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|For those interested in a recounting of the planning,
politics and pain of the conception and birth of Microsoft's entry into the
console game space, Dean Takahashi provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective to
the reader. Often through Takahashi's firsthand observation, augmented with
outside interviews, the story of the Xbox tells of how a relatively small
group of folks in Microsoft brought the machine from an idea to a product
you can plug in and use to play games.
The heroes include two highly intelligent, motivated and, well, assertive gentlemen. Alex St. John, a critical early actor, ended up being fired for insubordination for writing an e-mail of apology that we all wish we had the guts to write to our bosses when ordered to do so. Seamus Blackley, the person who became the head evangelist for the project and saw it through to launch (he was interviewed on CNN during the recent E3 show, so he's still there as of this writing in May 2002), got himself into hot water a few times. On one occasion he equated playing video games to masturbation (everybody does it but doesn't admit it) in a media interview. In another, he hired models to play a prank on a co-worker while wearing suggestive nurse uniforms. There are many others who play a critical role in the project but I couldn't fit into this review. To a person, they seem extremely likable, and boy do they know how to party.
What is striking to the reviewer is how far the project got before actual profit/loss issues were considered. At Microsoft, as with companies with sufficient resources and amenable management style, employees with a certain status are allowed to spend relatively small amounts of money at their discretion. This "intrapreneurial" spirit allowed the players to flesh out the idea in sufficient detail to be able to present it to those with budget authority. When the Xbox group was first confronted with actually coming up with numbers, however, they were unprepared. This isn't meant to be construed as a criticism of the Xbox advocates, simply a statement of fact. One example is the "bill of material" for the actual console. This all-inclusive list of the stuff to be used in building one unit wasn't complete until business-minded people were called in. Steve Ballmer himself conducted a meeting in which he challenged the group to come up with the costs and declared they were low by around $100. Using the classic "razor and razor blades" analogy, Takahashi does a good job of describing how Microsoft worked through how much of a loss they would be willing to take on each Xbox to increase total installed base. The higher the installed base, the more game developers are willing to take the time to make/adapt their products for the Xbox. The more games available, the more games sold. It is the revenues generated from game sales that determines the "total cost" profitability of a game console. Things worked out eventually, but it was tough. Another interesting saga is how the Web TV group tried to gain control of the project. Whether to use the Windows CE operating system was also a key point of contention.
The book is a quick read and tells a great story. The journalistic style does leave it as exactly that, however. That's not meant to demean the quality or value of the book, simply that the reader should not expect anything else. It also highlights how the console gaming industry has changed over time. In David Sheff's Game Over Nintendo's Battle to Dominate an Industry, the author detailed the history of Nintendo, from the manufacturer of hanafuda (flower cards) for Japanese gameplayers to the then-dominant console game manufacturer is far more in-depth than Opening the Xbox, and for a thorough overview of the management and technical style of Microsoft (as it stood in the mid-1990s), Michael Cusumano and Richard Shelby's Microsoft Secrets How the World's Most Powerful Software Company Creates Technology, Shapes Markets and Manages People, is where an interested reader should turn.
With these relatively minor caveats, however, the fact remains that Opening the Xbox will not disappoint those readers who are curious to find out where the black box with the acid green X came from.
Doug Frye is currently a Ph.D. candidate in George Mason University's School of Public Policy. His dissertation research is focusing on comparing the application of private sector business concepts on e-procurement in the public sector. He has also authored two chapters for an upcoming book on various hardware applications and provided content for a chapter on qualitative research methods for an otherwise quantitative research methods text.