan and Europe?
For me it's all about the technology and the creative stuff, and that was really successful with the Japanese developers and all of that. The challenge in Japan is the same as everywhere else--it's getting the right content.

The Xbox is easily the most successful consumer electronic launch of a non-Japanese product in Japanese history. One of the things that happens is that people don't get the content and it's a little disappointing when that happens, but it's a challenge.

Do you think online gaming is the path to creating more original content for the consoles?
I don't know. Online is a feature; it's not something that automatically causes innovation and that was one of the mistakes of the Internet era. It's something where if you have a great game that takes advantage of it--it's awesome, but if you don't then it doesn't matter if it's online or not.

I think the smart thing that the Xbox team is doing is that they're basing their online plans around content, around great games--games that you can only do online. But you've got to build a fan base because most console gamers haven't experienced online gaming. Broadband gaming is so amazingly cool, but you have to prove it with really good games. I think the Xbox philosophy of leading with the games is right on.

What kind of philosophy are you going to bring to this new project?
You know the frustration of game developers and gamers. I think when people hear our idea they're going to say, "Yeah, why didn't I think of that?" or "Why hasn't someone done this before?" It's going to let people create some really cool and really creative products, but in a fun way.

If you're in a bad mood, you can't create a good game. For me, starting out in playing jazz piano, moving onto physics, going to Looking Glass, and then Microsoft, it's all one big spectrum--it's all about getting games to the next level. I don't mean that in a trite way because we all know how powerful games can be and I want a wider audience to feel that.

Is there anything you want to say to current Xbox owners who may misinterpret your resignation?
We made an excellent console and we got every developer on the planet incredibly psyched about it, including me. Part of the reason why it's so good is because it was made by real game developers and it's good enough that it's caused me to have a deep need to go back and make games. I also need them to buy lots of copies of my Xbox games.