In April of 2005, I was flipping through the TeamXbox forums when I saw that a few posters had caught onto a weird site called “Our Colony”. (You can see the archived version here.) With all the tell-tale signs of an Alternate Reality Game similar to the ilovebees campaign that had run the previous year for Halo 2, everyone knew pretty quick that this was something for Microsoft’s next console with a countdown that would end on May 12th. The ensuing weeks-long race to crack the puzzle of Our Colony, a weave involving the “gamem8ker” and that of a community coming together to resolve an incredible mystery seems to be lost on Microsoft now. If there’s a reason why gamers seem more cynical than ever, it’s because game companies like Microsoft are less interested in building a grassroots movement than they are preaching from an ivory tower.
A Community Of Renegades
As detailed in Dean Takahashi’s Opening the Xbox, a must-read for any big project/tech enthusiast, the original Xbox team was lead by renegades. They, like Microsoft’s brass, wanted a counter to Sony’s impending PlayStation 2 for the living room, a portion of the house Microsoft had tried and failed to seize. They were offensive, inexperienced and their console cost way too much money to produce, but the enthusiasm and drive of those renegades lead Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates to favor their X-Box project over a competing pitch by the WebTV group.
From those first moments, Microsoft went to the hardcore gamers and enthusiasts, the people you needed to impress to sell those first few batches of hardware. They made a console that was dark and dangerous with sharp green accents that seems so cliche now. They bested their competition in not just superficial ways (it’s got a hard drive, it’s got four controller ports instead of two), but in a number-by-number specs war that had never mattered to such a detailed degree before. To that end, they sought community sites like TeamXbox, who had an impressive forum followship all its own, and scores of others to lead their message and provide Xbox developers and patrons whenever possible for coverage and interviews. In the end, the launch anticipation was so great, so infectious, that we became evangelists for the brand, just as Microsoft had planned, spreading the word across the far stretches of the internet. Microsoft called on the community and they treated the community well.
While Microsoft only pushed 24 million Xboxes to the world before discontinuing it after a brief four years, their community had enlisted some very enthusiastic individuals. As Our Colony rolled on, each new revelation got the posters at the TeamXbox, who had been “officially” deemed a team inside the ARG, into an incredible brainstorm playing a game that had very few rules. Long before reddit incorrectly fingered Boston Marathon bombers, the crowd-sourced extrapolation and computations performed by those posters, in a forum thread that stretched to thousands off responses, was incredible.
Meanwhile – across town, as it were – Microsoft and MTV officially announced a special that would serve as the official announcement of the next Xbox. While the community was excited to see the Xbox being unveiled in such a big way after it had been so thoroughly crushed by the PlayStation 2, there was an undercurrent of resentment that Microsoft was handing the keys to the Madden-totin’ casual gamer. Was Our Colony’s countdown to May 12th, 2005 really just an ad for their MTV unveiling? As it turns out, the special was a result of Peter Moore’s relationship with the network following his tenure at SEGA during the Dreamcast era. By inviting so many celebrities to the special, one had leaked the design of the console to the internet, something the Xbox community feasted on, like they did every leak and squeeze.
In the hours leading up to the MTV special’s airing, something magical happened: Microsoft used Our Colony to unveil the Xbox 360 to the faithful acolytes before they’d do the same thing with Elijah Wood on MTV. That revelation was almost as overwhelming as the opening whip pan to J Allard, a familiar face in those circles, or seeing the hardware team (and not The Killers*) talk about water-cooled symmetrical cores, wireless radios and people soldering stuff onto circuit boards. Even though Microsoft was aiming the console at a more casual gamer than ever, they still had the community’s number. That E3, taking place just days later, members of the Xbox community were invited to hang out at their booth after hours where you could mingle with gaming celebrities like composer Jeremy Soule and experience these next-generation games without the pressure of a roaring show floor. This was back in a time when you could e-mail a pre-fame Major Nelson (Larry Hyrb) for support and get a response, from him, in short order.
(As it turns out, many of the named people in that video still work at Microsoft as Product Managers (an ambiguous moniker that seems to highlight how bureaucratic Microsoft has gotten), many still within the Xbox brand. Some notable departures, though: J Allard left in a dramatic tizzy in 2010 to co-found a nanotech company in Boulder, Colorado after the Zune met its demise; David Luehmann and Doug Lebenthal were both poached by Amazon where the former leads Amazon Game Studios.)
Oh, Those Times And How They Changed
Seven years isn’t just a long time for a console, but technology altogether. As the Xbox 360 launched and grew and grew, it’s eclipsed its predecessor three times over. Microsoft moved away from their “blades” interface and introduced the NXE, and later, Metro revisions that changed how the console appealed to people. Additions like Kinect and Netflix weren’t designed to appease the hardcore community, they were designed to sell as many Xboxes as possible. As the console evolved into a do-everything set top box, the mood in the room started to change as well. Non-gamers bought Xboxes for their media, to watch Hulu, and play Call of Duty from time to time. Microsoft’s affable Xbox president Peter Moore was exchanged for slick-haired and aloof Don Mattrick who only shows his face but once a year.
Behind the scenes, Xbox fan site owners and other community members were telling me that Microsoft was slowly squeezing them out of the picture by giving them less attention than ever. They already had the hardcore base, what was the point of having a salt-of-the-earth fanbase anymore? It didn’t seem very prescient as they said it, but it certainly does now as even indie developers, once Microsoft’s ace in the hole, have repeatedly expressed their concern for Microsoft’s byzantine and penny-pinching business model for downloadable games. The renegades that had built the good ship Xbox were slowly weeded out as the MBAs rolled in to keep it sailing, something that Steve Ballmer is no doubt pleased of, but a creative guy like J Allard not so much.
Flash forward to today and we’re getting bald-faced invites to watch Microsoft unveil their third console through their current console and through their site. There is no Colony. There is no Xbox point man to reassure us that this console is coming to us from a place of enthusiasm to make games. This is no longer an affair for the hardcore because the crowd has grown so much larger. The Xbox is far beyond just games, it’s far beyond just Halo, Oddworld, or Gears of War.
I’ve been excited about Xbox unveils before, but Microsoft has determined that the magic of the community is no longer worth keeping in the deck.
*Don’t hate me, but that MTV special is actually why I got into their music. “Mr. Brightside” never gets old.