Opening the Xbox (Literature)

May 16, 2003 By Glenn Turner

For the next three weeks, I will be taking a look at some of the literature that has spawned from the gaming industry. No, I am not talking about your Lara Croft fan fiction (you pervert,) I'm talking about actual published works.

Week One: Opening the Xbox
Week Two: Masters of Doom
Week Three: Lucky Wander Boy

Open up Opening the Xbox, or just open up a Xbox instead?

It's not every day that the average geek gets a look behind the Microsoft curtain - they are as likely to let us peek at their production process as my bank is to give me a loan. For those that are 'out of the loop' or 'don't give a whit about reading gaming websites every hour on the hour,' Dean Takahashi's Opening the Xbox is meant to give insight to the creative process behind the development, execution and deployment of the Xbox - a The Soul of a New Machine for the next-generation gamer (as Takahashi notes in abundance throughout the book.) Sadly Opening the Xbox isn't nearly as engaging or pivotal as his peer's work, and ultimately ends up mirroring the dull and uninspired development cycles of the company it is meant to portray.

You may have heard of Seamus Blackley - the ringleader of the Xbox. But before that, he gained a bit of a following while overseeing Trespasser, the game that essentially killed Spielburg's game company. As Takahashi dictates, Blackley went up to Microsoft afterwards in hopes of avoiding the spotlight and forgetting about the miserable failure he unleashed on the masses. From there, he met several likeminded people that shared his views that games could be art, and they launched the Xbox project to release the ultimate gaming system. No convergence, no dreams of becoming a PC in a locked box - this would be the console that would wake up the world with their vision. They butt heads with some members of the WebTV group that want to launch a system similar to WebTV, but focused around games and multimedia. The conflict is quickly resolved when Gates sides with Blackley's team, and poof - the Xbox has been created. That's the basic jist of it, anyways.

Xbox prototype, or just a gigantic ice sculpture?

And therein lies the problem with Opening the Xbox - there's no tension, no stand out characters, no rising action. Takahashi's method is so dry that you can practically see the structure of the book on the page: Introduce new project member with one sentence describing their position and full name. Two sentences naming the year and city they were born in. A short look at a 'kooky childhood' event and move right along. Often these 'characters' move quickly into the Xbox project, and just as soon back out of it. Other than a few minor set backs, there was no essential threat to the Xbox's creation (with the exception of Nvidia's great delinquincy in actually delivering a graphics chip,) as well as no enticing characters or moments. It's often hard to tell whether the Xbox figureheads are as two dimensional as they are portrayed, or whether it's a lack of ability on Takahashi's behalf. Even moments that should be exciting, fun rides such as Blackley causing an elevator to crash, and some of J Allard's (a later bigwig on the Xbox project) parties, end up feeling flat, grey and lifeless - akin to the image of being an employee at Microsoft sounds like.

Would you trust this man with the future of gaming?

From Takahashi's impression, Microsoft is a hive of workers that fill in when others jump out - no one person is valued more than the most. Imagine a constant rotation of managers and workers to and from projects, endless internal politics and bickering, team managers that breathed life into projects never getting actual recognition - it all sounds rather depressing. In the right context, it could make for a juicy and intriguing read, but ultimately he disappoints - their stories are scattered throughout the book like so many footnotes with no additional notes. In more skilled hands, this could make for a more stimulating and less-traditional genre narrative, but Takahashi takes things in a simple direction, focusing on Blackley's insecurities due to his Trespasser failure and friction between the Xbox group and the WebTV troup and you have the makings of an underwhelming story.

In the end, Opening the Xbox achieves it's lowest goal - to put to paper the creation of the Xbox. And ultimately, that's not a failure - it gives fans and historians insight to the creation of what appears to be an up and coming console, one that hasn't failed miserably like the Jaguar or 3DO. However, if you are not a fan or a historian you might want to skip out on this and get back to your game.

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